Franchise Festival #102: Mario & Luigi

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.

This week we’ll cover the history of Mario & Luigi in double-time. Cover art is from the Super Mario Wiki.


Table of Contents

Background
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (2003)
Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time (2005)
Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story (2009)
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (2013)
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam (2015/2016)


Background

Tetsuo Mizuno succeeded Masafumi Miyamoto as the president of Japanese role-playing game (RPG) studio Square in 1992, presiding over the release of genre milestones like Chrono Trigger (1995) and Final Fantasy VII (1997) alongside the crossover hit Super Mario RPG (1996). Though he was bound by a non-competition clause that briefly prevented him from joining any rival studio following his 1998 departure from Square, Mizuno and several other alumni from his former employer founded AlphaStar in January 2000 as a second-party studio under the Nintendo umbrella. Among its most noteworthy co-founders was Super Mario RPG director Chihiro Fujioka.

AlphaDream’s unreleased Game Boy Color prototype, Gimmick Land (left), was eventually polished up and published by Nintendo on the Game Boy Advance as Tomato Adventure (right). Sources: Unseen64; Evie’s Obscure Stuff for Fair Use or Playthrough

AlphaStar was renamed AlphaDream before the 2001 release of its first title, a Japan-only card battle RPG for the Game Boy Color called Koto Battle: Tengai no Moribito. AlphaDream’s second release, Tomato Adventure (2002), began development on the Game Boy Color as Gimmick Land before switching its platform to the Game Boy Advance at the request of publisher Nintendo. Tomato Adventure is startlingly reminiscent of Super Mario RPG, as players alternate between executing attacks in turn-based battles using rhythmic button presses and exploring areas throughout the off-kilter Ketchup Kingdom. While the game was never localized outside of Japan, due to concerns that its targeted age group was too limited, its refinement of Super Mario RPG’s time-sensitive combat mechanics made AlphaDream a natural fit for Nintendo’s next role-playing spinoff..

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (2003)

Little information has circulated about the development of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, the first entry in AlphaDream’s response to Paper Mario (2000/2001). Even without official confirmation, though, it’s clear that the Game Boy Advance title is built on the foundation of Tomato Adventure. Its thickly outlined sprites and timing-based combat system even more closely echo AlphaDream’s recent second-party release than writer/designer Kubota’s work on apparent spiritual predecessor Super Mario RPG.

There’s a lot of dialogue in Superstar Saga and the vast majority of it is silly. Source: World of Longplays

Released throughout the world in November 2003, Superstar Saga codified most of the narrative and mechanical elements that would define the future of the franchise. Players simultaneously control Nintendo mascot Mario and his nervous brother Luigi as they pursue a kidnapped Princess Peach throughout the Beanbean Kingdom. Though scheming witch Cackletta is the game’s primary antagonist, her goofy lieutenant Fawful lands most of the game’s silliest punchlines. Mario’s erstwhile nemesis Bowser is sidelined by Cackletta early in the adventure, on the other hand, and reappears frequently throughout the story as an amnesiac brawler who goes by the name Rookie. Other humorous non-player characters (NPCs) include returning Mario series favorites (like Birdo and Professor E. Gadd) as well as the Beanish, a race of bean-like people who populate the Beanbean Kingdom.

Exploration is very similar to the early prototype of Super Mario RPG described in Franchise Festival #101. Source: World of Longplays

Most of the game is presented as a series of explorable 2.5D areas seen from an overhead perspective that hovers somewhere between Paper Mario’s nearly side-scrolling view and the top-down angle typical of 16-bit console RPGs. The brothers make use of unique abilities acquired during their travels, often associated with a newly discovered tool, to overcome obstacles or navigate light platforming challenges; though not as complex as similar sequences in contemporary action games, exploration requires appreciably greater dexterity than had been needed in Super Mario RPG or Paper Mario to coordinate the movements of two player characters with dedicated jump buttons.

