Nintendo's portable gaming has a special place in the industry, a challenge the company will need to tackle in the years to come should it stick with a single 'hybrid' device in the form of the Switch. Nintendo's dedicated handhelds have consistently had games unique to that on-the-go space, with the Mario & Luigi series among them. It's graced the Game Boy Advance, DS and 3DS with multiple bizarre and quirky games, full of daft premises, witty gameplay and oodles of charm.
It all started with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, and so it's somewhat fitting that the grand original by AlphaDream gets a second life with the slightly awkwardly titled Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions. It's a full remaster in that, aesthetically, it's a complete overhaul from the original, bringing it up to current-day standards while retaining its defining qualities. We'll start off with a fresh look at what makes this game tick before getting to what this 3DS version does differently.
Considered by some to be a spiritual successor to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, this first game in the Mario & Luigi series establishes some key things - the dual button control scheme, timing-based combat, and that villains are comedy gold. Though to be fair, the whole game is about humour. The cast of the Mushroom Kingdom and Beanbean Kingdom (where the game mostly plays out) are straight out of a comedy show, full of snappy lines and laugh-out-loud dialogue. Superstar Saga set the tone for all of the gems that followed and, in terms of its storytelling in particular, hasn't aged a bit.
The plot here, and its structure, arguably place it among the best the series has offered. New foes Cackletta and fan-favourite Fawful supposedly steal Princess Peach's voice; the famous Bros. and the intensely arrogant - and funny - Bowser team up (briefly) to tackle the new menace. Over the course of 20 hours+ they get split up, reunite in strange ways, and go through more twists and turns than a race car in Monaco. We meet some memorable new characters, and are also introduced to AlphaDream's spin on familiar mascots, with this game throwing in plenty of cameos along with fresh faces. It's clever writing, too, as it has the visual hooks and silliness to amuse young players, but also the self-referential wit to make big kids like this reviewer laugh.
As for the actual gameplay, it takes shape as any logical Mario RPG would. You explore the overworld, picking fights or dodging them if you prefer, gradually solving puzzles to explore the world and advance the story. Naturally the series has its own spins - first and foremost is the dual control mechanic. For the most part Mario & Luigi move together but jump independently with the A and B buttons, with X conveniently making them jump together. When you go into battle they operate independently, but you use timed button presses for a combination of attacks, dodges and counter-attacks. The centrepiece set of moves in combat are called Bros. Attacks, in which the two heroes work together on extravagant, powerful and goofy assaults.
It's a formula that was evidently nailed on day one, as it works as well here as it does in its various sequels. Those that have only played more recent entries in the series will also recognise a number of the overworld / exploration moves the brothers can pull off. Early on they're simple things like a high jump, but by the end Luigi will be electrocuting Mario to get through small spaces, or they'll hammer each other into smaller or mole-like forms. The design is fantastic, as moves and abilities are gradually unlocked to match circumstances; they feel easy and intuitive to execute.
It all unfolds over a fairly lengthy adventure, though those that felt more recent entries like Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam were padded out or thin on engaging characters will enjoy the relative brevity and diversity here. As is now the series' style it likes to pull the old "this is the end, nah it isn't!" trick a few times, but always in a way to raise a smile. Its new characters - now familiar to series veterans - are also superstars in their own right, with Fawful's iffy understanding of language comprehension being a particular high point. It's a world packed to the brim with charm, all wrapped around a clever spin on RPG exploration and combat norms.
Of course, plenty know this game well from the GBA original and its relatively recent inclusion in the Wii U Virtual Console library. With that Wii U release quite fresh in the memory, how can Nintendo justify this as a retail release?
For one thing, this is a genuine remaster, not a simple upscale. The entire game has been transplanted and reproduced in the 3DS-era engine for the series, which retains the eccentric animations and facial expressions of the older games but within colourful polygons. We've always been fans of the look, and purists seeking the 'original' should by all means play it on Game Boy Advance or the Wii U at a push; for the purposes of this new release the updated visuals look terrific. As a whole the game is a looker by 3DS standards.
