To The Bitter End

Super Mario RPG

Just For Show

The ending of Super Mario RPG: The Legend Of The Seven Stars hints that the constant conflict of the Mushroom Kingdom is actually a happy equilibrium.

By Anthony John Agnello • October 14, 2013

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.

Super Mario RPG

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.

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  • zerocrates

    The Mushroom Kingdom political scene is such a joke; we all know both parties are just in the tank for Big Magic.

    • Citric

      Going by Wario Land there is a massive misappropriation of funds, with billions of dollars being spent on giant tributes to their princess and helicopters for her boyfriend – a so-called plumber who has never been seen doing anything but take drugs and assault wildlife.

      • PugsMalone

        I wouldn’t be surprised if Bowser made that statue. He is pretty unhealthily obsessed with her.

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

    I really liked this entry, but then Super Mario R.P.G. has 1 of my favorite endings on the system.  (Gosh, I miss original-design Yoshi.)  I had largely the same thoughts, but I always thought that the scenes were meant to drive home the individualism of the Mushroom Kingdom.  I do recall that some famous games had “roll calls” of the cast, but Super Mario had to be the most popular series to do it.  AlphaDream and Intelligent Systems would continue that trend by naming individual Toads in villages, iterating on famous enemy archetypes, and revivifying stale worlds and concepts with every game.  Squaresoft drove home, even in the ending, that the slave labor of Bowser is somewhat of an illusion and that this is just the role best suited for these creatures.  Lovedelic (creator of the maps and most of the new character designs) would create role-playing worlds where NO character is a color-changed template.

    So, it’s not just that magic > technology.  Artisanship > factory production.  That’s Nintendo.  What disturbs me about modern Nintendo is not perceived pandering to audiences that aren’t me, but a capitulation to copy-and-paste game design.

    …..Also, Mallow > all.  (Hey, why does 1 person walk away in his ending scene?  Does he have the incorrect opinion that Mallow sucks, too?)

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      Totally agree on loving reading this. Your comment here is great too. I loved this game as a kid and still play Mario RPGs pretty regularly. I had never really thought about this one very hard though in a long time. That music at the Smithy fight is so fucking good though.

    • PaganPoet

      Mallow is completely irrelevant once Peach, errr, Toadstool joins, though. She has the healing magic, AND she can pack quite a wallop with the Frying Pan.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

        I always, always, always choose the red mage in everything. This is even true in 8-Bit Theatre.

        Mallow’s input commands are also the most fun and challenging, which is important when you’re grinding. And, honestly, I love the storyline of naivity being abandoned for nobility.

        • PaganPoet

          Meh, I never like the Red Mages. A jack of all trades, but a master of none.

    • SuperShamrock

      Just to be pedantic, Ms. Pacman (and the Pacman series, to a lesser extent) put this front-and-center and Ms. Pacman is the greatest game ever invented.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

        Yeah, I backspaced it, but I thought that arcade games actually did this more than console games. Namco did it for a lot of their games, now that I think about it.

  • rvb1023

    When I was 5, my dad took me and asked if I would rather have a SNES or the new N64. I don’t remember much at the time, but he convinced me that the SNES would be the right choice, mostly because he could play 2D games but couldn’t play 3D games. In either case, the two games we picked up immediately were Super Mario World and Super Mario RPG, my dad being a huge Mario fan.

    I love SMW, always have, always will. But Super Mario World was my first RPG and for the first time into my life I was introduced to video games as more than a series of timing puzzles as I move towards the right of the screen. People talked and interacted with Mario, Peach became a character, the world felt big and large instead of a straight line across. Bowser wasn’t just the final boss, he was an turtle with feelings. It amazes how well written SMRPG is to this day.

    If there is any single game I can contribute to my first realizing video games meant more to me than other things it would have to be this one. Christ, one of Bowser’s main attacks is throwing Mario at the enemy. If you can’t appreciate the silly charm of that I don’t know what to say.

    • The_Helmaroc_King

      Amusingly, if Mario was knocked out, Bowser would toss a tiny Mario figurine instead. Sure, he’s a bad guy, but what kind of King would throw a man around when he’s down?