Mario and Luigi can switch between a hammer and jump attack depending on the defensive capabilities of their foes. Source: World of Longplays

Gameplay shifts to a unique battle screen when the brothers touch enemies roaming the map. Progression here is turn-based, as the player chooses Mario and Luigi’s actions from a traditional RPG menu featuring items, a standard jump attack, and special abilities. Unlike traditional RPGs, however, many of these actions require carefully-timed button presses to execute successfully; the player can perform a double-jump if he or she taps the face button assigned to the relevant brother when he lands on an enemy, for example, while special abilities often require more complex inputs. Mario and Luigi’s overall stats increase as they accumulate experience points in battle and level up, allowing the player to manually distinguish each by indicating preferred specialties like health points (HP) or speed, while new combat actions are generally made available as the story advances. Badges purchased in shops can also be used to augment the heroes’ natural stats.

The 3DS remake enhances Superstar Saga‘s lighting engine and graphical style while maintaining the original release’s high framerate. Sources: World of Longplays; Nintendo Central

Reviews for Superstar Saga were generally positive, highlighting its extensive animations and humor, though the precision required for its platforming sequences was frequently criticized. In another reminder of the game’s impressive Square pedigree, the GBA’s notoriously poor sound chip failed to obscure an excellent score by Super Mario RPG and Legend of Mana (1999/2000) composer Yoko Shimomura. Strong sales prompted Nintendo to quickly authorize a sequel and eventually re-release the game on the Wii U’s Virtual Console service. A full remake was then developed by AlphaDream and published by Nintendo in 2017 for the 3DS, bringing the game’s visual design into conformity with later series entries and introducing a bonus mode called Bowser’s Minions. This real-time strategy minigame, in which the player assembles a squad of traditional Mario enemies under the leadership of an ambitious Goomba, is long but light on complexity. The enhanced story mode was still the selling point of the package, as Superstar Saga had successfully retained its status as a cult classic in the intervening years

Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time (2005)

Mario & Luigi’s Nintendo DS debut begins when an invention by Professor E. Gadd opens a gateway into the Mushroom Kingdom’s past. While making use of this time machine, Princess Peach is kidnapped and held hostage by the space-faring Shroob species. Mario and Luigi, joined by baby versions of themselves, must travel between the past and present in order to assemble a powerful artifact called the Cobalt Star and save Peach. Major antagonists include the nefarious Princess Shroob and Baby Bowser.

Unlike most other series entries, Partners in Time kicks off with a series of still-images that set up its story. Source: Nintendo Central

Partners in Time looks and sounds similar to its predecessor, with sprite-based art and actor Charles Martinet’s distinctive parody of the Italian language animating its protagonists, but the DS’ unique hardware profile is put to use in several ways that would influence future series entries. Exploration and battles are generally displayed on the top screen, with the bottom screen reserved for stats and menu navigation, but sequences in which the four player character split up into two pairs are rendered simultaneously on both screens; this allows the action to visibly continue in one location while the player moves characters elsewhere, forcing the player to coordinate the actions of both pairs in order to solve environmental puzzles. The presence of four face buttons likewise requires even more manual dexterity than had been present in Superstar Saga, as each button is assigned to one of the four party members.

Icons on the lower screen make navigation more convenient than it had been in Superstar Saga when all four player characters are together (left), while using both screens to convey multiple locations when the brothers are apart (right) is an inspired use of the hardware. Source: Nintendo Central

Battles are broadly identical to those of the preceding game with a handful of exceptions. Baby Mario and Baby Luigi hang onto their older selves’ backs during combat, and must be independently controlled in order to dodge enemy attacks, significantly increasing the difficulty of encounters. Bros. Items, which replace Superstar Saga’s special abilities, are consumable and must be acquired from shops or the overworld.