Other aspects of the 3DS functionality are less important, and there's one major omission. To start with the touchscreen, it's used as a means to alternate between a minimap or touch buttons to access various moves and abilities; you can also place pins on the map to remind yourself of landmarks, though we generally went through the game only needing the most basic of pointers. The letdown, though, is a complete absence of the 3D effect.
There's no real justification for this beyond time- and cost-cutting. Both previous 3DS entries supported 3D with improving results, and it added a diorama-like appeal to the visuals, but here the experience is resolutely 2D. It ties into Nintendo's focus on the New Nintendo 2DS XL model, in particular, but after the recent joys of auto-stereoscopic 3D in Metroid: Samus Returns this feels like a snub to those of us that leave the slider all the way up. It's not a dealbreaker by any stretch, but considering the fact the action is almost exclusively on the top screen it's a lazy omission.
We do have amiibo implementation, too, in which you scan figures for a stamp book that you show to a merchant a little way through the game. On a superficial level this is one of the most fun ways we've seen amiibo implemented on the New 3DS / 2DS touchscreen, as you scan the amiibo by essentially 'stamping' the page. Standard Super Mario characters (though the pixel Mario and Yarn Yoshi worked for us) give you rewards, and the Goomba / Koopa Troopa / Boo amiibo do something 'special'. We didn't have those particular figures but, as is often the case for amiibo, you can enjoy the functionality or enjoy the game just fine without it.
The biggest new feature here, of course, is the Bowser's Minions campaign. It unlocks a short way into the story and follows an alternate path in which Bowser's much put-upon grunts seek to rescue their master. Initially a Goomba is made captain in order to be a fall guy, and what evolves is a real-time strategy-lite experience in a storyline that loosely follows along with the main adventure.
It offers a relatively lengthy campaign, though not all may see it through to completion due to the limited hook on offer. Employing a rock-paper-scissors approach to combat, before each stage you can see which kind of units the opposition will have and then build your squad and formation to counter that. Where you place units matters as much as type, and some are strong against particular opposition, with more joining your squad as you progress. As your numbers grow the challenging part is rotating enough to level up a broad range of fighters while also keeping each team's overall level moving in the right direction.
The actual battles themselves are extremely simplistic - you watch as the units scrap it out, occasionally using the A button when prompted for special attacks. You also have commands that you can issue (limited by a points system) to block enemy specials, rally the troops and more. Though you form the team and strategise a little behind the scenes the battles aren't very engaging. Grinding also comes into play as the challenge mounts, as you can go back and replay cleared stages if your units need more experience to level up.
The story told is charming, and the humour from the main game carries across. That's the saving grace of this mode, as the cast are certainly amusing enough to make the grind worth it. This add-on is competent enough, then, but not overly diverting; in terms of quality it's not really close to the design of the main adventure.
Overall, when you combine the remastered classic and the light-touch diversion of Bowser's Minions, you get a lot of playtime out of this one. It's also guaranteed to be some of the funniest and most unique gaming you experience this year, as the Mario & Luigi formula still shines brightly. For those that feel the latest entries on 3DS became bloated, meanwhile, this offers good value with a little more snap, though numerous extra hours can be spent on optional exploration and sidequests. It's just a shame, in the end, that Nintendo didn't implement the 3D effect, but that's one of our only complaints.
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is a classic, and this new version is arguably the definitive version. Yes, Bowser's Minions is a harmless but shallow add-on, but the Superstars are the real attraction.
This is a series that has a distinct and special place within Nintendo gaming, and after experimentation and not-always-popular approaches in the 3DS era of games, this takes us back to the IP's roots. What a treat it is, too - funny, smartly designed and pure unpretentious joy, this is a great start point for those that missed the original in the Game Boy Advance era, and should also be tempting to those with fond memories of the adventure.