Review by Snow Dragon
"Brothers in arms"
For years, the taller of the brothers Mario has been getting the short end of the stick. He's had a few starring roles over the past decade, but honestly, when was the last time you played Mario is Missing? Was there ever a first time? My point exactly. More recently, he relieved a mansion of its ghost infestation problem, but not out of any inherent sense of heroism like the one his brother has. For God's sake, he was shaking like the last leaf on a tree in autumn the whole time! Now though, in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, he is making a bold stride toward birthing his own legacy by at least splitting top billing with Mario. Together at last, the sibling duo embarks on a journey that makes the Game Boy Advance shine as brightly as the Beanstar they are in search of. Filled to the brim with a largely unforgettable cast and stockpiling enough innovation to almost make you forget the endless cheesy rehashes that have been relegated to the system thus far, this teamwork-laden adventure has CLASSIC written on it in deep red spray paint* - and you have the guarantee of a certified non-RPG-gamer here. If nothing else, you can trust that.
* Not really. If it actually does, however, your copy has been tampered with, and you should return it to where you purchased it in exchange for a clean one.
Moving right along...
Mario & Luigi (hereafter M&L) moves away from the weary humdrum of life in the Mushroom Kingdom to its never-before-seen next-door neighbor, the Beanbean Kingdom. Though it will already seem to many as though Nintendo is again leaning too heavily on kid-friendly principles, you'll only cheat yourself by leaving this gem to your little brother or sister. The story begins slowly but the danger is quickly apparent: an evil witch named Cackletta has pilfered Princess Peach's vocal cords in order to satiate her evil whims. Bowser and Mario both go to retrieve her stately voice with their own agendas in mind; however, both are bored with the typical hero-versus-villain schtick, and it basically devolves into ''whoever gets it first can do as they please with it'' (though Mario would still wrest it from Bowser's claws any day). Though Luigi takes it upon himself to hold down the fort, Bowser drags him along against his will despite not knowing so much as his name. Now, Luigi's lack of celebrity is something we as gamers are used to seeing, but this sort of gleeful prodding has never been manifested in any game actually put out by Nintendo. It's this hilarious acknowledgment of various Nintendo characters' idiosyncrasies and foibles that contribute to making M&L a cartridge for the ages.
As you've probably heard by now, it isn't the engaging storyline or the sly comic writing that's inundating M&L with a monsoon of media buzz. It's the megahyped system the game implements that affords you control of both plumbers simultaneously. I can't speak for the company, obviously, but if I could, I'd recommend that Nintendo start getting little third-party upstarts to develop all their major releases, because Alphadream has presented perfectly the one thing that could have flushed this tag-team winner down the crapper in an instant. On the map, Mario and Luigi stroll along single-file like any other RPG party, but once they enter battle, prepare to be amazed as they put aside their petty rivalries and join forces to double the speed at which they kick Beanbean butt. Using A for Mario and B for Luigi, the pair will release a series of turn-based attacks likely to take nostalgic gamers back to the days of Super Mario RPG. With weapons and abilities such as the classic Donkey Kong hammer and the brothers' newfound command over fire and thunder, your heart will titter with joy as you take down enemy after enemy in the various locales spread out across the falsely inviting Beanbean Kingdom.
More impressive than the actual techniques themselves, however, are the ways in which they are used. Though Mario and Luigi find themselves strangers in a strange land, their fame makes them more approachable in the eyes of the kingdom's myriad inhabitants, and many are willing to teach them some handy tricks that will help them get by. Furthermore, different moves can be used depending on who's heading up the pack. For instance, with Mario in front, Luigi can come from behind and send them both reeling into the air with a nifty high jump. Conversely, Luigi being in front allows Mario to get on his shoulders and execute a tornadic spin through the sky that will help them cross a number of chasms throughout their arduous sojourn. Taking their combined efforts into battle, other denizens of the land of Beanbean will teach them slick cooperative moves that deal out more damage than their basic solo attacks, and as you use them more and more, they will continue to learn more on their own. Best of all, the system is easy to learn, even if you'll constantly get your buttons crossed from time and time and take an accidental hit. ''A for Mario, B for Luigi'' soon becomes your battle cry, and just as the mighty Scots carried spears and arrows under the command of the stalwart William Wallace, so will Mario and Luigi hoist their hammers proudly with you at the helm of the handheld.
