Nintendo and Alpha Dream offer the best reason yet to own a Game Boy Advance.
After two and a half years on the market, Game Boy Advance is finally starting to see truly mature software from a range of developers. Leading the pack is Nintendo and its associates, and now leading that pack is Alpha Dream, a Japanese development house that has created possibly the best GBA title yet in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. Many fans yearn for handheld titles to compare with the polished, deep, lengthy experiences of console games; Mario & Luigi is one of the few to attain this ideal.
The game is very much a sequel to Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario. Each game in this series has had a different developer (Squaresoft, Intelligent Systems, and Alpha Dream, respectively), and each one offers a distinct experience, centering around the Mario universe. Mario & Luigi specializes in two major areas: platforming and humor. Backing up these emphases is a foundation of timing-based combat, RPG elements, and outstanding production values, all of which live up to (or past) the standards set by the earlier games.
To be clear, Mario & Luigi is just as much of an RPG as its predecessors. The brothers earn experience points and coins, gain levels, and equip items. Battles are turn-based and dependent on clearly defined numerical statistics, such as hit points and attack power. Story development takes a key role in the game, and each portion of the game is directly tied into the plot. And the game is lengthy, with at least twenty hours of gameplay for experienced players and more for anyone else. My final game clock shows 24:20, not including the 45 minutes it took to beat the end boss.
Where the game departs from RPG tradition is in how it gives you complete, direct control over the characters. Press a button in the field, and Mario jumps. Press a button in battle, and Mario jumps. The same goes for other actions, which become available through the course of the game. What’s really bizarre is how Mario & Luigi gives you control of both brothers at the same time. They walk together but jump and perform other moves independently, and often in combination. The feature could easily have been a cheap gimmick, but the game makes brilliant use of it by designing literally everything around this dual-character scheme. Level design, puzzles, and combat are deeply ingrained with the mechanic, such that I can’t imagine playing the game any other way. Statistically, Mario and Luigi are evenly matched (though you can customize them during level-ups), but their abilities diverge as the game progresses. In a masterful stroke, just as you start to get used to controlling both brothers at once, the game begins providing situations in which they must separate and complete some tasks alone. Not only are these sequences more challenging than playing as a duo, but they actually strike an emotional chord of separation. You’ll feel genuinely relieved once the brothers are reunited.
Replete with goofball humor, sight gags, obscure cultural references, and double-entendres (from Nintendo!), Mario & Luigi will make any player laugh out loud at least once. The story and style of the game as a whole are already whimsical, and the fantastic writers and translators at Nintendo of America have clearly had a blast with the dialogue. Every named character is memorable, from the back-talking henchman Fawful to the overzealous Hammerhead Brothers. And just wait until you get a tender massage from the Jelly Fish sisters. The story begins in our beloved Mushroom Kingdom but soon takes a trip to the neighboring Beanbean Kingdom, full of brand new characters and locations. But, being not so far away from the usual setting, you can expect to see loads of old faces and enemies. There’s even an immigrant community of “toads”. Mario & Luigi is nostalgic nirvana the likes of which we haven’t seen since Super Smash Bros. Melee. Expect to see references to practically every Mario platformer ever released, including recent entries like Luigi’s Mansion and Mario Sunshine. Aside from the gratification for any serious Nintendo fan, the huge array of cameos and incorporated elements offers an impressive perspective on just how much ground this franchise has covered in the past twenty years.
Yet Mario & Luigi is its own game, and an incredible one at that. Its long and varied quest is more than a little challenging. The timed attack bonuses and dodges in battle aren’t easily abused, because the timing for them is hard to nail down consistently, and because enemies eventually become so tough that these techniques become essential to survival itself. From the beginning of the game, the world is designed so that you must make very clever use of the two brothers just to get around from place to place. There is a surprising bulk of platforming, none of it particularly difficult but all of it quite engaging. The many puzzles are definitely interesting in their own right, but they can also get downright nasty. The game asks the brothers to interact with each other and the environment in some truly ingenious ways. On top of all this great gameplay is a handful of mini-games, each extremely well done and worth playing over for additional difficulty levels and bonus prizes.
This review wouldn’t be complete without a nod towards the impeccable graphics and nearly equally impressive sound production. Mario and Luigi sport animation that most GBA characters wouldn’t dream of. The style of movement and expression is integral to the game’s storytelling, and enemy animations are tied in with combat timing. Beanbean Kingdom is a colorful place with its own organic style, similar and yet distinct from the Mushroom Kingdom. The game features perhaps the best use yet of sprite scaling and rotation on the GBA. The soundtrack contains some great new tunes, all within the established spectrum of Mario music (which is pretty wide these days). There are also numerous remixes of classic songs from games throughout the series, along with several musical cameos that fit right in and will surely stir up hardcore fans. Mario and Luigi are technically mute (they have no text dialogue), but they talk up a storm to the player. The digitized speech is thankfully not reused from other games and, also thankfully, doesn’t completely saturate your speakers. Rounding out the package, many of the sound effects are lifted directly from classic Mario games, including the all-important jump and coin sounds.
Mario & Luigi is a remarkably full, wonderful experience that you can play anywhere. It pays loving tribute to its heritage while offering many new ideas and twists on old ones. It’s a long, satisfying handheld adventure that is actually superior to both of its beloved predecessors. In fact, it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played, and that’s saying a whole lot. Rare indeed is the game that can bring a perpetual smile to your face and a constant pressure on the gamer part of your brain. This is one such game, an instant classic that belongs in every GBA owner’s hands and heart.