Back in 2003, Nintendo had already released two excellent Mario RPGs; Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars and Paper Mario. Rather than immediately making a Paper Mario sequel, the company decided to add a third completely different game to the line-up. While the previous games were developed by Squaresoft and Intelligent Systems, this time Nintendo went with AlphaDream, a relatively new developer that only worked on two previous games. As the resulting Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga has since had three sequels, you can already guess that this collaboration ended up being a success for all concerned.
Just like in Super Mario RPG, Bowser initially seems set up to be the main villain, as is to be expected of a Mario game, but this soon changes — just a few minutes into the game he's kicked aside for new villains Cackletta and Fawful. Cackletta isn't seen all that much and is a fairly standard villain, but Fawful pops up frequently and has become a fan favourite mostly due to his hilarious, strangely constructed sentences and metaphors. The game's setting also quickly moves to that of the Beanbean Kingdom rather than the Mushroom Kingdom; although there are still some familiar faces, most of the characters and enemies are completely new.
For the most part, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga doesn't stray too far from its predecessors. It's still a comedic, turn-based RPG in which you primarily use hammer and jump attacks, and certain small quirks, like the well-loved timed hits that allow you to deal extra damage, make an appearance here as well. There is one major difference though, which is quite evident from the title — this time it's not just Mario who plays a starring role, but Luigi as well.
As you move around, you can control both brothers — the one in the back will automatically follow the one in front, but their actions are controlled separately, meaning that if Mario jumps Luigi will not jump as well; you'll have to hit a different button for him to do so. Throughout the game both of them will learn additional moves, some unique to one brother, so in some cases it'll be required to have a certain brother in front — this can be done with a simple push of the start button.
In battle this is quite similar to those aforementioned RPG predecessors, with Mario, Luigi and enemies all taking turns to attack. As mentioned, the timed hits make a comeback, and you've also got Bros. Attacks at your disposal that let Mario and Luigi do extra strong combinations that allow you to make multiple timed hits in a row.
One cool feature, meanwhile, is that there's no 'blocking' in this game — instead, attacks can be completely avoided by jumping or hammering at the right time, meaning you either take all or none of the damage. All of the enemy attacks have some sort of small hint as to when to make a move and which brother will be hit, so figuring out the enemy's tells as fast as possible is a key strategy. Of course, if you're not so good at dodging there are always healing items!
Another feature that Superstar Saga takes from its predecessors is the sheer diversity on offer. While the meat of the game is the main quest, there are plenty of minigames, side-quests and collectibles that you can go out of your way to complete and collect. As usual for an RPG these tend to get you special items and equipment, so if you're having a tough time it can be wise to explore.
Despite coming out somewhat early in the Game Boy Advance's life, Superstar Saga has some attractive graphics and music — the latter is to be expected, as the soundtrack was composed by none other than Yoko Shimomura, who also produced the soundtrack for Super Mario RPG and many, many other games.
One interesting note is that the original release of this game included a remake of the original Mario Bros. arcade game. While there are many as of yet unreleased games on Virtual Console that people suspect to be in limbo because they include other games (such as Donkey Kong 64), this is not one of them; the remake is actually there, in its full glory. Of course, Mario Bros. might not be the greatest of games, but this version has a nice graphical overhaul and features much more responsive controls, so it can be a pleasing change of pace from time to time.
Like the other games in the first batch of Game Boy Advance titles on Wii U Virtual Console, Mario & Luigi offers some welcome graphical options, namely the ability to turn smoothing on or off, and switch between full-screen and "original resolution", somewhat resembling the Game Boy Player with a black border.
The icing on the cake is that there's no boring, newly made instruction manual — you can call up a scanned version of the original manual on your GamePad, which you can keep displayed while you continue playing. Of course, all of this is on top of the standard restore point feature. Let's hope we see these features included with all future GBA games.
While the fact that you control two characters might make Superstar Saga slightly confusing at first, it is surprisingly easy to get used to. The main adventure is quite lengthy and unique due to the dual brother and battle systems, and if you can't get enough there are always side-quests to seek out and minigames to replay for a high score. Mario and Luigi's amusing animations and "voice acting", plus the game's great sense of humour, will also keep you smiling from ear to ear. This might be the first game in the series, but AlphaDream hit the jackpot right away - it's still among the best.