Mario and Luigi have just landed on the strange island of Oho Oasis, and in time-honored videogame tradition, it's time to chat to the locals. Unfortunately, the blob-like inhabitants of Oho are not being all that helpful. "…How much is a chance?", asks one. "I am me.", affirms another. And just when it seems things couldn't get any more peculiar, one inquisitive little fellow cranks it up a notch: "…Are spirits delicious?"
Even in the niche realm of the role-playing game (RPG), Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is pretty out-there. Such Dadaist nonsense is all the more bizarre for being entirely typical of Nintendo, a company who appear to aim for new levels of unabashed quirkiness with every passing year. To their credit, however, this philosophy has really paid dividends here, in the first new Mario adventure for the Game Boy Advance (GBA). It's aesthetically fresh, filled with original creations, and presents a wholly unique mix of gameplay styles.
Like all the best RPGs, Superstar Saga's plot goes through so many augmentations and twists that it's barely worth recounting how things begin, so I'll get this out of the way quickly. The player's initial task is to retrieve Princess Peach's missing voice, which has been stolen by a witch known as Cackletta and replaced by "explosive vocabulary". If this sounds just a little too flimsy and slight to sustain one's interest for a twenty-hour adventure, rest assured that the capricious narrative serves up enough unexpected incidents, surreal detours and exotic locations to make for a genuinely compelling ride from start to finish.
Yet for all its emphasis on exploration, narrative and RPG stats, Superstar Saga still feels like a game about jumping. Puzzles are tied up in the topography of the landscape, and progress through each section of the game is judged purely on the player's physical mastery of the environment. It's traditional Mario Bros. platform action to some extent, but we've never controlled Mario quite like this before.
The two brothers move around simultaneously in response to the D-pad, and each has an action button (A or B, depending on which brother is in front) to which the L and R shoulder buttons assign a special function (jumping being the most obvious example). It's a tight little system, but not always as intuitive as one might expect from a Mario title. Having to press about 4 buttons simply to leap onto a high platform is rarely less than laborious.
This is a game for those who appreciate Nintendo's clever design quirks rather than the company's pick-up-and-play ethic, and controlling the two brothers at once opens up several well-conceived abilities. For instance, if Mario is standing in front, then he can smack Luigi underground with a mighty swing of his hammer. Whereas, if it is Luigi's turn to dish out the punishment, his brother will shrink to a fraction of his original size. Unsurprisingly, the potential of these moves to create some deliciously interlocking puzzles is not passed up. When Luigi is underground, for example, he can burrow underneath gates and explore new areas alone, whilst Mario does what he can to help from the other side. Neat idea + superb implementation = immensely pleasurable gaming. Classic Nintendo.
The dual character control also adds an extra dimension to the wonderful battle scenes. Combat deftly marries the traditional turn-based system with a sprightly injection of twitch gameplay, with nimble fingers required for both characters to avoid enemy attacks, or to perform the satisfying 'Bros. Attack' moves via. well-timed button presses. The real pay-off comes when devising a winning strategy for one of the game's show-stopping boss set pieces. These consistently brilliant and memorable battles punctuate key narrative moments, and feature enemies that are so imaginative and entertaining that even getting hit by them becomes part of the fun.
The game holds a fair amount of hardship for the brothers Mario, but by wisely discarding the silly RPG tradition of random battles and liberally spreading save points (including one before every major confrontation), the cautious player will never be sentenced to any needless frustration or exhaustive backtracking. Having said that, signposting could have been a little clearer. The game's somewhat awkward viewing angle has a tendency to obscure certain paths, entrances and exits behind foreground objects. It doesn't help that areas tend to be intricately crafted anyway, and that the maps are not always of much use in such circumstances. This is an overlookable flaw that a great many players will barely notice, but I feel duty-bound to raise the issue after spending at least 3 hours wandering around in search of some minor characters whose location was not made clear (yet whose help was vital to my progress.)
Apart from this unfortunate episode, however, I can't recall a single instance in which the gameplay dragged, or a location outstayed its welcome. For such a grand adventure, Superstar Saga is remarkably hassle-free and streamlined. Second-party developer AlphaDream appears reluctant to have taken the easy route to simply ape the conventional dungeon-overworld-dungeon system of the Zelda series. Instead, progress is pleasurably swift, and the game is excitingly unpredictable in a way that seems to add new flexibility to the tried-and-tested Nintendo-style structure. It's a mix of old and new that allows for the game's original, and beautifully realized, setting of BeanBean Kingdom and its roster of madly inventive new characters to be incorporated into a reliable adventure game template, all bolstered by unshakably crisp art direction and suitably curious musical accompaniment.
AlphaDream's invigorating design touches have helped Nintendo further immortalize their 2D craftsmanship, and Superstar Saga is a tantalizing glimpse of the new handheld adventures we can expect now that Mario's back-catalogue has been comprehensively plundered. It is also ample proof that the mustachioed brothers still represent everything that is great about Nintendo gaming: rock-solid gameplay mechanics, inspired design choices, and effortless genre-fusing. The heroic jumping twosome may be looking somewhat quaint nowadays, but only a fool would dismiss the values they stand for. Superstars? Oh they're much more than that.