Robert Tiemstra ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
If there is any recurring criticism that video games just can’t shake, no matter how many Mass Effects or Witchers get produced, it’s the accusation of being a medium fundamentally resistant to storytelling. And it is hard to not blame Nintendo for perpetuating this mentality, with every thunderous smack they give their stable of dead horses once known as original IP. The main skeleton of the Super Mario franchise is built on a formula that couldn’t be more cliché if Roberto Kurtzman and Alex Orci were brought in to give it some unnecessary rewrites, so it is hardly surprising that many people repress the existence of several extremely strong story-based Mario games purely out of habit. While there was already a formula-defying Mario RPG 7 years prior, and a dialogue heavy paper based RPG 3 years before, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga manages to surpass its predecessors and become a nigh-inconceivable example of what Nintendo does when they try a fresh approach with their oldest of old hats.
Far be it from us to harp on it, but Nintendo hung up their risk-taker badge right about the same time they owned enough capital to rival several small island nations. To put it simpler, it is far too easy for them to take a good idea and play it safe with it (“playing it safe” might as well be the subtitle of every instruction manual ever shipped with the Wii), so Mario & Luigi’s proximity to Paper Mario is something that might have raised some cynicism, if it were possible to be sufficiently jaded back in the same year that saw the Lord of the Rings film series ascend to godhood in the nerd mediasphere. Because Paper Mario was as marginal a risk as possible for a game to be – an extremely creative art design conceit and a script of witty dialogue is all that separated it from the tired routine of “Mario + Princess to Rescue = Profit”.
Superstar Saga, however, could have effectively been retitled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Princess Peach’s Castle (coincidentally, that’s the name of my Mario & Luigi themed musical); for that’s exactly what happens to set off the plot. A pair of villains (we’ll get to characterization later) show up before Bowser is due for his weekly kidnapping, and instead of feeding Princess Peach’s Stockholm Syndrome, they steal her voice, and make off with it to a rival kingdom for purposes unknown (possibly with an intention to start a disembodied Acapella troupe). Mario & Luigi are called in to save the Princess(‘s voice), and they are joined by a disgruntled Bowser (who is refreshingly upfront about his intentions to kidnap her once they restore her voice). From there, the plot descends into a mess of original characters, plot twists, reversals of fate, clever callbacks, fetch quests, and a disturbingly high body count for a game targeted at kids. It is startling enough for a Mario game to have plot twists of more complexity than “your princess is in another castle,” but the plot of Superstar Saga is so deceptively complex it’s as if someone at Nintendo was reading James Bond novels and Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics on their down time.
Plot twists and turns aside, the area in which this game really excels is its characterization. The characters we’re already familiar with are placed into new and interesting scenarios that show us sides of them we’ve never seen before – Luigi gets the spotlight when Mario is poisoned and he has to find his own inner confidence by being literally hypnotized into believing he is Mario, for instance – and makes even characters as cartoonishly drawn as Bowser and Peach new by introducing their neuroses as plot elements that wink at established canon. Mario himself gets precious little in the way of characterization, but a few self-aware winks at canon keep him from being as bland as usual (“what’s that? You say you know Bowser’s castle like the back of your hand?”).
There is a lot to be said about the original characters this game introduces, so let’s not waste any time dancing around it. The Beanbean Kingdom (curiously named, given it is ruled by a queen) is where the vast majority of the action takes place, and it is chock full of characters with unique speech patterns, quirky personalities, and varying degrees of madness. The most unique of these is a relatively minor villain named Fawful, whose unique design and dialogue remind us how much fun there is to be had in Villain middle-management. For as a mere toady he can shoulder all the villain quirks too goofy for our main antagonist, who must by necessity be focused on moving the plot along. And yet, by the time the final Mario & Luigi game rolled around (there is no fourth one), he was able to take up the mantle of the main villain without losing face as a gloriously maniacal flunkie. Fawful and co’s continued absence in the Super Smash Brothers, Mario Kart, and other party games remains an uncomfortable reminder that the Mario RPGs exist within a weird pocket dimension in the Nintendo Universe, and the powers that be are too afraid that once these characters start rubbing up against their main cast in 3 dimensions, they’ll need to include original stories in all their Mario games, not just the handheld ones.
The gameplay is your standard suite of Final Fantasy-esque RPG elements – bumping into an enemy, even if that enemy has the element of surprise, sends you into a micro universe in which you square off against the enemy like a gentlemen, and proceed to pound each other into the ground with hammers, feet, and later magic – and it does its job quite effectively, while marrying itself to a 2.5D visual style that fits more comfortably within the Mario universe than, say, Super Mario RPG’s art style did. The main gimmick this game is based off is the “bros moves”, which in both the overworld and combat employ some fun slapstick where Mario & Luigi utilize each other as projectiles to deliver a harder hit to an enemy or discover a hidden area. And while playing as both of the Brothers at the same time can feel significantly more clunky than a single unfettered Italian, it is an easy mode of gameplay to get used to, once you’ve scolded Luigi enough for accidentally being blindsided by a rabid Chain Chomp for the fifteenth time.
There is a fun theme of twos that runs throughout this game – characters, plot points, even kingdoms (the Mushroom & Beanbean realms quite nearly parallel Mario & Luigi’s red/green dynamic. Huh, never thought I’d be finding unintentional symbolism in a Mario game…). The importance of this game is the brothers themselves. While Mario has the fame and fortune, it is only with Luigi’s help that this quest can succeed. This isn’t to imply that there are scenes with Luigi angrily renouncing Mario’s fame and success (on the contrary, he seems quite happy to be left home), but the inclusion of both brothers implies that Nintendo is aware on some level that their solo adventure lightning in a bottle doesn’t strike if the formula isn’t shaken up a bit. Perhaps if they ever make a fifth game in this series – and return the story to the quality standards that made the first three so refreshing – they can give it a co-op mode, so some gamers can use it to bond with their own estranged siblings.
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is available on the WiiU Virtual Console or Game Boy Advance (if you’re one of those old-fashioned types)