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Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions review

More than a has-bean.

The number of Mario-themed role-playing games out there has now reached double digits, but that wasn’t always the case. Up until 1996, Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and Bowser stayed mostly in their little two-dimensional platforming world, with only a few ventures into typing games and picross to break the mold.

Super Mario RPG was the first to break the mold, proving that Mario’s adventures could be a little more action packed and stand up to a little more story. That game was so successful, in fact, that it kickstarted two separate lines of RPGs: the Paper Mario line, heralded by Paper Mario, and the handheld Mario & Luigi line, headed by none other than the original Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.

Superstar Saga‘s adventure takes Mario and Luigi far away from the Mushroom Kingdom and into the strange realm of the Beanbean Kingdom. Here, the evil witch-like Cackletta has stolen the mystical Beanstar from the kingdom, and she needs Princess Peach’s voice for it to work—unwittingly dragging the princess, Mario, Luigi, and Bowser into the middle of her schemes.

The Mario & Luigi games have come a long way since Superstar Saga first released on the Game Boy Advance, but not much has changed about the core gameplay. Mario and Luigi work together as brothers and buddies, with all of Mario’s actions mapped to the A button and Luigi’s to the B button. Over the course of the game, the two pick up different moves that require them to work together to clear obstacles, hopping onto each others shoulders to clear high jumps or, slightly more violently, zapping each other with flames to run faster down a hallway or smashing each other with hammers to become as flat as a surfboard (but hey, that’s probably just some friendly sibling rivalry being worked out).

Combat is a little more complicated, but works similarly. A mix of action and turn-based combat, each and every move in each battle requires precise timing. Mario and Luigi can swing their hammers, use fire and lightning powers respectively, jump on their enemies’ heads, and combine their powers for more powerful Bros. attacks, but each of those attacks will only reach its full potential if timed correctly. Hammers hit harder and the brothers can jump multiple times if each brothers’ button is pressed at the exact right moment, while pressing the buttons at the wrong time can result in a hammer (momentarily) breaking or a comical trip.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the exact same system used in most of the other Mario RPGs (though it thankfully lacks the cards and stickers that limit moves in more recent entries in the series). While the gameplay is still solid (and, at the time, was very innovative), it does leave the game with something of a Seinfeld is Unfunny effect—every subsequent game has copied and added to Superstar Saga‘s gameplay, and as a result, Superstar Saga now feels a bit flat. It’s still a good game, but in terms of story, action, and puzzles, time has left it with more of an “oh, another one of these” feel than anything that stands out. Everything’s just a little bit slower, the story feels fairly safe, and every puzzle has a hint of something that’s been seen before.

For those who have never played the other games, though, or who played the original and want to experience some nostalgia, the 3DS remake of the game does a superb job of bringing the rest of the game into the modern world. The entire game has gotten a graphical overhaul while still retaining the feel of the original, and the world and bosses look great. Many of the menus and battle icons have been entirely revamped. Fans of the original may find that enough smaller things have been tweaked to keep things fresh—some bosses have new mechanics, items in the stores are different, and entire minigames have been changed.

On top of that, there’s an entirely new secondary game mode: the Bowser’s Minions half of the title. This story is unlocked once you reach a certain point in the game, and more sections will continue to unlock as you go (with the full ending only unlocked once you’ve finished the main part of Superstar Saga). It can be accessed at any time from the main menu, letting players swap back and forth between the two games at will.

Much more than a minigame, but not quite enough to be a standalone game, Bowser’s Minions puts you into the shoes of a lone Goomba. When Bowser’s airship, the Koopa Cruiser, gets wrecked near the beginning of Superstar Saga, all of the minions and Bowser himself are flung to the land below. Our Goomba hero bravely (or foolishly) sets out to recover all of minions and, by recruiting a small army that’s “bound by honor and the occasional awkward hug,” rescue Lord Bowser.

The minions cover the same ground that Mario and Luigi do, and have run-ins with many of the same NPCs and areas. Nearly every encounter kicks off with a skit that provides a look behind the scenes at the NPCs or the area, adding a lot of background humor to the game. That Invincishroom that Mario tried to eat in Little Fungitown? Well, there’s a little more to the story behind how it ended up in that shop. There’s a lot here for fans of the Koopalings as well, since each of them appears as part of the storyline and as recruitable characters.

The actual gameplay of Bowser’s Minions is a lot more passive than that of SuperStar Saga, but if the two games are played simultaneously, it can provide a nice break from the intensity of the latter’s timing-based combat. Most of the strategy of Bowser’s Minions comes in the pre-battle mode, where you’ll select a team from the hordes of minions you’ve recruited. These troopers can be melee, ranged, or flying types, with a rock-paper-scissors style weakness triangle, and tons of individual weaknesses to account for—Pokeys and Goomba Towers are strong, but fall quickly to boomerangs, for example. You’re able to look at the enemies you’ll be going up against and assemble your team for each fight accordingly.

Each team consists of one captain and seven other minions, and all of them will rush together once the battle has begun. Team captains stand at each end of the battlefield, and the round is won (or lost) when a captain falls. Once a battle has begun, players get only an occasional chance to affect the flow of battle by helping a minion pull off the timing on a special attack or issuing captain commands. Each captain has a limited number of points that can be spent to pull off special moves, such as summoning another ally to the field, playing dead to avoid taking damage, or taking a chance on a random stat boost. While your team’s health recovers between rounds, you’ll only restore two captain points, so these commands have to be used wisely. For the most part, though, a battle is won or lost during the planning stages—the best execution of attacks in the world won’t help if you’ve picked a team of mostly flying minions to go up against some ranged troopers.

As mentioned before, this makes Bowser’s Minions fairly passive, but that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting. Players eventually get access to nearly every unique enemy in the game to round out their team rosters, and can earn beans to buff the stats of certain specific troopers. The skits are the most entertaining part, as they reflect more of the modern humor Nintendo has allowed the minions to express in more recent games like Paper Mario: Color Splash. There’s not quite enough content for it to stand as a full game on its own, and whether or not it’s the tipping point to convince new players to buy the game will depend on how much they like the minions, but it works quite well as a complement to the bulk of Superstar Saga.

The overall package of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions is a pleasant one, a nicely-done remake with plenty of attention to detail and enough changes and add-ons that fans of the original may find themselves surprised (though surely others will be upset by the fact that anything changed, as is the way of fandoms). In other ways, the game reflects its age. Subsequent Mario RPGs have pushed the series in weirder and cleverer directions, and this makes Superstar Saga feel a little slower and flatter by comparison. All in all, though, it’s still a solid game, and one that was rightfully deemed good enough to launch an entire series.

★★★★☆

A humorous new game mode and a major graphical overhaul offer treats to returning fans of the original game, though subsequent evolutions of the Mario RPG series leave Superstar Saga feeling slightly old-fashioned. With solid gameplay at its core and Bowser’s Minions to lighten the mood, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions provides a nostalgic, if not exceedingly memorable, visit to one of the best games of the Game Boy Advance era.

Developer
AlphaDream
Publisher
Nintendo
ESRB
E - Everyone
Release Date
10.06.17
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions is available on Nintendo 3DS. Primary version reviewed was for 3DS. Review code was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.

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