Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is available on Gameboy Advance, 3DS, and Wii U.
I’ve always loved it when Mario gets out of the Mushroom Kingdom for a spell.
Sure, his classic platforming feels like comfort food, and – as Super Mario Maker makes abundantly clear – it’s remarkably flexible in its simplicity. But every time Mario steps outside of that familiar place, we seem to get some unfamiliar and exciting twist on those mechanics.
The gravitational shenanigans and micro-level sections of Super Mario Galaxy. The freedom of movement inside Super Mario Odyssey‘s series of sandboxes.
And the whirlwind tour of JRPG mechanics that is Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.
In some ways, it’s as keen an entry point into the role-playing game genre as the omnipresent Pokémon or the ever-popular Action-RPG hybrid. It turned all of Mario’s staples from fireballs to hammers the ubiquitous Goomba Stomp into menu-based actions that still rewarded sharp reflexes. It took you through regions as wildly diverse as the eight-and-a-secret worlds of a classic Mario platforming title, but with enough threading to bind them all together and lead you through its terribly-charming script.
And it impressed on me just how much more compelling Luigi is than that red brother of his.
And, to be fair, Luigi’s Mansion was absolutely doing much of the same legwork two years earlier. It gave Luigi a distinct personality for the first time, highlighted through gameplay completely unlike what you’d find in other Mario titles. Even his character portrait in Super Smash Bros. Melee kind of caught on, portraying him as a bit of an oddball (even if he still played almost identically to Mario).
But I’d argue that Superstar Saga marks a more interesting milestone for Luigi’s unique character coming into full view.
One, it places Mario and Luigi into equal starring roles, smack-dab next to each other in the same context, inviting better comparison.
Two, I’ve played it much more than (and significantly before) those other two, so it’s the one that’s sticking in my craw.
Not that I’d need that sentimental attachment to agree with how it lifts up The Other Mario Brother:
He’s lean. He’s green. He’s a complete and utter disaster.
And I adore that about the guy.
I mean, just look at how Luigi is treated in just the first hour or so of Superstar Saga:
Not to mention how he’s constantly reminded of his second-banana status by every other character you meet in the game.
In Luigi’s first moment on screen, Toad runs right past him to look for his brother instead. Mario the Shorter has a bit of name recognition abroad, but this chiefly serves to highlight what makes Luigi interesting by contrast. “Mario and… Green Mario”, they’re explicitly called at one point.
Now, which of these characters are you more likely to stick around for: the stalwart hero, or the one constantly being very literally put below his brother, hoist up by his own britches, and dragged through the dirt, yet making the best of it anyway?
That’s not a leading question, by the by.
As much as Luigi represents a lead character with all manner of story hooks built right in, Mario is the de facto “silent protagonist”. Mr. Green gives you a set of interactions that are uniquely his – scenes that wouldn’t play out quite the same with someone else along. With Mr. Red, you get a free conduit to express whatever you want to in the game, without any backstory pushing you into one choice or another.
That’s right; the Super Mario Bros. are a picture-perfect analogy for the two main models for the player character of a role-playing game.
Not that Superstar Saga is concerned with presenting deep choices to steer a narrative about. It’s more your typical JRPG fare in that it always ends up along roughly the same path regardless of the player, and there’s only so much depth you can ring out of the mustachioed plumbers.
But even without those story-splitting decisions present, it still gives us a perfectly clear view into the pair’s differences:
The Solo Act
At a few points in the game, you’re temporarily given control of just one character – though the supermajority is played with a party of two. Usually this entails playing in short spurts as just Mario, since Luigi has a tendency to be very temporarily abducted or just plain gotten lost. Poor sod. They’re fun little breaks, and rarely substantial with either story or gameplay.
The difference comes when you have to fly solo as Luigi.
Where Mario keeps on trucking on his own until Luigi is once again secure, the same can’t be said in reverse. The first notable time Mario is put out of the act, Luigi is nearly paralyzed in place at having to go at the world alone. And it deeply affects how the game plays. He’s left ambling about without even his ability to jump, turning even basic navigation into a struggle.
It’s resolved quickly enough, of course – the panic attack neuters nearly every action available, after all, leaving little game to play; amusingly enough, the antidote is to trick Luigi into believing that he’s his own more-accomplished brother. The inferiority complex runs deep.
But even this short two-minute spurt feels way more distinct than anything Mario has done on his own previously, or would ever do intrinsically. It’s a special kind of horrible situation that can only happen because Luigi is in the pilot seat.
Super Mario Odyssey, Super Mario Sunshine, and Luigi’s Mansion can all attribute their unique mechanics to tools, and Super Mario Galaxy can point to its specific setting.
Luigi’s breakdown is uniquely his.
And, understandably, this isn’t a model all games’ stories would want to follow. Sacrificing player agency in service of making a point – like taking a Mario Brother’s signature jump away and making him slow as molasses – is a real danger. Especially if you aren’t interested in video game stories – which, to be fair, many people find to be fairly weak on average – taking the knight’s sword away can mean much less as a symbol and mean much more as The Most Frustrating Level In The Game.
Plus, the trick doesn’t even work unless make your protagonist fleshed-out enough to give context to the moment – by definition, turning them into an avatar some players feel alienated by. I bet you can think of a few choice ones right now who you had to pilot in a game without identifying with them at all (particularly if you aren’t, let’s say, part of a social group that Hollywood casts in leading roles too often).
It’s like the player at the dice table who falls back on “it’s what my character would do”. That provides a tasty bit of narrative spice when used judiciously – but it can easily turn a situation into something unappetizing if you’r not careful.
But it also provides the chance for personal development, which you so rarely see this with Generic Protagonist #155. Near the end of the game, I Fratelli Mario are once again separated for good chunk of a dungeon. For Mario, this is business as usual, and nobody thinks more or less of it. For Luigi, his new willingness to fend for himself in completely unfamiliar territory feels miles away from the guy assumed to be staying home at the beginning of the game.
Nobody draws attention to it, as the Superstar Siblings are contractually mute, of course. But all the same, it feels like Luigi has crawled his way up to a place of confidence, where Mario had nowhere to go in the first place. Even their names give it away to some extent. Mario Mario is the same thing over and over. Luigi Mario is at least a little dynamic.
To be fair, Luigi only really had one place to go, himself: from a second-fiddle coward to a second-fiddle coward who has his act together. We’re not talking Celes or Luke fon Fabre here; Mario & Luigi is a simple bridge RPG, and it’s sticking to relatively simple things through both its story and its mechanics.
But that simplicity also gives us a distillation of what does and doesn’t work about the two major ways to write a player character. It’s clear where Mario’s reliably consistent depictions work and where they fail to impress, just how we can more obviously see where Luigi is both held back by and made into a scene-stealer through his distinct charms.
Superstar Saga gives us a clean lens to put on the next protagonist we come across:
Are they a Mario? Or a Luigi?