Nintendo's ubiquitous mascot has appeared in games of every description, but his two previous RPG ventures, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars and Paper Mario, stand out. To many fans, these titles lacked for nothing - except for a significant contribution from brother Luigi. Well, supporters of the Green Guy get their way for the third RPG, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, where the co-operation between the brothers is integral to the game.
One brother follows the other in the field, and the Start button instantly switches the marching order. As always with the Mario RPGs, the field is full of platforms to jump and puzzles to solve, and controlling both brothers is key to getting around. One jumps with the A button, the other with the B button. Maneuvering the two can take some getting used to, especially when the other abilities are thrown into the mix. Players can find new abilities to help them get around, and they include such bizarre and diverse things as Mario helicoptering off Luigi's back, or Luigi squashing Mario into a more compact and accessing form. However, visual cues are present at all times to help players with the controls. After all, the Mario series at its core is geared for younger gamers.
The dual control equally applies to the battles, which begin whenever an enemy is encountered in the field. Timed button presses are important to boosting the brother's attack and defense power - a real-time element in an otherwise turn-based system. In addition to their typical jump and hammer attacks, the Marios have a "Bros. Attack" at their disposal. To perform this ability, the player has to pull off timed button presses, governed by three difficulty levels corresponding to three levels of power. The first difficulty level has a slow procession of visual cues helping the player hit the right buttons. The next level up speeds up the process, and the third level removes the cues. It's all worth it, as this is the brother's most powerful attack. Upon leveling up, the player can choose a stat to give a bonus to, including a mysterious "mustache" stat. Interestingly, many of the boss battles take the form of unique mini-games instead of standard battles. Case in point: the Hammer Brothers' jump-rope contest.
M&L's story is at the same time more substantial and more cartoon-like. It starts with Princess Peach accepting a gift from the embassy of the Beanbean Kingdom. Unfortunately, the gift turns out to be a trap hatched by the evil witch Cackletta, who then proceeds to steal the Princess's voice and replace it with... exploding symbols. Toad, of course, rushes off to the plumbers' to request aid, only to find Mario in the shower. Mario may not be shooting any hookers, but he does appear half-naked. Anyway, when the party reaches Peach's castle, Bowser is already there for a routine kidnapping. However, Bowser is just as distressed as everyone else at the lovely Princess's new condition, and he agrees to team up with Mario (just like he did in Legend of the Seven Stars) to retrieve her voice from Cackletta. Even reluctant Luigi ends up being dragged along. Good thing, because circumstances soon part the brothers and Bowser. There promises to be genuine humor in the game, and it is also encouraging that there is no sign of any quest to find seven stars in linear progression. Players can also expect to see classic Mario enemies and characters, as well as some new faces.
The sounds and music also lend themselves to nostalgia, as the soundtrack features numerous old re-mixed Mario tunes. The original compositions of the soundtrack are supposed to be "catchy" - befitting for a Mario game, but then again, we RPGamers expect more. In addition, small voice clips put some life into the world of Mario. As for the graphics, the pastel shades are at first reminiscent of Paper Mario, but the character models are completely different in their design. The thick outlines in Mario & Luigi contribute to a very cartoony look, as do the exaggerated animations. Like them or not, these elements are still quite impressive in their delivery.
In most ways, Mario & Luigi seems to bring improvements to an already good series, while still offering up a fair amount of originality. Though some questions still need to be answered (How long will the game be? Will it prove too simple for older gamers?), the only major concern about the game is the seeming lack of playable characters. After all, Paper Mario had nine party members! Still, the dual nature of the game is a refreshing concept. And in these dark times, who in their right mind would refuse a little brotherly love, or for that matter, a little more Mario?