Fashionably Late: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Wind Waker 1

Before I dive into this review, I’d like to take a moment to dedicate this write-up to my cats, Pepper and Panda, both of whom passed away recently while I was in the process of playing through Wind Waker. I can’t even begin to count the number of hours I’ve spent playing games with either Pepper or Panda warming my lap and feeding me purrs and positive vibes. Here’s to you, sweetie girls.

Pepper Panda

I briefly talked about my experience with Wind Waker in my review of Skyward Sword however, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about the context of Wind Waker’s release. When Nintendo released the Gamecube, it was a huge step forward in terms of hardware power and visuals from its predecessor, the N64.

That increase had Nintendo fans excited for what their favorite franchises would look like on this new system, perhaps none more so than fans of The Legend of Zelda. Prior to the launch of the Gamecube, Nintendo showed a hardware demo reel featuring animated videos of Nintendo characters rendered on the Gamecube; not actual game footage, mind you, just canned video running on the hardware.

One of these clips was of Link sword-fighting with Ganondorf in a realistic style, similar to how the characters were conceived in Ocarina of Time. This was the world’s first look at what a Gamecube Zelda title might look like, and it got fans excited. Sure, it honestly looks kind of crappy now, but back when this footage was released, it was cutting-edge; just as Ocarina had taken Zelda into the realm of 3D games, this new (hypothetical) game promised to make a much greater leap into the realm of realism.

Cut to a year later, and at Space World in 2001, Nintendo revealed another demo, this time one rendered in a cartoony, cel-shaded style. Unlike in the previous demo, Link was once again rendered as a child, and the visuals were bright, sharp and colorful, unlike the darker, dare I say, grittier demo of the previous year. This demo turned out to be the one that actually represented the new Zelda sequel, Wind Waker.

The new art direction, to put it mildly, was…divisive. Some fans loved it, but others were taken aback that the series’ visuals appeared to be going in a less realistic direction…and to be honest, I fell into the latter camp.

After all, video games are serious business.

After all, video games are serious business.

Chalk it up to the ironically youthful impulse to resist anything squarely targeted at children, but I felt like a bright, cartoony game starring a child character was a step in the wrong direction. The visuals didn’t put me off enough to keep me from trying the game, but they certainly didn’t help my opinion of it. And while the game was critically-acclaimed and sold three million copies (low by Zelda standards, but good for the time), many fans would go on to proclaim it the worst game in the series to date.

In my last review, I touched on what I call the “Mario 3 Effect,” where new Nintendo games are considered “failures” because they fail to live up to the standards set by an earlier title in their series. There’s a corollary phenomenon known as the “Zelda Cycle,” where in each new Zelda title is considered, at least by a vocal faction of fans, to be the “worst Zelda ever.”

Inevitably, a few years after the game’s release, this faction starts to relent and admit that the game is, in reality, actually pretty good. Then, by the time the next game releases, the previously-vilified title is considered brilliant and the new game inherits the distinction of “worst Zelda ever,” and the cycle continues ad infinitum. Wind Waker could very well be the poster child for the Zelda Cycle, with fans now recognizing the brilliance of the game’s art direction and admiring how well it’s aged over the years, especially compared to other games of the time.

And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve changed my tune about “Celda.” The visuals of Wind Waker are one of the game’s strongest aspects. I played through the recently-released Wii U port of the game, Wind Waker HD, and it’s amazing to see how, with the addition of a few modern lighting effects and increased resolution, Wind Waker looks like a game that might have been developed one year ago instead of ten. There are some moments, when the light catches the scenery just right, where the game is truly breathtaking.

Wind Waker 3

Cartoon pigs never looked so good.

But as the age-old console gaming rallying cry goes, I don’t play pixels, I play games. The prettiest game in the world can still be terrible if the gameplay and story don’t hold up. So, enough about the visuals, how does Wind Waker hold up as a game?

I’ve written a brief primer on the Legend of Zelda series as part of my review of Skyward Sword, so if you missed that review, I’d suggest reading it over if you’re new to Zelda, because I’ve got a lot of ground to cover and don’t want to bore you with repeated material.

