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Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars forever changed my definition of the term “video game.”

Back in 1996, at the innocent age of nine, I thought I had my gaming tastes all figured out. Fighting games were my truest love, with Street Fighter II on the Super Nintendo blazing a trail that still burns today, while Super Mario Bros and its sequels satiated my platforming habits. The role-playing game, especially the Japanese style of RPG, was firmly out of my wheelhouse.

Not that I hadn’t heard of the titans of the JRPG genre, of course. A friend of mine in school raved about games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger from a company called Squaresoft (now Square Enix), telling me they were some of the best adventures on the SNES. I tried to watch him play those games when we hung out, I even took control a few times to get a feel for things, but I just wasn’t interested in them. The format, in my naive eyes, would forever be lost on me…

…and then Squaresoft decided to partner with Nintendo, and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was released to Japan March 9, 1996, 25 years ago today. It would come to the States two months later, and that’s when what I knew about video games fundamentally changed.

I remember seeing the box for SMRPG on the shelf at Video Update (because Blockbuster wasn’t within walking distance) and thinking how strange Mario looked in it. The hard-drawn artwork I’d become accustomed to was gone, replaced with a bubbly-looking plumber standing next to the princess…and Bowser?! I knew I had to try it, and after a few visits the game was finally available for rent, and I grabbed it as soon as I saw it.

From the jump I knew things were different, even if the story on-screen was playing out in familiar fashion. Toadstool (she was still Toadstool in this game) was sitting in a field, Bowser swoops in to grab her, Mario jumps out of his house and heads to the castle to save the day. Once I gain control I see just how different this game is: I’m able to walk freely around an open space instead of walking left to right, and more importantly I’m fighting enemies using that Final Fantasy style I didn’t care for before.

Here was the crossroads: do I take this as a failed rental, wash my hands of it, and simply return it, or do I let this be the trial run for a JRPG? It’s Mario, who I loved, in a format that I’d be urged to play for years, so the timing just seemed right. Ho boy, was it ever right.

After a few rooms in Bowser’s Keep I make it to the dastardly villain, who’s waiting for me on a chandelier with Toadstool tied to the ceiling. The music raises, the battle starts, and I’m starting to come around. I’m enjoying this battle with Bowser, one I’d fought countless times before, just not in this particular way. Eventually I win, Bowser falls, I save Princess Toadstool…and a massive sword with a face falls through the ceiling, starting the adventure off properly.

Ok Super Mario RPG, you win. I’m in now.

What followed was a brilliant introduction into the world of the role-playing game, presented in a manner that wasn’t too overwhelming for my inexperienced mind. Mushroom served as healing items, Flowers restored my magic points, and equipment boosted my abilities. I gained experience points through battling and learned what leveling up meant through that EXP. I was learning the role-playing game, and more importantly I was loving it.

The world Square and Nintendo created was massive and majestic, far outreaching the side-scrolling platformer levels of my other games. I traveled outside of the Mushroom Kingdom into a brand new world, exploring the sea, the sky, and the fiery depths of a volcano. I met new faces like the pleasant if easily dismayed Mallow and the heroic ♡♪!?…sorry, Geno. I fought unique and sometimes comical bosses, from the conniving thief Croco to the sea captain Jonathan Jones to my absolute favorite villain in the entire game, Booster. Every character I spoke to had a personality to them, even Mario in the way he reacted to what he’d been hearing. This was a level of storytelling other Mario games simply didn’t reach, and I was hooked.

And the music, my goodness the music of Super Mario RPG solidified my appreciation for what gaming soundtracks could be. The elevator music of Booster Tower, the light and melodic tones of Marrymore, and the absolute banger of a boss fight track are pieces I still frequently listen to today. Without this soundtrack I don’t know if I ever would have learned to love and appreciate game music like I do now, let alone the JRPG itself.

Eventually after a few weeks and a few re-rentals I finished the game, and it was as if I was born again. Fighting games and platformers are still some of my favorite video games, but this Legend of the Seven Stars brought me into the JRPG fold, opening the door for Final Fantasy VIII (that’s not a typo) to introduce me to the Final Fantasy series and forever shaping my gaming habits. I’m not the only one this game has left a lasting impression on either. Take a look at any Super Smash Bros forum or social media when a new fighter is due to be announced and see all the posts advocating for Geno to be added, I’d bet the support is far stronger than you’d expect for a 25-year-old one-off character.

If you haven’t played this classic game yet and you have access to the Switch’s Super Nintendo Online offering, boot this up and give it a whirl. I’m willing to bet its charm and solid JRPG gameplay can win anyone over, and there will be even more players traveling the Star Road before long.

Happy 25th anniversary Super Mario RPG. Here’s to hoping that one day we finally get that true sequel…but that’s a story for another day.

Photo courtesy of Square Enix