Game Review — Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser Minions
Absolutely Brilliant Level Design, Incredible And Forgiving Gameplay
I was very excited when I got a copy of this for my new 3DS XL. I had a cartridge which had a faulty save system for my GBA more than a decade ago, which was a disappointing experience, because this is actually one of the few handheld console games I really enjoyed and really want to see it to its end. This is definitely not my first Mario game, but it is the first that I have ever completed. In fact, in terms of consoles this might even be the first non-Pokemon title I bothered to finish.
Basically a Mario turn-based-RPG and platformer hybrid. You control both Mario and Luigi on a bizarre cartoony journey to retrieve Princess Peach’s stolen voice and beating up hordes of enemies along the way by jumping on them (and more!) in classic Mario style, except this happens in three-dimensions. This journey takes place in the Beanbean Kingdom, where most of the journey happens in classic bird-eye view RPG style plus jumping (and later on, a myriad of field abilities) to help reach new heights :) Throw in a mix of turn-based battles which can be enhanced with live button inputs and some minigames, and you get a package full of non-stop fun from beginning to end.
I don’t even know if this is a 3 or lower. This is a game with a plot about saving princesses and kingdoms intended for children so I can’t even be harsh to begin with. There are no important or mind blowing philosophical or moral themes available in this game. You are just two plumbers playing the good guy beating up bad guys again and again. That being said, there are some pretty interesting plot points and plot twists alongside a lot of funny lines that makes the gameplay at least worth seeing to its end.
Play Control: 5/5
Overall difficult controls, but the game starts simple. If one hands a completed game to a new player it will look extremely overwhelming, but actually really learnable given a good ten minutes or so. One of the best parts of this game is that it helps you learn the controls as you progress and even has built in tutorials and demonstration which you can access anytime. By the time the game gets really complicated in terms of controls, your muscle memory should have gotten very refined. Of all the games I have played, this title is the single best game at helping the player learn the game well enough in order to beat it.
The animations are likeable generally. The game actually requires you to time your button input with your in-game moves to do better attacks or dodge, so it is important to be able to read into the animations in order to respond properly. The game’s animations are fluid enough to accommodate those inputs so I would say it is overall great for a 3DS game ported from a GBA title more than ten years ago. This can get bland, but you can always switch things up a little by using different options.
Sound Effects and Music: 3/5
The sound and music wasn’t terrible but they did not grow on me. I may have gotten too old to enjoy the kiddy BGM and I actually enjoy keeping the volume low while jamming to my lo-fi playlist, especially considering how fast paced they generally are. I might miss them in some distant future, but I won’t be including them on my playlist anytime soon. The sound effects are rather on point bringing out the right vibes. I am not too sure what I feel about the voices though, especially the Italian gibberish and Princess one-liners.
This is a very learnable game but not the breeze that is modern Pokemon. It comes off simple at the beginning where players just have to jump on enemies and time their ‘A’ presses with the impact. Then options slowly expands: there is the option to nail them at no risk with a hammer smash, there are a multitude of high-powered and resource-consuming Bros Attacks that require timed button-mashing, and there are elemental Hand attacks which allows you to hit specific weaknesses. Occasionally it would seem that some field goals are out of reach and require some backtracking later on, but once you get the hang of what abilities to use to navigate you can generally figure out what needs to be done (many puzzle solving feats make you feel extremely intelligent). Then there are enemies, where every one of them has unique attack patterns, each requiring you have to time differently to dodge or counter. This also means that you can theoretically beat the game without having to gear up or stock up on recovery items since with perfect reflexes and pattern learning as every move in the game by the enemy is dodgeable. I generally did not have trouble with 85% of the game, with the 15% being the final stage which is more than a few notches tougher than the rest. Bottom line is this: the game does not punish you for anything more than the failed objective and allows you to try again from a close checkpoint (without having you to save the game). All challenges are beatable here with enough muscle memory refinement, and all the retries and tutorials in the world are available to help you build it. Masterpiece of level and education design.
