I agree with Andrew that Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is a pretty strange game. I also agree that, for a platformer and role-playing game (RPG) hybrid, it blends its gameplay styles remarkably well. It's hard to tell where the platformer ends and the RPG begins.

As silly as it is, this game is a work of art—and not just visual art, either. There's something almost literary about Superstar Saga. Its story has all the plot twists of a Carl Hiaasen novel, with double-crossings, failed plans, and samurai soda. Superstar Saga is a tall tale indeed, but one that follows its own rich and twisted logic. Nothing seems out of place. The 20-hour quest is small, but satisfying; it doesn't let players wander aimlessly with nothing to do. I'm amazed AlphaDream could fit so much into this little game.

But then again, the plucky plumbers have had practice melding genres. They starred in their own RPG for the Super Nintendo, and who could forget the experience-hoarding, button-mashing wonder of Paper Mario? This new game is as quirky as its N64 counterpart, with the same twitchy turn-based battle system and the same sense of humor. But Superstar Saga is different, too. It involves a new world and new characters, including a cast of sentient legumes and a villain who isn't Bowser.

The Koopa king is still an actor in this bizarre play, and his role illustrates one of Superstar Saga's strengths. Its characters are absolutely loveable. They're much more than sprites on a screen, archetypes of Good and Evil. Bad guy Bowser is downright hilarious. He tells the brothers, "Go, capture that fiend and get back Peach's voice! And then I can kidnap her!" The ever-helpful Marios even team up to save him. (Nasty turtle kings are people, too). Watching them unplug their nemesis from a cannon, we have a deeper respect for their hero spirit.

In fact, Superstar Saga shows us more of the Marios as people than any previous game. Players see a lot of brotherly affection here. If Mario passes out, Luigi shouts, "Mario!" and shields him from further attacks. When they reunite after being separated, the brothers always hug. These superstars show their feelings in very human ways.

It takes real artistry to make us feel for fictional characters. Like most art, Superstar Saga is a conscious mirror of itself. Allusions to past Mario games abound. Dr. Mario's viruses have a cameo, as does Birdo from Super Mario Bros. 2. Our heroes fix pipes ala the arcade Mario Bros. and even enjoy some Donkey Kong-style barrel-jumping. This isn't just "more of the same" sequelitis: it's self-parody.

Superstar Saga proves that the Marios aren't just a show-me-the-money franchise. There's real love here. But the game isn't perfect. As Andrew pointed out, maneuvering Mario and Luigi is never effortless. Their platformer moves are shoved into an RPG menu system; cycling through one's options just to clear a ledge can be a pain. Those people who'd rather play their games than watch them might convulse at all the cutscenes. Still, Superstar Saga earns its Mario title status by being really fun to play. It's nice to know that after 20 years, the Marios can break their own mold while staying true to themselves. Only the "super-est" of superstars can do that. Rating: 8.5

Tera Kirk

Tera Kirk

Tera Kirk grew up in a small Nebraska town called Papillion. Although she has a nonverbal learning disability that affects her visual-spatial skills (among other things), she's always loved video games. Her first game system was a Commodore Vic-20, which her mom bought at a garage sale for $20. With this little computer Tera learned to write Mad Libs in BASIC, to play chess and to steal gold from Fort Knox.

But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).

Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.
Tera Kirk

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