    • Citric

      I think the shift with Bowser has been the best part of the Mario RPGs, whether this, Paper or with Luigi. He’s less a boring big bad, more a misunderstood weirdo, and the shift has made him one of my favorite characters in the Mario universe. 

      • PugsMalone

        Another thing I like about the Paper Mario games is that they go out of their way to show that most of the major “enemy” races aren’t all evil. There are entire towns of peaceful, law-abiding Goombas, Koopa Troopas and the like.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      Your dad is awesome. 

      • rvb1023

         The SNES was an even better choice a few years later when I got an N64 for my birthday anyways, gave me great perspective on just how big of a jump it was.

        • Shain Eighmey

          You’re lucky. The SNES and N64 are probably two of the best consoles we’ll ever see when it comes to enjoyable family friendly games.

          I’ve been holding onto my SNES for ages, and I think it’s about to pay off big time when my daughter is a few years older.

  • Flying_Turtle

    I like to think that the only real conflict between Mario and Bowser happened in Super Mario Bros. and that the subsequent “rescue the princess” games are the Mushroom Kingdom’s equivalent of Civil War re-enactments. Sometimes they make a weekend of it with baseball/soccer/tennis/go-kart racing, because why not?

    • Tim Kraemer

      I would argue that Mario and Bowser also went at each other with a degree of sincere enmity in Super Mario 64 and the two Mario Galaxy games.

      But other than those and SMB1, Bowser’s attempts at evil (if he even goes so far as to feign at evilness, which he doesn’t in sport or racing games and rarely in RPGs) have always had a playful, halfhearted vibe to them. He’s just a bratty, snotty kid in Yoshi’s Island and Yoshi’s Story, SMB3 is depicted at a theatrical reenactment, and in the New SMB games his kidnappings of Peach just seem like him killing time over an open weekend, perhaps to Mario and Peach’s irritation but not to any real fear or desperation on their part.

      But this is perhaps symbolized more so than in any other game by Super Mario Sunshine, where during the game’s final battle he lounges in a giant hot tub the entire time, and is clearly not that upset in the ending after Mario has beaten him, heading off literally minutes later to go bond with his son.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        Where does SMW fit into your model? It seems like a pretty straightforward presentation of conflict without any of playful metatextual nods (It’s a play! It’s a children’s book!) one might note in the Yoshi games or Mario 3.

        • Tim Kraemer

          I forgot to mention that one. Yeah, taking over Dinosaur Land and putting all the Yoshis in blocks definitely seems like a pretty sincere act of warfare. That one probably deserves to go in the “Actually Evil Bowser Games” list alongside SMB1, SM64 and Galaxy 1+2.

        • bradwestness

          Also: aren’t all the blocks strewn about the Mushroom Kingdom actually supposed to be Toads that Bowser turned to stone using black magic? At least I recall that being the backstory in the original Super Mario Bros. instruction book. 

          Though they never did much with the moral quandary of Mario breaking a shitload of them. I always imagined the busted blocks turning back into dead and dismembered Toads after defeating Bowser, kind of like the zombies in that first South Park Halloween episode.

        • Pgoodso

          There’s quite a few cinematic flourishes to SMW, though, most notably the narration after each castle is destroyed, the spotlight after each completed normal level, and the ending “credits” for each of the enemies and bosses in the game.

      • Treymoney

        Hmm… Bowser is presented as an actual threat in the Galaxy games, isn’t he? He does enough damage that Rosalina has to reset the universe to contain it.

      • TimeTravelParadox

        Maybe the different nature of Bowser in the series indicates that each game takes place in a different parallel dimension, each one holding one aspect of Bowser in conflict with one of a thousand Mario avatars, a single battle with infinite configurations that takes place over the span of the cosmic age, only to reset over and over again as each universe contracts and all matter is redistributed, creating an even greater infinity of Bowsers. In some of these, Bowser is a Mushroom Kingdom plumber who enters NYC through a drain to defeat Toadstool to save Mario, in others Bowser is a giant, million-armed lizard with the aura of a million suns, armed with a great sword of fire who rides upon the Milky Way in a great, world-destroying kart. (hits bong)

    • fieldafar

      Hey, Mario and Luigi is what keeps Bowser busy, so why complain over an easy job?