Replay Value: 3/5
I would replay this in a more social setting simply because of the raw fun brought by its masterful design. It would make for a pretty good party game even if it is single player by nature. The main factor that limits its replayability is the linear progression. I mean, sure, some backtracking happens, sometimes its for those extra rewards, sometimes its for the progression. But overall there is only one direction the game goes, no alternate endings or branched plotlines. Maybe one can experiment with different statistical builds, like a pure power build for instance just to hit higher numbers and forcing yourself to evade instead of taking blows.
It is ultimately a port retaining 99% of the classic gameplay without not much new add-ons. It has an additional side-game in the form of Bowser’s Minions, but it comes across as too bland for me to even care. The main game is clearly made by some of the best level designers in the world with everything weaving together beautifully for a great experience.
What makes this game great?
The overall gameplay experience is amazing, especially from a level design standpoint. The UI is excellent, with everything understandable at a glance (although my map somehow failed to give me certain crucial quest markers at times). Navigating different obstacles with newfound abilities (on top of some constraints, like timers) is incredibly satisfying. Due to the game allowing you to optimize damage and evade/counter attacks by allowing your live input, even the simplest interaction such as landing on foes in the overworld, landing a timed double jump, countering foes with a hammer smash, or complicated stuff like dodging attacks well by reading into their attack patterns or launching special attacks through combinations of presses, everything can be very satisfying.
Another great thing is that the learning for battles, minigames, and overworld navigation goes on for an extended duration of the game. Just when you expect to have gotten wield of a significant portion of game, new interactive options present themselves for the player to learn, experiment around, and master. Learning to hammer or nuke enemies from the overworld is thrilling too. Even when you out-level enemies, having the option to one-shot them from the overworld is also pretty satisfying to some extent.
Most importantly, as I said before, the game’s normal mode allows you to learn how to beat it without punishing you more than needed. It is not a snake-and-ladders situation where the wrong move sets you far back, but rather like rolling a zero on a dice, forcing you to retry next turn.
What can this game improve on?
Not much, but most of the overworld field options rarely have more than a couple of purposes. Once you got hold of how to use these abilities, the game does not offer much variety in terms of how to use them (to be fair, this was originally a GBA game which can only hold so much content). You learn that double jumps are meant for higher platforms, spin jumps are for crossing platform gaps (and the occasional whirlwind node which propels even further), Firebrand for torches, Thunderhand for blue bulbs, Fire Dash to bust down annoying NPCs, etc. The idea is this: once you figured out the controls, you will intuitively understand what you can interact with over time. Generally a good thing, but it does get bland on the 20th hour of gameplay.
This is nitpicking already, but the game’s world is aged and difficult to immerse in. There is some mildly interesting geography, but the comedic and light-hearted tones make them hard to fully connect and take seriously. Maybe I am not exactly the target population the creators were looking for.
Another bone I can dream up to pick is the enemy attack designs at the later parts of the game, where the enemies were designed to stun your characters and then be nuked into oblivion if you get hit even once. From a PvM perspective, this is noticeably unfun to play against repeatedly, especially if the game usually challenges you to time your counterattacks.
What should really be avoided in this game?
Only one thing ruined the game for me, the permanent danger music at the destroyed Beanbean City at the end even after you beat the final boss. Many handheld RPGs I completed has this similar trope of permanently locking the game at the story phase which everything is under threat from the final boss, which really ruins the impression that you actually beat the game. I genuinely thought games have stopped doing this but it seems this title is still following this practice. A nice postgame unlock in the form of a new area, or even having the option to explore Mushroom Kingdom more would have made the game last a few more fun and relaxed hours. But now beating the game results in a perpetual panic in the story.
Who should play this game?
This was my first proper non-Pokemon RPG in a long time, and I can’t help but give this a solid 10 point overall. Given the amazing user-friendliness and light-hearted styles, I believe this is a perfect introduction for any new gamer (young and old) to the world of video games and the Mario universe. Older and more experienced gamers will still generally find the game loads of fun and compelling to invest time in to beat. Just don’t expect anything from the plot.