Gameplay – 8 / 10
If you read nothing else of this review page, let me at least say that this was a great game that I deeply enjoyed playing. That being said, it isn’t without its flaws. That final battle being the most glaring flaw of the whole game. It is such a cheap shot to basically instant kill you half way through the battle. I did eventually learn to watch Cackletta’s eyes to see if I needed to jump or not, but you don’t know that the first time you encounter her. You might not even notices it the second, or even third time. In all honesty, that moment is the single strongest memory I have of the game, and it is extremely regrettable that the lasting impressing is such a sour taste.
The field controls were probably the other complaint I would have with the game. The Mario Brothers each learn quite the variety of field commands, which, in themselves, are great. They incorporate nicely into the puzzle solving elements of the game, and they create natural barriers that make it feel like you are playing an open world game when really you’re being guided by the hand down a single path. Unfortunately, the fact that you control the brothers separately makes simple actions like going up steps a minor hassle. Likewise, it can be difficult to flip between the various field moves quickly when needed. It just feels like there could have been a more streamlined way to do it.
This brings us to more of a gray area for me in regard to the Bros. Attacks. Personally, I don’t like them, and if you read the whole article, you’ll know that I barely used them. I’ve seen videos of people using them, and they cause massive damage that would have been incredibly helpful. But personally, I don’t like having to memorize button inputs. That’s pretty much the main reason I shy away from fighting games. I’m not saying I CAN’T memorize them. I simply don’t want to. That venting aside, objectively, it’s an interesting design choice that keeps players engaged in the battle. Too often RPGs get bogged down with the random battles that you can win with your eyes closed simply by mashing the attack button. With the Bros. Attacks I think it does give you more bond with your characters as if you are actually the one fighting as opposed to being just a spectator to the battle. Likewise, the manual dodging and counterattacking mechanics combined with the extremely low HP in general makes every attack count. I don’t know how closely you were paying attention, but by the end of the game each of the brothers were only around 100 HP, which is unthinkably low for any other RPG I’ve played.
With all that said, this game really did do so many other things right. The open world feel and exploration, the mini games, the characters, and the frequent elements of nostalgia. Everything just came together so perfectly that I didn’t want to put the game down.
Graphics – 10 / 10
I feel as if you’d be hard pressed to find another GBA game that put this much attention to detail into every corner of the game. Luigi alone has such a huge range of distinct emotions. From the victory dances after battle, to cowering in fear, to simply sulking and poking the queen passed out on the floor. You really feel for him every step of the way because so much work went in to giving him those animations.
Likewise, the range of enemies was incredible. Normally RPGs will pad out their enemy list with pallet swaps of weaker monster and call it a day, but I don’t think I saw a single generic pallet swap in this whole game. There were similar monsters, sure, but they were unique monsters. The Goomba line for example had your standard Goomba, Goomdivers, and Gritty Goombas just to name a few. All variants of the basic Goomba, but each with its own unique traits and personalities.
Then you have some of the more subtle touches. Things like using ?-Blocks instead of the typical treasure chests to tie it in better with the Mario Universe. Or the small markings indicating a hidden bean in the ground. Something that could easily be overlooked, but obvious enough to be found. Then there are the tiny details like watching Cackletta’s eyes to know when to dodge.
From there we have to pull back to the environments themselves and how much work went into them. From the Castle Town, to Gwarhar Lagoon, to Little Fungitown, every area we went to felt special and unique. We were never just trudging along through generic caves. Every area had a life of its own, not just in appearance, but in the monsters you encounter as well. Once again I look back at the Goomba line of enemies and how each variant seemed perfectly adapted to the location rather than being a simple pallet swap.
Audio – 10 / 10
Much like with the graphics, you’ll be hard pressed to find any better music on the GBA. Nearly every song you hear while playing feels just perfect for the situation. But what really got me is every time they remix a classic Mario song. I would honestly just stop and listen to the music for a moment when going through some of the caves and hear the remix of the underground theme.
What I thought was a nice touch though was the voice acting for Mario and Luigi themselves. They rarely said any real words, but just the little mutterings they do say added so much to the scenes. This greatly benefitted Luigi in particular. With his range of emotions, you can actually hear the tone change from happy to sad to scared and it adds so much to ever moment.
Story – 10 / 10
The story is a long way off from the typical “Bowser has kidnapped Peach, go save her” narrative typically present in a Mario game. There are so many twists and turns throughout the game and it is honestly a joy from start to finish. Not only that, but there are several side stories going on alongside the main story for nearly the whole game. Popple the thief for example has an entire character arc scattered throughout the story, carrying right on through to the end of the game. Likewise, Prince Peasley’s friendly rivalry with the Mario Brothers is charming in its own way. The point is, you’re never just given exposition and then left alone to figure it out yourself. The story follows you throughout the entirety of the game.