Basically,  in the Zelda chronology, Wind Waker takes place after Ocarina of Time, in a branch of the timeline where Ganon escapes imprisonment and wreaks havoc on Hyrule with his armies. No incarnation of Link steps forward to fight Ganon, and in desperation the Goddesses of Hyrule (apparently being big fans of the Old Testament) instruct the people of the land to flee to the highest mountains and flood the world, sealing Ganon’s forces under the waves.

This naturally lasts just long enough for the descendants of the original survivors to completely forget about Hyrule and Ganon, at which point Ganon manages to break out of imprisonment anyway, bring his monsters to the surface and attempt to re-unite the pieces of the Triforce in order to give him absolute power.

Part of his evil quest involves a scheme to kidnap girls with pointed ears, in hopes of finding the reincarnation of Princess Zelda, who still carries the Triforce of Wisdom. This leads to a girl named Aryll being abducted, who just so happens to be the sister of Wind Waker’s incarnation of Link, who goes on a quest to rescue her.

After a miserably failed attempt to assault Ganon’s fortress and save his sister (which includes the aforementioned forced stealth section), Link is rescued from drowning by a talking boat called the King of Red Lions. The King agrees to help Link rescue Aryll, in the process guiding Link through the necessary hoops to allow him to recover the Master Sword and claim the power to defeat Ganon once and for all.

He can be a bit of a jerk at times, though...

He can be a bit of a jerk at times, though…

The story is certainly serviceable, and Link meets a variety of interesting characters during his journey. I’m not as fond of this cast as I am of the cast of Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword, but there are some stand-out characters like the spunky pirate queen Tetra and her crew, Link’s grandmother and sister (aside from A Link to the Past, this is the only Zelda title where any members of Link’s family are actually present in the game), and possibly my favorite side character in any Zelda title to date, the comically under-enthused carnival game operator Salvatore.

The story also offers a bizarre glimpse into what happened to the races of Hyrule following the flooding of the world. The childlike Kokiri from Ocarina of Time apparently evolved into the tiny, tree-like Korok and learned to fly around with giant leaves, while the water-faring fish-like Zora instead became land-dwellers and learned to fly, becoming the bird-like Rito.

Evolution is weird in the Zelda universe.

Evolution is weird in the Zelda universe.

I will say that the game’s ending felt very weak to me; I’m still on the fence as to whether Wind Waker or Ocarina of Time has the worse finale, but neither of them really did anything for me (though to Wind Waker’s credit, the final battle with Ganon does end rather spectacularly).

As I discussed a while back in my post on the ending of Red Dead Redemption, a weak ending really undercuts the strength of the overall story, especially in the case of an epic fantasy tale like Wind Waker, so this is definitely one of my biggest problems with the game.

As for the gameplay, while the core overworld-to-dungeon flow of play mostly remains intact, it’s shaken up by a much greater emphasis on overworld exploration. As mentioned previously, Hyrule has become a series of islands on the ocean, and much of Wind Waker’s gameplay revolves around sailing the King of Red Lions from island to island, discovering new islands, filling in Link’s Sea Chart, and exploring these islands for hidden treasures.

There’s also a lengthy sidequest revolving around Link obtaining Treasure Charts, which show the locations of hidden treasures in the waters near these islands, which Link must salvage from the ocean floor. On paper it sounds rather tedious, but I actually found it to be the most exciting, enjoyable part of the game, charting the world, exploring strange new lands and hunting treasure. It’s one of the best open world concepts I’ve come across in a video game and it’s something I’d dearly love to see replicated in future Zelda titles, in spirit if nothing else.

Anybody else hear the "Pirates of the Carribean" theme? No? Just me, then?

Anybody else hear the “Pirates of the Carribean” theme? No? Just me, then?

As for the more traditional Zelda-style gameplay, it’s as satisfying as ever here. While the dungeon design and boss battles aren’t as brilliantly done as those of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, they’re still good and will put your puzzle-solving skills to the test. Sword combat is fleshed out a little more than it was in Ocarina of Time, but it’s still not up to what it would become in TP and SS. Defeating most enemies is more dependent on clever use of items than it is on swordplay.

