My Twitter feed was absolutely lit up with Super Mario RPG talk this morning, and for good reason. One of the strangest collaborations between Square (Enix) and Nintendo, Mario’s original RPG adventure is 25 years old.
So here I am with a sappy, self-indulgent retrospective story. Super Mario RPG opened my eyes to a lot of formative materials, and a new sense of scale to videogames.
Specifically, I can trace a lot of my interests to a specific boss fight, the mysterious battle with Culex.
I don’t think I really knew what a RPG was when I first played this game. Pokemon wasn’t even out yet. But this strange, new experience that wasn’t a platformer, fighting game or puzzler was enthralling. What the hell was going on?
Answering that question took a backseat to learning about Timed Hits. Super Mario RPG was easy enough that I was able to digest the RPG language fairly easily. HP, MP, you know the drill.
That ease of use opened a lot of doors in my mind, but it was also the scale. This was the biggest Mushroom Kingdom I had ever seen, and there was always something dreadful about it.
Anything that wasn’t already familiar like Goombas or Koopa Troopas had this grotesque energy, subtly informing me there was a lot more going on than usual in this world.
Secrets in games weren’t new to me, but they were always things like hidden doors, alternate exits or collectibles. Mario RPG’s secrets expanded the experience. So much more game was tucked away off the beaten path, and sections like visiting the Yoshis were totally missable.
All kinds of weird equipment, extra reading material or even bonus sequences such as in Booster Tower were peppered throughout the largest single videogame I had ever played. But nothing lit my brain up like Culex did.
Somehow, I figured out how to open the strange door in Monstro Town, and inside was something my child brain was not equipped to understand. The world was distorted and alien, the entities in this space unlike anything I had seen before.
And Culex himself was a gatekeeper of the unknown. The way he spoke, the music, the level of detail on his sprite, the strange crystals, everything was foreign. When Culex kicked the everloving crap out of me, he also kicked open a door.
Eventually I got a hold of the internet, and discovered things like gaming news and fan sites. I liked to take in extra information on things I’m into, and that holds true today.
I discovered walkthroughs, and found literature on how to prepare for a real fight with Culex. Part of this was learning about the Lazy Shell, a massive side quest leading to game-breakingly powerful equipment.
An entire chunk of this foreboding, new Mushroom Kingdom I had no clue about.
My gears were turning in whole new ways after that. I beat Culex, then I went back and took down Smithy again. Much easier that time. Then I sought after more information. Culex was not of this world, so what was he then? Final Fantasy. Huh. I should read more about that, too.
I never had another RPG for my Super Nintendo at the time. But I still chased information non-stop. The Game Boy and Pokemon (and Power Quest, baybeee) cemented my knack for this kind of game.
The numbers, the grinding, the storytelling, the strange characters and enthralling secrets. All of that stuff clicked with me and I never stopped taking in more. When I found emulators, it was a wrap. My fate was sealed.
I played everything. I would just go down lists. NES games, SNES games, Game Boy games. The stuff a crappy late-90s computer could emulate. I absorbed the classics and then some. Mega Man. Chrono Trigger. Zelda. Sonic. EarthBound.
Awkwardly translated Dragon Ball Z games. And of course, Final Fantasy. By the time I had a PlayStation (also very late), You bet I knew exactly where Culex came from.
That train never stopped, really. I got snooty about Final Fantasy eventually, and somehow Dragon Quest felt like rebellion against what was cool. Then came the weird stuff. Shin Megami Tensei. Disgaea. Suikoden. Lunar. Mystery Dungeon. Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style. Worms? Yeah sure, Worms too.
Now here I am, an adult with a family, a long-dormant ADHD diagnosis (that sure does explain half this article), and a full-time job about videogames.
And Culex isn’t even an actual, dang Final Fantasy character. All that from an abstract form of self-reference. Go figure.