How well do you know Mario? It turns out that this is quite a weird question to try and answer. Most of the time when you’re playing a Mario game, you are Mario. When you’re right in the middle of it you feel that familiar weight through the fingers, that same elastic pull of gravity during a jump, and you probably don’t think, “That’s Mario jumping,” you probably think, “I’m jumping” – if you think anything at all. Mario becomes weirdly invisible when you’re racing him through his candied worlds. Knowing Mario is knowing yourself in-game: now I can triple-jump, now I can wall-spring, now I’m wearing a hat that can animate everything I throw it at. It’s great being Mario!
But what kind of thing does Mario get up to when he isn’t – or when we aren’t – platforming? Hardly a burning question in 2017, so only a handful of games have tried to answer this. Anyway, one of the very best is just getting a tricked-out re-release on 3DS. Welcome back, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. God, you have been missed.
Superstar Saga isn’t the Mario game I return to most often – due to convenience, that’s probably Super Mario 3D Land. But it’s the one I return to most often in my memory. There had been Mario RPGs before this, and there have been Mario RPGs since. They’re all brilliant. Fine. But Superstar Saga is the best.
Partly this is down to the novelty, I think: controlling the two brothers, Mario and Luigi, for the first time like this, as if they are kids forming a crocodile on a nursery school trip? That’s just a wonderful piece of magic. Jumping around in this game feels like an event in itself, as you have to remember to jump with Mario and then jump with Luigi – and shouldn’t jumping in a Mario game feel like an event? Early on in the adventure, the brothers are tasked with jumping rope. In a fit of classic Mario logic, I think this is part of an immigration test as you leave the Mushroom Kingdom behind to find fresh adventure in a land of talking beans. It’s absolutely brilliant stuff: you’re laughing so hard, but you’re also concentrating. Synchronised jump-rope! I would play a whole game of this.
But Mario, of course, has other things to do – although that jump-rope training does inevitably come in handy in boss fights. This is another part of the appeal: Superstar Saga is wonderfully fidgety, taking you through endless lands, each as strange and comic as the last, on a mission that takes the normal RPG quest and turns it into something truly surreal.
God, it’s so colourful. This is one of the most under-appreciated aspects of Superstar Saga, I think: that palette of pinks and purples and creams. I first played Superstar Saga over a long cold Christmas visit back home, and it’s been locked in my mind ever since as the perfect Christmas game, the GBA screen twinkling with reflected Christmas lights as Radio 4 carols mingle with the soundtrack.
Mainly, though, the appeal of this game is prolonged time with Mario – and with the Mario you never get to see. Mario roused from the shower and racing off on adventure with a towel around his waist – or is that Luigi? Luigi parachuting into enemy territory dressed as Princess Peach – or is that Mario? Everywhere Mario goes there’s a cameo from another game, such as Professor E. Gadd, who pops up as a coffee shop owner. And everywhere Mario goes, Mario’s reputation precedes him – except his fans know as little about Mario as the rest of us do. They only believe it’s really him when he performs his famous jump.
That’s one of the best jokes in any Mario game, I think, a throwaway gag that kickstarts every other conversation in Superstar Saga. And Superstar Saga remains one of the secret best Mario games. Man, it’s great to have another excuse to give it a spin.