Reviewed on Gameboy Advance
You know what I love? RPGs. It is my favourite genre alongside Metroidvanias and Platformers. It just so happens to be that Mario—who’s expertise is primarily platformers—has quite a lot of JRPGs under his belt. In 1996 we got Super Mario RPG and later on the Nintendo 64 we got its spiritual successor Paper Mario. But Nintendo was not done there yet and created a new sub-franchise exclusively to handheld devices: The Mario & Luigi series. Today I’m taking a look at the first game in the series, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.
Superstar Saga came out in 2003 for the Gameboy Advance and was developed by AlphaDream Corporation, ltd. This company has a close relationship with Nintendo and consists of several prominent developers from Squaresoft. In that regard it’s not surprising they were able to work on the Super Mario series because of Squaresoft’s experience with RPGs. Before Superstar Saga however, they only made two Japanese exclusive titles and the Hamtaro games for the Gameboy Advance. And you can bet your sweet bippy I’m going to talk about those games another day because I absolutely love the Hamtaro games and nobody can stop me. Also spoiler for upcoming reviews oops. Superstar Saga has several of its inspiration drawn from the Paper Mario series, mostly for the graphics and gameplay. The game became a major success with high scores at release. It spawned an entire franchise of at the moment 5 games. Superstar Saga also got a remake on the Nintendo 3ds named Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions. I haven’t personally played it yet, but it featured updated graphics, an additional storyline and an overall easier difficulty.
Superstar Saga starts off with two visitors from the neighboring Beanbean Kingdom bringing a present to Princess Peach. These visitors weren’t as nice as hoped however and caused chaos in the throne room, stealing Peach’s voice in the process. Why her voice of all things? Because the Beanbean Kingdom houses a grant-wishing star hidden away from all evil, that can only be awakened by a pure voice. Mario and Luigi are then informed and speed off to the castle, where they find Bowser. A princess without a voice is a useless princess according to Bowser so for this one time he’ll help out the brothers to regain Peach’s voice.. so he can steal her again afterwards. They head off towards the Beanbean Kingdom and stop the evil Cackletta from awakening the Beanbean Star.
It should be noted beforehand that—unsurpisingly—Superstar Saga has its serious and dark moments, but most of the game’s story comes from its humour, references and unique characters. It uses gags like the prince of the Beanbean Kingdom constantly flaunting his hair after almost every sentence and the screen turning white because we can’t handle this madman’s absolute beauty, or the queen being so fat that when she jumps, she launches everybody in the air every time. Other times Mario has to jump to prove he’s the real Super Mario, and none of them remembering Luigi whenever he jumps as well. It’s silly stuff like this that makes you remember the unique habitants of the Beanbean kingdom. References come in the form like Professor E. Gadd having his own coffeeshop, and Geno appearing in a minigame.. which was unfortunately cut from the 3ds remake.
The Beanbean Kingdom is a unique place with many memorable places. From the starry hill you land—or crash—at, to the Chateau Chuckola and the Woohoo University, the Beanbean kingdom is certainly diverse. Every area also has their unique puzzles and other gimmicks like escorting Princess Peach through a desert while preventing her from getting attacked by enemies. You can also revisit them at any time for hidden goodies that previously could not be obtained. For example, you need a strong hammer to break darker blocks, or new abilities the brothers learned throughout the journey. Every area is also connected to another through means of warp pipes, so you don’t have to walk back the entire time.
The game is a fun mix of both a platformer and turn-based RPG. The first mostly takes place on the overworld. There are blocks to jump up to and gain coins or items in return, and platforms to jump on and progress further. The camera is isometric and functions well in that regard. There are no bottomless pits or lives since it is an RPG. Whenever you’re not doing actual platforming you’re probably doing minigames, which the game is filled with. You usually have to do them once for story purposes and can revisit them again later to score items. The minigames are fun and diverse and overall not too difficult either, so you don’t have to worry about being stuck on one to progress the story. You can also switch the controllable brother, allowing you to do unique bros moves with the L and R buttons. For example, if Luigi is in control, Mario can hammer him into the ground so he can reach solid areas otherwise not reachable, and Mario can be hammered into small Mario to go through small gaps. You’ll have to use it a lot to progress, and over time you gain more moves. Admittedly, this does get clustered over time due to the amount of options, and also remembering what brother is capable of what. A small nitpick I know, but worth mentioning. There are also enemies on the overworld which you can jump on, but instead on killing them directly..
