Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga

There are any number of reasons why Superstar Saga stands out as my very favorite in the strange and storied series of loosely-associated Super Mario/RPG hybrid games. Where Square stranded Mario in an isometric 3D Final Fantasy game and Intelligent Systems basically built their combat system out of Duplos, Alpha Dream stands apart for making a Mario RPG that compromises neither the Mario nor the RPG. Every aspect of the game feels strong, all the way down the line.

The story opens as the evil witch Cackletta, disguised as an ambassador, gains entry to Princess Peach's castle and steals her voice. Whenever Peach tries to speak thereafter, exploding characters rain down from her speech balloons, creating both panic and pandemonium. Unable to kidnap her in this enchanted state, Bowser enlists Mario (and a reluctant Luigi) to help him chase down the wicked witch as she makes her escape into the neighboring Bean Bean Kingdom.

Eschewing the straightforward "find the seven star things" storyline that's been the focus of every other damned game in the series (including, alas, its sequel), Superstar Saga finds the time to lay out a strange and delicious plot that loops and twirls and laughs at your expectations. They play around with the implications of traveling abroad that lesser games would gloss over -- the Mario Brothers get passports as they enter the new country, their money is subject to currency exchange rates, and some time is spent at the midgame, exploring diplomatic relationships between the Mushroom and Bean Bean Kingdoms. There's lots of laughs, lots of surprises, and lots and lots of cute Charles Martinet voice work to enjoy along the way.

Turn-Based Platforming

It's amazing how much the combat system has evolved from Legend of the Seven Stars. Square's game had pretty traditional turn-based combat with only one really interesting twist -- as the combatants went through their animations, you could hit harder or block more damage by hitting a button at exactly the right time. Furthermore, most special attacks had some sort of timing or button mashing cue to power them up. It made the turn-based gameplay just a bit more active.

Then came Paper Mario, which turned the whole combat system on its head. Rather than trying to fit Mario into an existing turn-based combat system, they envisioned what Super Mario Brothers would look like if it had been born with turn-based combat. And the result is actually pretty impressive. Jumping on Spinies hurts Mario, Koopas take more damage when they've been flipped on their backs, jumping on a flying enemy sometimes makes it fall to the ground, etc. But it was still the same idea -- timing and button-mashing cues made the world go around.

Superstar Saga brought on a small revolution.

See, your party is only ever made up of one or two characters -- Mario and/or Luigi. All of Mario's actions are activated with the A button, all of Luigi's with the B button. Combat is still turn-based, but pressing a character's button will usually make him do something, even when it's not his turn. One small example -- if you press B when it's Mario's turn, then Luigi will jump. It doesn't necessarily accomplish anything, but it's a real-time jump.

Attacks are done with the same old timing cues that they've always used. Where the new system really shines is on the enemies' turns, when you have to defend. In previous games, defending properly would shave some damage off, but you'd still take a hit. In this game, things are different.

As an enemy is going through its attack animation, you can press a character's button to make him jump or ready his hammer, depending on the situation. Timing is still an issue, of course, but this time around it's all real-time action. Say a goomba is running up to Mario. If you jump at the right time, you'll jump right over it and take no damage whatsoever. What's more, you can time your jump so that you'll land on the goomba instead of jumping over it. If you do this, you'll take no damage, but the goomba will take damage for being stomped.

Can you see how beautiful this is? How this is a complete paradigm shift? It's still turn-based combat, but the question of hit or miss is an almost completely skill-based proposition. You can still dominate at this game with piss-poor experience levels if you can get good enough at dodging and counterattacking.

Combat is thick, juicy, and satisfying. As you get further into the game, you'll run into all manner of enemies with creative attack patterns. It's a lot of fun to figure out how best to use their own attacks against them, especially with the bosses. The end boss in particular rolls out some completely devastating attacks, and dealing with the onslaught can make you forget that you're not playing a pure action game.

And the whole system is built on a system of statistics that are instantly comfortable and familiar to traditional RPG fans. None of this "star points" and "badge points" crap from Paper Mario -- no, this is good, old fashioned RPGery, complete with attacks that deal out dozens of hit points per strike. It's so natural and comfortable to RPG fans that it doesn't even need any explanation.

Also Regular Platforming

Superstar Saga isn't particularly deeper in the platforming aspects than any of the other Mario RPGs. The big gimmick on display here is that, just as in battle, you control both Mario Brothers simultaneously. You can press Start at any time to switch the one that you control, and in most situations, the other one will follow along behind you. As you progress through the game, the brothers will pick up cute new abilities to use in the overworld, and the shoulder buttons toggle between all of the available options.

Just as in Paper Mario, you'll run into some of those annoying spots where you have to unlock a figurative door to the next area by exercising a special ability. You know what I'm talking about. There's a long gap in the road, so you switch to the Spin Jump that will get you across it. It requires neither skill nor wit -- the developers just want to delay you for the two seconds that it takes to put Luigi in the lead and switch to Mario's Spin Jump ability.

This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that they actually do manage to make some interesting puzzles to solve and by the fact that the game doesn't ask you to run back and forth across the same stretch of land five or six times in order to accomplish anything. Most of the "dungeon" areas in Superstar Saga are fairly straight-shot propositions. When the game does make you back track, it takes the classy tactic of not respawning any of the enemies unless you completely leave the area.

The Best to Date

This is, in short, everything that a Super Mario RPG should be. Which is why it was so sad to see its direct sequel, Partners in Time, arrive without the inspired plot or the crazy humor.

I could go on and on. I haven't even touched on Fawful, Prince Peasley, Queen Bean, Luigi's side quest, Popple the Shadow Thief, Bubbles the soda brewer, Boddle the Yoshi enthusiast, the Starbeans Cafe, or the giant fire-breathing, man-eating hermaphrodite. The game is, from start to finish, an insane, hilarious sugar rush, a delectable treat that you'll want to play through again and again and again. If you missed out on it, well... that's quite a pity.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?