Speaking of, the item selection is noteworthy in Wind Waker, in that it has one of the smallest inventories I’ve seen in a Zelda game, but each item has multiple applications and uses. For example, bombs function as on-foot demolitions and ammo for the King of Red Lions’ cannon, while the Grappling Hook is used for swinging and climbing through the environment, for stealing from enemies, and for treasure salvage.

It’s very thrifty from a game design standpoint, and it makes each item feel more important, unlike some Zelda titles where items are used in one particular dungeon and then almost never again (looking at you, Spinner).

Future game developers, take note: if Mega Man couldn't make tops cool, nothing can.

Future game developers, take note: if Mega Man couldn’t make tops cool, nothing can.

Also, the game has one useful feature that makes running through the dungeons less of a headache. One big problem that the Zelda games have always had was a limited number of continue points; when you save and quit your game in most Zelda titles, while it saves your progress, Link will only re-appear at a handful of overworld locations, or the entrance to the dungeon you were working on.

So unless you can take the time to go through a dungeon in one shot, you’re going to wind up doing some backtracking, which is a hassle. Skyward Sword finally introduced save points to the series, something that I hope they keep in the next installment, since it allowed you to save, quit, and return to a dungeon at the last point you left off.

Wind Waker still starts you over at the beginning of the dungeon when you load a save, but it makes a concession to people with lives beyond video games in the form of warp pots. These are a series of three pots that, as you progress through the dungeon, you can open up, with one at the beginning of the dungeon, one at the midpoint, and one right before the boss chamber. So, if you have to save and quit in the middle of a dungeon, you can jump into the warp pot near the entrance and end up much closer to where you left off. It’s a helpful feature, and one that’s curiously absent in the next game in the series,Twilight Princess.

The controls are very solid overall; from movement to combat to sailing, Link moves responsively and quickly. Having three mappable item buttons is nice (especially after playing through Skyward Sword, which only had one button for items), though I found myself having to change my item load-out very frequently. And playing Wind Waker after Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, I cannot emphasize enough how much having a controllable camera mapped to a thumbstick improves the Zelda experience.

There were a few context-sensitive commands that didn’t detect my movements as well as I would have liked and led to more than a few cheap falls and failures in the game’s forced stealth segment (which was, admittedly, easier than I remembered), but all in all, the controls and core gameplay are very solid. And the additions to the Wii U version, namely the touchscreen menus and gyroscopic aiming mechanics, worked beautifully and added a great deal to the overall experience.

Yeah, Nintendo, if you could leave this out of future Zelda titles, that would be great.

Yeah, Nintendo, if you could leave this out of future Zelda titles, that would be great.

The sound design and music were strong, as always. There are some excellent renditions of classic Zelda tunes as well as some catchy new songs (I’m particularly fond of the theme from Dragon Roost Island). Much like its visuals, sound design is one area where Wind Waker stacks up very favorably against other Zelda titles I’ve played.

So, what’s my final verdict? I’d say that Wind Waker ranks fourth on my list of Zelda titles that I’ve finished, below Skyward Sword but ahead of Ocarina of Time. In terms of mechanics and story, I don’t like it quite as much as some of the other titles in the series.

However, with excellent visuals, a strong score, and an unparalleled sense of freedom and exploration, Wind Waker is very much a worthy addition to the Zelda series, and I’d heartily recommend it to any fans out there. It has its own special charm that makes it an experience that’s much more than the sum of its parts. And for those who own a Wii U, I’d definitely recommend the HD edition.

Seeing as this is the third Nintendo game in a row I’ve reviewed, I think I’m going to take a break from the Big N for a little while and shift focus to another developer–one whose work dominated my youth with great games, but fell victim to bad game design and poor writing. I’m going to have to take a literal trip to the dark side of the moon to find another good game from them. See you soon!

Writing: A Team Effort

A booth with a view.

A booth with a view.

