Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is far and away my most-played single-player game of all time, despite the fact that I never actually played it all the way through until recently. For me, Mario RPG is kind of like a movie you’ve only ever seen on cable. You never sit down to watch it all the way through, but you catch bits and pieces of it enough times that eventually it feels like you’ve seen the whole movie. My unconventional experience playing Mario RPG came as a result of repeatedly renting the game over the course of a year and working through it with the help of another kid I don’t know, and never met. For me, Super Mario RPG will always be a co-op game, and a perfect representation of the idiosyncrasies of gaming in the ‘90s.
If you walked into a Blockbuster Video in 1998, you’d find a corner of the store filled with PlayStation and N64 games to rent. Most millennials probably have fond memories of the first time they rented Metal Gear Solid or Banjo-Kazooie, but I didn’t have a current-gen console back then. Instead, I was across the street at my local Schnucks grocery store, trading coupons from the newspaper for $1 Super Nintendo rentals. My favorite game, of course, was Super Mario RPG, despite the fact that I could never get past Tadpole Pond.
I was only allowed to play an hour of video games after school every day, so every time I got to Mallow’s house my rental would be up, and I’d need to return it to the store. I’d try to renew it, but there was always a waiting list for Schnucks’ single copy of the game. By the time I got it back, I’d invariably find my save file overwritten. So, I’d restart, play to Tadpole Pond, then start the cycle again. I must have repeated this process half a dozen times before one day I got fed-up with restarting and just started playing on another save file.
At first it was confusing. I was in a new town I didn’t recognize, and there was a weird guy in my party that wore a blue cloak and shot bullets out of his finger. It wasn’t long until I stumbled into a pipe that took me to an island full of Yoshies, and I knew I had made the right decision. I stopped worrying about what I had missed and just continued on to Moleville, recruited Bowser, and eventually made my way all the way up Booster Tower before I had to return the game again.
A few weeks later when I rented the game again, I was excited to find that the save file hadn’t been erased, but was now even further along than where I had left it. This time I’m in Nimbus Land where I learn that Mallow is a long lost prince. I still don’t know who Geno is or why I’m even looking for star pieces, but I’m kicking the shit out of Birdo, so I assume I’m on the right track. All the things I don’t know about the adventure just seem to make everything more exciting, and I start thinking about the other person playing the game alongside me. I imagine that they’re just like me, fed up with losing their save file over and over, and decided to make this silent agreement with me to just get through the game together. I wonder if they’re just as confused, and if they’re having as much fun as I am anyway.
I defeat Valentina without really understanding who she is, then go into a volcano and fight a dragon, followed shortly by the zombie version of the dragon. This is the greatest game I’ve ever played. If you’ve played the game you’re probably already tensing up over what happens next.
No matter how hard I tried, I could not get past the Axem Rangers on top of the airship. I battled them over and over, but their attacks were just too strong and they got hit so many times in a row – it was just impossible. I returned the game to the store defeated, but with hope that my partner would have enough time to figure out how to beat them.
The last time I rented Mario RPG is one of my most cherished gaming memories. When I loaded our save, I discovered not only had they got past the Axem Rangers, but they’d stopped just before the final battle with Smithy. I didn’t realize at the time that there was no way to save after you finish the game, so my eight-year-old mind decided that my partner had gotten all the way to the end and decided to let me have the final victory. I beat Smithy, finished the game, and returned it to the grocery store with a thank you note in the box, hopeful that my invisible friend would rent it again to see if I had managed to beat it.
I didn’t play Super Mario RPG all the way through by myself until the SNES Classic came out in 2017. It wasn’t until then that I finally saw the half of the game I missed before. I had no idea there was a haunted pirate ship or an evil wedding cake in this game, and finally seeing them the other half reminded me of my weird co-op experience and the mysterious partner that helped me through it. Those magic moments where you share a fleeting experience with another player always seem to move me. Whether it's a game like Journey or Dark Souls that intentionally build those moments in, or just an out-of-the-ordinary encounter with another person in an MMO, I always love connecting with a stranger over a shared gaming experience, and I’ll never forget the way Super Mario RPG, however implausible, made that possible for me.
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