    • TimeTravelParadox

      I prefer to think of it as some of sexual role-play scenario. The whole thing is just foreplay for Mario sticking his Italian Sausage in the princess’s bun oven. Bowser just likes to watch that part.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Rodriguez/18704886 David Rodriguez

    Man, a Super Mario RPG entry in Gameological? NOW I’m bummed the site’s not long for this world (I mean, let’s face that issue as it is, guys).

    I really liked the mention here of how Smithy is all
    about making weapons with clear real-life analogues – bombs, bullets,
    arrows, swords. Everyone knows Bowser has used his own versions of these
    forever, but those looked like toys compared to how streamlined and
    slightly scary Smithy’s looked. You can believe his creations are strictly meant to kill. And if his goal is indeed to populate Mushroom Kingdom – and, since he’s an alien, conceivably the universe – with nothing but these, it makes him a villain a tad more serious than the norm. It’s a welcome change of pace from Bowser and Mario’s sometimes friendly tussles.

    This seems as good a place as any to mention – seeing that there’s a video embedded here and everything – that I’m yet to hear a more epic boss tune than the one during the first fight with Smithy. Not a more epic final boss tune, not a more epic boss tune in the SNES, but a more epic boss tune in all video games, period. I actually have an MP3 of it that I play during moments I need a release. It can both pump you up for what’s coming and help appreciate what’s going on at the moment.

    I don’t like the final-final boss tune, though. It takes the battle too seriously, creating a mood of impending doom well suited to tension but not actual fun. I’ll take the other two “normal” boss battle tunes in SMRPG any time.

    • nemryn

      Doomsday Zone.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      So, what you’re saying is Yoko Shimomura is the greatest video game composer ever? Because yes, yes, that’s true.

  • nicolone

    I’m sure that’s the way that the likes of Princess Peach and Bowser see it, but the grim reality for the vast majority of the population is a nightmarish 1984 situation with the interminable wars that they are engaged in merely a smokescreen for the real war being waged against the working populace of Mushroom Kingdom to maintain the intolerable status quo. 

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      We have always been at war with Sarasaland!

      We have always been at war with the Koopas!

    • JohnnyLongtorso

      What kind of economy does the Mushroom Kingdom even have? The only people we ever see working are the small merchant class in the towns and government employees in the palace.

      • Carlton_Hungus

        Actually like the economy in the Mushroom Kingdom runs on the same system that runs the US economy, magic.

      • nicolone

        Gold in bricks is just a Nintendo lie, they are starving

      • GaryX

        “Oh, princess eh? Very nice. And how’d you get that, eh? By exploiting us Toads. By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.”

        • Chum Joely

          “Come see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being repressed!”

    • Alex C

      [i]Goombas drag nicolone to Castle 101[i/]

  • Pun-Expected Dave

    Even Smithy attends the parade at the end. The magic of the Mushroom Kingdom has ensnared him. He’s blessed (or perhaps cursed) to live forever, in the endless cycle of triumph and defeat that all villains must endure. The key to being a happy villain in the Mushroom Kingdom is to enjoy the temporary victories, and take the inevitable Mario beat-down in stride. Booster has found happiness that way.  

    • Alex C

       ”But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. Smithy loved Mario.”

  • JokersNuts

    Maybe it was a mushroom I ate, but this was one of the more different and interesting takes on Mario I’ve read. Also, Mario RPG is amazing

    • Phantom Moose

       Man, I’m gonna miss Gameological.

      • Roswulf

         Now I’m all for panic and despair, but this appears to be precisely the sort of article that will continue to be published under the name “Gameological” post-merger.

        Except for it being published on a Monday.

        PANIC AND DESPAIR TIME!!!!

