Having never played the previous title from Nintendo, I came into Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions fresh and ready to experience a turn-based RPG action adventure without any negative notions to go along with it. As you’re reading this review keep that in mind.
Created originally in 2003, and was critically acclaimed when it made to the Game Boy, the jest of the game surrounds Princess Peach once again finding herself in trouble and Mario/Luigi (and this time, to an extent, even Bowser) having to go on a very long adventure in hopes of helping out. New baddies are behind the trouble, one named Fawful (he is humorous), and intent on throwing everything and the kitchen sink in the way of the Mario Bros. to ensure they cannot save the day (but they do). New lands are explored along the way, new beings are introduced and the Mario Bros. universe seemingly expands in this single title. There’s no denying that everything seems huge and less contained in this Mario Bros. game.
The crux of the gameplay in the title are broken into several pieces.
The first and most prominent is the adventuring. In Legend of Zelda-like style, you get to go through different large lands and explore a variety of places to proceed in the adventure. While not quite the open world feel of Breath of the Wild (what is on a Nintendo system?), Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions brings enough girth to make it seem less linear, as most Mario games usually feel, though, the adventure forces some linear-ness to the entire package. You have a huge map to explore during the game. Warp pipes can be opened, which allow for movement between the lands. There’s a lot here to explore and go back and forth through. This is certainly one of the stronger designs of the game and one that gives you a sense of the world’s girth and a helps to develop a sense of exploration, as you try to find whatever part of the story you’re trying to complete. Again, we’re not talking about Breath of the Wild exploration and freedom, but we’re certainly talking about something comparable to a smaller version of A Link to the Past. That’s saying a lot about the scope and size of the world for this Mario Bros. game. It’s impressive to see and it works within the story given.
As for the actual gameplay foundation to reinforce the adventuring world set up for the player, the backbone of the gameplay is a turn-based role-playing structure. You physically run into enemies (bump or jump into them), then are transported into a turn-based fighting screen where there are multiple enemies going against you in a single battle. It’s very comparable to Paper Mario. Turns are taken and there is a hint of action in the process, where the player can control avoiding an enemy’s attack (that is not typical of turn-based RPGs). It’s unique to the gameplay and it brings in a reminder that you’re not playing Paper Mario, rather you’re playing a hybrid RPG/action title that gives you a little bit more choice and freedom to progress. Again, it’s unique and welcomed, as you don’t simply stare at a screen and hope for the best when you’re on the defense.
The gameplay goes deeper than just a simple turn-based RPG, though, as you get to collect experience and coins through defeating your enemies and applying them, sometimes randomly to certain categories to strengthen the brothers. Again, some of this is related to typical turn-based RPG experiences, but there is a little Nintendo twist to make it their own. During attacks, you can also use special moves in conjunction with the other character. These moves can be learned along the way from various characters and provide multiple methods of distributing damage to enemies during battles. For example, early on you can use BP (Bros. Points) to propel Mario from Luigi onto the opposing enemy. Literally, Mario jumps on top of Luigi and is thrown towards enemies. The damage is generally significant in comparison to regular ways to fight, which makes the fights quick at times, but your BP is limited and requires you to drink collected syrup jars to replenish it (there are other ways as well), which means you can’t continually do the same moves over and over again in every fight. It’s a neat addition to what could be drab turn-based fighting.