Battles can get rather challenging when all four characters coordinate to avoid attacks or use Bros. Items. Source: Nintendo Central

Sadly, Partners in Time represented a minor setback for AlphaDream’s flagship property. While its 2005 release was greeted with critical acclaim – aside from complaints about the complexity of controlling four characters at once – sales fell short of Nintendo’s expectations. Ever undaunted, AlphaDream took the disappointment in stride and set to work on a comeback.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story (2009)

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is the series’ first title to lack the involvement of former series producers Mizuno and Miyamoto. Shimomura returned to compose its soundtrack, however, and Kubota once again carried out the dual roles of director and writer. Nintendo’s Toshiharu Izuno joined as one of three producers and encouraged AlphaDream to explore additional ways to employ the DS’ dual-screen functionality in an effort to boost flagging sales. Bowser’s Inside Story launched in Japan on February 11, 2009 and in North America on September 14, 2009.

Finally getting to destroy enemies using Bowser’s famous fire breath is a lot of fun. Source: aWiibo

This time, the Mario Bros. are joined on their adventure by longtime antagonist Bowser. The Koopa despot is duped into eating a Vacuum Shroom by returning villain Fawful, here introduced as a traveling salesman who’s infected the Mushroom Kingdom with a bloating disease called The Blorbs, causing Bowser to involuntarily inhale his surroundings. Casualties of this mass suction include Peach, her retainers, and the Mario Bros. themselves. Now miniaturized, Mario and Luigi explore their enemy’s gut and manipulate his internal organs to guide him in a quest to save the Mushroom Kingdom from Fawful’s nefarious reign. Concerns about the logistics of this transformation were cheerfully ignored by the development team.

Mario and Luigi power up Bowser’s muscles in a rhythm-based minigame. Source: aWiibo

While its fundamentals are informed by earlier Mario and Luigi titles, Bowser’s Inside Story represents the franchise’s greatest visual and mechanical departure to date. The top screen displays a controllable Bowser, who can explore the overworld from the series’ traditional semi-overhead perspective, while the bottom screen sees the Mario Bros. navigating side-scrolling environments within the belly of the beast. Combat involves all three characters, as Bowser can inhale enemies and force them to fight Mario and Luigi on the bottom screen. Bowser’s other combat techniques involve punching and fire-breathing, while the Mario Bros. use their traditional jumps and hammer attacks alongside new special techniques strengthened through touch-screen button combinations. Initiation and flow of battle otherwise follow the series’ turn-based standards.

It’s hard not to wonder if Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime (2005/2006) influenced the dual-screen battles. Source: aWiibo

Minigames, which had been present in previous titles, are heightened to surreal new dimensions here by the unique setting as Mario and Luigi manipulate some part of Bowser’s anatomy to enhance his abilities on the top screen. One particularly memorable touch-based challenge involves passing pieces of a digested giant carrot through Bowser’s stomach before he can fill up. Foreshadowing the series’ next adventure, the Bros. can also increase Bowser’s size by stimulating the adrenaline in his posterior; this kicks off a kaiju-esque boss fight style in which the player controls Bowser through a combination of microphone and touch-based commands while holding their DS unit sideways.

While Bowser Jr.’s Inside Journey was an iterative improvement on its predecessor’s bonus mode, the main campaign in Bowser’s Inside Story disappointed longtime fans by cutting the original game’s framerate in half. Source: Japancommercials4U

AlphaDream’s efforts to improve the series’ mechanical scope paid off, as Bowser’s Inside Story would remain their most critically acclaimed and commercially successful title long after its 2009 release. This reputation made it a natural candidate for the studio’s second remake, Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Inside Journey, in 2018. As with Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions before it, this version is visually enhanced and includes a lengthy real-time strategy mode featuring its own narrative focused on Bowser’s troops. Poor sales of the remake reflected the fact that most players had moved on from the 3DS to the Switch by 2018, however, presaging hard times ahead for one of Nintendo’s most reliable second-party studios.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (2013)

Despite being burnt out by his work on Bowser’s Inside Story, Kubota was asked by Nintendo to begin work on a sequel immediately. Much of the game’s leadership team remained the same at AlphaDream and Nintendo. In contrast with the last two series entries, though, Nintendo requested that AlphaDream only allow players to control Mario and Luigi. The studio spent roughly 18 months developing a new prototype featuring dozens of Luigi copies and “heading for the goal without destroying Luigis.” This rough premise grew into the final game as its development team experimented with dual-screen interactivity between the sleeping Luigi and events occurring in his Dream World. Mario & Luigi: Dream Team was released for the Nintendo 3DS around the world in Summer 2013; not coincidentally, this year had been branded by Nintendo as the Year of Luigi.