  • Drinking_with_Skeletons

    I’ve long thought a good story hook for a Paper Mario entry would be that Bowser finally attends the Mario World equivalent of the U.N., only to discover that the reason he can keep kidnapping Peach is that the Mushroom Kingdom’s military is locked in a N/S Korea-style relationship with an evil kingdom on the opposite side.  Said evil kingdom stages an ambush, locking all of the representatives within the not-U.N.  The game would focus on Bowser trying to defeat the evil kingdom–primarily out of wounded pride and jealousy–while Peach does what she can within the not-U.N.  I envision a running gag where she slaps a panicky toad with little provocation.

    I have a long commute that gives me a lot of time to think.

  • PaganPoet

    I understand the copyright issues behind the original characters for this game, but man, I wish they would work it out so some of them could come back. They were such a goofy bunch, especially Booster and his band of Snifits.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anthony-John-Agnello/1362601810 Anthony John Agnello

      It is far and away the best cast of a Mario game. For a series that is weird at a foundational level, these freaks are the weirdest. I love that there’s a whole lineage of Boosters too! That puzzle is one of my all time favorites. Great character moments too, like when Bowser frees the chomp chain in Booster’s castle and he asks everyone to turn away because she’s embarrassed. What a game.

      And you really have to play, too. Some of those end game fights get strategically tricky. The Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario games have always left me cold because they’re so painfully slow and simple. I tend to always fall asleep while playing them.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        The Mario & Luigi games are stellar! Don’t make me ‘downvote’ you, Agnello. I have new powers beyond your imagining.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        The Mario & Luigi games are stellar! Don’t make me ‘downvote’ you, Agnello. I have new powers beyond your imagining.

        • Chum Joely

          Like cloning yourself as a guest? BEWAAAARE

    • rvb1023

       Seriously, Geno and Mallow being locked behind SE’s ridiculous doors is a crime. Another thing I plan to yell at their headquarters at from the street in my inevitable trip to Japan at some point in a hopefully more monetarily stable future.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      They should have just done copyright violation! Like I mentioned above, the people who actually designed them used them in my favorite game ever. http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=376513 (Search “geno”.) Noji’s alarm clock is kind of like that in Back To The Future, Part I, and a cute little Mario doll pops out of his toybox, too.

      • Treymoney

        Jeez, I really want to play Moon now.

  • Anthony Strand

    I never played this game, but this piece makes me really want to. I guess I’ll invest the $8 on Wii Virtual Console.

    • Ardney

       $8 well spent. It’s a solid title that hasn’t really lost anything with age. Graphics, sound, and gameplay all hold up really well.

      • Shain Eighmey

        It really has. Some friends and I gave it a go about a year back, and the game really has aged wonderfully.

  • stepped_pyramids

    “Mack the Knife… a hell of a lot less charming than the song would lead you to expect”

    Considering that the song is about Mack stabbing people and stealing their money, that’s saying something.

  • scrappybilly

    Man, I forgot about this game! I used to play it all the time when I was a kid.

    For my birthday in August, my girlfriend bought me a SupaBoy, which is fucking siiiiick. I might have to pick this title up eventually.

  • animalvegtablemineralman

    only 44 comments on an article abt Super Mario RPG? Come on you internet nerds, I know all of you have SMRPG2 Fanfic all over your hard drives. Few games I see illicit such reaction over the 16 bit era like SMRPG does. Great game, don’t get me wrong, but it has such such feverish grasp on some folk

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      Honestly I haven’t seen people gush about SMRPG in a looooong time. Chrono Trigger, on the other hand…

      • animalvegtablemineralman

        Add Earthbound into the mix and you get thar Unholy Triumvirate of 90s kids jrpg fanboy squeeling. Good games all, but unreasonable reactions from all

    • Kevin Johnson

      Not even kidding that I have it on my computer. Well… some of it. I planned a lot, LOT more.

  • http://www.facebook.com/justin.finkbeiner.7 Justin Finkbeiner

    Like the moon over
    the day, my genius and brawn
    are lost on these fools. ~Haiku

  • Krokamo

    I remember never being able to do the Yoshi races properly.