It is oft said, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Nintendo largely took heed of this notion with Super Mario RPG Remake, an updated version of the Square collaboration that made Mario meet Final Fantasy back in 1996. The 2023 modernized version preserves all that makes the original a classic, just with a better engine and some quality-of-life fixes.
A bit of background. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (the subtitle is specific to the original English release) was a 1996 Squaresoft (before they merged with Enix) and Nintendo project to make a Mario game with turn-based combat, which in turn would inspire Nintendo to make other Mario RPG games on their own. It was released toward the end of the SNES life cycle, pushing the system to its technical limits. For a while, it was deemed to be in copyright limbo for a re-release or port due to the co-ownership of the game, aside from a reappearance on the Virtual Console for the Wii U. In 2023, we would get a full remake (using a new engine) on the Nintendo Switch.
Some notes must be made on the translation of the 1996 localization and the 2023 version. Both are based on the same scripts (minus some 2023-specific additions for the new game subsystems), but the translation will differ. The 1996 translation was handled by Ted Woolsey, who handled the generally well-received Final Fantasy SNES translations, managing to convey their themes and maturity despite Nintendo's censorship policies at the time. Unfortunately, he was not as familiar with some aspects of Mario, so his version had a few errors, such as the NokNok Shell weapon for Mario (an over-literal take on Noko Noko, the Japanese word we get the sound of a turtle shell from). On the more positive side of the ledger, he did add in some clever touches, such as spicing up some of the blander script decisions, renaming the "Frog Sage" to Frogfucius (a play on frog and the Chinese philosopher Confucius, the Latinized version of Kong Fuzi). A few other references like the boss Claymorton (referencing a medieval Scottish broadsword) were renamed to "Mack The Knife" (an at the time more well-known opera/theater reference to a blade-wielding criminal). The 2023 script cleaves to a rather strict reading of the original Japanese script, meaning a lot of the clever cultural translations were lost, but we did get translation errors in the original fixed too.
The story is quite simple. Princess Toadstool (now called Peach officially like in modern games) gets kidnapped by Bowser for the millionth time. Mario goes to rescue her. Things go wrong and Mario, Bowser, and Peach are flung all over creation as a giant sword falls from the heavens and lands in Bowser's Keep. Mario soon discovers the Star Road, which grants wishes to the world, was destroyed by the same events, and he must fix it and defeat Smithy, who is now sending his weapon-themed henchman all over the world to ensure his domination.
Both the original and remake follow the same story beats (with a few minor changes here and there, like added scenes that flesh out some of the original story) and it's overall the same quirky RPG story based on the Mario-verse players new and old would expect. Like any turn-based RPG, the player must defeat enemies, talk to people, do sidequests, and triumph over all the bosses to save the world. The original gameplay is essentially the same as before, just with some new features like a fast travel option, a few battle system improvements to add some streamlining, and even an easy mode (despite the original game not being that hard) for people who just want to enjoy the story.
Graphically, the original had a richly colored anime aesthetic mixed with the classic bright and poppy Mario look. The 2023 remake tones down the rich colors and opts more for the cleaner modern Mario style and compensates for the slightly paler colors by adding a lot more detail to everything. As someone who loved the original, I'd call that a reasonable tradeoff and it looks good either way. They also moved to a true 3D look, not the pseudo-3D they did in 1996 using an isometric view, some clever use of collision maps, and some perspective tricks. This makes a lot of the jumping sections easier, as it's easier to gauge just where to jump since it uses a true 3D perspective.
The sounds and music are interesting, especially because you can switch between the original and remake sounds and music on the fly. The original SNES soundtrack was more synthesized, and compensated for the lack of clarity of certain instruments with an intense cadence that was pretty catchy. The soundtrack for both has a jazzy style, with some techno and rock infusions and some dashes of funk here and there for that Mario meets Final Fantasy feel. The remake soundtrack is somewhat less intense, but a lot clearer and the instrument samples are of much higher quality. The tempo is a bit slower but more detailed. I found I enjoyed both types of soundtrack, each has its virtues. The sounds are the same as the SNES version, only the audio is no longer compressed and sounds a lot cleaner.
The game controls much in the same way as the original game, only adapted to the Nintendo Switch controls. I played on a handheld Switch and found it played just like the original game. I do caution, however, that the new engine has subtly changed the timing of many attacks and thus if you have muscle memory from the 1996 version, you will need to retrain it quite a bit. Thankfully, the engine does provide cues to assist you much of the time, and at any point you can bring up a help menu explaining the controls, even in the middle of battle. The tutorials were expanded slightly for the new game mechanics they added.
First off, the old battle mechanics of being a turn-based game that allows for proper timing of button pressing to add attack or defense bonuses in combat are still in place. These are Timed Hits and Defense, and much like the original, pressing the action button at the right time will increase your damage and can even entirely negate that of the enemy. Various attacks usable by the player characters also benefit from proper timing and button presses, only the new game engine reworks them to all now give proper cues on how to power them all up effectively. These are mated nicely to the new mechanics introduced in the remake.
Speaking of that, two new battle mechanics were added. One is a gauge that slowly builds to 100% the more you parry attacks perfectly and get off timed hits. At 100% you can execute "limit breaks" where your team can activate special unique and powerful skills and reset the gauge until it fills again. Second, you are encouraged to master timed hits and parries because each success causes your stats to increase depending on the characters in your party. This adds a much-needed level of strategy to battles and encourages players to switch around party members more. The original game made it so players could get really complacent with party members, often defaulting to the same party throughout the game was viable. This time, they rebalanced the characters to offer more reasons to switch them up.
Game stability is fine. Runs smooth as butter on the Nintendo Switch, and load times are quite fast. The saving system now has an autosave for each area, though the save points from the original are still available. It's worth noting that on top of the absolute ton of minigames and other content from the original game, they added a boss rush mode, a full bestiary, fast travel, and player key shortcuts to avoid wading through tons of menus, and many other features that take the original experience (which was already good) and remove a lot of hassle while still providing all the fun of the original title.
Morally, this is slightly better than the already mild SNES version.
Violence is fantasy RPG-style violence, remains disappear immediately, and it's all very cartoonishly depicted, as you'd expect from a game aimed at children. The language is quite clean and kid-friendly, can't recall any instance of anything remotely foul. One female boss who was quite sexualized despite it being a kid's game was toned down from the 1996 version, with a far more modest figure and removed chest physics when attacked. They did retain the joke in Princess Peach's bedroom where you can find a mystery object implied to be underwear, but they leave it ambiguous just what it is like in the original.
The usual dead and skeleton enemies like Dry Bones and Boos show up, but that's about it. All the magic and supernatural in the game is pure fantasy, nothing objectionable to children. Morally, Mario is a silent protagonist, and in general, a good guy. You do have the option to choose some mean or rude responses (which will get an appropriately offended response). There is also a hidden if kid-friendly casino you can access.
I have to say, the original game was a fond cornerstone of my childhood, and this remake brought back some very fond memories. I cannot recommend this game any higher, it is worth its purchase price and remains a lovable classic. Morally, it's suitable for almost any age and nothing I'd be afraid to get a child as a gift. While it doesn't change the original in any major ways, just gives it a new coat of paint and some nice extras, and that's all this sparkling jewel in the crown of gaming needs to shine.