Up until the release of Super Mario RPG: The Legend Of The Seven Stars on the Super NES in 1996, our view of the Mario brothers’ world was vaudevillian. There were spectacular acrobatic feats, broad comedy, freaks, falls, and tall tales of foreign lands. Sometimes the games were downright explicit about their stories being performed on a stage. Super Mario Bros. 3 opens with a curtain rising on its strange primary-colored world, the level’s platforms hanging from cables attached to the ceiling, and that curtain closes at the end of the game. Super Mario World finishes up with a jazzy roll call, spotlighting all the weird beasts that live on Dinosaur Island.
It’s not until Super Mario RPG that we got to see these characters just living life—rather than performing—in the weird Mushroom Kingdom. This particular episode of the Mario crew’s life doesn’t flesh everything out, but at the end of the game, we at last find out why there’s such a bizarre status quo in the Mario games. It turns out that a lot of the Mushroom Kingdom’s strangeness is rooted in its staunch pacifism.
Developed by a crew at Squaresoft that went on to form the Nintendo-backed studio AlphaDream—which is still producing the Mario & Luigi role-playing games—Super Mario RPG sets down some rules for how things work in the Mushroom Kingdom. Why can a pudgy dude get gigantic by eating mushrooms? Why can he punch bricks without his bones liquefying? How the hell are those bricks floating in midair anyway? Easy: magic is real. Not in an abstract, ethereal way either. Near-omniscient beings live in the space above the Mushroom Kingdom, maintaining the Star Road, a literal chain of stars responsible for making wishes come true. Those wishes, and not the normal laws of physics, are the foundation of the Mario world. That’s why touching flowers lets you throw fire from your hands.
At the beginning of Super Mario RPG, everything seems pretty familiar. Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser and his army of big-eyed turtles and fanged mushrooms. Freelance badass Mario is rushing off to Bowser’s castle to save the day. It’s when Mario and Bowser collide that events diverge from the usual script. A skyscraper-sized sword falls out of the sky directly into Bowser’s castle, sending Mario, his gal pal, and his nemesis flying into the distance.
It’s a shock to see a giant sword in the Mushroom Kingdom. Big, outlandish creatures are normal, but generally, big weapons aren’t. With the exception of some sentient projectiles (Bullet Bills) and explosives (Bob-ombs, who primarily work in demolitions and mining as this game shows us), the only offensive tools in Mario’s world are simple. Fire, hammers, boomerangs, and some cannons are about it. Those cannons aren’t particularly threatening in a world of magic, either: Mario can knock a cannonball out of the air in Super Mario Bros. 3 by jumping on it.
Magic could presumably make short work of a giant sword, too, but there’s a problem. As you discover in the ensuing quest to find the princess, the sword is just one of many living weapons that have broken the Star Road in a bid to take over the world. There’s a giant google-eyed bow that shoots google-eyed arrows, a towering spear that stabs you with his face, and even a guy named Mack The Knife who is a hell of a lot less charming than the song would lead you to expect. New weapons literally overrun the Mushroom Kingdom, and as a result, we see the main players of the Mario series unite for the first time. Mario, Peach, and even the now-homeless Bowser team up to repair the star road.
Along the way, we see more of the people who populate the Mushroom Kingdom. There’s a seaside town home to both little mushroom people and noble shark privateers. There’s a Niagara Falls-style wedding destination with haughty chefs, a crazy, beetle-obsessed rich guy who lives in a tower, and even a whole town of frogs led by a sagely huckster. All of it is peaceful and rustic, with dirt roads as the norm. Until now, our picture of the Mushroom Kingdom and its outlying lands has been an image of constant conflict. Super Mario RPG shows that even though there’s some tension between Bowser and his compatriots, it’s not that serious. His menacing of the princess is ultimately harmless—a stage show, as the Super Mario Bros. 3 curtain suggests.
There’s an opportunity for real change at the end of Super Mario RPG—an opportunity to gain the tools to shut down even Bowser’s irritating advances and make the whole realm more peaceful and relaxed than it already is. The chase for the pieces of the broken star road eventually lead back to the origin point of all these sinister weapon people. It’s an entire foundry world run by a King Smithy, a frightening little blacksmith who can change himself into all kinds of weapons.
In classic RPG fashion, it’s a tough, drawn-out brawl, but when Mario and his posse win the day, they have their run of the place. Princess Peach and Mario could seize the foundry and the Star Pieces themselves. They could build up an army. They could give all this (relatively) advanced weapons tech—swords, pikes, arrows—to help the little Toads and Yoshis to defend the kingdom. But they don’t. Instead, the heroes restore the Star Road, magic returns to the land, and everyone gets their wish. The proceedings close with a big parade that even Bowser attends. He’s an integral part of this pageant, after all.
Here’s the secret heart of the Super Mario Bros. games: Fun isn’t just the happy result of playing the game on a weird vaudeville stage. Fun is the core ethos of the Mushroom Kingdom itself. Everyone in the series would rather live in a place where a huge, irritable turtle is always kidnapping the local royalty than live in a place where the threat of real violence exists. They’d rather stick with magic than embrace any semblance of weapons technology if it means that no one gets hurt and everyone has a good time. For the characters, the end of Super Mario RPG is the reinstatement of a welcome status quo. For the player, it’s a deep read of why the Mario games are so much fun in the first place.