Two weekends ago I attended Tokyo in Tulsa to promote my novel, The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship! It was a busy three days–my first con appearance–and I was happy to meet many people and talk about the book with them.

I’ve been writing for nearly 20 years now, but promoting a book is something entirely different, so this was a brand new experience for me. I was excited to see so much interest and excitement about my work. I left the con feeling energized and excited about reaching out to new readers and continuing the Bobcat series as a whole!

However, the con wasn’t all about handing out promo material and making pitches. I was able to get away from the table long enough to attend some panels on writing and publishing. 

These presentations were hosted by RPG writer Stephen Radney-McFarland, anime ADR director, voice actor and adaptive screenwriter Terri Doty, publisher Carlos Moreno of Falkor Publishing, and Falkor’s newest published author, Steven Mix, writer of the zombie apocalypse novel Goodbye from the Edge of Never (buy it here!). There were laughs, excitement, insight into all kinds of facets of writing across multiple industries. All in all, it was a great time.

But between working the Bobcat booth with my wife/manager Okcate, our cover artist Tallulah and my brother Jacob, and listening to what Stephen, Steven, Terri and Carlos had to say, I came to a realization about writing, and it’s one that I’m not sure most people get. 

When we hear the word “writer,” most of us probably have the same image; some lone, iconoclastic figure, sitting at a desk, scribbling away with a pen or tapping at a typewriter or a word processor. We picture Edgar Allen Poe or Stephen King pouring their tortured souls out onto the page all by themselves, or J.D. Salinger alone in his house, writing reams for himself and nobody else.

Whoever pops into your head, they probably have one thing in common; much like every hard-boiled detective ever written, they work alone. The writer as a popular figure is envisioned as somebody who shapes people and worlds in isolation on their own, with nobody to help them. 

And at Tokyo in Tulsa, I learned that image could not be more wrong.

Now, I’ve worked with my team for some time now, but TnT taught me just how many people it takes, putting in hours of time and effort, to see a story through to publication. No book you have ever read made it straight into your hands directly from only the writer. It went through editors, likely several of them, poring over the text, looking for problems with grammar, syntax and (if the writer/publisher are doing their jobs right) continuity and story. 

The layout, design, and cover art were provided by people who specialize in making books look just right. Promoters and advertisers tirelessly worked their butts off to help the author get the word out, and make you, the reader, aware that there was a book available for purchase in the first place.

While a writer may create the content, he relies on other people to mold it, to refine it to its purest form, and to dress it up and make it presentable for the general public. In other words, a writer needs a team to help make his work the best it can be. And perhaps more importantly, he needs readers to appreciate it.

So, thank you to Okcate, Tallulah and Jacob for all your help at the convention, and everything else you’ve done to make The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship into something worth reading. And thank you to everybody who stopped by our booth to talk us; I hope you enjoy the book.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’d better get back to work. After all, I have a team I don’t want to let down.


Fashionably Late: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga

Mario & Luigi 1

Okay, I know I hinted in the last review that I would be reviewing The World Ends With You as my next Fashionably Late game. It’s a game that I got from my brother years ago as a Christmas present that I still haven’t finished (sorry, Jake), but I got sidetracked from that title.

I plan to come back to it, but in the meantime, I’m reviewing another game that my brother introduced me to years ago that I never finished until now; a game, appropriately enough, about two brothers: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.

It’s impossible for me to talk about Mario & Luigi without first talking about the title that kicked off Nintendo’s franchise of Mario role-playing games, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Back in 1996, before they were alienated by Nintendo’s decision to stick with the cartridge format for games on the soon-to-be-released Nintendo 64, Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) released all their games on Nintendo systems.

Many people bought a Super Nintendo for such classic Square games as Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger just as much as they bought one to play Mario titles. Eventually, the two companies decided to do a collaboration, and the result was Super Mario RPG, a console-style RPG starring Mario characters.

SMRPG is one of my favorite video games of all time. It’s a charming game with excellent graphics, memorable characters, delightful music and exciting gameplay. But more than that, SMRPG was a hugely influential game for me. It introduced me to the genre of roleplaying games, which is still one of my favorite game genres.