Dreambert was originally going to come out of a pillow, rather than simply resembling a pillow, but this was believed to be “too unsettling to many of the people who viewed it” and the character was redesigned. Source: Super Mario Wiki

Dream Team is set on Pi’illo Island, a vacation destination that nonetheless resembles the typical environments of earlier Mario & Luigi games. Its central conflict is set in motion by Bowser and bat king Antasma’s plot to obtain the Dream Stone, a mystical artifact that grants its owner the ability to make their wishes come true. Mario and Luigi set off on a quest to defeat these villains and save the Pi’illos, a species of roughly pillow-shaped beings petrified in the distant past by Antasma, after meeting the island’s Prince Dreambert. 

Though new hardware allowed for 3D backgrounds and Dream World exploration abilities in which numerous Luigis are put to work, AlphaDream stuck with sprite-based character models to retain the franchise’s quirky animation style. Source: Japancommercials4U

At various points throughout the game’s explorable overworld, Luigi can go to sleep on a petrified Pi’illo and allow Mario to access his Dream World. Within the Dream World, the perspective switches from overhead to a side-scrolling view reminiscent of the bottom screen in Bowser’s Inside Story. Unlike that game, Luigi’s face appears on the bottom screen and can be manipulated with the stylus to effect changes in the top-screen’s Dream World; tickling Luigi’s nose, for example, can cause him to push background objects into the foreground with a sneeze. Combat in the overworld is functionally identical to earlier series entries, but combat in the Dream World features special attacks that make use of numerous Luigi copies. Large-scale boss battles, during which Luigi’s dream form grows massive, require the player to turn the 3DS on its side as they had in Bowser’s Inside Story.

An abundance of minigames and mechanical systems once again results in ongoing tutorials throughout Dream Team‘s lengthy playtime. Source: Japancommercials4U

While Dream Team generally reviewed well, critics drew increased scrutiny to the series’ over-reliance on lengthy tutorials. When asked about this by USGamer’s Cassandra Khaw, producer Akira Ohtani defended AlphaDream’s design choices:

I feel like our approach to the incorporation of tutorials in the series is something we’ve really thought a lot about. It’s really something important to us. For example, we’ve tried to make it so that it works along with the flow of story. And the reason for that is we don’t want to suddenly stop the flow of the game and redirect them to a tutorial corner or area as it breaks the sequence they’ve been experiencing so far. We want it to continue being a part of the journey and feel enjoyable to the players. But we do feel it is necessary because there are a lot of game systems in it. It can be quite complex and we don’t want to lose or alienate any of our players.

In spite of these concerns, Dream Team sold well and was reprinted as a discounted Nintendo Select title in February 2017. The series had successfully regained its footing on a new platform and fans were as eager as ever to see Mario and Luigi’s next hilarious outing.

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam (2015/2016)

Due to the abundance of pre-existing assets already made for the 3DS during Dream Team’s production, much of the work for Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam was dedicated to conceptual design. AlphaDream quickly settled on a crossover with their lead character’s other long-form spinoff series, Paper Mario, in an effort to introduce a new character that would make the Mario Bros. team-based combat and exploration more complex. Early ideas abandoned during development included journeys back and forth between the two universes and the slow but steady transformation of Mario & Luigi’s Mushroom Kingdom into paper. Paper Jam appeared on store shelves in Japan on December 3, 2015, little more than two years after its direct predecessor, and localized versions came to the rest of the world over the following month.

