Mario & Luigi's first RPG together remains a GBA classic
To be this good takes (Superstar) Saga
The first game in Nintendo and Alphadream's long-running Mario & Luigi series of handheld RPGs - Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga - is fifteen years old, a fact that makes me want to lie down silently in the middle of a cold, empty room and stare, unblinking, at the ceiling mould. I'd go so far as to call Superstar Saga a bit of a masterpiece; it's rare I meet anyone who's played the game and doesn't love it. The central gimmick is that the player controls both Mario brothers simultaneously, each utilising classic Mario series abilities in different ways to navigate the quasi-isometric game world. Movement is simple and compelling, with gaps needing to be crossed with a hit of A, then B in quick succession to make both brothers jump when they need to. It's simple, but makes every bit of traversal that little bit more interesting.
The combat is turn-based, but you use the A and B buttons to control Mario and Luigi respectively in real time, watching enemy attacks carefully and defending with jumps and hammer blows. Offence works similarly, with special moves called Bros Attacks requiring complex button combos to achieve the maximum possible damage. It's a fun system that leads to dynamic, tense encounters - every bit of danger can be deflected or nullified with skilled play, thus avoiding the dice-rolling randomness of the RPG genre at large.
It's also one of those rare examples of the videogames medium that's actually funny - with actual jokes rather than just limp meta humour or lazy references. I think about the Chuckola Cola segment with regularity; if you've played it, you'll remember it too. The sprites are expressive and cartoonish in a way that the Mario series never managed before. Animations are fluid and appealing and the pastel-bright colours serve a truly joyous atmosphere. It's a wonderful game and one of the very best on GBA. Great design, great aesthetics.
There's a relatively recent 3DS remake, but frankly I haven't played it and don't have much cause to do so. The original is so pitch-perfect it's difficult to imagine how a remake could improve it. Based on the other 3DS Mario & Luigi titles I dread to think what they've done to it. If you've played it, why not post a comment informing me how misplaced my concerns are?