Even the sewer level was fun!

Even the sewer level was fun!

Without SMRPG, I might never have played titles like Final Fantasy VII, Parasite Eve, Lost Odyssey, Xenoblade Chronicles, Radiant Historia,The Last Story, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Fallout 3. I might never have tried my hand at tabletop roleplaying. More than most other games, SMRPG had a huge impact on my life, so its successors had a lot to live up to.

This legacy, however, created its own set of problems. Nintendo is one of the oldest companies in the game industry, and it has some of the longest-running franchises in the history of video games. That’s impressive, especially in today’s climate where game franchises often don’t last for more than one console generation, but it does have its drawbacks. 

Once one of Nintendo’s franchises hits a high point, many people consider any sequels they release to be inferior to that early game. I call this the “Mario 3 Effect,” after Super Mario Bros. 3, which is generally considered to be the best Mario action title ever released (though “Mario 64 Effect” would also be applicable).

And the Mario RPG franchise definitely falls prey to this pattern, at least for me. Rather than team up with Square again and make another title in the vein of Super Mario RPG, Nintendo instead had Intelligent Systems, developers of Fire Emblem, do their own take on a Mario RPG. The result was Paper Mario, a game so named for its art style, which used flat, 2D sprites in a 3D polygonal environment, resulting in “paper” characters. 

Even Bowser is shocked they're re-hashing this plot again.

Even Bowser is shocked they’re re-hashing this plot again.

Now, Paper Mario was by no means a bad game; it’s certainly a fun title in its own right. But it dumbs down the already-simplified RPG elements from SMRPG, replaces the fairly complex plot from SMRPG with yet another variation on the “Bowser kidnaps the Princess” storyline, and portrays a world that, while charming and fun in its own way, lacks the grand scale and quirkiness of SMRPG’s world and its inhabitants. In short, while good, it underperformed my expectations.

The Paper Mario franchise would continue in 2004, with the release of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, which was an improvement on the original PM game with a much better story and a new land to explore, and later with Super Paper Mario and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, which, curiously, stripped down the RPG elements even further. But in the meantime, Nintendo, with developer Alpha Dreams, released a portable branch to the franchise for the Gameboy Advance in 2003, titled Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, which spawned its own series of sequels for the DS and 3DS.

I originally played M&L when it came out back in 2003, borrowing my brother’s copy of the game. I ended up putting it aside partway through and not returning to it until recently, when I played through it again as a re-release on the Wii U’s Virtual Console service. And playing it again, I can understand why I gave up on it at the time. Mario & Luigi is a very different game from its sister series, and this is both a good and a bad thing.

The plot centers around a (naturally) never-before mentioned neighboring nation to the Mushroom Kingdom called the Bean-Bean Kingdom. An ambassador from the Kingdom arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom, ostensibly on a goodwill mission to meet with Princess Peach. However, when the ambassador arrives, she reveals herself as the evil witch Cackletta (along with her malaprop-spewing sidekick, Fawful), and steals Peach’s voice, replacing it with a voice so hideously awful, Peach’s speech becomes literally explosive.

Princess Peach literally dropping F-bombs.

Princess Peach, dropping some F-bombs.

Naturally, it falls to Mario to pursue Cackletta back to the Bean-Bean Kingdom, thwart whatever designs she has for Peach’s voice, and fix the princess’ pipes (wakka-wakka!). Surprisingly, Bowser allies himself with Mario and agrees to give him a lift to Bean-Bean on his Doomship, on the grounds that if Bowser were to kidnap Peach in her current state, she could destroy his castle just by screaming. And Luigi, who initially plans to let his brother do the rescuing, gets mistaken for one of Bowser’s troops and dragged onto the Doomship, so he’s along for the ride, too.

I will say that the plot is actually one of M&L’s strong points; it starts off rather unpredictably and has a number of twists and turns that keep you guessing up until the final act. It’s not the most complex plot I’ve seen in a video game by any means, but it’s practically Inception by Mario standards.