..You enter a turn-based battle! The battle starts depending on how you approached the enemy. If you jumped on it you’ll do a small amount of damage at the start, and if you hammer them down they’ll be stunned for some duration. If they attack you from behind, the brother in question will be on the floor helpless until their turn comes or if they’re attacked which you can’t avoid. Other than that, walk into them and you get a normal battles without any preemptive situations. Now we can get into the actual battles themselves, and I’ve been waiting for this. You take control of one brother at a time, with one button dedicated to each. There are four commands you can execute: Attack, Bros. Attack, Items or Escape. With attack you get the choice to jump on an enemy or use one of the abilities you get later on. However, to do the max damage you have to press the button again at a certain timing. For example, jumping on them and hitting the button right before hitting them. A rewarding system for good timing. Some enemies can’t be jumped on however, so you’re forced to use the other attack options. Bros. Attacks are the equivalent to special moves and consume the SP meter. These function like regular attack as in that you have to do button timings, but there are three different difficulty levels to reward your skill. Easy difficulty shows the button you have to press and slows down time right before, while Normal just shows what button to press and Hard shows nothing. The reward is either more damage or less SP consumed. After using moves often they’ll get the ‘’advance’’ treatment which gives every attack different effects. You have to find that out yourself though as the game never really explains that to you.
However, probably the most interesting part of the battles is the defense. When your turn is over, the enemy will attack you. However, you are still in full control of both the brothers, so you can jump to avoid attacks or in some situations even hurt the enemy! And this is what makes the Mario & Luigi have one of the better turn-based battle systems in like.. ever. Depending on your skill, you can play through the entire game without getting hurt a lot since every attack is avoidable or able to be countered. Attacks are telegraphed well and if you have a good memorization of patterns, you won’t ever see that game over screen. Unlike most RPGs where strategy is the most important aspect, skill will be more of use to you here. Of course, grinding is still a option as the game has your regular levelling system with a twist; after every level up, you roll a roulette for stats increase. This can be either infuriating or exciting depending on your RNG, but most of the time there is always that one stat that only has high numbers on the roulette because you focused on something else.
The other battle options speak for themselves, but Escape has a penalty; you have to button mash to get away while losing coins. Coins are fairly easy to get however, and not once have I been short on them. Coins are strictly used for minigames, items or gear. There is not a lot to say about items since they are just like your every other RPG: healing items and buff items. Gear also speaks for itself, though the most important aspect to them are their bonusses instead of the stats increase they give. Unfortunately the game does not always explain what bonus does what, which would be one of the few flaws I have with the game: a lack of explanation.
Superstar Saga has a very nice length of about 20 hours or probably even less. Not too long and not too short either, which is perfect for me. There isn’t a post-game however, so most there is to do after beating the game is finish up some sidequests. The game overall is pretty linear as well, which normally would mean the game doesn’t have a lot of replayability, but the fun and diverse gameplay makes up for it. The game looks good as well and still holds up very well today, and so does the soundtrack. It’s hard to pick a favourite even, but for now I’ll go with the Boss Battle theme!
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is a unique, but most of all fun experience. The story is what you would expect from a Mario RPG, with a lot of humour and entertaining characters in one package. The gameplay especially is great and rewards your own skill more than anything. My only nitpicks would be the lack of explanation and switching overworld moves is.. rather tedious, but if I have to address nitpicks here that means that I have to search for faults, and that should say enough about how much I enjoyed the game. And with that, here is my final verdict for Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga
There are two ways to play the original Superstar Saga, and both are viable options. You can get it on the original Gameboy Advance usually for around 30 bucks, or on the Wii U Virtual Console for a lot less cheaper, namely 8 bucks. Of course there is also the remastered version on the Nintendo 3ds, which has its own up- and downs so there isn’t necessarily a best way to play it; all versions are good.