Super Mario RPG and Tone
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Super Mario RPG (Squaresoft/Nintendo, 1996), the comedic fusion of Nintendo’s Super Mario franchise and Squaresoft’s classic role-playing format. This essay will cover content up through the end of the game. Players who have not completed the game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, the famously offbeat Mario role-playing game, has been a beloved title since its release on the Super Nintendo in 1996. Its development was not an easy one, however, as the project came from an unusual union between console-maker Nintendo and the role-playing luminaries at Squaresoft (now Square-Enix). When Nintendo first teamed up with Squaresoft to make a Mario RPG, the two companies were unsure how to combine such a familiar character with such an unfamiliar genre.
According to Super Mario RPG director Chihiro Fujioka, developing the gameplay fundamentals took almost twelve months, and the story and graphic decisions required an additional year to get right.1 Players who were used to Mario’s fast-paced gameplay might get tired of waiting around in turn-based combat, whereas role-playing game fans who expected an extensive story might get bored if the game was all action. Nintendo’s exacting specifications for Mario’s character presented challenges for Fujioka’s team, as well. “Nintendo has a certain style they like,” Fujioka explained in a 1995 interview. “It was the kind of thing where you think you’d get it perfect, only to realize, ‘oh, wait, this is wrong….’ “2 Eventually, the team united around an isometric, pseudo-3D art style that lent itself perfectly to what would become one of Super Mario RPG’s greatest assets: its lighthearted comedic tone.
Tone and Comedic Premise
Tone is usually derived from theme, but not all stories pose complex questions for the audience to solve. In the case of comedies, tone is a function of what’s known as ‘comedic premise.’ In comedy, the premise is the comedian’s opinion on their chosen topic.3-5 For example, if the topic is video games, the premise might be: “The older you get, the more difficult it is to play video games.” This is similar to theme, as writers use theme to present an opinion on general topics, but comedic premise differs because it serves as a launchpad for jokes. In a story where age’s impact on gaming is the theme, a writer can explore any number of avenues and tones to make their point, but if it’s the comedic premise, the observations need to be humorous, as does the tone.
Like tone in general, comedic tone comes in all sorts of flavors. Comedy can be juvenile or high-brow, lighthearted or pitch black, deadpan or screwball, or anything in between. While the target audience has an impact on comedy’s tone—black comedy doesn’t work well at children’s parties, after all—the comedic premise plays an important role in determining tone, as well. In Super Mario RPG, the comedic premise is: “The silliest thing about the Mushroom Kingdom series is that the residents take themselves seriously.” In Super Mario RPG, the Mushroom Kingdom and the surrounding territories are full of cartoon creatures with funny names, goofy faces, strange powers, and bizarre ideas, and everyone accepts them as completely normal. Pirate sharks can be honorable duelists; Koopa kings can write heartfelt haikus; cloud-boys can cry when they find out they’re not actually toads. These farcical occurrences are just a fraction of the strangeness that goes on in the Mushroom Kingdom, and Super Mario RPG treats each of them with an endearing sincerity that results in a lighthearted, earnest tone that fits the family-friendly franchise while setting itself apart.
Integrating Tone in Story and Scene
Super Mario RPG integrates its lighthearted tone in both the overall story and the individual scenes. Structurally, each of the game’s key moments revolves around self-serious characters in absurd situations. The story begins in the usual Mario style, with Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach, but events take an unusual turn when a giant sword impales Bowser’s castle and throws everyone in separate directions. As the humiliated Bowser nurses his wounded ego in the woods, penning heartfelt poetry about his unrecognized brilliance, Mario teams up with a talking doll and a friendly cloud to save Peach and stop Smithy, the gang leader responsible for the giant sword.
To achieve his main goals, Mario needs to take a collection of magical stars from a truly outrageous group of enemies. The hunt for the stars forms the backbone of the plot, which takes Mario to the most ridiculous corners of the Mushroom Kingdom. He walks across clouds as easily as he runs through volcanoes, and he traverses hostile deserts with the same bravery he brings to his familiar sewers. Along the way, he’s pitted against walking bows, talking cakes, and scantily-dressed cloud women, all of whom take themselves incredibly seriously. Luckily, Mario has no problem looking silly, which is why he’s well-suited to hopping on the heads of such unusual threats. Peach isn’t afraid to look ridiculous, either; once Mario rescues her from a tower of clowns, she’s all too happy to swat evildoers with her umbrella. Even Bowser is willing to swallow his pride long enough to join his former rival (but only so he can get his castle back.) With those two on the team, the ludicrous party is complete, and no self-serious metalsmith can hope to stand in their way.
Super Mario RPG’s lighthearted earnestness doesn’t just show itself in the storyline; it also shows itself in the individual scenes. Each scene is littered with a unique combination of snappy dialogue and physical comedy, with animations so clear and dynamic that it transcends the limitations of the technology. One of the best examples of this fusion of physical and verbal comedy is the running gag of Mario’s pantomiming routine. Since RPGs are dialogue-heavy games by nature, the ever-silent Mario needed a way to communicate with other characters, especially when recruiting people to his party. The developers solved this problem by making Mario a master of charades, letting him temporarily assume the forms of other characters to tell their stories. It’s an absurd bit of physical comedy that works because everyone takes it seriously. For example, when Mario demonstrates his communication style to the Mushroom Kingdom’s chancellor, the chancellor isn’t surprised that Mario can transform into other people. Likewise, when Mario teams up with Mallow the cloud-boy, Mallow immediately relies on Mario’s transformation ability to help track a runaway thief. No matter how absurd Mario’s skills are, the characters—and the story—take them seriously.
The juxtaposition between serious and silly isn’t limited to the dialogue and actions of the player characters. Everyone from the most powerful bosses to the lowliest minions has a chance to flex their comedic chops, thanks in part to Mallow’s unique combat ability, Psychopath. Using Psychopath, players can read the minds of enemies, which reveals their remaining hit points. If players time the input right, they also gain access to the enemy’s innermost thoughts. These irreverent one-liners often reveal humorously mundane details about the characters, adding flavor to the world. The Manager enemy has been working for twenty-long years; the boss Yardovich is up for a promotion; the sword Exor has an astigmatism in his right eye. When juxtaposed with the cartoonish character designs, these everyday woes reinforce the farcical tone. No matter how silly Mario’s enemies seem, they still have the same problems as the rest of us, and that’s the silliest thing of all.
It’s no surprise that Super Mario RPG has been a fan favorite for decades. Its lighthearted earnestness captures the spirit of the Mario franchise while presenting something entirely new, something that has yet to be topped despite a multitude of spiritual successors. Writers who have their hearts set on lighthearted comedy should look to Super Mario RPG as an example of how to connect comedic premise to tone, and how to reinforce that tone through story and scene.
Tone is the emotional expression of a story’s theme, as well as the source of mood and atmosphere.
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1,2 Family Computer Magazine. “1995 Developer Interviews.” Shmuplations, 2021.
3 Gray, Kyrie. “What is a Premise When You’re Writing Satire?” Medium, 2020.
4 Corley, Jerry. “Boring Premise to Great Routine.” Stand Up Comedy Clinic, 2019.
5 Dean, Greg. “How to Write Jokes: Joke Premise Part 1.” LinkedIn, 2015.
* Reference Footage: TASVideosChannel. “[TAS] SNES Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars “100%” by illayaya in 3:33:22.13.” YouTube, 2015.
** Reference Quotes: “List of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars quotes.” MarioWiki, 2021.