Like Paper Mario, Mario & Luigi puts you in control of two party members, the titular Mario Brothers. However, while Paper Mario had a large cast of party members who joined Mario in his quest, Mario only has his green-garbed brother to rely on in M&L. And the entire game is designed around the concept of the brothers working as a team.

For starters, the player controls both brothers simultaneously; on the world map, Mario and Luigi move around in a short conga line, with either brother able to be swapped into the lead position, and the A and B buttons each controlling one of the brothers’ actions. At the beginning of the game, Mario and Luigi only have their trademark jumping abilities at their disposal, but as their quest progresses, they get access to progressively stronger hammers, as well as elemental “hand” powers, with Mario getting to shoot fire from his hand and Luigi mastering lightning.

These abilities are used to solve environmental puzzles, with jumps being used to traverse platforms and hit switch blocks, hammers being used to shatter boulders and hit wall switches, and the “hand” powers lighting torches and powering dynamos. Additionally, Mario and Luigi learn to use these abilities as a team, which expands the puzzle-solving out even further.

Trust me, Luigi's not just working out years of frustration here...

Trust me, Luigi’s not just working out decades of frustration here…

For example, Mario can team up with Luigi to spin like a helicopter and take a flying jump over large gaps, while Luigi can bounce on Mario and reach higher ledges. Mario can hit Luigi with a hammer to pound him into the ground and let him pass under obstacles, while Luigi can squish Mario down with his hammer and let him enter small gaps. These “Bro Techniques” become a means of opening up the world map even further and exploring previously unreachable places, as well as solving some nasty puzzles.

All of this carries over into the combat as well; whenever Mario and Luigi enter battle against an enemy (who are visible on the world map and can be preemptively struck, just like in Paper Mario), the player controls Mario with the A button and Luigi with the B button. Combat is turn-based, and each brother’s menu is controlled with their respective button.

Mario and Luigi each have access to all the abilities they have available on the field, including their jump, hammer and hand abilities (each enemy in the game being vulnerable to specific types of damage), as well as their Bro Techniques, which allow Mario and Luigi to double-team an enemy for extra damage and special effects, similar to Chrono Trigger’s Dual and Triple Techs.

The Bros Attacks can look...awkward out of context.

The Bros Attacks can look…awkward out of context.

The combat system also retains the “action commands” which have long been a staple of the Mario RPGs. In essence, this means that by performing a specific action at the right time, Mario or Luigi can increase the damage of their attacks, or by jumping an attack or parrying it with a hammer, they can avoid taking damage or even counter-attack.

Again, Mario and Luigi’s action commands are each controlled with their respective button, so the player needs to learn to read enemy movements and correctly command Mario or Luigi (or sometimes both at once) to avoid attacks to prevent them from taking damage. It’s a system I’ve always liked, because it keeps battles engaging where they can often become a tedious chore in RPGs, and Mario & Luigi takes it even further.

Visually, M&L is a gorgeous game. The sprites are bright, colorful and well-animated. Mario and Luigi never speak a word of dialogue (well, Luigi actually does speak, but he’s disguised as somebody else at the time, so that doesn’t really count), but their expressions convey enough personality and emotion that it doesn’t really matter.

The environments are creatively designed and the other characters are interesting to look at; in particular, the Koopalings have some surprisingly well-designed sprites, considering that this was their first game appearance in more than 10 years (though strangely, they don’t have a single line of dialogue).

Looking good, kids!

Looking good, kids!

The music, however, is rather disappointing…which is surprising, because it’s composed by Super Mario RPG composer and video game music powerhouse Yoko Shimomura, who ranks alongside such luminaries as Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda as one of my favorite game composers. The issue isn’t that Shimomura’s tunes are bad; they’re certainly serviceable, even if they don’t measure up to some of her other work, and certain pieces, like the battle music and boss battle themes, are certainly catchy.

I think the main issue is that these pieces are short and loop a lot…though I’m not sure why, as there are plenty of other titles on the Gameboy Advance that have many lengthy BGMs. The short, repetitive nature of a lot of the tunes got on my nerves at times, which didn’t help my enjoyment of the game.

