In his first foray into Maths and Stats, Mario graduates with honours

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Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996)

I spent my college years wandering about in this kind of cynical trance, like Holden Caulfield. Didn’t really have anywhere to go, anyone to meet, so I just sat about writing and listening to music instead. Even if I’d studied or attended lectures, it’d have hardly made a difference anyway. I went to a ‘prestigious’ university, see. And they can’t fail you.

Maybe if you don’t turn up or if you vomit crayon wax all over the exam paper, you’ll score a big fat zero. But write your exam number down, blindly fill in some of the multi-choice questions, regurgitate parts of your earlier assignments that only barely passed anyway, and you’ve pretty much nailed it. See, if they were to fail you, then you’d go down as a negative statistic, harming the college’s reputation that bit more, domestically as well as internationally. And you know what that means? Lowered funding, something more unspeakable to an educational institution than Voldemort and Macbeth combined.

And anyway, what does it mean, passing exams? Practically speaking, not too much. In classist terms though, it gives you a cast-iron excuse to look down on people. I feel I can now castigate people on how they vote, how they shop, how they drive, how they speak, even how they procreate. And all because I’m better at passing exams than a lot of other people. It doesn’t matter that I myself have no common sense, little ability to do physical work, I’d be stammering like crazy in an actual debate without the safety blanket of a keyboard and the internet. And if you asked me to boil an egg… forget it.

I emerged from college with a degree in Sociology, and this at a time when the job market had its arms folded, its lips pursed and was deliberately avoiding eye contact with as many graduates as it could. I only had myself to blame really. Because it’s all about demand, see. If your pipe bursts through the night, you’re straight onto the emergency plumber. If you’ve developed a sudden spot of knobrot, you summon some bravery and visit A&E. Your dog starts barfing up black gunk, you’re tying the beast down and hitting the vets at breakneck speed. These are all vocations we need in society, and you’d bloody well miss them if they were gone. Even barbers and hairdressers can’t be done without.

But nobody springs awake in the middle of the night in a sweaty panic and cries “Oh Christ Almighty, who’s guarding the guardians? I’d better call a sociologist”. Nobody seeks my counsel about the tragedy of the commons or asks me for a free session on collective consciousness. Even back when I was studying (sorry, “reading”. In university you “read” for a degree), I never suffered any delusional ambitions of having my own sociology office within an ivory tower.

Or indeed, any kind of place where I’d prance about all day, stroking my soul patch and adjusting my glasses, with nothing getting done except me musing about societal problems to fawning mortals. And I don’t have these delusions now either, which is why I eventually ran screaming towards IT. Mine can’t have been a good course anyway, because I think the ethical slut came up a few times but not once was the word f**kboy mentioned.

I never once had a Golden Week either, a term that refers to attending every single lecture or tutorial, whatever that was, in a given week. Not once in four years. And I’m pretty proud of that. I did try, but by Tuesday it had gotten pretty difficult to keep up the enthusiasm, so it was back to extra long lunches instead.

The day of my graduation was a pain. It’s always the way that the student doesn’t want to go, but does it for their parents. I wonder even if the parents want to go, although my mother was pretty militant about it. I was just sat there, in a robe that I had to pay more than a few quid to rent, but I was fretting that there wouldn’t be a degree to confer to me after all.

Someone would have run the numbers on my name, seen the attendance record, and concluded that there had to have been some sort of mistake – an evil computer (I often wondered if the college administration even had computers) in a grey office flagging me up as an anomaly, someone not eligible for a degree that day.

If any of this was happening, I certainly wouldn’t have been aware of it, because the whole thing was delivered in Latin and there wasn’t even any communion to take away the boredom. After all that, it was a quiet meal with the family, a few drinks with the class later that evening and then I never saw any of them again. A good chunk of them had emigrated, apropos of that woeful job market. College certainly prepared us for that one, eh?

My dull, long-awaited graduation didn’t have very much in common with Super Mario RPG, a Squaresoft + Nintendo collaboration released very late in the Super Nintendo’s life. The game was a milestone moment – I’m sure there were other Japanese-only Squaresoft games that made it to the Super Famicom after SMRPG, but this was the last big name project from the two giants before Square danced merrily into Sony’s CD-shod arms. It was the last appearance of Mario on the Super Nintendo, with Super Mario 64 almost out. And it featured quite a few memorable characters who’d never be seen again. In many ways, then, SMRPG was a graduation game for the SNES.

It laid down the essentials for Paper Mario and its seminal GameCube sequel as well. The styling is obviously different, the aesthetic this time being an isometric view. Isometric games usually give me headaches, with Sonic 3D Blast being especially vomitous for me in this regard. But SMRPG seems to sit just fine with me and that’s even with the cutesy bright, sometimes even garish colours.

The game’s relatively short and sweet too, linear and not a terrific amount of sidequests, so you can get it all done in less than 20 hours. That’s a good thing, in my view. You’ve got plenty of Final Fantasy on the SNES, plus you can boost that with some other, lighter RPGs like EarthBound and Lufia 2. Mario doesn’t have to be a sprawling epic – not when a whimsical story of his quest to save the seven Star Pieces is the order of the day.

What he does need is a funny series of characters and situations, and that’s where SMRPG delivers in spades. The best part of all is that, despite initial appearances, the game isn’t just about Mario hunting down Bowser and rescuing the Princess. No, this game subverts that expectation in the best way – both Bowser and Princess Toadstool join your party. Who’d have thought it possible?

Rounding out your five-man crew is Mallow, a crybaby cloud who seems surprised to learn he’s not a tadpole, and Geno, a celestial chap who possesses a wooden doll, which seemed to earn him enough kudos that he’s still frequently requested for Smash Bros. But anyway, you can only select a party of three, so I can’t see why you wouldn’t go with Mario/Bowser/Princess. Leave the non-entities to the sidelines.

This is a wonderful game, the kind of whimsical gaming experiment that comes along all too rarely. Just like college, it’s irreverent, passes by nice and quickly, and it’s a great old laugh. And these days, it’s even quite affordable to partake in. Well, our US pals paid through the nose for it, but don’t be too sympathetic because historically they’ve had some of the best institutions in the world in Harvard (Chrono Trigger), Princeton (Final Fantasy VI) and Yale (Mega Man Soccer, I suppose). More importantly than all that, Super Mario RPG proved that the portly plumber could try his hand at anything, and succeed. It’s just a pity he didn’t deliver the speech at my own graduation – I’d have been all ears.

7 January 2020

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