Review by MTLH
This is indeed a Superstar Saga.
It's easy to forget the disbelief back in the day when it became known that Mario would star in his very own role playing game. Sure, the portly plumber had appeared in various other genres besides platformers, ranging from racing and other sport titles to various puzzle games and even some edutainment fare, but an actual role playing game developed by Square no less seemed like the stuff dreams where made of. When Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was released for the SNES in 1996, albeit unfortunately not in Europe, it really was something special and I doubt few could have guessed it would even be the start of an entire series.
In fact, it was the start of not one but two series. Paper Mario appeared in 2001 for the Nintendo 64 and received a few sequels which mostly appeared on the company's consoles. The Game Boy Advance on the other hand played host to 2003's Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. It proved to be hugely popular which resulted in a separate series appearing on Nintendo's handhelds. The game was eventually remade in 2017 for the 3DS as Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions. The question before us is twofold. Does Superstar Saga still hold up after a decade and a half and what is the deal with those minions?
The first thing any fan of the original will notice are the revamped visuals which, not surprisingly, look a lot like those found in the other Mario & Luigi iterations on the 3DS. While I do like the graphics of the Game Boy Advance version, it's a good looking game even in this day and age, the remake looks positively gorgeous. The remake's style stays faithful to that of the original and is still as colourful, varied and lively as ever, sporting well done animation and plenty of little details. It's all just so vibrant and charming. It's a shame though that the game doesn't use the handheld's 3D effect. Not a great loss perhaps but taking into account that the effect was used in both Dream Team Bros. and Paper Jam Bros., it's absence here is a tad puzzling.
The original Superstar Saga had a wonderful soundtrack that combined typical Mario fare with some great new tunes. My personal favourite would be the regular battle theme. It adds a tremendous amount of energy to the proceedings, nicely complemented by having Mario and Luigi perform a little dance, but that mostly holds true for the score as a whole. The remake more or less keeps the music but tweaks it here and there. The resulting soundtrack is still good, you can't really spoil it to be honest, but it somehow does sound a tad tiny and even a little bit off on occasion. It's nothing too detrimental though and I doubt newcomers will even notice.
One faithful day the goodwill ambassadors from the neighbouring Beanbean Kingdom visit the Mushroom Kingdom bearing gifts from their queen for Princess Peach. As it turns out, they are actually the evil witch Cackletta and her assistant Fawful, impostors who are hell-bent on stealing Peach's voice. They succeed after which Mario and a very reluctant Luigi team up with Bowser and his army in order to track down the nefarious duo and bring them to justice. However, not all is as it seems...
From the moment Cackletta steal Peach's voice, Superstar Saga's pace kicks off into high gear. The brothers repeatedly find themselves in weird situations, meet eccentric people and generally get caught up in strange shenanigans as they travel the width and berth of the Beanbean Kingdom. The duo thus visit a theatre specifically targeted at some befuddled Yoshis and a town for Toad immigrants, they encounter a cola whose main ingredient seems to be jokes and meet some island inhabitants who seem to speak in non-sequiturs. When the pace does slow down occasionally, it's usually for a gag or to place a little spotlight on a specific place or character. Even so, the plot goes through so many different twists and turns that such scenes are actually welcome moments to catch your breath rather than the annoyance they could have been.
Besides the near constant silliness and slapstick situations, a large part of the humour stems from Mario being somewhat of a celebrity in the Beanbean Kingdom with it's inhabitants frequently fawning over the portly plumber and asking him to jump. It goes without saying that Luigi, in contrast, is often overlooked and barely even recognised. Another prominent source of comedy is the aforementioned Fawful. With his broken Engrish, 'I have fury!' probably being the best known example, and flair for the dramatic, the diminutive assistant manages to steal nearly every scene he is in.
It goes too far to say that Superstar Saga will have you rolling over the ground with tears streaming down your face but the game's humour will at the very least make you smile, sometimes chuckle and have you laugh out load on more than one occasion. The game is just very sparkling and lively and manages to grip you from the get go. In that regard, it also helps that Superstar Saga is filled with nice little cameos, such as fighting the viruses from Dr. Mario complete with the appropriate sound effects, having Luigi's Mansion's Professor E. Gadd run a bean juice bar and seeing the Hammer Bros. handling border security.
As mentioned in the introduction, Superstar Saga is a role playing game with all that entails. There are areas to explore and people to speak with, statistics that need to be improved, quests that must be finished, puzzles to solve and battles that are fought in a turn based manner. The game furthermore offers plenty of items to collect, abilities to gain and gear to pick up to help with getting past the enemies, obstacles and puzzles.
The battles may be turn based but, as is customary in Mario based role playing games, they are more interactive than simply choosing an action from a menu and watching the brothers do their thing. By pressing a button at exactly the right time, the duo can evade damage and even counterattack or strike just that little bit harder when on the offence. The special attacks, which cost so-called Bros. Points, have the brothers perform a combo with prompts appearing at the appropriate moments. These can become quite elaborate and demanding the further the game goes along.
Amongst some other differences when compared to the original, the one that struck me most with regard to combat is the difficulty setting. The original offered three tiers with the simplest adding a slow motion effect while the hardest removed the prompts altogether but cost less points and hit harder. In the remake there are only two settings, with the easiest being more lenient at the expense of the moves costing more Bros. Points. There is something to say for both systems although I found the original one to be slightly more elegant.
Over the course of the game, Mario and Luigi will gain several new abilities which will aid them in combat but also play import roles in more than a few of the puzzles and with exploration in general. Hammers can be used to smash foes and rocks but also allow the brothers to pass underneath obstacles. The role of electricity and fire may seem rather obvious but also see some more surprising uses such as making the duo dash forwards. The use of both the high and spin jumps is rather self-explanatory.
