Review by steamliner88
A tale of not one, but two legit superstars.
Ages ago, during the late eighties, Mario was a superstar. More popular than Mickey Mouse, he spent his time starring in some of the finest platformers ever made. From Donkey Kong to Super Mario Bros 3, Mario was all about saving ladies and beating their captors by jumping on platforms, swinging hammers and tossing the occasional fireball. Meanwhile, his brother Luigi had a hard time in his shadow, appearing mostly as a consolation price for the unlucky gamer who wasn't able to secure controller one. Aside from his somewhat bigger role in Super Mario Bros 2, his first real chance to shine was when he was made the star of Mario is Missing, a game where he didn't even get his name in the title... Still, despite having his name on the box of a grand total of one game before Superstar Saga, the lanky green plumber have managed to carve out a decent career in his shorter and fatter brother's shadow, a fact made evident by the way he's treated by the people of Beanbean Kingdom where Superstar Saga takes place.
The second sequel to Super Mario RPG, Superstar Saga has Luigi accidentally joining Mario on a mission to save Princess Peach's voice from the vile witch Cackletta who intends to use it as part of her plan to conquer the world. The ensuing journey sees our hero and his more famous (and heroic) brother battling, fetch questing, puzzling and jumping their way through a beginner friendly but satisfying action rpg that combines traditional turn based battles and rpg conventions with recognizable elements from the Super Mario universe.
The core gameplay revolves around the way you control both brothers at the same time. Mario and Luigi are both controlled by the directional pad with one having his actions mapped to the A button and the other to button B. While you start out with nothing more than a simple jump on your repertoire, you'll soon gain access to a whole slew of special moves that can be activated by putting Mario or Luigi at the front and having the other character interact with him. Early on, you'll learn how to make Mario jump onto Luigi's shoulders and spread his arms to act like a rotor, thus allowing you to hover across smaller chasm like a helicopter by performing a spin jump. Meanwhile, Luigi can use hos flabby brother as a springboard to reach platforms that are otherwise out of range. As the game progresses you'll gain access to hammers and special powers that can be used to clear previously impossible obstacles by, for example, making Luigi hit Mario with his hammer, thus turning the red attention-hog into a mini me version of himself and allowing him to sneak through tiny passages and go on small adventures on his own.
The system is hilarious at first with its many humorous moves, but towards the end of the game, the constant switching between the brothers gets tiresome. This is amplified by the fact that the puzzles never go beyond mild distractions with obvious solutions, effectively reducing the gameplay into toggling between abilities and switching the order of Mario and Luigi as you solve yet another puzzle that could only be considered a challenge for those who have failed second grade three times or more.
Aside from the excessive switching and simple puzzles, most of the game's problems are due to the tilted bird's eye viewpoint (think Zelda) which makes makes it hard to judge your position when trying to get an advantage in battles by jumping on enemies on the world map. More often than not, what should have been a sneaky first attack turns into a a fiasco as you misjudge the jump and end up getting attacked from behind instead. Worse, the game occasionally demands millimeter precision from you, something that is very hard to achieve since you can't really tell where objects are placed in relation to each other. On one especially frustrating occasion, you have to turn out four candles by creating a whirlwind and having Mario spit water at it, thus creating a sprinkler that kills the flames. Unfortunately, this only works if you are standing in the exact right (unmarked) spot. Place Mario a fraction of a tile wrong and rather than simply miss the whirlwind, the water will hit the side of the platform that the whirlwind and candles are located on, thus making it seem like you are unable to hit the whirlwind from that position. For me, this meant that I had figured out the correct solution only to abandon it and wandering off for hours in search of another way to progress. Another major issue is the overall lack of challenge and the insane difficulty spike that is the final boss.
The turn based battles are also a mixed bag. After choosing a command, you have to press the action button (button A controls Mario while you control Luigi with B) again during the attack to increase the damage done to the enemy. In a similar fashion, you can press the button at the right moment during the enemies turn to either dodge or counter the attack. Besides these basics, there's also bros attacks, combination moves performed through a series of properly timed button presses. These come in three difficulties were the game will gradually reward you with more damage as you learn how to perform these attacks without the help of on screen instructions and overly generous windows for inputting the commands. For those who wish to simply beat the game, these moves are completely superfluous as some mild grinding will make everything up to the final boss a walk in the park. It's too bad since the system is both sleek and inventive, but why would you bother with something that only makes the battles take longer?
The game progresses in a for Nintendo unusually linear fashion with few opportunities to do any meaningful exploration. You receive new abilities when you need them and since most of the Beanbean Kingdom is blocked by hurdles that require certain skills to pass, you can't really leave the path you have been assigned to unless you count the few extra bonus items you can find by backtracking after acquiring a new ability. However, it should be noted that Superstar Saga is mostly concerned with its story, which is wonderfully hilarious and packed with cheesy (in a good way) cameos from all over the Mario universe, warm humor and insane twists. Poor Luigi may be given some love by his Beanbean fans, but Nintendo doesn't for a minute allow him to forget who the real Superstar is. I won't spoil the surprises, but Luigi's finest moments may be heroic, but hardly flattering. Still, at least the green pipe cleaner gets his long overdue fifteen minutes of fame. The villains are worth a special mention with Cackletta's main henchman Fawful being a personal favorite of mine. Bowser Koopa, Mario's main enemy in most of his games, is having a hard time from the get go and while his luck doesn't change for the better, you will eventually start to feel for the poor turtle as he bounces from one bad situation to another in what must be some of the worst moments in his career.
Besides the main game, Superstar Saga offers a slew of in-game minigames like an excellent barrel take on the obscure 8-bit puzzler Yoshi's Cookie to go with the same enhanced multiplayer port of Mario Bros that has been included with all four Super Mario Advance games. While it's an excellent game and more than worth a couple of hours of your time once the roughly 20 hour long main game is completed, one can't help but feel a bit disappointed that Nintendo included the same game again rather than giving us something new. A similarly upgraded port of Wrecking crew based on the Japan-only snes update would have been awesome, but as it is, Mario Bros is a more than worthy consolation prize.
Presentation-wise, Superstar Saga is excellent. Colorful environments and large, detailed characters combine with more subtle touches into what is easily some of the best graphics ever seen on the Gameboy Advance. There's tons of things to discover and the looks are never any less than excellent. The music is even better with an awe-inspiring mix of revamped classics and fresh tunes written specifically for Superstar Saga. If only Mario and Luigi had the decency to shut their faces every once in a while instead of blabbering throughout the game, everything would have been fine and dandy. Trust me, you'll be sick and tired of voice actor Charles Martinet's talents within the first five minutes or so, but that won't stop the game from assaulting your ears with enthusiastic shouts of Hammer!, Mario! and Oh No!!. Since the music is too good to miss you'll persist, but surely an option to turn off speech could have been included?
Overall, Superstar Saga may not be on par with the mainline Mario platformers or the finest rpgs on the GBA, but it's still a very good game that most GBA owners will have a lot of fun with. While it's both easy and a bit repetitive, the warm humor, funny plot and excellent graphics and music means that this is one game you won't put down until you have beaten it completely. Most of all, it's Luigi's long overdue chance to shine, so make sure that twenty years of waiting (Mario Bros was first released back in 1983) isn't wasted. Both Luigi and Superstar Saga itself may suffer from living in the shadows of their more accomplished siblings, but give them a chance and you'll find that second best can be great in it's own right. Ages ago, in 2003, Luigi was finally given his due respect as a superstar just like his brother.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (EU, 11/21/03)
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