Bargain Review: Mario and Luigi, Partners in Time

If you read my review of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo, you might have guessed that I would enjoy the other games in the series as well. I honestly could not tell you. I was so turned off by the series’ sudden change in direction with the Paper Mario games that I didn’t bother to purchase them. It was only recently that I stumbled across a used copy of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga at the local GameStop for a cheaper than usual price. Lured by nearly unanimous good reviews and the promise of a non-Paper Mario adventure, I picked up the game and plugged it into the Silver Taco (my nickname for my old-style Gameboy Advance). Could this game revive my interest in the series and, dare I say it, give me the same warm and fuzzy feelings that the original did?

The story of this game is about as unique as the one in the original Super Mario RPG. In this game, Cackletta, a villainous sorceress from the BeanBean Kingdom. gains access to Princess Peach’s castle by masquerading as an ambassador from her homeland. She casts a spell on the princess and steals her voice, which is replaced by various symbols that drop to the ground and explode whenever she says something. Mario finds out about the problem and arrives just in time to watch Bowser fail in a kidnapping attempt on the princess. After a brief tussle with Bowser and an explanation of the game’s combat system, the big Koopa offers to help Mario get to the BeanBean Kingdom and retrieve the princess’s voice. Luigi, who originally plans to stay home, is caught up in Bowser’s troops as the group departs for the BeanBean Kingdom. The trip only gets rougher as Bowser’s ship is shot down at the border between the Mushroom and BeanBean Kingdoms. It is here that the adventure begins in earnest.

Actions in this game are streamlined in a rather unique way. Mario and Luigi walk single-file everywhere, so one is always leading and the other is tailing. The leading character is controlled by the A button and the tailing character is controlled by the B button. As the brothers get new weapons or abilities, they can learn to use the weapons in team attacks to solve puzzles. Furthermore, certain enemies have weapon affinities you will need to exploit. The battle system for this game implements several elements from the original Super Mario RPG. You can choose to fight an opponent by running into them or simply pass them by without a fight. However, the game will penalize you if you are attacked from behind and reward you if you attack an enemy to start a battle (ie, jump on them). The timing system for attacking is the same as Super Mario RPG: hitting the A or B button before impact will amplify the attack’s damage. For defense, the game will present an action button and give you a subtle hint as to which brother will be attacked. You must press the A or B button at the correct time to dodge an attack and potentially counterattack. This interface requires you to be attentive to the game and makes each battle feel important. Some of the bigger battles in the game tend to drag, but I never truly mastered the use of Bros. Attacks, combo moves that the brothers use in battle that require exact timing to be useful. As a result, you can probably breeze through boss fights more quickly if you practice the timing for Bros. Attacks in an area with weak enemies.

With a whole new world to explore outside the Mushroom Kingdom, Nintendo and Alpha Dream do their best to create a very original game. The locales look as good as ever on the Gameboy Advance and special attention was put toward the graphics. More effort was made to inject some individuality into the various areas, and it shows. Both friends and foes feel like they are part of their own unique universe, but still fit snugly into the Mario mythos. Particular standouts include Prince Peasley (heir to the BeanBean throne and master of the world’s most powerful hair flip) and Fawful (Cackletta’s sidekick, whose verbal assaults are completely off-the-wall). The plot has enough twists and turns topped off with a good amount of humor to keep you hooked. Although the sound effects are excellent, especially the gibberish that Mario and Luigi talk in, the soundtrack itself feels far less epic than the one in Super Mario RPG.

The issue of difficulty creeps up in this game in the same way as the original. The end seems to come too fast and, once the game is finished, you probably won’t be interested in tackling it again. The mini-games are different enough from the core gameplay to warrant additional tries, but little more. The original Mario Bros. game is included in the cartridge and I played it once to see what kind of score I could get. I felt that the ending was not as satisfying as the ending in Super Mario RPG. It is likely a case of nostalgia, but I restarted the original game right after I saw the ending credits. I didn’t find that same attachment to this game.

Although I personally liked the original Super Mario RPG better, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is a worthy successor to the Mario RPG franchise. The intuitive control and battle systems build upon the strengths of Super Mario RPG and the graphics, story, and characters weave the traditionally great web that you will get stuck in until the game is complete. Unfortunately, that completion comes too soon and does not feel as rewarding as it did in the original. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is easy to recommend at its bargain-bin price, though, and should be relatively easy to find. If you’re waiting for Super Mario RPG on the Virtual Console, this game will whet your appetite.