Once upon a time, Mario was just a simple plumber; he jumped on stuff, ate strange mushrooms, and searched fervently for the lady in his life. These days, there is hardly an adventure or career that the persistent Italian hasn't pursued. He's been at war with rabbids, competed in the Olympics, won death races against rivals, and traveled the galaxy - twice! Indeed, it seems the only thing Mario isn't doing on a regular basis is plumbing!
There is no longer anything particularly odd or conspicuous about seeing Mario and friends in atypical roles. Last month they starred in a strategy game and no one thought twice about it. Even so, there was something rather special about reliving Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, almost fifteen years after its original release. It was a game that really demonstrated the flexibility of those familiar characters, and the thin lines separating genres. No less than four sequels have been produced since then, but there is still something special about the original.
The game starts out in true Mario fashion; Peach, the princess of the Mushroom Kingdom, is in peril. A menacing witch has stolen her voice, as a part of a scheme to rule the world. The dungaree-wearing brothers are sent out on a mission to the neighbouring country, Beanbean Kingdom, partially as peaceful ambassadors, partially as club-wielding, boot-kicking maniacs. Bowser, ever the inept troublemaker, lurks in the background as well.
The game itself is an interesting mix of RPG and platformer. The turn-based battles are, as per tradition, separated from the rest of the game world, where the player is free to jump and leap about. There are strange bean folk to converse with, items to buy, and different puzzles to be solved. Despite a surplus of strange characters, the (super)stars of the show are of course the dynamic brothers. As such, there is an emphasis on teamwork, coordination, and unique character abilities.
Mario and Luigi are both equipped with hammers, boots, fire-spitting hands, and a superhuman tolerance for pain. With these items and attributes, they can smack each other into the ground, jump on top of each other, or pull off a coordinated special move. The abilities play a role both in and outside of battle. For example, a well-placed whack with the hammer can beat a nosy enemy to a pulp or destroy an obstructing pile of rocks. Indeed, the major part of the game, aside from the battles, consists of using those abilities to solve puzzles and advance in the world.
There are a lot of small enjoyable details that we had a lot of fun (re)discovering: the adventurous brothers' "Italian" chatter, the exaggerated and cartoonish character animations, and the odd and comical game world. Beanbean Kingdom, with its muscley matriarch and bizarre bean folk, is brimming with puns, silly names, and strange characters. The game is as charming today as it was one-and-a-half decades ago.