Tutorials have wisely been off-loaded to an on-demand Lakitu support center in Paper Jam. Source: Japancommercials4U

The absence of any new species or characters makes Paper Jam the most conservative series entry by a wide margin. While helping Toad search for the source of a draught in Peach’s Castle, Luigi inadvertently knocks over a magical book containing the entirety of Paper Mario’s world. Paper dopplegangers of all Mushroom Kingdom residents are released from its pages and rapidly join up with their three-dimensional counterparts. Paper Bowser, Paper Bowser Jr., and Paper Kamek kidnap both Peaches, leading to the game’s most amusing subplot as the Bowsers Jr. question their place in Bowser’s schemes and the Peaches commiserate about the frequency of their captivity. Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario must save both kingdoms’ rulers and resolve the chaos incited by Luigi’s clumsiness.

For my money, the Peach scenes are a highlight of the entire series. Source: Japancommercials4U

Basic gameplay adheres steadfastly to the template established by Superstar, making only a handful of concessions to the inclusion of a third protagonist. Paper Mario is able to produce six duplicates in combat that can spread their attacks between multiple targets. The group of simultaneously playable characters also acquire special exploration techniques that contort Paper Mario into forms familiar to players of Intelligent Systems’ other Super Mario RPG successor, like a paper glider or a rolled cylinder. Overworld movement and combined Trio Moves in battle require the player to master three time-sensitive button presses rather than the franchise’s traditional two; Paper Luigi was originally planned to be part of the team, but was scrapped when control complexity began to echo the problems that bedeviled Partners in Time.

Many of Paper Jam’s boss fights double as action-packed minigames. Source: Japancommercials4U

Though its visual palette is otherwise drawn closely from Dream Team and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, climactic papercraft battles are a genuinely flashy new addition to the franchise. These involve the Mario Bros. piloting gigantic papercraft sculptures, produced by the brilliant Toadette, around fully 3D battlefields in real-time as they dodge enemy assaults. Each of the game’s five papercraft battles ends with a confrontation between the heroes’ vehicle and a supersized opponent in the style of Bowser’s Inside Story or Dream Team.

It’s surprising that papercraft battles would come to Mario & Luigi before they appeared in Paper Mario. Source: Japancommercials4U

Unfortunately, Paper Jam’s conservatism resulted in negative reviews. While some lauded the game’s streamlined tutorial system and characteristically funny Kubota-penned script, most press outlets criticized its lack of new characters and over-emphasis on minigames (including papercraft battles). Poor sales led AlphaDream to focus on producing 3DS remakes rather than new series entries over the following three years.

Conclusion

AlphaDream’s Mario & Luigi began as a clearer successor to Super Mario RPG than sister series Paper Mario, thanks to the involvement of ex-Square employees like producer Tetsuo Mizuno, director/writer Chihiro Fujioka, and composer Yoko Shimomura. An early misstep in Partners in Time was easily course-corrected with the superlative Bowser’s Inside Story. As the 2010s dragged on and Nintendo exercised increasingly close constraints on AlphaDream’s approach to design, however, the franchise began to shed fans and lose its whimsical sense of anything-goes creativity. The poorly-received Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Inside Journey would be the final page of AlphaDream’s story, as the studio declared bankruptcy and closed its doors on October 1, 2019. For the first time in two decades of consistently-released action-RPGs, the fate of Mario & Luigi remains uncertain.


What do you think about Mario & Luigi? Do you prefer its sprite-based or 3D visual style? What’s your favorite minigame? Who’s better: Mario or Luigi? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

You can find me here at The Avocado or on Twitter as @SinginBrakeman. Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series; Season One: The Legend of Zelda is wrapping up in June and then we’ll be moving right along to Season Two: Resident Evil on July 1!

You can also now support the article series and the podcast via Patreon. A special thanks to reader/listener cheatachu for becoming our very first patron.

As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #103: Thief – June 25
  • #104: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater – July 9
  • #105: Shenmue – July 23
  • #106: Spider-Man (Part 1) – August 6
  • #107: Spider-Man (Part 2) – August 20