Often to their detriment, Nintendo are big fans of the remaster, pulling games from the past and updating them for a new generation seemingly to fill a release schedule plagued by a lack of strong, ongoing third-party relationships. I don’t buy into it half the time, but things are a bit different with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, a clever 2-in-1 game that works to change dynamics for the original 2003 title, which was just Superstar Saga – the game that kicked off the award-winning (and very deserving) Mario & Luigi RPG series.
The mechanics of Superstar Saga remain largely untouched here, although the gorgeous visuals and art have been completely redone and filled in with incredible attention to detail. It’s beautiful to look at, especially with animations slightly tweaked to make the game look and feel like a truly modern title rather than just a lazy reissue. This brings a lot of life and personality to a story which is already brimming with character and humour; much like subsequent Mario & Luigi titles there is laugh-out-loud funny dialogue throughout, with enough wit and wackiness thrown into one scene then most games can manage in their entire run. Re-playing through this adventure, it’s clear the original’s writers made the most of their opportunity to experiment with the already established dynamics of the Mario universe, including hilarious jabs at Luigi’s sidekick status.
The premise of the game remains the same, with big bad witch Cackletta and her memorable sidekick Fawful setting out to dominate both the Mushroom Kingdom and the Beanbean Kingdom, a plan which begins with robbing Princess Peach of her voice and replacing it with explosive (literally) dialogue. Peach’s weird state renders her un-kidnap-able to Bowser, leading to an unlikely alliance which ends up with Mario and Luigi aboard King Koopa’s airship and eventually deep inside the enemy-infested lands of Beanbean. Meanwhile Bowser is kidnapped himself, which is true to the original title, but provides a little groove which has been filled by this release. The extra content, Bowser’s Minions is the result of this clever inclusion, filling in that space with a chunky tactical RPG game that focuses on the plethora of Mario baddies (led initially by a standard Goomba) on a quest to prove their loyalty to their king.
Like plenty of animated tactical RPG games, Bowser’s Minions can feel repetitive and gimmicky at first, but the gameplay quite rapidly turns dangerously addictive, especially given a few surprises a long the way as you carefully pick your formation of baddies before each battle based on what type of enemies you’ll be facing. However, the dialogue can be a bit too much at the end of almost every short stage, and despite the story being fun and cleverly filling in gaps left by the Superstar Saga timeline (serving as a somewhat behind-the-scenes tale) players will find themselves hitting the fast-forward button a lot of the time – a neat addition to both games, having the player simply hold ‘R’ to speed up the cut-scenes. It’s also a nice touch that this game-within-a-game can be selected at any time, or even simply ignored without penalty.
Back over on Superstar Saga; while common enemy encounters can feel repetitive and are nowhere near as exciting or expansive as in subsequent titles, the winning formula for Mario & Luigi’s turn-based combat is in tact and as entertaining as ever. Simply hitting command blocks and then performing attacks (jump, hammer or special “bro attacks”) while trying to dodge, counter or enter battles with a preemptive strike is always going to be plenty of fun. The boss battles are of particular interest, with more dynamic move sets – although they too pale in comparison to something like Dream Time Bros and Bowser’s Inside Story.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of battle in the Mario & Luigi series has always been that each and every fight is more than just a case of leveling up and then button-mashing, making the player actually work constantly throughout each enemy encounter to time their jumps, hits, special attacks, dodges and counters as well as possible. It’s not impossible to go through the game without taking any damage at all, and that’s a massive reward that will keep players engaged no matter how repetitive battles can be.
What Superstar Saga really succeeds at when compared to the other Mario & Luigi titles is story. This being the first entry in the RPG series (which, to disclose a bias, has fast become one of my favourite Nintendo franchises of all time), plenty of the ideas and the writing are incredibly refreshing and still hold up all these years later, featuring wit so damn sharp it could pop a Yōkai or Pokémon from a mile away. It helps having Bowser’s bitterness to play around with, as well as big bads which are both interesting and distinctive; evidence that this title is one of the most timeless handheld games Nintendo has ever released.
Score: 9 out of 10
Highlights: Completely redone design, animation and sound; convenient additions taken from subsequent titles; battles engaging and dynamic; impeccable humour and memorable cast; just the right amount of dialogue for Superstar Saga; Bowser’s Minions is a worthy add-on; level-up and control systems simple and elegant.
Lowlights: Enemies not as dynamic as subsequent titles; can feel repetitive with lower level enemies; Bowser’s Minion vignettes can feel overlong at times; 3D effects could have enhanced some parts of Superstar Saga.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS