Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga hit the Game Boy Advance as the portable equivalent of the Paper Mario console series. Even though the two franchises are completely independent, unrelated, and developed by totally separate game studios, the GBA series shares many parallels with Paper Mario that it's hard not to see or even ignore the influence in the portable RPG. But even with that influence the designers have injected a ton of originality into the story, situations, and gameplay for its own series, and the first true sequel, Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, expand on the previous game with some enormously clever elements that wouldn't be possible without the Nintendo DS system's dual-screen layout.
The original Mario & Luigi is a role-playing spin-off series in the same vein as Super Mario RPG on the Super NES and the Paper Mario series established on the N64 and continued on the GameCube. Like all good RPG designs, Mario & Luigi is part exploration, part puzzle solving, and part turn-based battling, but the Mario franchise works so well in an RPG genre because the designers stick to many of the elements that make Mario, well, Mario. Lots of jumping, head-bonking, platform leaping in the game's layout make reference to the action that Mario's been known for. More important is that the designers focus on the battles to involve as much of the player as possible. There are no random fights, which is a huge plus for gamers who hate having their exploration interrupted by some unseen, invisible mob of enemies. And while in a fight, players are always involved after the selection of which attack to use; each move has user input that rewards timing with more powerful attacks, and penalizes if the cues are missed. And, of course, much of the charm from Mario & Luigi comes from the focus on humor that's bizarre and out there, sometimes even going into low-brow territory which is pretty surprising considering Mario is Nintendo's "wholesome" franchise.
But the real hook that sets apart Mario & Luigi from Paper Mario and Super Mario RPG: players control the characters at the same time. By mapping one character's moves to one screen, and another character's to another, the developers have opened up a lot of potential for action and puzzle sequences that are explored quite extensively in the adventure. It does, admittedly, clunk up the controls in some situations because not only do you have to worry about getting Mario across a chasm or away from a hazard, the same worry has to be applied to a second character that's almost always tied together with an invisible tether, and has to be controlled in split-second tandem. It's a process that's adopted over time, and considering the RPG design usually guarantee about two dozen hours of playtime between start and finish, there's plenty of playtime to get the controls down before things get complex
Partners in Time essentially doubles up what was created in Superstar Saga on the Game Boy Advance. The Nintendo DS adventure features twice the screens and twice the playable characters, which takes the plumbers on another Save the Princess quest
but this time in an adventure that spans both the present and past. The whole time traveling element is just a plot vehicle to pair up the more traditional adult Mario and Luigi characters with their baby counterparts, something that's admittedly been done in an unofficial way in games like Mario Tennis or Mario Kart: Double Dash but nothing so cohesive as a story that brings them all together. The time traveling does give ample opportunity for Nintendo to poke around its other franchises for some amusing and clever nods. There are some missed opportunities for cool time traveling paradoxes (who wouldn't want to affect the future by altering the past?) but the writers stick to the comedy instead of the science and the adventure definitely benefits from this focus.
Though many developers have spent their R&D time on exploiting nearly every aspect of the Nintendo DS system in their first project, Alphadream instead focused on one: the second screen. Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time is extremely modest in its visuals and never, ever uses the touch panel during the gameplay. And the microphone? What's that? But Mario & Luigi makes such good use of pairing the two screens together throughout the adventure in some seriously unique and clever ways that the game design just wouldn't be the same on a single-display platform.
Take, for example, the many instances where the Baby Mario & Baby Luigi pair-up needs to separate from their adult selves to put their unique talents to use. When the babies get tossed into a chasm, the upper screen provides a view from their location while keeping track of the older plumbers. While this may seem gimmicky early in the game, when you see the designers exploit this separation engine in puzzles that require the two pairs to move around independently. Players will have to, for example, use the babies to headbonk a switch in one area that manipulates the direction of a floating platform in order to transport the adult Mario and Luigi to a different location. These examples are frequent and abundant, and every time a new one surfaces it's hard not to think, man, that's clever.
Fights also utilize both screens, though in most cases the additional display is simply used to increase the vertical height of the battlefield. But with this extra real estate comes some added strategies, and you'll have to watch the enemies move from one screen to the next in order to time the counterattack accordingly. And many of the special attacks that Mario, Luigi, Baby Mario, and Baby Luigi have in their arsenal also spread upwards, requiring players to watch their on-screen characters leap up and off one screen and onto another so they can pull off some of the more devastating (but fun and creative) attacks.
Apart from the second screen and second character aspect, Partners in Time doesn't stray too far from the Superstar Saga original. Many of the gameplay elements that were used in the Mario and Luigi pairing have now been given to Baby Mario and Baby Luigi instead to spread out the love and make puzzles a bit tougher to see and solve. The addition of the second set of characters does amplify the control issue from the original, since you now have to worry about controlling two independently moving pair-ups, each with their own abilities, using the A, B, X, and Y buttons of the DS in order to select and control them.
Partners in Time's quest starts out a little too easy, even for Nintendo standards, and it's just a little annoying to see every little task or puzzle with a sign attached to it to tell players what they need to do. This handholding lasts for a few hours, but thankfully those blatant clues slowly vanish to let the gamer figure out what's needed to advance further into the game. The game isn't terribly difficult even towards the end due to the abundance of power-up and attack items that are stockpiled after nearly every fight. It's a very liberal quest, but even so, the script keeps everything moving and interesting, and there are some toughie boss battles that may throw a monkeywrench into the works and require a second try. But, like Superstar Saga, there are very few instances where you'll find yourself "stuck."
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