Ever since Nintendo teamed up with Square back in the waning days of the SNES, a slow procession of RPGs featuring that wacky plumber Mario has been trickling forth. While Square departed after the first of these titles, they have nevertheless been some of the most entertaining action RPGs for the systems they appear on, and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga certainly goes a long way towards continuing this trend. Developer AlphaDream, late of such unknown wonders as Tomato Kingdom, has succeeded admirably under the guidance of Nintendo and has created a game that manages to contain both the feel of previous Mario RPG titles and games from the Super Mario Bros. series. With colorful, if slightly pastel artwork, a cheerful soundtrack and a madcap storyline that is superbly translated, Superstar Saga contains that most difficult of elements to achieve: good, consistent gameplay.
As gamers well know, the Mushroom Kingdom is about on par with South America in terms of kidnapping rates. Superstar Saga, however, opens with a different sort of hoodwinking: a hitherto untroublesome evil witch named Cackletta swoops her way into Princess Peach’s castle and steals, of all things, Peach’s voice. This renders the princess not voiceless, but something much worse; when Bowser arrives for his requisite kidnapping, he has second thoughts upon being bombarded with an “explosive” verbal barrage.
Enter Mario (and a little later, Luigi). After minimal exhortation from the tearful minister Toadsworth, the duo are off to the Bean Kingdom, where Cackletta is lying in wait for some reason, apparently preferring dramatically staged misdemeanours to the more prosaic sort. The border crossing is where the game really gets going, and, appropriately enough, things start out with a minigame. Perhaps one of the strongest parts of Superstar Saga is the nearly seamless integration of minigames into the gameplay. Much of the non-combat screen time in the game is spent performing various feats of trickery, and minigames follow naturally from there. So too do the battles, which are conducted in a traditional RPG setting. What sets Mario & Luigi in a league of its own is how difficult it makes determining where action RPG leaves off and traditional begins. Fights can quite easily cost players no damage at all, because characters have the ability to dodge, deflect, or return nearly every attack in the game, all based upon the hand-eye co-ordination which isn’t generally required in traditional RPG battle systems.
Players can also deal damage or suffer setbacks before a fight even starts, depending upon how they deal with enemies on the map screen. Monsters show up much the same as in the Chrono series, and jumping on them deals damage, while a poorly timed jump will result in a painfully bad landing. In addition to regular Jump attacks, Mario and Luigi also pick up Hammer and Hand attacks throughout the course of the game, both of which can be upgraded. Character stats are broken into five categories, and every time a character levels up, it is possible to provide a stat boost to one area, and so players can create defensive tanks, offensive powerhouses, or even the most charismatic moustache the Bean Kingdom has ever seen.
Now, this summary pretty much describes either of the game’s predecessors, and no sequel would be complete without some new tweaks for players to test-drive. The hook here comes in the form of Bros. Attacks, effectively the magic of Superstar Saga. Consuming BP( Bros. points), they combine the brothers’ attacks into synergistic fury, and if timed properly deliver a much bigger punch than conventional attacks. Bros. Attacks also come with three different difficulty settings, and so novice players can be aided by slow motion which, though it is more costly, offers an added advantage of security. It is, in the end, much better to get the timing down, because repeated use of Bros. Attacks can lead to Advance moves which are even more powerful. These involve a different sequence of buttons than the regular Bros. Attacks, but when executed properly are the most powerful attacks in the game.
In all, Superstar Saga has taken a pretty innovative and decent system and made it even better. The level of involvement required of players is much higher than that in most RPGs, and ensures that boredom will seldom threaten the festivities. This is in part because players will not spend a great deal of time flipping through eighteen screens of inventory. The menu system in Superstar Saga is a streamlined affair, and items can be equipped when they are purchased. This does mean that aside from special items, there is no equipment to seek out, but this will not end up being much of an issue for anyone but the most hardcore lover of treasure chests. As for the rest of the game, gameplay is perfectly integrated with the battle system; just as is the case with fighting, characters can make use of tactics that combine hammers, jumping, and hand techniques in order to clear the game’s many obstacles. The same philosophy is put into place in the minigames, which generally require a certain degree of teamwork in order to guarantee success.