Pobably the change that may be most noticeable to fans of the original is how all these abilities are activated. Mario and Luigi are still controlled as a team with them walking along one behind the other. On the Game Boy Advance you could manually switch them around with the lead brother determining what ability was available. For example, with Mario at the front the duo performed a spin jump and with Luigi a high jump. In the 3DS version this set-up is gone and replaced by letting the player select the ability itself, either by cycling through them or using the touch screen. While the original method is quite smart in itself, it could lead to some confusion when you where continuously switching between the brothers during the game's more demanding moments. A related addition is that the duo can now also jump as a pair with the press of a single button. It may seem like a minor thing but it makes life decidedly easier.
One of the joys of Superstar Saga is how it handles exploration. There is a tendency to send Mario and Luigi from one end of the map to the other and back again. Although warp pipes make travelling in general a lot easier, some degree of backtracking is unavoidable nonetheless. What makes these jaunts not only more palatable but even fun, is the way the aforementioned new abilities open up parts of the map you've already crossed. There is almost always something like a gate that can now be circumvented or a rock that can be smashed, often leading to items or even new routes. There is a flow here, the establishment of which seems oh so effortless to the extent that it's easy to simply take for granted.
Besides exploring and fighting, Superstar Saga also has a few other activities in store for the player. Amongst other things, there are puzzles to solve which mainly rely on the accumulated abilities, some beans to find and collect which can be used to concoct helpful juices and even, of all things, a bone fide escort mission. Such diversions help maintain the game's flow and pacing, ensuring that there is hardly, if ever, a dull moment.
Superstar Saga was never a terribly difficult game. As long as decent inventory was accumulated and the brothers where properly levelled up, there was little that could actually stand in their way. Sure, there where some obstacles that did pose a challenge, usually a boss or other, but on the whole the challenge could above all best be described as pleasant. Although it has been a while since I played the original, this 3DS version struck me as being somewhat easier. Not by much but there where some confrontations, especially towards the end, which used to give me a lot of grief but which I now ploughed through without too much fuss. Perhaps the special attacks are simpler to pull off, there is more money to spend or it could be something as simple as the brother's hammers not falling apart if you wait too long to strike? Who knows? In any case, your mileage may vary so make of this what you will.
And finally we come to the remake's major addition, the one displayed proudly on the box. Called Minion Quest: The Search for Bowser, it's probably not what you would have expected. Instead of this side story being similar in nature to the main course, it's instead a strategy game. A team of eight minions must take on an opposing group of likewise eight individuals in multi-tiered battles. There is a rock-paper-scissor kind of system in play here, where flying units are more effective against melee troops who are in turn best used against ranged soldiers who can more easily take out the airborne enemies. Besides this, adding another layer to the fights is that certain units are also stronger or weaker against other specific kinds.
Before each battle a team must be formed from an ever growing roster. This is mostly a matter of finding the right balance between the three types while also taking into account what kind of enemies you're going to face in the coming fight. Another thing to take into consideration is that the participants gain experience points and can subsequently level up, meaning that if you want to maintain a strong team it would be wise not to change things up too much. On that note, you do earn beans after each fight which dispense extra points, the careful use of which can prevent other useful minions from falling too far behind.
When a confrontation ensues, both sides rush into battle and automatically start slamming into each other. The player has no control over this except when pressing a button when a special attack is being performed for extra power, much the same as in the main game. There is furthermore a captain who can issue certain orders such as annulling a special attack, letting a Thwomp stomp the ground and conjuring up a random effect such as increased defence or power. The captains also have their own specific commands such as storming across the battlefield to challenge the opposing commander to a one on one duel or calling in reinforcements. These various orders cost points which are partly replenished between each round together with the entire group's numbers and general health.
Minion Quest's main issue is that it can become something of a slog. Besides the careful use of the commands, winning battles is mostly a matter of sending in the right team, preferably one which has also been sufficiently upgraded. If you find yourself failing a certain confrontation again and again while your team seemingly has the right kind of units on it, chances are you must level them up a bit more. This can entail a fair degree of grinding which can become tiresome after a while. Especially so as the game likes to throw the occasional speedbump in the player's way, suddenly upping the otherwise pleasant yet mundane challenge. This does Minion's Quest's pacing no favours and can eventually become quite annoying, to say the least.
What will keep you going during such moments, however, is the story. The tale of Captain Goomba and his compatriots on a quest to find their missing king is a hoot. It fits in neatly into the flow and style of the main game while Goomba's rise from a simple grunt to a leader of Shy Guys, Koopa Troopas and Boos is without doubt an entertaining one. It's a bit more snarky in tone, gives a nice peek into the world of Bowser's underlings and offers plenty of laughs to boot.
Superstar Saga may not be the most intricate role playing game ever made nor the most challenging but it nonetheless manages to enthral from the very first second to the last. The game possesses a tremendous sense of flow and nearly flawless pacing. The relatively action heavy combat stays enjoyable throughout it's runtime while exploring the Beanbean Kingdom is just a lot of fun as it opens up in accordance with the brothers' expanding skillset. All this is furthermore complemented by a great looking and sounding presentation and a good sense of humour. Sure, the remake seems to be a tad easier, not all changes are really all that profound and Minion Quest ultimately turned out to be a fun yet slight diversion. Even so, Superstar Saga was already a wonderful game on it's own terms on the Game Boy Advance and remains so on the 3DS.
OVERALL: a 9,5.
Product Release: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions (EU, 10/06/17)
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