I also want to give special attention to the amount of story time and extra attention given to Luigi. Despite Mario being the face of the entire series, he was portrayed as the generic good guy throughout most of the game. Always willing to help, always brave in the face of danger, and always the hero people look up to. While that is all true to Mario’s character, it also makes him a rather boring person to roleplay as. If you’re already the hero, you have nowhere to grow. Luigi, on the other hand, lacks virtually all of those traits, and because of that becomes a much more interesting character to follow. From the beginning, Luigi had no intention of helping, and was brought along against his will, yet he rarely complained. When things got dangerous, he was scared, but he kept fighting anyway. And when people didn’t even recognize him, he got upset, but ultimately still helped them. Not only that, but there were several times throughout the game when you only have Luigi in the party, for one reason or another. Luigi even has a boss battle that he has to fight alone, something Mario never got to do during the game (excluding the tutorial at the very beginning). Luigi also has so many more expressions and emotions than Mario does. Personally I feel like the whole game was really catered around giving Luigi a chance to shine, and in my mind it accomplished that wonderfully.
Total Playtime – 26h 54m
Coming in just shy of 27 hours, I would call this a good length for a game. What’s more important, though, is that it is almost entirely quality gameplay. A typical occurrence in RPGs is the need to level grind before making any forward progress, and that simply wasn’t the case with this game. Excluding the very early parts of the game when I was grinding for money and items, I never felt the need to grind at any point while playing. The enemies we encounter naturally while playing gave us enough experience to carry us through that area, the boss, and right into the next area. There was also never a DRAMATIC difference in power from area to area, so long as we visited them in the correct order. Even when the enemies did jump in power, the unique dodging / counterattacking battle mechanics of the game made it easier to hold our own against stronger enemies once we got the attack patterns down.
Circling back to what I mentioned in the Story section, we were also never simply thrown into an area and left alone. There were so many different events we encountered in each area that the game never felt like it was starting to drag. Take the Chucklehuck Woods for example. The main quest sent us there to get the Chuckola Reserve which is kept in the deepest part of the forest. But between entering the forest and finding the Chuckola Reserve at the end, we ran into Popple for a mini boss fight, learned hammer skills we used the rest of the game, went on a side quest to find the 3 Chuckleroots, learn about Chuckle Beans hidden in the ground, have another mini boss fight with a wiggler, get tricked by Popple, and THEN after all of that we finally made it to the main boss fight which resulted in obtaining the Chuckola Reserve we were after to begin with. There is simply too much stuff crammed into every minute of the game for it to ever feel like it’s dragging.
Total Deaths – Mario – 29, Luigi – 18, Game Overs – 12
Even complaining that most of these deaths are because of the final boss fight, 12 game overs in the whole game isn’t really that bad. In general, I wouldn’t call this a particularly hard game. And considering I spent most of the game using basic attacks instead of the more powerful Bros. Attacks, that’s saying something. The boss battles are obviously where most of the challenge comes from, but the ability to actively dodge attacks means that they’re only as challenging as you make them. If you can learn the attack patterns it’s actually possible to make it through the entire game without ever taking any damage. In that regard it’s probably a great game for people that like those type of self-imposed challenges, make it through the entire game without taking damage.
Before moving on, I do want to point out that there is a rather large gap between how many deaths Mario had vs how many Luigi had. Ultimately that comes down to my inability as a player, but I do think the game design itself played a factor in that gap, particularly the camera angle. If you noticed, Mario is positioned slighting forward compared to Luigi. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to impact the amount of time he has to process and react to attacks compared to Luigi. Likewise, because of his position higher on the screen, many attacks that traveled in an arc would occasionally travel off screen before hitting Mario, whereas they’d be visible the entire time if they were aimed at Luigi. Because of these things, it became harder to avoid attacks with Mario, and he ended up dying more often.
Overall Score – 9.5 / 10
The game as a whole lost points for a bad final boss fight, and somewhat annoying controls based on my personal preference. However, I can’t find anything else of significance to complain about for the entire rest of the game. You probably wouldn’t think of Mario, the classic icon of platform gaming, being able to work as an RPG, but it does. If fact, it might work even better as an RPG. Over the years the Mario Universe has built up so much wonderful lore that it’s easy to find something to pull from for inspiration. In that regard it’s even more impressive that Superstar Saga creates more lore than it borrows. The creation of an entire neighboring kingdom full of its own people and monsters, while also pulling in an assortment of the classic faces you already know and love to keep you invested is an amazing accomplishment. Mix those together with a wonderful story that had the power to push through to the end and you won’t want to put it down. Then of course, there is also the innovative battle system, beautiful music, and amazing art work present throughout every second of the game. Honestly, if you are a fan of RPGs and/or Mario in general, hell, if you simply own a GBA you owe it to yourself to play what is without question one of the greatest games the system has to offer.
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