Unless you've been a die-hard Nintendo fan since the early days, the odds are that you'll have missed out on more than one exclusive you'd quite like to play, on a console that's before your time. As someone who jumped on board along with every other man and their dog during the heyday of the DS, we ended up skipping a fair amount of the Big N's back catalogue, as we sunk our teeth into the likes of Dragon Quest, Pokemon and chibi Link's Legend of Zelda portable adventures, to name but a few. Needless to say, along the way we developed a bit of a liking for role-playing adventures - and one of our favourites, thanks to its lovable sense of humour, was the Mario + Luigi series, leading us to play pretty much every iteration since. Or every iteration, except one. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, the title that kicked off the series, hit the GameBoy Advance in 2003, some five or six years prior to us coming into possession of our first DS. But, as they say, patience is a virtue, and now the game has been lovingly remade and remastered for the 3DS, in the form of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions - and boy, has it been worth the wait!
The main game here remains pretty much unchanged from its original release on the Game Boy Advance, as the evil witch Cackletta sneaks into the Mushroom Kingdom under the guise of an emissary from the Beanbean Kingdom, and steals Princess Peach's voice. Ever at Peach's beck and call, Mario heads off to get it back, helped by his brother Luigi and (briefly) Bowser, of all people, who seemingly decides to help out because he's a bit bummed out at the idea of capturing a defective Princess. Travelling far and wide, hot on the heels of Cackletta and her chief minion Fawful, Mario and Luigi must set out on one heck of an adventure, as they try to recover Peach's lost voice, and put an end to the evil scheme that's brewing.
The Mario & Luigi games are unlike your traditional Mario platformer though, and instead focus on slower paced story telling, exploration and turn-based battles, making it as traditional a role-playing game as you can get. As you work your way across the Mushroom Kingdom and its neighbours, you'll travel through dark caves, up steep mountains and through perilous forests in search of Peach's missing voice, figuring out a few light puzzles along the way. Whether it's working out how to get a water-filled Mario to put out a fire without being able to jump, or figuring out which order you need to whack a set of coloured statues in, your adventure will have a fair few head-scratching moments for you to solve. By working together, Mario and Luigi have a new set of moves to make use of when exploring too, which you'll need to make full use of in order to progress. These actions, which include a high jump to scale tall platforms and a floating spin to hover over gaps, are the key to navigating Superstar Saga's many dungeons, and many more unlock during the course of the story, from Luigi electrocuting his brother, to squashing each other with hammers to fit through small gaps.
Using much the same battle system as the other Mario & Luigi games, Superstar Saga blends together traditional turn-based battles with some timing-sensitive button commands to liven things up a bit. Mario, Luigi and their enemies take it in turns to attack, unleash special moves and use items, but Mario and Luigi have a few tricks up their collective sleeves to help turn the tide in their favour. When attacking, pressing a button (usually A) at the exact time you connect with an enemy will let you do extra damage, perhaps netting you a bonus jump on a monster's head - but you can also avoid enemy attacks with a well-timed jump, or, if you're really clever, a jump that sees you land on the enemy in question for a damage-dealing counter attack. Mario and Luigi also have a stable of extravagant and goofy 'Bros Attacks', that see the pair combining forces to deal extra damage to enemies, although even more so here, you'll need to get the button timing right to pull off the best attack going.
Timing can sometimes be a little tricky though. We've always found some of the more advanced Bros Attacks can be a bit hard to pull off, and Superstar Saga is no different - although a new 'Easy Mode' that can be toggled on and off in battle does help somewhat. There's also various trials you'll have to complete in order to progress the story, many of which also require a fair degree of co-ordination and skill. For example, when climbing Hoohoo Mountain, you're challenged to pick up ten purple 'Hoohoo Spirit' balls within 35 seconds, without touching the floor - for this, you need to make use of the duo's spin move, and glide across from platform to platform, picking up the orbs as you go. But as the orbs only appear for a few seconds each, and never in the same places, no matter how many times you retry, it took us quite a few attempts to get them all. Unfortunately, there's no Easy Mode for these either, which seems like a bit of an oversight, seeing as they're usually harder to pull off than the battle moves!
However, the slightly tricky controls do little to put a damper on what is Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga's strongest suit - its writing. The world is full of kooky and unusual characters, whether it's a couple of brothers who REALLY like hammers, bad guy Fawful's strange grammatical quirks, or the entertaining arrogance of Bowser, there's plenty of laughs to be had along the way. We've often thought there's more personality in just one of the Mario & Luigi games than most of Mazza's platforming adventures combined, and Superstar Saga really is a hoot. Over the course of its 20+ hour story, there are so many unexpected twists and turns, coupled with slapstick silliness and referential humour that's sure to raise a smile, we can definitely see why Superstar Saga is often lauded as one of the best in the series.
The biggest addition with the 3DS remake - the titular 'Bowser's Minions' - is an interesting touch too. It's essentially a separate mini story mode that runs concurrently with Mario and Luigi's quest, starring a plucky little Goomba with "dynamic eyebrows" and "ample gumption". Following the untimely demise of Bowser's Koopa Cruiser, his many minions got scattered far and wide, and a lone Goomba decides to take it upon himself to save his master, whom he just saw flying through the sky to his doom. And so, he sets off on the journey of a life time, rounding up Bowser's missing minions along the way, as Fawful's meddling schemes throw mind-controlled minions at him left, right and centre. You'd be forgiven for thinking this is just a throwaway addition to bulk out the remake a little, but its hilarious dialogue is well worth playing for alone, even though its real-time battles-come-strategic army management is a little lacklustre.
Essentially, your Goomba army charge at the enemy army, and duke it out on their own, largely without your interference. Carrying over from the main Mario and Luigi story, you'll need to employ the odd well-timed button press to execute special attacks, while throwing in a few commands to block enemy special attacks, or rally your troops. Most of the strategy, however, comes in before you even start, as you need to pick which combination of troops you want to send out for each stage, with each type having its own strengths and weaknesses. Basically a game of rock, paper, scissors, your ranged Hammer Bros beat your flying Goombas squads who in turn do best against your melee ground troops of Goombas and Bob-ombs - and the same goes for your enemies too. As such, you'll want to consider the make up of your army carefully with each new stage you tackle - seeing as sending a squad of basic Bob-ombs up against an army of winged Koopa Paratroopas is basically suicide, no matter how many special attacks you can hit.
If you've never played the original Superstar Saga, then you owe it to yourself to check out Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions, stat! With witty, clever writing, and a whole raft of lovable characters, some familiar and some less familiar, all wrapped up in an addictive role-playing adventure, it's well worth a look. However, as this is a fairly straight remake of the GameBoy Advance original, those expecting a raft of extras may be disappointed, although the new 'Bowser's Minions' mode does add an extra dose of silliness to the story, even if its battles can be a bit repetitive.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS