SUPER MARIO RPG / Nintendo / SNES (1996)

Fans of both the Kingdom Hearts and Paper Mario series have this one to thank as a sort of conceptual grandfather to both. It's a little simpler and more limited than any of the games in either series, but it has its points.

The game opens with Bowser (as usual) kidnapping the Princess in his flying clown car, but a confrontation with him in his castle only sets the stage for the real villain of the game, a sort of sword monster named Smithy who takes over Bowser's castle and menaces the Mushroom Kingdom with his army. Both Bowser and the Princess will eventually join you in this fight, as well as several other characters unique to this game.

The world is rendered in sort of a poor man's 3D, with an isometric perspective on the action that allows Mario to run and jump. Enemies are visible and run about on the screen goofing off, but there are no surprise attacks by hitting them first as there are in the later Paper Mario games. The battle engine is a pretty typical turn-based one, though the "timed hits" (pressing A at a specific time during an attack to get a damage boost or during defense to weaken an incoming attack) add a bit of action to the otherwise dull routine -- but don't expect anything approaching the complexity of some of Paper Mario's moves.

There are some funny and unexpected moments, like Booster's Tower and the Axem Rangers (as well as a hidden boss battle featuring Final Fantasy 4 music), but the game's humor may come across as too saccharine and hard to swallow. The graphics have that plasticy flat rendered Donkey Kong Country sort of look to them and really aren't that inspiring in most areas - price you pay for quasi-3D on the SNES, I guess. The soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura is likewise solid and serviceable, but on the cute and fluffy side and not really something that lingers in memory or begs listening outside of the game. If you're a Kingdom Hearts fan you may dig this game, as well as the fans of Paper Mario/Superstar Saga (though it's not as good as any of those games). You also might just as easily be disappointed (as I was) by the lame story, largely boring and repetitive battles, forgettable music and frequently tacky graphics. Depends on your level of love for Mario and RPGs I guess.

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