Yoko Shimomura, with a little guidance from Koji Kondo, provides the game’s soundtrack, and while there are a few good tracks, there is a slight tendency to overuse the classic Super Mario Bros. theme. This is not to say that the rest of the music is trash or anything, but aside from the battle theme and another track or two, there has not been a great deal of creativity exercised. That said, the musical shortcomings of the game are more than made up for by the quality of the sound. Nintendo, perhaps shamelessly if the title screen is any indication, had the Game Boy Player in mind when making this title, and as a result the sound quality is perhaps the best yet to make an appearance on the Game Boy Advance. While a number of sound effects are NES throwbacks, which is probably deliberate, there are also a wealth of newer sounds. This includes a few voice samples, and each of the instrumental voices used in the game’s tracks are of considerably higher quality than those found in many other GBA titles. Though the musical quality of the soundtrack leaves a little to be desired, the overall quality of the sound is among the best on the handheld.
Graphically, more work would have been beneficial too. Once again, this is not to say that Mario & Luigi looked bad, because it doesn’t. Rather, it is the stylistic tendencies of AlphaDream that don’t quite jive with the usual look of Mario titles. Traditionally, Mario games have appeared in cheerful, bright colours, with the possible exception of Yoshi’s Island, which leaned in the direction of pastel. Superstar Saga is suspect in this regard; while many areas feature pleasant colour schemes, there are a few that are reminiscent of AlphaDream’s previous offering, the very eastery Tomato Kingdom. This is a minor quibble, admittedly; the game’s artistic style perfectly complements its hilarious story and generally fanciful setting. Even so, there is a definite pastel influence that does detract slightly from the overall presentational quality of the game, and the level of sprite detail is much lower than it could be.
After the dozens of Mario titles that have issued forth from Nintendo’s maw, it is difficult to expect too much in the way of originality. It is therefore a testament to the creative power of Shigeru Miyamoto, et al. that new Mario games can continually enrich and expand the universe of the series. Besides all the tasty bean-based additions, there are also a few more monsters that wouldn’t look out of place in the Mushroom Kingdom. The wealth of minigames and some of the ingenious block and jumping puzzles found in the game are also elements that it is nearly impossible to think the series could have done without; particularly, the rally blocks and the tipping scale games, though very simple in concept, are evidence of the hard work that went into making this title as fresh as it is.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to continually come up with new and exciting stories for heroes who have, after all, been around for nearly twenty years. Superstar Saga features a cohesive, if slightly silly, plot. Its biggest problem stems from the fact that the resolutions to problems tend to fall out of the sky (literally, in some cases). There is also a certain degree of repetition, and some of the events that transpire are just a little too unbelievable, even for a game as obviously dedicated to levity as this title is. Ultimately, gameplay manages to remain interesting over the fifteen to twenty-five hours it takes for events to run their course, and all of the game’s characters are endearing, if a tad shallow.
Of particular note is the big baddie’s evil sidekick, a fountain of wisdom known as Fawful. If anything in Superstar Saga has the power to floor with sheer funniness, it is Fawful’s dialect, which hovers somewhere between Yoda and Apu. Seldom is a character in an RPG truly funny, but some of the lines Fawful comes up with are just so hilariously constructed that it’s very difficult not to laugh. This tight scripting would not have been possible without an outstanding localization team, and Nintendo truly went all out in this regard. Not only did the company hire top-notch translators to pore over the English version, it also hired teams to make the transition into a number of languages for European release, hopefully ensuring that every gamer will get the chance to experience this game as it should be: fluently and without error.
As good a game as Superstar Saga is, though, it doesn’t really offer much more than the average game in terms of replay. Certainly, there are a number of very engaging minigames, and as the title does not take a great deal of time to complete, there is a certain attraction to a quick playthrough. When the dust settles, though, there is only one ending, and once acquired, most of the game’s techniques are very difficult to unlearn. There is also a fairly low degree of challenge; while moves take some time to learn, they are not overly difficult to master, and most players will have little trouble doing so. Still, anyone who loves Nintendo titles will probably be lured into repeat playthroughs, simply because the game is so much fun to play.
That, in the end, is probably the most important thing that can be said of Superstar Saga. While it does not feature the best graphics or music in the world, it is fun to play. While not terribly original or masterfully scripted, it is fun to play. Despite lacking difficulty and length, it is a lot of fun to play, and that is one thing for which Nintendo’s first and second-party titles can usually be counted upon. Perhaps that is why it is, more often than not, a safe bet to purchase a title put out by the Big N: a track record of consistently enjoyable games, which Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga can now count itself one of.