Populated by numerous unforgettable characters and carried by an incredible combination of action-based battles and clever exploration, Superstar Saga is a classic
Simple ingenious ideas often go a long way towards building a fantastic game, and Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga is one of the proofs that turn that hypothesis into scientific truth. It is not that the brothers had never set out on an adventure together; numerous Mario platformers had, before Superstar Saga, given gamers the chance to alternate between both characters, as if they were on a joint venture to rescue Peach from the clutches of that day’s villain. However, the first installment of the Mario and Luigi series was a pioneer in the materialization of that partnership on the screen, with the two characters truly cooperating with one another and walking as a two-men evil-banishing platoon.
Superstar Saga, though, is not satisfied with one victorious idea. Although simultaneously controlling Mario and Luigi as they explore the overworld and tackle turn-based battles is indeed the main component of its fuel, the game is packed with clever concepts and engaging elements that either derive from that central pillar or adorn it. It is a powerful combination that still makes this Game Boy Advance gem feel fresh and unique, even if various sequels have built upon its central mechanic with some success.
In a way, it all starts with the Beanbean Kingdom. Perhaps aware that the Mushroom Kingdom had already been the stage for a fair share of role-playing quests, Nintendo and AlphaDream opt to send the brothers away from it, and the decision pays off. One day, Peach receives a visit from that kingdom’s ambassador; sadly, as it turns out, the gesture of foreign diplomacy is a ruse: the ambassador and his assistant are actually Cackletta, an evil witch, and Fawful, her medically insane sidekick. They steal the princess’ voice and replace it with explosive vocabulary, literally. Mario and Luigi are summoned to the scene and asked to head for the Beanbean Kingdom, where the evil pair has fled to, and they are followed by a flustered Bowser, who grumbles he cannot kidnap the princess in her current state, as her words could damage his precious castle.
Bowser’s understandable concern and the fact that Mario appears in his underwear a few minutes into the opening segment speak volumes about the kind of game Superstar Saga is: one that does not take itself too seriously. For example, as Mario and Luigi join Bowser aboard his cruiser, after a hilarious turn of events, both the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom and the minions in Bowser’s ship are quick to deride Luigi as a disposable hero whose name is unknown to many. What follows, throughout the game, is a line of extravagant humor that walks between nonsense and self-mockery.
The Beanbean Kingdom brings two great benefits to the journey. Firstly, it allows developers to do a good deal of palette cleansing when it comes to characters, enemies, and locations. Toads and Yoshis still appear from time to time, just like settings such as a beach and a desert. However, the beanies and other races take center stage as the towns’ inhabitants; and unusual places, all appropriately named after different kinds of laughter, such as Chucklehuck Woods, Hoohoo Mountain, and Woohoo University, emerge.
Secondly, as Mario and Luigi dig deeper into the question of why Peach’s voice was stolen, the Beanbean Kingdom reveals itself as a place where insanity is the norm. Despite its somewhat commonplace nature, the story does have a few curious twists, turns, and events one would not expect from a Mario game, a fact that turns this RPG quest with traditional elements of the genre like purchasable equipment, items, and stats into something genuinely unique. However, the game’s writing truly shines in its dozens of remarkable side-characters. Starting with Fawful, a brilliant villain whose broken English and senseless metaphors – mostly based around different sorts of food – and branching out to other people and creatures, the game is an endless parade of quirky encounters and funny developments.
Much like it happens in Paper Mario, its sibling franchise, Mario and Luigi thrives in its gameplay thanks to a solid match of puzzle solving and platforming with turn-based battles with a tendency towards action. Out in the overworld, controlling Mario and Luigi is simple: for the one that is in the front, the R-button lets players navigate through a short list of commands, and the A-button makes the brother perform the action that is selected; for the one that goes in the back, L and B, respectively, serve that same purpose.
Although at first Mario and Luigi can only jump, as the game progresses they slowly acquire other skills. By using the hammer, for example, other than breaking rocks, the brothers can hit one another: Mario can bury Luigi in the ground, while Luigi can make Mario small. Similarly, Luigi can jump on Mario’s back to perform a high jump, while Mario can do the same and execute a tornado move to hover in the air for a short while.
Those moves, and a few others, are used as building blocks for some smart level design. Most of the game’s locations are set up like smaller and simpler The Legend of Zelda dungeons, where Mario and Luigi need to clear puzzles and explore the area in order to get to a certain point in the map. Truthfully, most puzzles are relatively straightforward; nevertheless, they work as a pleasant added spice to the game’s RPG format. The platforming challenges, on the other hand, can indeed get hard in some occasions, requiring the fast switching between abilities and their timely activation in order to be cleared, something that may cause players to fumble with the controls.
In battles, Mario and Luigi have a nice array of moves, including individual attacks – such as jumping and using the hammer – and the incredible Bros. Attacks, where, together, the duo performs outlandish actions that will require that gamers press the A or B-buttons with perfect timing in order to deal massive blows. As an added twist, once players have mastered the timing of the button combinations demanded by a Bros. Attack, it is possible to up the stakes by removing the visual cues and eliminating the slower speed of the actions performed by the brothers in order to increase the damage that is dealt if the attack is performed successfully.
Due to that, battles – especially the dozens of incredible boss encounters – are filled with action, as players can always enhance the power of any attack with well-timed button presses. Likewise, when it comes to defending, all enemy moves can be avoided; in fact, it is possible to say that in Superstar Saga the learning of how to escape from what foes throw at the brothers is vital to succeed, a sentence that becomes truer the more players advance in the game and the more challenging battles get. Given enemies tend to have more than one type of attack, with bosses having a surprising amount of different moves, battles end up offering an impressive mix of action and strategy, remaining engaging through the entirety of the game.
The final master touch of Superstar Saga is found in its technical department; more specifically, in its visuals. All of the game’s scenarios are beautiful and brimming with color, and the Beanbean Kingdom certainly inspired the game’s art department to come up with some refreshing visual elements. The most impressive component, however, is unquestionably the overall animation. Whether it is in cutscenes, out on the field, or in battles, sprites move with a level smoothness that is flooring, and interactions between characters, including Luigi’s occasional attacks of cowardice and the gibberish Italian uttered by the brothers, are, as far as videogames go, visual comedy at its cinematic peak. And all of that is done in a humble handheld.
Mario and Luigi may have its flaws: a couple of its segments are not particularly inspired and come off as padding; it has a general lack of compelling sidequests; and its out-of-battle controls might confuse some. Still, it is carried by an utterly clever concept, the kind of idea that turns games into classics; it is populated by an unbelievable amount of unforgettable characters; it takes place in a kingdom bursting with charm and good level design; and it crafts a battle system that is loaded with action without abandoning its RPG undertones. Mario and Luigi’s videogame debut as a cooperative pair of heroes is funny, engaging, and enjoyable. It is no wonder its quality and magic have proven to be quite difficult to replicate.