This game retains the fun qualities of Super Mario RPG, but expands on them and makes a much better game overall.
Yeah, I think divesting Squaresoft from the process actually improved things quite a bit. This one has the same timing-based battles of Mario RPG, but expands on them and makes them more fun with a wider variety of button presses and styles of attack.
In this one, Bowser has stolen something called the Star Rod which gives him crazy invincible powers. He uses these to steal Peach's castle and swat Mario like a fly in single combat. However, for some unknown reason he chooses to passively sit back and send out weak minions to try to stop Mario as he travels around the land restoring the powers of the "Sacred Stars", the only things that can counter Bowser's Star Rod fueled invincibility.
Miyamoto envisioned this as a "game for beginners", and it's definitely on the easy side, but that's not to say that it's not fun or that there's no challenge. In fact, it sports some pretty challenging battles and the action-based battle system means some reflexes are required to survive.
The slowest part is by far the first hour or so, where you keep fighting the same Koopas and Goombas over and over and can only Jump for 1 damage each turn. After you start getting battle commands and reach the Koopa Bros. fortress, the game really picks up and just continues on a nice roll from there. So just hang in there for the first early section and the game will soon reward you for your trouble.
Yeah, I haven't really been excited about exploring new territory in a game for a while now. But this one's nice design and appealing graphics made me look forward to reaching and exploring new areas.
That brings up a few of the strong points of the game. First, the "paper" style that is seen from a 2D view for most of the game, but actually takes place in 3D environments, works out really well and on a high-res display this game is very visually appealing, one of the best on the Nintendo 64. The dungeons as well as the battles incorporate action, which keeps them from turning into a stale grind. It's also paced pretty well, yet has a good amount of optional side tracks to explore.
The graphics are a big improvement on Super Mario RPG's plasticy style. The music has a similar sort of bland, Disneyish vibe, and is mostly unremarkable but functional. The story is likewise on the cutesy/kiddie side as Mario RPG's was, but I think this game was much more often genuinely funny and entertaining than that game.
This is one of the best games on the N64, short only of the Zelda games and Mario 64. And it will appeal to a much broader audience than the usual RPG. Definitely give it a try if you haven't played it.