Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga GBA
Let me just mention one thing before we get started – I’m not a big fan of Mario, or his clique of misshapen buddies in ANY of his video game incarnations. I disliked Super Mario Bros. I disliked Super Mario Kart. Come to think of it, I disliked pretty much any game with the word “Mario” in it. Then this game came along. Now I have to resign as leader of the “We Hate Mario” organisation – all because of this little gem.
I think my less-than-well-disposed attitude towards our little plumber friend stemmed from my lack of a Ninty home entertainment system until the N64, by which time I was sick of platformers and longed for complex and involving RPGs. Now, with nostalgia making me want to relive old platformy classics like New Zealand Story and Bubble Bobble, I was delighted to find a game that integrated both wonderful RPG AND platform gameplay in one psychedelic package.
In terms of looks, the game is beautiful – fantastic bold primary colours mark out the backgrounds and characters, with a similar style to its predecessor, Paper Mario. The action is shown from a slightly-angled birdseye view, which very occasionally makes it look as though the characters are standing parallel with the floor; however, the full fluid 3d range of motion means that this angle is at its optimum usage. The only real issue I had with this perspective was that it made judging depth and distances slightly awkward – however, Ninty have graciously included shadows under the items boxes that you must, as tradition dictates, headbutt, to overcome this problem. Finally, the animation for these little guys is fantastic, smooth and created for optimum effect – I never thought that a sprite with about five different “poses” could possibly convey as many emotions as the chaps in this game do. While the detail doesn’t push the hardware as visibly as, say, Golden Sun, it really doesn’t matter because that isn’t what Ninty have set out to do here – the basic colouring style really does work, and is absolutely outstanding in this context.
The gameplay is deceptively simple; the A button is used to control Mario’s jump, and to perform set actions like talking to people and activating buttons. The B button controls Luigi’s jump, and later on is also used to perform special “Bros. Actions”; these include high-jumps, initiated by Luigi trampolining on Mario’s head, and a spinning move that allows the brothers to cross large gaps. Battle takes place in a separate screen, although the battles aren’t random; indeed, if you can leap on an enemy’s head before he hits you, then you will automatically get a pre-emptive strike. Similarly, if you are hit in the back (or misjudge a jump and allow the trailing brother to wander into the foe), the brother that was hit will be unable to move until it his is “turn” in battle.
This leads me on to the cool aspects of battle; although turn-based, it is hardly your traditional fare, whereby you enter your commands and go make a cup of tea while the battle is carried out. When the enemies attack you, hitting the jump button for the brother under attack at precisely the right moment will often allow you to dodge, and occasionally, counterattack at the same time. This livens up the battle sequences, especially in later battles where Ninty show us, as in Wario Ware, that they know us too well, and catch one out by making an enemy pause briefly at the exact moment you think they will attack. Brilliant stuff. As well as dodging, hitting the attack button at the exact moment that your character jumps on the enemy will increase damage. Finally, by collecting special “Bros Points”, you can perform devastating duo attacks on your enemy. Again, these require precise timing; you have to hit a sequence of buttons in order to carry out your selected move, but doing it correctly will result in a powerful move. As well as this, three difficulty options have been programmed into these moves; level 1 will show you the commands at the precise moment you have to hit them AND slow down the action to give you time to carry them out; level 2 will take out the slow-down feature and level 3 will take out the command-prompts. Naturally, the damage increases respectively with level; this offers wonderful bonuses for the veteran player. After fighting, EXP is gained, and stats raised as levels increase; there is also the opportunity to customise your characters, as you are given the chance at every level to boost one stat (such as defence, offence etc). This is done with a mini-roulette, which can offer 3, 2 or one extra point to your chosen stat.
Its difficult to pick any real flaws out of this game because…well…there really aren’t that many. Everything that would be unacceptable in any other game, like the basic graphics, unoriginal powerups and coin-collection, are all perfectly at home here because Ninty have included them as a parody in the first place. Coin-collection, although now hilariously uncool in todays games, is melded into this game as a joke against this fact, and so it seems RIGHT to be collecting coins here. Similarly, the incredibly OTT poses pulled by olden-day Mario and his followers as they collect a powerup have been blown up into even more OTT ones for this game – everything pokes fun at the history of Mario in a really very cool way. Perhaps the only issue I can think of is one of control; hitting A and then very quickly B to get both Bros over obstacles is at first unnatural, but quickly mastered. However, pushing the L button to activate the special Bros Moves is fiddly for the following reasons. Pressing this makes the B button turn into the “special move” button. This varies depending on which character is in the lead – this can be changed with the Start button. However, after using the special move, the B button stays activated instead of returning to normal until you press L again. This can result in some frustration as your characters repeatedly leap about in a manner that you didn’t intend them to – this is made worse by the fact that its hard to get the characters out of the position for these special moves once you’ve accidentally pressed the button to activate them. Having B return to normal after carrying out the move would have made things a little easier I think.
With a game that looks as lush as this, one would really be expecting it to be lacking in one at least – after all, with all this focus on perfecting one part of a game, how can the candle burn as brightly at the other end? Somehow, Ninty have managed it. The sound is perfectly in fitting with this game; as well as the cheery typically-Marioesque tunes playing in the background, small nonsensical voice samples have also been recorded for the main characters. And, again, this is another place where Ninty will cunning have you soiling yourself with laughter – they’re just put to perfect use. Its bizarre again how Luigi exclaiming “mutuarenuageno!” will be able to convey to you fear, excitement AND dismay all in one game – but it works absolutely perfectly. Similarly, Bowser laughing manically in a deep growling voice is enough to bring a smile even to the biggest Mario-hater in the universe (me). As well as this, there are plenty of other sound-bites that fans of the series will appreciate: things like, in a pseudo-italian accent, “Oh, no!” and “Okey Dokey!” Again, perfect stuff.
In terms of length, the game will last anyone a good long time – after several hours of play I am still in the first same area, and with a map boasting numerous locations, this isn’t a game that will be breezed through. There are also plenty of secret boxes dotted around the place that will take all of the brothers skill and puzzle-solving ability to reach. There are also plenty of sidequests to take part in, and challenges to gain high-scores in…there’s really something to keep you going at all times, depending on how enthusiastic you are on completing the game.
I think the best thing about this game is that it just doesn’t take itself seriously at all – and this kind of light-hearted attitude is difficult to find in the hard, cruel world of gaming that we find ourselves in nowadays. From the start, everyone enthuses about the Bros. Status as celebrities because of the fact that they “Practically invented jumping”; in fact, Mario is referred to as “Jumpman” at one point – a nice piece of trivia being used in-game there for all the Ninty boffins. That’s why I think the real charm of this game is in that it is just so damn funny – be it Toad accidentally getting a glimpse of Mario in the shower and freaking out, or being able to pull a hilarious pose for your passport photo that gets displayed in your inventory screen. Everything has been done for maximum amusement and enjoyment value, particularly I think for the Mario fans that will no doubt find a lot of the jokes funnier than a newbie like me (particularly if you know anything about the history of the Mario games). Its nice to see fans of the games rewarded for their loyalty in this game, without isolating newcomers.