Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Minions sets an impressive example for other remakes
A potentially inessential remake merits study for its sheer visual finesse.
If you were to ask me to come up with a list of Nintendo games most in need of a remake, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga wouldn't even crack the top 25. It was a very good game, a charming Game Boy Advance role-player that put a remarkably different spin on the idea of Mario in a role-playing game than its Nintendo 64 predecessor, Paper Mario. But the game hasn't seen any shortage of sequels in the decade-a-half since its debut, and it's not like you can't play the original easily enough: It showed up on Wii U Virtual Console three years ago.
So the idea of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Miinions — a full-scale remake of the GBA original designed for 3DS — struck me as strange, if not a little unnecessary. Even putting aside the muddled sense in a new remake showing up on a system nearing the end of its life (you'd think updating a game from an obsolete platform would work best on a system that won't soon be obsolete itself), Superstar Saga's sequels haven't added all that much to the original. Sure, there's always some sort of new gimmick in the sequels; some improve on the original, as with the Bowser sequences in Bowser's Inside Story, while others over-complicate the concept, as with Partners in Time's four individually controlled characters battling simultaneously on separate screens. But the fundamentals of Mario & Luigi have barely changed since the GBA original: You control both brothers together, independently, inside and out of battle, using common skills to fight enemies and navigate forced-perspective 3D platforming challenges. If anything, the "Bowser's Minions" element of the remake threatens to take its approachable design into the "overly complicated" territory its sequels have strayed into at times.
After spending some time with the game, I'm still not 100% convinced the world was crying out for its existence. So far — about an hour and a half in — it's been a highly literal remake of the GBA game, featuring the same events, enemies, and maps. Combat works the same, too, and I haven't to this point stumbled across any of the newly added play mechanics implied by the Bowser's Minions subtitle.
Still, I wouldn't call this update wholly superfluous by any stretch. It's been a nice reminder of just how witty the first Mario & Luigi was. The localization brims with crisp text and droll characters (including, yes, fan-favorite Fawful, who speaks in bizarre metaphors chained to tortured sentence constructions). And best of all, it's incredibly to-the-point. It feels like each successive Mario & Luigi sequel has contained a lot more text to deliver the same amount of information, and wading through so much empty dialogue becomes exhausting (regardless of the Treehouse's localizers' brave efforts to make it zingier). Bowser's Minions has, so far, used the original script more or less verbatim, and that makes it a breezy pleasure to play. It's quick and funny, the very soul of wit.
What really makes Bowser's Minions stand out to me, however, are its visuals. I'm pretty well over the days of being wowed by graphical fidelity, but I do have a permanent soft spot for lovingly crafted hand-drawn art in games. Bowser's Minions is crammed with it. Mario & Luigi developer AlphaDream has always poured a lot of effort into the graphics of their games; even on GBA, they gave their tiny 16-bit-style bitmaps loads of subtle animation that have always caused their games to look a lot nicer in motion than in screenshots. Each successive entry has looked nicer than the last, and there have been a few times that I found myself needing to simply step back and admire the beauty of the spritework in a Mario & Luigi game. With Bowser's Minions, though, AlphaDream's artists have elevated their craft to stunning new heights. Superstar Saga used to be a nice-looking game. Now it's practically breathtaking.
Developers can basically go one of two ways for the visual aspects of game remakes. Either they can move over to polygons, or else they can use old-fashioned bitmaps. Both approaches have their strengths, yet they also introduce many challenges as well. Both styles run the risk of looking kind of cheap (see the otherwise wonderful Mega Man: Powered Up) or else demand far too much effort to justify the expense of the improvements (see the eternally in-development Final Fantasy VII remake). It's difficult to pull off the balancing act required to make old graphics look sufficiently new and nice, and AlphaDream's reinterpretation of Superstar Saga puts the competition to shame on that front.
As usual with 3DS software, screenshots and even online videos don't quite do their work justice. Every screen and scene I've come across in Bowser's Minions has a soft, painterly look to it. The new art style imbues formerly simple environments with remarkable depth and lighting while still looking like a video game. Detailed, hand-crafted, bitmap backgrounds often resemble nothing more than a digital painting slapped into a game engine, but Mario & Luigi manages to sidestep that issue. It's hard to pinpoint why the look works here, but it could have something to do with the fact that AlphaDream's artists were working on an existing video game framework.
Certainly it doesn't hurt that the sprites actually look like they belong in the game world. AlphaDream has drawn Mario, Luigi, and all their enemies and allies in a great-looking animated "cel" style. It's not a perfect match for the background art if you stare at it long enough, but given the scale at which you actually see the graphics on the 3DS screen, you aren't likely to notice the bands of color shading on the characters except on large characters such as Bowser. Meanwhile, the characters have lost the heavy black outlines they sported in the original game, giving them softer, more blended edges that integrate better into the backgrounds. Finally, lighting and other atmospheric effects (such as the gentle shadows cast by raised environmental elements) affect the brothers and their foes, making them feel like a part of their surroundings rather than objects pasted over top of it. Bowser's Minions recycles a lot of character sprites from recent Mario & Luigi titles, but the series has been working with 3D backgrounds since moving to 3DS (for what should be obvious reasons). The polygonal settings have looked nice, but in going back to olden-style 2D backgrounds and abandoning 3D support altogether, AlphaDream has perhaps inadvertently created the best-looking Mario RPG to date… all in what could have been a quick, easy cash-in.
None of the graphics on display in Bowser's Minions feel particularly revelatory; we've seen plenty of nicely crafted 2D game art in recent years. You almost never see this much effort invested into a portable remake, though. Those tend to fall on the "quick, easy cash-in" side of the spectrum, or else demonstrate a gross misreading of what fans loved about the original game's looks. Square Enix's mobile and Steam remakes of their 16-bit Final Fantasy games have more or less become the poster children for this unfortunate trend; series producer Yoshinori Kitase seemed surprised when Kotaku recently asked him why those remakes look so awful. It appears he had been under the impression that fans enjoy literal, up-rezzed versions of Super NES sprites pasted awkwardly atop equally lifeless interpretations of backgrounds, or that those "upgraded" grpahics deliver the same visual impact as lower-resolution images packed with insane, attentive detail relative to their original resolution.
I realize not every remake can look as nice as Bowser's Minions. Not every developer has the kind of resources that I have to assume Nintendo makes available for its partners on first-party releases. Nor do most developers have a couple of recent games available from which to pilfer sprites. Nevertheless, this recreation of Superstar Saga has an aspirational air about it. Many of the techniques it incorporates (such as its use of shadows and light to unify characters and environments) can be more or less universal. And perhaps the most important detail — everything in the world looks cohesive and unified — is one that remakes so often get wrong. I didn't expect to be impressed by Bowser's Minions, but even if it ultimately proves to be a superfluous remake, AlphaDream's decision to set a new standard of visual fidelity for the series with this remake has literally caught my eye. I suppose I'm being shallow here, allowing myself to be wowed by graphics. Still, Mario & Luigi's stunning overhaul has turned a game in which I had zero interest into one vying for my ever-shrinking gaming time.