I don't want to say that God himself couldn't make a better battle system for novices and experts alike (out of a born and raised fear of being smited), but it appears as though mere mortals have taken this to an almost spiritually unattainable level of awesomeness. Jumps and hammers provide a means of both offense and, yes, defense, meaning the turn-based annoyance of someone getting hit at least once a turn is no longer necessarily a given. You can use your abilities on the world map to solve puzzles and get in a pre-emptive strike on the enemy as well. There's a unique use for just about everything under the sun - your assemblage of power-ups notwithstanding. Exhaust every option you have and you'll eventually stumble upon a logical solution to nearly everything. Want to turn on a valve to release water into an underground sewage system? Use the Luigi-led spin technique. Plug up any holes in said piping by banging on it with either sibling's hammer. Some spiky enemies don't take too kindly to having you hop on their backsides, so teach them a lesson with a little bit of fire summoned by the hand of the almighty Mario.
And so on and so forth. Despite the linear progression of the game, it features a to-do list that would take up more than a few Post-It notes. When it's not one thing, it's another, as you'll find out when the quest turns into more than a wild goose chase for Peach's vivacious voice. M&L is a non-stop thrill-a-minute ride with a story and plot progression that's constantly on the go - a boon to any casual gamer with too short an attention span to sit through a PS2 novella.
Thankfully, the controls have some of the best responsiveness I've seen among all consoles. You need to be able to pull off several attacks with the absolute best timing, and the control has been thoroughly tested and approved to make sure Mario's baby fat doesn't make his movement seem like a reflection of what it would actually be in real life. He's Super Mario, after all! Add a ''B'' to that italicized word and you have an apt description of the job Alphadream has done to ensure that this game evolves beyond the status of sleeper hit like a certain co-op effort on the PS2. (Remember The Adventures of Cookie and Cream? Unless you're into obscure games with tiny cult followings, I thought not.) It takes a short time to get used to controlling one brother with the A button and the other with B, but in time the double responsibility becomes second nature. Bros. Actions, the moves that require you to push a series of buttons while the duo pulls off a move worth more damage than a single attack, are easy to perform, and their speed can be adjusted as you become more comfortable with the button-pressing patterns. With such an easy method to get used to, it's nothing to start leveling up and be wheelin' and dealin' in no time flat.
The graphics appear to be an interesting mixture of the faux-3D look of Super Mario RPG and the flat caricaturish nature of Paper Mario, a blend which works out well for a system purported to be a miniature SNES. The Italian stallions and the people they meet show a fair bit of facial variation, enough to be able to break out the appropriate emotion for any occasion. Mario and Luigi aren't just standard silent types, either: from the mouths of plumbers, you'll hear spilling forth a suitable number of short and sweet phrases in the cutest little Italian accents (their lengthier diatribes are encrypted into a marble-mouthed form of gibberish that most denizens of the land have a humorous time attempting to decode). Pastels are the primary theme for the dominantly tropical Beanbean Kingdom, with a bit of plain coloration here and there to balance it out - think a cheerier Super Mario World and you'll have the beginnings of a decent visualization of it all. The graphics and sound make excellent use of the GBA's capacity for displaying all ends of the spectrum and its single (but no less capable) speaker.
Even with such a large distaste for RPGs as I have, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is a game I have no qualms recommending before my next heartbeat. No elements of it are overtly difficult, making it a good investment for the gamer who wants to start a younger relative along the RPG road, or someone who's not up for the days worth of quests provided by your Final Fantasies and Breaths of Fire. Save points are frequent, while mindless blithering dialogue about ''destiny'' and ''the end of the world'' is in refreshing short supply. M&L:SS is an innocuous bit of portable entertainment that falls gently in line with the tradition of the two successful role-playing games before it. In some minor ways it's not quite as great as those two, but in several other very important ways, it surpasses the two by miles.
This is the penultimate entry into original gaming that the Game Boy Advance, a system that is clearly being insulted by being made to parrot a line of 8- and 16-bit games that stretches beyond the horizon, needed. It is more than another inane port, more even than some next-gen games can hope to aspire to. I would not be surprised to learn that Miyamoto himself headed up this project, for it contains the humble inklings of inspired genius he's so well known for throughout the gaming industry. If it's not him, then his successor could very well be right under his nose. This game will serve as a model for others not only on how to get your average Joe Gamer into the swing of role-playing gaming, but that the little handheld that could still can.
Can't you feel the brotherly love?
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 12/10/03
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