Whilst it was Square who first wove the Mushroom Kingdom into the role-playing genre with Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Intelligent Systems and AlphaDream were later responsible for spinning such influences in two directions.
One transitioned the portly plumber into a papercraft world populated by cutout characters, and the other partnered him up with his brother Luigi on equally imaginative quests. Both have brought witty scripts and added character to the Mushroom Kingdom, matched by charming art direction and unique gameplay concepts that Nintendo have long been known for.
With Game Boy Advance titles now seeing release through Wii U’s Virtual Console service, we can now once again witness where AlphaDream’s efforts began in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. Regularly lauded as being one of the Game Boy Advance’s greats, that’s a welcome treat indeed.
As an action RPG, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is far more narratively led than Mario’s usual platforming escapades. We discover Bowser’s plans to kidnap Princess Peach soon thwarted by an earlier visit from Cackletta, who steals her voice and flees to the neighbouring Beanbean Kingdom. Realising her plot to capture the Beanstar, which, once awoken with Peach’s voice, will grant the bearer all of their wishes, Mario and Luigi rush off after their newfound foe to prevent such situation occurring.
By design, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga‘s most unique trait quickly becomes apparent, in that players are required to simultaneously control the Italian plumbing duo. Either character can take the lead as you adventure through Beanbean Kingdom’s distinctive lands with the other closely following behind, but each has individual actions assigned to them corresponding to either the A or B buttons.
Early on you’ll only be able to jump around the surrounding locale, but new tricks and techniques will be learnt along your journey that will allow you to bypass unexpected obstacles. Once equipped with hammers Luigi can make Mario minuscule by whacking him over the head, for example, whilst reversing the roles sees Mario hammer Luigi into the ground so that he can burrow under impassable gates. This extends to other moves that help you traverse the environment, and your hammers can similarly be strengthened to crush any rocks that block your path.
Such control scheme continues in battle instances, where Mario and Luigi’s actions are chosen by using A and B respectively. These turn-based encounters are more engaging than the game’s contemporaries, as players can strengthen their attacks by timing an additional button press. You’ll jump on enemies and use your hammer to deal damage, whilst Bros. Attacks are a coordinated effort between Mario and Luigi that can see you strike far more strongly. And another differentiator is that you are also active in defence, having the chance to dodge any incoming threats from enemies that you’ve stumbled across.
Frequent bosses provide sterner moments of difficulty but can be more easily taken down by using the Virtual Console’s restore points – averting the risk of frustration. Experience will be gained from any encounters, levelling Mario and Luigi’s skills across the normal RPG parameters. And doing so remains a necessity if you are to hold your ground against the game’s more sinister foes.
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga‘s art direction is a sublime concoction of colour, and players will enjoy wandering around the Beanbean Kingdom and meeting its inhabitants. Visuals are marginally improved by the Virtual Console’s screen smoothing, and the entire experience heightened by a joyously playful score from Japanese composer Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts).
It is the game’s comical script that Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga truly shines, poking fun at the history of the Super Mario Bros. series and Luigi’s obscurity. Whilst the Mario & Luigi series itself has gone on to even greater heights, Nintendo has provided a wonderful chance to see where it all started. Seize it whilst you can.