Handheld has never seen such large moustaches.
Mon, 15 November 2004
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Although it is nice to have all of the classic Mario platform games available on the GBA, many veteran gamers have already played those titles to death in their original incarnations. What we've really been waiting and hoping for is an all new Mario adventure for Nintendo's handheld. I'm pleased to say that the wait is finally over thanks to the release of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.
Rather than being a traditional Mario platform game, what we have here is a kind of action role-playing game, fairly reminiscent of Zelda, with a touch of Final Fantasy thrown in. This is actually the third Mario game done in this style. The first was called Super Mario RPG for the Super Nintendo; that one was co-produced by Nintendo and Square when the two companies were on much friendlier terms. The second game in the series was for the N64 and was called Paper Mario- so named because it used an early type of cel-shaded graphics (long before the style became popular and somewhat overused) which gave all the characters a flat look. If you played either of those great games you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Superstar Saga.
The plot of the game sees an evil witch by the name of Cackletta stealing Princess Peach's voice, which has some kind of power she intends to use for evil purposes. Mario and Luigi set off to defeat Cackletta and retrieve Peach's voice. They initially receive some unlikely help from their old rival Bowser, who is mad that somebody has gotten in the way of his plan to kidnap Peach yet again.
From there come many wacky twists and turns as the plot just keeps getting sillier and more nonsensical. It isn't Shakespeare, but Nintendo is clearly well aware of this fact; the story is presented in an extremely light-hearted, tongue in cheek manner. Many of the in-game characters make little sarcastic comments and seem to be quite bemused by the ridiculous goings on. Another amusing touch is that while nearly everyone recognises the legendary Mario, nobody knows just who Luigi is- much to his frustration and embarrassment. The villains are also fairly hysterical, often bursting into over the top speeches before engaging in battle, more or less poking fun at the clichéd way video game characters often behave. There is some really funny stuff in this game, especially for long time Nintendo fans who'll notice some references that others won't. The game's sense of humour really adds a lot of character and charm to the title and allows the goofy storyline to work perfectly.
As the title of this product suggests, for the first time in a long time (excluding the Smash Bros. Series) Mario and Luigi are back together as playable characters in the same game. Not only that- in Superstar Saga the player actually controls both of them, often simultaneously. The control pad moves both characters, with one following behind the other. Pressing the start button alternates which of them takes the lead. The A button is used for performing actions with the front character, while the B button allows you to perform actions with the back character. Mario and Luigi learn individual abilities throughout the game. To cycle through which action they perform you use the L button for the rear character and the R character for the lead. Some situations require a skill only Mario can use, others call for Luigi's actions- so you'll find yourself switching back and forth between them constantly. On numerous occasions you need to use both brothers at once, usually by pressing both A and B. There are also a few times when they get split up and you control only one character.
The battles with the game's many enemies and bosses take place in a turn based way, quite similar to games like Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star. When the opponent attacks you have to attempt to dodge or counter them in real time, which means your reflexes need to be pretty keen. When it is your turn to go on the offensive an on screen menu appears from which you can choose from a variety of techniques. There are basic solo attacks that are performed with a single button press and the much more damaging "Bros. Attacks"- these see Mario and Luigi working together and each of them requires a set pattern of button presses. All attacks need to be well timed in order to be fully effective. As you progress through the game you gain more and more attacks. A degree of tactical thinking and experimentation is needed as certain techniques work much better than others, depending on the enemy you are facing.
While all of that may sound rather complicated, in practice it soon becomes second nature. Whether in battle or traversing the many different lands, the control system is ingeniously simple and intuitive. It is also very responsive, so overall the mechanics of Superstar Saga work superbly.
The difficulty of this game is pretty well balanced for the most part. Your experience points and other abilities all increase the further you get and the more battles you engage in. The more powerful you become the stronger the game's challenges tend to get. Most of the enemies are fairly easy to defeat, but there are a few that give you a run for your money. The same goes for the game's many Zelda-like puzzles; most of them aren't too hard to figure out, but one or two might have players scratching their heads, for a little while at least.
Mario & Luigi is quite a large game and offers plenty of depth. It isn't something that can be finished in a day. There are numerous items you can access either by completing certain tasks or by buying them at one of the stores scattered about the place. Some of the items include different clothing which can affect your power or defensive capabilities, badges that boost your abilities in a variety of ways and mushrooms and drinks that restore either health or the "Bros. Points" needed to launch Bros. Attacks. On top of all that, there are an abundance of hidden things, mini-games and side quests for those who choose to look hard enough.
A version of the original Mario Bros. game (which can be played either solo or with up to four people) is included as well, just as it has been with all the Mario titles released on the Gameboy Advance. It isn't going to blow anyone's mind, but as an added extra it remains pretty cool.
Graphically Superstar Saga would best be described as charming. It doesn't offer any amazing special effects, but it is still a pleasure to look at. The visuals feature all of the bright colours, imaginative settings and cute characters we've come to expect from a Mario game. The backgrounds are nicely varied and all of them are quite detailed, in a cartoon-like way that is. There are plenty of great little aesthetic touches, particularly the character animations during fights and conversations. On the original GBA the graphics can look a little washed out, but on the GBA SP everything looks crisp and vibrant.
By now we all know what kind of music and sound effects will be used in a Mario game and this latest one is really no exception. The music is a blend of new tunes and remixed versions of the classic Mario themes. It is all up beat and whimsical and basically fits perfectly. The quality of the music comes through the GBA speaker surprisingly well. The different sound effects are also of a high standard, the funny little noises and few samples of speech made by Mario, Luigi and many other characters all help to extend the charm and personality of the game.
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is a wonderfully well-crafted piece of software. The blend of role-playing type exploration and strategy with reflex-based action is near perfect. There is a lot of variety in the gameplay, which helps it to stay fresh. The intentionally silly story and characters become really endearing. I wanted to keep playing to see what goofy thing would happen next. Some insecure morons might be put off by the cutesy appearance, but those poor fools will be missing out on a really cool game. It is an all ages' game, but certainly not "kids only". If anything it might be slightly too complex for some younger players and many of the in-jokes might go over their heads.
Superstar Sage is just flat out fun to play and we all know that's the most important thing of all. It has that certain unmistakable Nintendo magic; they have, once again, released a polished and exceptional product. If the side-quests made more of a real difference to what happens in the game, if more choices were included in the paths you take and if multiple endings were added, Mario & Luigi would be an absolute classic. As it stands, the game it isn't worth playing through more than a couple of times, because earning all the bonus stuff makes little difference overall. However it is so nicely designed, genuinely charming and enjoyable to play that you should find it well worth going through twice. Because the game is far from short and the gameplay is usually so fun that makes it an extremely worthy purchase.
What I consider to be sweet news indeed is that Nintendo is working on another instalment of this series to be released on Gamecube. I recommend this; buy Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga for the Gameboy Advance- play it, love it and get all fired up and excited about the upcoming 'cube version.
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