Thursday, October 26, 2017

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions (3DS) Review

Leading up to tomorrow's release date of Super Mario Odyssey, I have a brand-new review of a recent Nintendo 3DS release and Mario game, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions. Let's take a look and see if this remake improves upon the 2003 original in a noteworthy way.

Jump Up, Superstars

It seemed like a crazy proposition: taking the Mario series and turning it into an RPG. However, that was exactly what happened and it turned out to be a masterful combination with Nintendo and Squaresoft's Super Mario RPG back in 1995. Mario in an RPG was rare back then, but nowadays we've sort of grown accustomed to that, what with the Big N's mascot starring in about ten RPGs now and across two different RPG series. It was still not an everyday occurrence when the original Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga released on the Game Boy Advance, but now? After several sequels of varying quality, we almost take for granted that Mario RPGs weren't always a common sight.

That said, recent Mario & Luigi games have kept the turn-based, time-action combat the series is known for, but it has also added a layer of fluff with each sequel, whether touch or gyro controls, giant battles that players had to hold their systems to the side, or Papercraft battles as recently seen in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam.

Thus, it's such a delight and breath of fresh air to see the Mario & Luigi series go back to its roots, though not with a full-fledged sequel but a remake of the very first game with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions, the latter part of the subtitle being a new additional mode to the entire package.

A new villain enters the scene, the dastardly Cackletta!
Our story remains the same as it was in the Game Boy Advance's original, starting out with the ambassador of the Beanbean Kingdom visiting Princess Peach's castle with a gift. However, it turns out the ambassador was a phony, disguising herself as the villainous Cackletta, and the gift in question steals Princess Peach's voice, replacing her dulcet tones with explosive dialog. As Mario and Luigi arrive on the scene, Cackletta is gone and Bowser has taken her place, wishing to kidnap Peach, as he's wont to do. However, with a disastrous and dangerous speech pattern, the Princess is no position to get kidnapped, so Mario, Luigi, and Bowser decide to form an unlikely alliance and head to the neighboring Beanbean Kingdom. Unfortunately, along their aerial trip in Bowser's sky cruiser, Cackletta's hilarious, broken English-reciting henchman Fawful interrupts the flight, catapulting Mario, Luigi, and Bowser to the Beanbean Kingdom below where they are separated. Now, it's up to Mario and Luigi to explore the new kingdom, setting things right where Cackletta made things wrong while stopping her master plan in the process.

A statement fitting and popular enough to be printed on a T-shirt.
The story in Superstar Saga remains unchanged compared to the original, and it brings forth the old adage that if it isn't broke, don't fix it. The dialog and humor is every bit as charming and amazing as before featuring the same long lineup of fresh new characters each with their own personalities and quirks. Despite me not having too much of a problem seeing Nintendo and Alphadream go in a more Mario-oriented direction with the characters of last year's Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, I must admit that it was nice to go back to a game in the series like Superstar Saga where every NPC wasn't a generic Toad character or Mario enemy.

There's no question that the dialog -- although as I said it's charming and amazing -- can, however, become a bit verbose and voluminous. Scenes, too, can go on for a little too long, especially if you're playing through the game over again. Thankfully, this potential issue is addressed with a fast forward button that fastens the pace of dialog and scenes in general, allowing you to speed through extended scenes that you may have no interest in watching the whole way at a normal speed.

While Superstar Saga's story is pretty much unchanged, the included brand-new Bowser's Minions mode is unlocked relatively early within Superstar Saga, offering one of the only places in the main game where a new scene is thrown in. While Mario and Luigi go about on their own adventure, Bowser's Minions tells the tale of a group of soldiers loyal to Bowser, fighting their way through the Beanbean Kingdom to find their king while interacting with various characters and villains from Superstar Saga's story. Bowser's Minions adds in some content to show the behind-the-scenes happenings that do an admirable job of filling in the holes in Superstar Saga while giving a better prominence to the Koopalings who just "appeared" for little reason at the end of the GBA original.

Continuing with the idea of "it isn't broke, don't fix it" is the gameplay of Superstar Saga which remains relatively the same from back in the day. It's purely area-exploration, turn-based RPG action without the baggage of alternate gameplay types like the ones mentioned before that popped up in more recent Mario & Luigi games.

Use the Spin Jump to spin over the otherwise impossible to cross chasm.
Exploration has Mario and Luigi moving together, but the interesting thing that set the series apart from other RPGs and their exploration is how it incorporates having two party members in the Mario series world. Both plumbers are assigned to one button each (Mario to A, Luigi to B) to perform actions, the most basic being jumping. As Mario and Luigi gain more abilities, such as high jumps to reach ledges normal jumps wouldn't be able to make, spin jumps to spin across large gaps, hammers to hit objects like buttons, and so forth, players can switch between these using the L and R buttons of the Nintendo 3DS, or better yet, use the touch screen to select one right away without having to scroll through the selection. (The only gripe with using the touch screen for ability selection is that the extremely help map of the current location is obscured, then.) Being able to perform Mario-like moves while exploring opens up a healthy heaping of possibilities that go into the game's puzzle design and means to avoid obstacles. It also serves to make exploration feel and play like a Mario game rather than just feeling like an RPG with Mario characters.

