Format reviewed: Game Boy Advance
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Since the release of Super Mario RPG: Legend Of The Seven Stars in 1996, Nintendo had been experimenting with taking the Mario character and putting him against an RPG backdrop. Even then, the template was set for bringing the essence of Mario platforming into a more traditional RPG-style structure – members of AlphaDream, too, once worked at Square on the SNES title. Superstar Saga would build on that formula, while also lifting some inspiration from another by-product of Seven Stars, the acclaimed Paper Mario series.
“The most important traits of the gameplay, namely the lighthearted combination of humour and traditional RPG as well as the action-command system, were pioneered in Super Mario RPG, and every Mario & Luigi game since has refined and improved them,” Nintendo’s Nate Bihldorff told Game Informer in 2009. Yet the element that consistently drew praise for Superstar Saga would be the script, the result of AlphaDream being given relatively free rein with the Mario licence. This would then be meticulously translated by Nintendo Treehouse, the publisher’s in-house localisation team. Fitting every joke into the game’s small caption boxes and retaining their humour was difficult, certainly, but the end product was one of the most cheerfully bizarre Nintendo games in years.
“And this battle shall be the delicious mustard on that bread! The mustard of your doom!” This intentionally lame culinary metaphor, spouted by Superstar Saga antagonist Fawful, gained deserved internet traction upon the game’s release for its clear reference to the ‘You spoony bard!’-esque moments of dodgy translations past. It sums up a lot of this 2003 GBA title’s appeal: capturing the NES and SNES era through the lens of an up-to-date RPG.
Fundamentally, Mario & Luigi translates the rhythm of the Mario series’ relatively simple platforming into the turn-based combat system, meaning that battles are fought with well-timed button presses, rather than slowly chosen from a list of attacks. Right away, the game taps in to what we love about regular Mario titles, then layers its own meticulous and addictive touches on top of that. As the title implies, the brothers are working together, as Princess Peach’s voice has been nabbed by Cackletta of the Beanbean Kingdom and her aforementioned minion Fawful. This odd premise means you end up controlling both Mario and Luigi, and during the exploration separating battles you swap between them and their special abilities in order to solve some nifty environmental puzzles. There’s so much in Superstar Saga, with both the combat and the environmental interaction steadily increasing in sophistication as you move through the story.
The best bit of the game, though, is that script. Crazy, hilarious and utterly devoted to the franchise, it’s something Nintendo should be proud of. This is funny in a way that most scriptwriters can only dream of replicating. Cultish and utterly suited to the weird little world that Mario inhabits, it goes off on narrative tangents that the relatively story-free platformers would never dabble with. The Beanbean Kingdom is packed with amusing inhabitants who slide perfectly into this world of Koopas, plumbers and cheerful fungi, further exploring the side of the Mario universe that we usually see only as background detail. The volley of jokes comes with a cross-generational appeal, surprisingly witty on occasion and silly for most of the adventure.
Rather than dumping the grinding we associate with Japanese role-playing games on us, however, Mario & Luigi keeps things light at all times; no fights feel unnecessary and tiresome, while the stats are kept so brisk that no gamers, regardless of their skill and experience, get lost in the shuffle. Even in the most complicated battles later on, you’ll never be hitting the 9999 attacks that are synonymous with the likes of Final Fantasy. There’s nothing in Superstar Saga that is especially in-depth, yet it’s the blend of well-done genre ideas and the delicate balance between them that is so consuming in this 20-hour experience.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Superstar Saga proved the Mario franchise’s ability to fit any niche. This could be someone’s first RPG or it could be their latest, and it wouldn’t matter – it recaptured the humour of the first Super Mario RPG but opened up the concept to an even larger audience. Nintendo’s ingenuity is in developing products that anyone can enjoy while generating a passionate response from its own audience, and Superstar Saga tackled a genre that is inherently built for the core gamer. Despite that, this game manages to retain the heart of Mario’s peerless platforming, offering more depth than the plumber’s massive fan base is used to from other games bearing his name. The resulting Mario RPG series would go in highly bizarre story directions, yet so many of the funniest moments and best homages to the franchise’s past came in this trailblazing first instalment.