Review by c_rake

"A humorous, engaging role-playing game staring everyone's favorite plumber duo."

Though the titular Mario Bros. have starred in many a game, hardly ever are the two plumbers seen working together. In fact, every main entry in the Super Mario franchise stars Mario and only Mario, with Luigi maybe getting a passing mention or cameo appearance (if he's lucky) despite many titles bearing the Mario Bros. moniker.

In Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, however, the brothers are finally given the chance to show their stuff in tandem. While they've lost some of their platforming prowess in the transition to the role-playing game realm, the Mario Bros. take on the RPG scene is a fun, humorous adventure that captures all the charm of Mario and co. while eliminating much of the unnecessary complexity of most role-playing games (inventory- and stat-management, namely). The result is an accessible, fun, engaging Mario-themed role-playing game that is sure to please any and all Mario and RPG fans.

Superstar Saga begins with the usual Mario trope of some sort of misfortune befalling Princess Peach. Instead of a kidnapping by Bowser, however (though he still has that goal in mind), Peach's voice is stolen by mysterious individual named Cackletta, replacing it with what's described as "an explosive vocabulary" (they're being literal, by the way). Knowing only that the culprit has escaped to the neighboring land of the BeanBean Kingdom, the brothers, along with Bowser, venture to this new land to retrieve Peach's voice and put an end to Cackletta's villainous schemes.

In usual Mario-RPG fashion, this is all presented with tons of wit and humor. Mainstay characters such as Bowser and Luigi, for example, are portrayed in a more comedic fashion than they're usually accustomed to. So, in Bowser's case, he's made out to be a rather incompetent, non-menacing villain instead of the imposing, antagonist of typical Mario ventures. And in Luigi's case, he's portrayed a bit of a coward (2001's Luigi's Mansion is no doubt to thank for that), as opposed to Mario who's not afraid of anything, who no one seems to have heard of. The writing is mostly to thank for the entertainment factor here, but the characters' highly emotive, exaggerated expressions add to the fun quite nicely. Those expressions also speak volumes about the visuals, since the amount of detail crammed into those small sprites is incredible.

For a GBA game that was released around the middle of the system's life-cycle, the visuals are exquisite. Environments are richly colored in a variety of vibrant, yet familiar (if you played many other Mario titles, that is) hues. Characters are fluidly animated and contain loads of little details that help convey the characters emotions and enhance the dialog. The sheer number of subtle movements they have are astounding. Granted, most of those subtleties are limited to battle -- they play into the game's evasion system -- but to get such things out of sprites is quite a feat given the limitations of the platform.

Superstar Saga's battle system is a lot like that of Paper Mario. This is because both allow you to execute certain moves that protect or prevent you from receiving damage, or allow you to increase the amount of damage dealt by attacks. It works through the use of two context-sensitive buttons that control the brothers' actions (A for Mario, and B for Luigi). These buttons handle everything from selecting actions from the battle menu to dodging and reflecting attacks from adversaries. The way in which you determine when you should press the buttons is mostly a trial-and-error based affair due to the very precise timing involved, but by paying attention to the enemies' movements, you can discern what type of attack they are going to use and on who, which can give you the upper hand in battle once you have the timing down. This is where those subtleties come into play.

Before each attack is executed, the enemy will telegraph their actions through a certain motion; say, a gesture toward one of the brothers with their arm, or a certain sway of their body, among others. Whatever the case, these tells make battles a lot more involved than your standard JRPG. Beyond that battle dynamics are standard RPG-fare: You have multiple forms of attack ranging from a simple jump or swing of your trusty hammer to using elements like fire, with each type being more effective against certain enemies than others. Each attack type may also be used on its own or in conjunction with one another to execute "Bro Moves," which are more powerful versions of the standard attacks. Knowing when to use which attack-type and when adds another modicum of depth and strategy to the combat.

Exploration is pretty standard as well. The bros. move about the game world in typical Mario-fashion with plenty of jumping to cross gaps and scale large structures, as well as some good ol' smashing of boulders and other such objects. The environments contain many secrets and the like throughout that award helpful items and pieces of equipment as well, which encouraging some deviation from the standard story route. Traversal is mostly effortless with jumps and the like being highly responsive and easily executable. They certainly aren't perfect, though, since platforming is often an exercise in frustration due to some cumbersome jumping controls.

As previously mentioned, Mario and Luigi each have all their actions mapped to one the two face buttons. While this configuration may work wondrously in battle, it falters when applied to traversal. The reason being that to make the two cross a gap, big or small, you must press both the A and B buttons at precisely the same time otherwise one will fall short of the platform thus preventing you from moving forward until you get down. It's an extremely frustrating instance during lengthy jump sequences and hinders the fun and pacing of the game, since you're likely to be stuck on it for a while.

Consequently, however, that one aspect is the only real source of challenge in all of Superstar Saga. Battles, despite all they're various features, are simple affairs whose only form of challenge surfaces when faced with foes who are much higher leveled than you instead foes employing smart strategy. Puzzles require little to no deduction on your part either due to them practically spelling out the solution very plainly. The constant lack of challenge may keep things moving at brisk pace, but it also results in certain aspects in not realizing their fullest potential. Puzzles that aren't very puzzling have very little entertainment value, after all.

As much of an eyesore those smudges are, though, the otherwise excellent gameplay is quite satisfying. The Mario Bros.' signature moves translate seamlessly to the role-playing game realm, along with some engaging battle mechanics that add a nice dose of interactivity to the mix. The fun, lighthearted story is a delight to watch unfold as well, though the 17-20 hours worth of gameplay means that the fun won't last too long. But for a RPG-lite type experience, the length feels about right.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 12/14/10

Game Release: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (US, 11/17/03)

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