Time Extend: Mario & Luigi
It’s strange to consider that so much of Nintendo’s massive fortune was originally built upon the kidnapping of royalty. In The Legend Of Zelda, a missing princess provides the first stone set in the path of an epic adventure filled with loot, dungeons and earnest derring-do, while for Super Mario Bros, evergreen hostage Peach is the jumping-off point for a bouncy and irreverent ice-cream headache of a game, sending the cheery plumber hopping through a world where the mountains and clouds come painted with smiles and the props are provided by Lewis Carroll, but the precision movement and perfectly weighted physics appear to have been constructed by the ludic equivalent of Sir Isaac Newton.
It was never impossible, then, that with such a common starting point, two genres as disparate as this should eventually converge, but it’s still strange that the results would feel so natural. Should a Super Mario RPG work? Mario, after all, represents the epitome of moment-to-moment gaming, a joyful romp told in the staccato rhythm of a million bottom-bounces. A perpetual forward-motion machine, what lies behind the Italian plumber is already over with – it barely exists the moment it scrolls off screen – and it’s certainly not enough to build an epic story out of. On top of that, the very idea of slowing down such a bubbly headlong jaunt to match the measured heartbeat of an RPG, adding turn-based battles, dialogue-heavy cutscenes and perhaps even a little backtracking, seems like an insane prospect.
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga isn’t the first blending of disciplines – that prize goes to Square’s massive Legend Of The Seven Stars, the Mushroom Kingdom’s initial, rather sickly, excursion into prerendered 3D graphics, and the plumber’s unlikely swansong to the 16bit era. That was followed in turn by the clever fairytale narrative of Paper Mario, with its fold-out houses and scrappy battles. But Superstar Saga, released – almost carelessly – on the ageing Game Boy Advance, still feels like the most satisfying synthesis: the purest and most convincing exploration of Mario as roleplaying hero. Why?
Inevitably, the appeal is partly visual: free of the voguish 3D modelling that made Square’s game age at an alarming rate, and undistracted by the inventive origami presentation of Paper Mario, Superstar Saga hits an exquisite aesthetic sweet spot. Its sprites belong to the era of classic 2D Mario, while its isometric viewpoint echoes the glory days of the JRPG in all their bucolic beauty. To look at a screenshot of Superstar Saga is to understand what the game is trying to do before you’ve even reached your first level, or fought that nimble starter battle.
It’s not just down to the texture of the cloth, however: the cut is equally important. Seven Stars had some rather classically Square motifs lurking at its heart, while the Paper Mario series is helplessly in love with frantic variation. The first game might kick off a tradition of presenting itself as a storybook, moving forward in a calm procession of chapters, but its rotating cast of sidekicks suggests an itchy-footed pursuit of novelty, and the sequel, The Thousand-Year Door, takes things one step further, playing out as a series of brilliantly crafted short stories – Murder On The Orient Express one minute, The Wrestler the next – each with their own visual language, and with Mario himself playing different roles as breathlessly as the pace demands.
Both are beautiful pieces of work, but they ultimately come off as anthologies, built to entertain casual players and dazzle the restless. Superstar Saga has a longer, slower boil and, as ridiculous as this sounds, remains perhaps the closest we’ll ever get to a novelistic approach to the Super Mario universe.
And, typically, if it is a novel, it’s a fairly strange one. From the hero’s first appearance, emerging steaming from his shower with a towel wrapped around his waist, through to Luigi parachuting into the desert sands of Teehee Valley (and simultaneously into the pages of Mario lore) wedged tightly into one of Princess Peach’s dresses, Superstar Saga revels in the bizarre and the irreverent. In doing so, it betrays a seemingly self-conscious decision to get a bit closer to famous characters we’ve never truly needed to know all that well until now.
Luigi’s Mansion kicked off the trend, perhaps, turning its unlikely star, by necessity, into everything Mario wasn’t – a quaking coward who finds heroism a burden – but Superstar Saga is very happy to build outwards from there, never missing an opportunity to show Luigi runn
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Jas Saran. He is the founder and CEO of G Web Pro Inc. G Web Pro is a leading online marketing company in Toronto offers SEO, SEM, web design and development services.
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