Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga is an action RPG that takes the brothers Mario on an original adventure on the Game Boy Advance. The polished game marks the third foray the Mario franchise has taken into the RPG genre. The first, Super Mario RPG for the Super Nintendo, is a classic gem born out of Nintendo's collaboration with Squaresoft, while the second, Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64, was developed by Intelligent Systems. This latest entry in the genre, developed by Alpha Dream, is a fun and engaging spin on the traditional action RPG experience that blends equal doses of impressive technology, innovation, and humor. The end result, like its Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 predecessors, winds up offering a fun, engaging experience that should not be missed. Simply put, it's one of the best GBA games of the year.
The game's story revolves around the pair's attempts to catch the villainous Cackletta, a powerful sorceress from the neighboring Beanbean Kingdom, who steals Princess Peach's voice. The voiceless Peach is only able to communicate in bizarre symbols that explode shortly after being uttered. While Peach's condition is quite alarming for the members of her court, it's especially upsetting for longtime kidnapper Bowser, who arrives shortly after Cackletta's attack to log in some quality kidnapping time. Unable to nab Peach for fear of the damage her explosive talk will inflict to his castle, Bowser offers to help Mario track down Cackletta and offers to help restore Peach's voice... so that he can kidnap her. A series of unfortunate incidents, involving Bowser's lackeys and Luigi, find Mario's younger brother, usually content guarding the home front, along for the ride as well. The zany setup is a perfect segue for the goofy adventure across the Beanbean Kingdom that will find the brothers facing all manner of danger.
The gameplay in Mario and Luigi is, at its core, an action RPG in the same vein as the classic Super Mario RPG for the Super Nintendo and Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64. You'll roam the whole of the Beanbean Kingdom in your attempt to thwart Cackletta's evil plan. You'll face various enemies in turn-based combat, you'll solve puzzles, and you'll navigate through dungeonlike environments. While Mario and Luigi may sound like just another action RPG, the game's two-character mechanic offers a unique gameplay experience that is extremely fresh. You'll even come across sequences that recall the barrel- and platform-jumping seen in previous Mario games folded into the appealing mix.
You're able to actively control both brothers during the game, which puts a whole new twist on the adventure. You move the pair of brothers with the D pad, and you're able to control both brothers independently by using the A and B buttons. Although each brother starts out with a simple jump, as you progress through the game, each earns the abilities to use hammers and to perform different special moves. The moves available to each brother vary depending on whether Mario or Luigi is in the lead, and you're able to switch the pair on the fly by pressing the start button. As you earn more abilities for the boys, you're able to cycle through them by using the shoulder buttons, which independently cycle through the specific abilities assigned to those buttons.
The special moves you earn let you interact with the environment in different ways, and they also let you access new areas in the game. For example, when the brothers get hammers they can smash through rocks that block their paths. When they earn special elemental hand attacks, they're able to trigger specific switches. For example, Mario's fire-hand ability lets him light certain switches, whereas Luigi's thunder-hand ability lets him power up others. In addition, the hand abilities have a secondary function when triggered by a brother who is not in the lead. Mario's fire lets him ignite Luigi's buttocks. This sends the pair running at high speeds, which then allows them to become an effective battering ram. Luigi's thunder technique lets him shock Mario and also locks the two in a forward position, thus allowing them to move without turning their backs. This is perfect for dealing with Boo switches that disappear when you face them. The brothers are able to use their hammers on each other in equally creative ways. When Luigi is in the lead, Mario can pound him into the ground, thus allowing him to get underneath certain obstacles or to dig up hidden items. When Mario is in the lead, Luigi can bop him into a miniature form so that he can squeeze into small holes. The brothers also have far less violent ways to team up, like when they use Luigi to perform an extra-high jump or they use Mario to perform a special corkscrew jump that lets the pair float over gaps.
The unique dual control mechanic extends to the combat system, which is an extension of the turn-based system pioneered in Super Mario RPG that requires you to time button presses during attacks. You trigger battles by walking into enemies, which takes you to a battle screen. As in the exploration sections, you still have active control of your characters via the A and B button, which you'll use to make selections for Mario and Luigi. Each brother has four choices in combat; they are solo attack, bros. attack, run, and item. Solo attacks let you jump, they let you use your hammer, and/or they let you use that brother's elemental hand ability to strike a foe--depending on what element you've earned in the game. Once you select the attack, you can increase the amount of damage it does by pressing the attacking brother's button just before he strikes. If you're successful, the attack does a bit more damage. Each brother has three types of solo attacks. They consist of simple jumps, hammer attacks, and hand attacks. Bros. attacks are special combos that require Mario and Luigi to work together.
