Once upon a time, Mario was just a simple plumber; he jumped on stuff, ate strange mushrooms, and searched fervently for the lady in his life. These days, there is hardly an adventure or career that the persistent Italian hasn't pursued. He's been at war with rabbids, competed in the Olympics, won death races against rivals, and traveled the galaxy - twice! Indeed, it seems the only thing Mario isn't doing on a regular basis is plumbing!
There is no longer anything particularly odd or conspicuous about seeing Mario and friends in atypical roles. Last month they starred in a strategy game and no one thought twice about it. Even so, there was something rather special about reliving Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, almost fifteen years after its original release. It was a game that really demonstrated the flexibility of those familiar characters, and the thin lines separating genres. No less than four sequels have been produced since then, but there is still something special about the original.
The game starts out in true Mario fashion; Peach, the princess of the Mushroom Kingdom, is in peril. A menacing witch has stolen her voice, as a part of a scheme to rule the world. The dungaree-wearing brothers are sent out on a mission to the neighbouring country, Beanbean Kingdom, partially as peaceful ambassadors, partially as club-wielding, boot-kicking maniacs. Bowser, ever the inept troublemaker, lurks in the background as well.
The game itself is an interesting mix of RPG and platformer. The turn-based battles are, as per tradition, separated from the rest of the game world, where the player is free to jump and leap about. There are strange bean folk to converse with, items to buy, and different puzzles to be solved. Despite a surplus of strange characters, the (super)stars of the show are of course the dynamic brothers. As such, there is an emphasis on teamwork, coordination, and unique character abilities.
Mario and Luigi are both equipped with hammers, boots, fire-spitting hands, and a superhuman tolerance for pain. With these items and attributes, they can smack each other into the ground, jump on top of each other, or pull off a coordinated special move. The abilities play a role both in and outside of battle. For example, a well-placed whack with the hammer can beat a nosy enemy to a pulp or destroy an obstructing pile of rocks. Indeed, the major part of the game, aside from the battles, consists of using those abilities to solve puzzles and advance in the world.
There are a lot of small enjoyable details that we had a lot of fun (re)discovering: the adventurous brothers' "Italian" chatter, the exaggerated and cartoonish character animations, and the odd and comical game world. Beanbean Kingdom, with its muscley matriarch and bizarre bean folk, is brimming with puns, silly names, and strange characters. The game is as charming today as it was one-and-a-half decades ago.
The one thing that really stands out, if not in reality, then in memory, is the battle system. Turn-based combat can sometimes get boring quite quickly, but in Superstar Saga the player is constantly involved. You don't just order the attacks, you perform them to some degree. If you press the right buttons at the right time you will deal additional damage to the enemy. The coordinated super attacks require a sense of memory and rhythm as well. More importantly, if you have the timing down you can avoid receiving damage altogether.
It worked well back then and it's still pretty solid. The brothers' actions are bound to the A and B buttons respectively. It makes for a control scheme that is both easy to grasp and consistent throughout the experience. It doesn't stay fresh all the way through, but it does ensure a certain level of player engagement and involvement across the game's many battles. We would have liked a few more enemies that really put the tactical decisions of the player to the test. As is, it's often more interesting to avoid or parry the enemies than to attack them.
On the big screen the overall experience might be a little underwhelming, but as a portable game it's a great fit. Still, it does show its age and the technical limitations of yore in certain ways. The music is cheerful, but loops often and eventually gets repetitive. The battle system is intuitive but lacks any real depth. Equipment options add a sliver of tactical considerations, however, a superior option usually stands out. The story, while riddled with quirky moments and memorable details, does lose a bit of steam halfway through.
Perhaps most problematic is the constant switching between character abilities. The shoulder buttons and touchpad of the 3DS are used for alternating between them but it doesn't quite alleviate the issue. There's just a lot of changing back and forth between the abilities. There are sequences in the game where the player is asked, for example, to do a super jump, hammer-whack, light a torch on fire, and then finish with a tornado slide; all without any real sense of having solved a puzzle or demonstrated any skill. It's as if the developers want you to show them the different abilities, lest you forget how to use them.
Some new additions have been made, however. 'Minion Quest' makes out the second part of the game's overlong title. Here you have the unique opportunity to play as the oft overseen and ridiculed minions: Goombas, Koopas, and the rest. You build a team of bullies between missions and then send them out into the field. The battles are rather stale affairs, though. The two teams of fighters simply hack away at each other until only one side is left standing. It's mostly about the planning, while player reactivity takes a backseat.
It's a bit of shame, as the idea is kind of neat; the story follows a group of Bowser's underdog minions trying to find and rescue their leader. However, a great premise quickly turns sour as the story drowns in a barrage of inflated dialogue and flat-falling jokes. This tendency to over-explain everything brings to mind the later instalments in the series. In contrast, the script of the core game is concise, comedic genius.
There are some notable issues here and there but overall the game has aged rather gracefully. It's still a humorous and approachable experience that compares well with later chapters in the series. The graphics are neat as well. Obviously, the game has been remade from the ground-up but it still manages to look exactly how we remember it. More than anything else, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is a stable, even, and consistent experience. It's not exciting all the way through but it never really gets boring either. The notion of Mario being the star of a role-playing game isn't exactly sensational these days, but if you're looking for a neat game to play during train journeys or coffee breaks, then consider this a recommendation.