Staying with special moves, the collaboration between the characters when there isn’t turn-based fighting is pretty unique as well. Typically, in an 80s/90s RPG experience, when you’re not fighting, you’re simply moving characters from one point to the next to get to a certain place, nothing more or less. Generally, you get some roadblocks along the way, but nothing ‘puzzle’ oriented. This game throws in puzzles for the Bros. to get through to progress, which adds another layer of gameplay to the turn-based RPG foundation. Be it jumping up on high blocks, destroying giant rocks with a hammer to clear a path or even turning into a mini-tornado to traverse large crevices; there’s plenty to do when you’re traveling the lands. It takes that Mario Bros. mentality and makes the adventure more of an adventure even when you’re simply progressing the story. The special moves, much like the moves during attack sequences, involve the collaboration of Mario and Luigi. For example, there is a move where Luigi/Mario jump on the other’s shoulders and create a small tornado. You have to time the move and use it in the appropriate direction before it subsides (you have a limited amount of time to spin). The special moves go as far as even jumping together, which requires full concentration on the player’s part, as each character is controlled with the A (Mario) and B (Luigi) buttons. They can work individually and together. Having a variety of options at the player’s disposal to solve sometimes complicated puzzles adds wonderful gameplay value to the mix.
Having said that, the controls can be incredibly frustrating and drag down the game experience. Before you start getting judge-y about this review, please hear/read me out. This game was built for a younger gaming demographic, as all Mario games have that demographic in mind. You can see that through the dialogue, the stylistic gameplay and the wacky characters. This is the Mario brand and it isn’t meant to be difficult, at least not in the controls category. Sure, there should be a challenge here and there, but there should be nothing frustrating about the controls. That’s a staple of Mario games when it comes to controls — they’re simple and easy to use. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions has controls that require you to stop and think. You should never stop and think about controls on a consistent basis. This game makes you do just that and it’s frustrating and somewhat annoying. In addition, it kills the pacing of the game. I’m not sure how other people have forgiven this aspect of the game or have possibly written this off as a gameplay challenge, but it’s not challenging, rather it’s annoying. When you have to switch back and forth (be it touch screen or L1/R1) between duo moves to solve puzzles, or simply even move, it puts unnecessary stop/go on the gameplay design pacing. I’ve heard that the original game was worse when it came to controls, and I can’t imagine how, but it brings down the fun for me. Gameplay and controls should never be a burden in a game unless you are called Surgeon Simulator. It should be like Milford School graduate Buster Bluth in Arrested Development, neither seen nor heard.
Now, what the game lacks with controls, it picks up in enemy creativity and A.I.. You get a nice variety of creatively constructed enemies and bosses to face along your journey. You’ve got skeletons, dragons and just a bevy of personalities that bring their own style to the gameplay. Each one comes with their own way to attack and new challenges when it comes to characters avoiding attacks. It intellectually keeps you on your toes, which is a great thing. The uniqueness of the attacks comes with the lack of indication on which character the attack is going to hit. That certainly will keep players glued to their buttons in anticipation of an attack. There are telltale signs during the attack, sometimes it’s a color scheme, sometimes it’s direction, but for the most part the enemies do a good job of hiding how they’re attacking, which is incredibly intelligent and an additional challenge to the gameplay.
Taking all of the above into account, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions equals out to a big world with traditional turn-based RPG adventuring, and a wonderful variety of challenges and enemies, but with controls that get in the way of the fun. It’s really difficult to forgive the controls when weighed with the other aspects of the game that work. The game has some fun, but it requires some major patience because of those controls.
In terms of presentation, AlphaDream did a good job with upgrading the game to the 3DS. The graphics are colorful, playful and up to snuff with the Mario titles built today. You will be impressed with a lot of the smooth animation in the environments that help reinforce the girth of the world, such as waterfalls and cave visual ambience in the opening lands, and sometimes stop and enjoy what the game visually brings you. The graphics are pretty darn good overall and a treat that adds to the value of the experience.
Having said all this, is the game worth your money? Probably. Fans of the original will certainly adore the upgrades in controls, visuals and the addition of Bowser’s Minions, which adds some more gameplay to the package (though, honestly not as fulfilling as the main adventure). They will certainly want it and endure the shortfalls of the gameplay. If you’re new to the game, though, and a young gamer, the controls might be too frustrating to enjoy. I had a helluva time with the controls and could not really get on track with the gameplay because of it. And I’m a seasoned gamer. Anyway, for young gamers there are probably better options out there to start your 3DS adventures on before you hit a challenging game like this.