You'll eventually find three attacks to choose from, and they are an armed attack, a hammer-based attack, and a hand-ability attack. The attacks cost a set number of "bros. points" and require a series of timed button inputs to be successfully performed. The attacks come in three power levels. The first two power levels slow the action down a bit and offer onscreen prompts as to when to push buttons. The third, and highest, power level offers no button cues and moves at normal speed, thus making the attacks much more challenging to pull off. As you'd expect, the higher the power level, the more damage is done by the attack. As an added bonus, the attacks can be powered up to an advanced level which further increases the damage they do once you successfully perform them enough times. The item option lets you use items in your inventory, during a turn, to beef up the brothers' health or to beef up the bros. points gauges. The run option lets you escape from a fight by mashing buttons until the brothers are offscreen. The catch is that, as they try to escape, they'll lose coins until they're off the battlefield. Despite the rather dense gameplay described above, control in the game is tight and responsive.
Defeating enemies rewards you with items, coins, and experience that let Mario and Luigi level up. Leveling-up increases the brothers' stats in various areas. While most of the stats, like hit points, bros. points, power, defense, and speed are self-explanatory, the mysterious "stache" attribute bears some explanation. It seems that the higher the brothers' stache ratings, the more lustrous their moustaches look. Sporting a set of pimping moustaches offers quite a few benefits in the game. During combat, Mario and Luigi are more likely to perform critical lucky strikes, which inflict significantly more damage to opponents. When visiting towns, luscious staches dazzle shopkeepers, who will offer significant discounts on their wares. It's a lighthearted addition to the standard action RPG fare that will find you buying new overalls for the duo and equipping them with badges that boost their various abilities. You can also expect to find subquests, like having to collect assorted beans that you can exchange at the local Starbean's coffee shop for unique items. Additionally, a variety of minigames have been included to complement the meaty main quest--a journey that should keep you busy for well over 20 hours. The game also includes the same multiplayer Super Mario Bros. that's appeared in previous GBA Mario games, which, at this point, has more than overstayed its welcome.
The game's graphics have a subtle charm, thanks to large, detailed character sprites and environments. The cast of characters, which features a good mix of new faces and a plethora of cameos from familiar faces in the Mario universe, are all well designed. Animation is top-notch, with an impressive number of subtle touches thrown in to give the colorful cast a healthy dose of personality. As far as the environments go, the Beanbean Kingdom presents an impressive number of locales to explore, and they offer the kind of variety you'd expect in a Mario game. You'll tromp through forests, caves, underwater areas, deserts, and the like on your journey to save the Princess. The areas feature unique, detailed looks that are rich with personality. The environments also feature a surprising amount of animation that complements their cleanly detailed looks. For example, you'll see running water splashing around a waterfall, or you'll see the ebb and flow of a tide on the beach. One of the most impressive things about the environments are the subtle visual cues that hint at objects buried underground or hint at other points of interest. The visual polish extends to the color and animated menus that offer close-ups of the brothers as you check their stats. There's one notable blemish on the impressive package, and it's, namely, the slightly awkward viewing angle that can occasionally make hitting switches or making jumps a little difficult. It's a minor annoyance at best, though.
The audio is an impressive mix of original music peppered with many familiar themes from the series, from the standard Mario game sound effects, and from a generous helping of voice samples. The game's music offers a catchy selection of varied original tunes that help give the Beanbean Kingdom its own unique feel. The original music also includes new tracks that stay true to the spirit of some of the catchiest tunes. The new music is supplemented by many of the familiar themes heard in previous Mario games. You'll notice a fair amount of looping in some of the audio tracks, but, thanks to the catchy tunes, you won't be driven insane. The sound effects make liberal use of the time-honored sounds heard in most of the modern Mario games and add a few more to the canon of audio. The voice in the game is a pleasant surprise, given how plentiful it is. Mario and Luigi are quite chatty throughout the game, as they make exclamations and utter gibberish as they interact with other characters and with each other. The other main characters utter their fair share of voice as well, which certainly helps lend them quite a bit of personality. These individual parts end up combining into an impressive whole that's one of the richest sound offerings on the Game Boy Advance this year.
In the end, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga is an impressive new entry in the Mario franchise that is not to be missed. Strong visuals, a goofy story, rich gameplay, and a lengthy quest all combine to make one of the best experiences on the Game Boy Advance this year. It's also one that has some merits when played on the GameCube as well, thanks to the game's support of rumble when used with the Game Boy Player. The only beef to be had is with the lack of any kind of multiplayer support, but that's a minor point. As the first entry in what may well be a Game Boy Advance series, Mario and Luigi delivers in every way.