Apart from exploring the overworld, pressing one button for Mario and one button for Luigi also permeates into the battle system. Each brother uses the same button adorned to them in the overworld, but in combat, this is a turn-based affair. When it's Mario's turn, players use the A button to select an action (as more abilities are learned, more actions are available to use). In addition to turn-based combat, Superstar Saga uses a timing system to attacks and defenses. When Mario uses the jump attack, for instance, a press of the A button right when hitting the target not only increases the damage but also grants a second jump. Messing up the timing results in a weak jump and no second opportunity for a second jump.

Mario gives us a joyous dance while he awaits the player's choice of action.
Timing is also used smartly when enemies attack. It's entirely possible to dodge enemies by say, jumping over an attack and having no damage take place. In some instances, Mario and/or Luigi can even deal a counterattack to an attacking enemy depending on its attack. The genius of Mario & Luigi's combat system can be seen to full effect with the way you're always engaged in battles due to them not being so passive in design. In a typical RPG, it's a simple and mindless as pressing buttons for options, but here in Superstar Saga, there's more to it. There's pressing buttons in time with attacks to either deal damage or avoid it. It's the difference between making battles repetitive and making them engaging, a line that Superstar Saga and the Mario & Luigi series in general balance on skillfully.

With proper timing, Luigi here can jump on this encroaching Bullet Bill.
Speaking of skill, the strongest attacks within Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga require the most skill to unleash. These are Bros. Attacks. Only available when both heroes are healthy, these dual attacks require just the right button presses and timing to let loose for the maximum amount of damage to enemies. These are a bit overpowered, however, and since battle points (the currency given to use Bros. Attacks) are so plentiful as are the items that restore a given plumber's points, it can be very tempting to use these constantly in encounters. While they are somewhat challenging to pull off, you can practice them to perfection at any time, even within battles themselves until you come to grips with the timing and button order necessary to use them competently.

As Superstar Saga progresses, the enemies Mario and Luigi encounter become tougher, using more complicated attacks that really involve some difficult tells to make out which plumber is that foe's intended target. Bosses, too, utilize greater attacks with harder tells that hit multiple times if not avoided. Though incredibly uncommon, some battles can just be too challenging. Thankfully, Superstar Saga on Nintendo 3DS uses a more player-friendly approach to how game overs work. Rather than a lost battle resulting in all your progress since your last save point going "poof" into thin air, you are given the option to restart the current battle. Furthermore, you can select "Easy Mode" if the current challenge is too much, offering less damage from foes, more damage from Mario and Luigi, and prompts to tell you which plumber an enemy is aiming for in its attack, something you don't need to look for tells for unlike in the normal mode.

Likewise, the included Bowser's Minions mode is all battles, unlike Superstar Saga. Also, this mode can be entered and exited out of at any time within Mario and Luigi's adventure across the Beanbean Kingdom. Nevertheless, battles don't involve the same kind of engagement as those in the main story. You choose a collection of eight recruited enemies, and watch them battle through waves of enemies. The level of engagement isn't as large, but it does involve occasionally using commands as your squad's captain to increase the power of your troops, cancel special enemy attacks, and do Mario & Luigi-style timing-based attacks. The captain commands require CP (command points), and these replenish by two after each wave. Battles are won when all waves are defeated, either by eliminating the opposing side or by just defeating the opposing side's captain.

Despite being greatly hands-off when compared to Superstar Saga, Bowser's Minions does have strategy to it. It all starts with setting up your squad for battle. There are three minion and enemy types: melee, ranged, and flight, and each serves in a rock-paper-scissors-like "power triangle", as the game calls it. Each battle allows you to see which types are on the enemy's side pre-battle. If there's a bunch of flight-based enemies, then you'll want your team's composition of minions to feature what flight-based foes are weak against, ranged types. The better you choose your minions, the easier battles become.

Bowser's Minions here has gone all Fire Emblem on me!
Each battle's conclusion gives all minions involved in the battle experience, leveling them up in stats. As you progress in Bowser's Minions, the total enemy level averages increases, so you'll want to also keep your minions leveled up as well to stand a chance. Battle conclusions also offer the chance of enemy minions joining your cause. Each minion has specific abilities, and some even possess advantages over other minion types. For example, Shy Guys are especially strong against Lakitus.

It may look like utter chaos, but your involvement in battle still helps.
Bowser's Minions is an overall okay mode, but I didn't feel at all enthused or pressured to finish the mode. It definitely felt like a side mode that could easily have been not included altogether, and I wouldn't have missed it. That notwithstanding, those who want even more out of their Superstar Saga experience will most likely find a lot to like here, whether it's recruiting new minions or following along with the happenings in the story that occurred outside of Mario and Luigi's focus.

Going from Superstar Saga on the Game Boy Advance in 2003 to Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions in 2017, the biggest difference one will find is with the presentation. The 2D art of the original Superstar Saga is bright, colorful, and much more animated in regard to its characters' animations and expressions. Meanwhile, this remake offers more appealing environments, though many of these can be a bit darker than I would have liked, notably even some outdoor areas. These made discovering some of the buried beans underground a real pain to find. Therefore, I feel there are advantages and disadvantages to both visual styles, but sound-wise, there's no contest. Not having to listen to the original's music and voice work on and built for the tinny, weak speakers of the Game Boy Advance hardware is very much an improvement, as are the remixed compositions in general.

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions is what I believe to be a terrific rendition of the Superstar Saga experience. That said, I think both the original and this remake are worth owning and playing in any case. Bowser's Minions doesn't elevate the Nintendo 3DS remake to outstanding heights, but considering how outstanding the original Superstar Saga was in the first place, the mode merely adds value to an already invaluable package.

[SPC Says: A-]

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