Story-wise, the game is a mixed bag for me. On one hand, as I said, the story is much more complex and involved than other entries in the series. On the other, there aren’t as many memorable, interesting characters as there have been in other Mario RPG titles. There are stand-out characters such as the noble Prince Peasley, villains Cackletta and Fawful, and comic-relief villain Popple, but the cast pales in comparison to games like SMRPG and Thousand-Year Door, with the memorable characters they introduced in almost every location you went to.

Sorry, Fawful, but I call 'em like I see 'em.

Sorry, Fawful, but I call ’em like I see ’em.

On the subject of locations, while the ones that appear in M&L are pretty interesting, there aren’t many of them, and you’ll be backtracking to locations to re-visit them frequently, which makes the game feel very small in scope. I’m not sure if it’s entirely fair of me to pick on the game on that last point since it is a portable game, but it is what it is.

Another thing that bothered me about this game, plot-wise, is how it treats the character of Luigi. Now, up until recently (as of the time of the game’s release), Luigi hadn’t been playable in a main Mario title for several years, and this was his first appearance in a Mario RPG as a main character. But the way the developers decided to deal with him was by treating him as cowardly comic relief. This sort of expands on Luigi’s characterization in his first solo game, Luigi’s Mansion, where he spent most of his time scared out of his mind…because he was in a haunted mansion! There, the portrayal of Luigi as a scaredy-cat made sense.

But here, the developers decided to expand that schtick further to the point where Luigi is afraid of everything, and would be more than happy to ignore the call to adventure and let Mario handle dangers for himself if circumstances permitted. Sadly, this seems to be the interpretation of the character that Nintendo has stuck with over the years, turning Luigi into an overlooked, under-appreciated joke. It just rubs me the wrong way with its mean-spiritedness, even if it can be funny at times.

As you can see, I'm a bit of a fan.

As you can see, I’m a bit of a fan.

And while I praised the game design earlier, I have to contradict myself a bit when I say that this game becomes something of a chore to play towards the end. The last few dungeons of the game become massive marathons of tricky puzzles and battles that can easily party-wipe you if you’re not an expert at dodging attacks and well-stocked with healing items. Now, I’m not one to complain about difficulty in a game, provided the difficulty curve is well handled, but in M&L, the difficulty spikes so sharply towards the end of the game that it’s astounding.

This difficulty spike is compounded by the fact that, like later Paper Mario games, M&L eliminates or downplays a lot of RPG elements. Presumably this is done in an effort to simplify the game and appeal to a wider audience, but a lot of times this streamlining leaves the game with features that feel more vestigial than functional.

For example, there are only a few equipment and item shops in the game, to the point where I almost wonder why they bothered to keep equipment in the game at all, since the scaling of power is minimal and you can go for hours of game time without ever upgrading your armor or badges.

This issue is also exacerbated by the fact that one of the brothers’ core statistics, the ‘Stache attribute, gives Mario and Luigi a discount at shops…which is great, until you realize that there’s not a lot of shopping to do in the game and you’ll rarely be short on money, even with a lower ‘Stache score.

Fun fact: Tom Selleck's Stache score is 255.

Fun fact: Tom Selleck’s Stache score is 255.

There are also no inns to rest up at and restore your health and Bros Points (the resource that powers your Bro Techniques in battle), which discourages the player from using special techniques regularly and leveling them up, removing a lot of depth from combat. This shortcoming, combined with the emphasis on timed attacks and dodges, results in a combat system that rewards fast reflexes and timing more than planning and strategy, which may be preferable for some people, but left me wanting something a bit more cerebral.

All in all, Mario & Luigi is a solid game, certainly good enough for me to want to play its sequels when I get the chance. But it still pales in comparison to the game that started it all, Super Mario RPG, and leaves me wondering if one of my favorite games of all time will ever get a truly worthy successor. Unfortunately, at this point it seems like no amount of wishing on a star will ever make that dream come true.