It’s not a really big franchise, but the Mario RPG games are a fun take on the classic RPG formula, and each installment seems to go about it in slightly different ways. Superstar Saga may not be the original Mario title handheld gamers have been looking for, but it is definitely one of the better games to stick in your pocket.
The RPG genre is well-known for random, turn-based battles. Random battles are annoying. Turn-based battles get old. The Mario RPG series has solved both of these issues by having the enemies be visible and adding interactivity to the fights. While Superstar Saga isn’t as involving as Paper Mario, you still have to time button taps just right to increase damage, perform special moves, avoid attacks, and even counterattack. Like any true RPG, Superstar Saga has a huge world filled with different locales, like a kooky forest or a desert, that you must traverse to meet certain goals. You gain experience points to level up by defeating enemies. Upon each level, you can also assign bonus points to a category of your choice. These categories include power, defense, HP, speed, and something called mustache points which increase the likelihood of “lucky hits.” You can also equip different clothes and badges to further increase stats and grant other abilities.
If you’ve noticed a trend, it’s that Mario is always the hero and Luigi gets left behind. Well, this is the game where Luigi finally shines. You don’t get a roster of characters to choose from, but rather are stuck with Mario and Luigi for the duration of the quest. They level up differently and have their own, special techniques to use. The Mario RPG games have always tried to incorporate a little platforming, as well, and Superstar Saga goes all out. There are a lot of mini-games and obstacles that require extensive use of all your abilities. For instance, Mario may have to drink a bunch of water and have Luigi pound him with the hammer to squirt it out on a fire or plant. Another time, Mario may have to set Luigi on fire and send him running through an obstacle course. While these inclusions are refreshing to see and break up the “battle after battle” formula, they start to feel overdone and some actually detract from the potentially hardcore gameplay.
Mario and Luigi are controlled by different buttons. While traveling around, one character automatically follows the other, but to perform their different functions like jumping and hammering, you have to use the A button for the front character and the B button for the back character. In-battle, Mario is always controlled with A and Luigi with B. It gets kind of confusing, and it isn’t until about halfway through the game that this whole process finally “clicks.” By the time you have access to everything, Luigi’s functions include a jump, super jump, hammer, and hand (electricity). Mario is similar. Having to cycle through these constantly (via the L and R buttons) gets tedious. You can press L and R at the same time to revert both characters back to normal jump, so that helps a little bit, but the whole control scheme feels awkward and somewhat overwhelming.
Some people, like myself, weren’t too sold on the GBA’s graphics capabilities. Though it is a more powerful system than a Super Nintendo, a lot of its games looked drab and grainy. Superstar Saga changes that. It is, perhaps, one of the finest looking GBA games ever made. The visuals are very crisp and vibrant and are just as good as a Saturday morning cartoon. The game takes place in a slightly isometric point of view, rather than pure overhead, and it works pretty well without succumbing to the disorientation that usually follows. Also of worthy mention is the sprite animation, which is elaborate and very detailed. Occasionally, there’s a moment where you can see the pixeled outline of a close-up character, but, for the most part, Superstar Saga is a very smooth game.
The game’s soundtrack isn’t as impressive as the original Mario RPG’s, nor is it as catchy as Paper Mario’s. However, it is still adequate enough to capture the feeling of every location and rings of Mario goodness. You only have to have played a few Mario games to recognize some of the tunes. The quality doesn’t sound nearly as scratchy as other Game Boy games do, either, and that’s definitely a good thing. Would you believe it, there’s even some voice acting, and it actually sounds good! Mario and Luigi will yell the other’s name or exclaim what function they’re currently on. Princess Peach also says things like, “Help me!” and, “Thank you!” A nice touch. For sound effects, Nintendo went with their regular stock, so it’s not the greatest.
Just when you think you’re nearing the finish line, you find there’s still a lot left to do, and before you know it, the hours are starting to rack up. In the end, Superstar Saga takes about 16-20 hours, depending on how much time you spend leveling up and finding secrets. For an RPG, 18 hours may not seem like much, but for a handheld game, that’s quite impressive and should last you an entire family vacation. If you’re an RPG purist and your current library of games is exhausted, starting a new file from scratch might be a fun investment.
But that’s not all. Once again, Nintendo has included the original Mario Bros. game for single and link play (only one cartridge needed). When I played this mode, I was expecting to see the classic battle mode from Super Mario All-Stars return. What I got was something that felt clunky and “off,” like they had tried to spice it up too much and ultimately brought it to its demise. Everything is handled differently, and there are new additions, like a garbage can and the ability to pick up your opponent, that sounded good on paper, but ruin the simplistic magic. It just isn’t very much fun or competitive. The fact that this exists, though, may make it worth keeping your copy of Superstar Saga… if you don’t already own a Mario Advance title.
Of the four Mario RPG games currently available, Superstar Saga is my least favorite. That’s not to say it isn’t fun, though, because it is and comes as a highly recommended game to take on the go. The story is a little weak, directionless, and hokey, so you RPG fans who demand a solid plot might find yourself somewhat bored. However, the interactivity is fun and refreshing and is enough to turn any ex-RPG fan into a believer, despite the drawbacks that come with it. And did I mention it’s a GBA game that actually shows some work went into it? So what are you waiting for? Go!