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.

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