Back in 2003, Nintendo released Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga for the Gameboy Advance. It was the third RPG outing for Mario, following the magnificent Super Mario RPG and the classic Paper Mario, but it would be the first in what would be its own sub-series.
Superstar Saga was an hilarious RPG romp that saw both Mario Bros. battle new villains like the witch Cackletta, her non-sequitur sidekick Fawful, and a bandit named Popple. The game put an extra emphasis on both Mario Bros. joining together on an adventure, since such a thing hadn't happened since Super Mario World twelve years prior. And considering that was back when players alternated between playing as Mario and Luigi, Superstar Saga was, in a way, the very first time they joined together for such an adventure.
Not only was Superstar Saga one of the best games on the Gameboy Advance, it was one of the best and most inventive RPGs of its era. It took elements from the previous Mario RPGs and added them to its own foundations. Like the other Mario RPGs, it was beloved by basically anyone who played it, though being a "spinoff" title in the Mario canon, most of its accomplishments were more quietly appreciated.
Two years later in 2005, Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time was released on the Nintendo DS. It continued many of the elements established in the first game, and saw Mario and Luigi team up with their baby selves. And although the game had some highlights, such as two Hammer Bros. who talked in L33t speak (or however you spell that nonsense) and the presence of unsung Nintendo sidekick Prof. E. Gadd (which is his latest appearance until Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon arrives in March), in the end, it just wasn't as good as its predecessor.
Perhaps it was the addition of the babies that proved to be a disappointing hook, or the simple fact that it just wasn't as funny (the game's villains, the Shroobs, lack memorability due to their language merely consisting of random symbols, taking away many opportunities for them to live up to Fawful and Cackletta). Whatever it was, it simply wasn't as good as Superstar Saga. It's still a good game, no doubt, but perhaps Mario & Luigi wasn't quite ready for the sequel treatment (it was released a mere two years from its predecessor, and a single year from the excellent Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door). Despite its merits it remains one of the weaker Mario RPG outings.
Four years later, in 2009, the DS received another sequel to the series in Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story. In this third entry, Fawful takes up the mantle of primary antagonist, and reeks havok on the Mushroom Kingdom by unleashing a disease known as "the Blorbs" which causes the mushroom people to inflate to enormous size and roll around uncontrollably, and for reasons not quite made perfectly clear, gives Bowser a mushroom that causes the Koopa king to enhale the denizens of Peach's castle, including Mario and Luigi.
The game was a return to form for the series. Mario and Luigi had their own quest going on inside of Bowser's body (which thankfully looks more like a colorful bounce house than guts and muscles), while Bowser himself took on Fawful's forces in the Mushroom Kingdom.
The hook of playing as Bowser and the Mario Bros. as separate (yet intertwining) teams worked much better than the Bros. and the babies from the last game, and made for a much better utilization of the DS' two screens. Best of all is how the game would throw new mechanics at you around every corner. As soon as you had the game figured out, Bowser would grow Godzilla-sized and fight his own castle, Mario and Luigi would take part in rail shooter-type minigames inside Bowser's body, and the special attacks used the DS' touch screen creatively.
It was something of a culmination of the series, containing bits and pieces of its predecessors (the Shroobs even appeared as an optional boss fight) and weaved them into its own brand of ideas. For years I would have said it was undoubtedly the best entry in the series, but recently I've been realizing that may not be such an easy call.
When Nintendo announced the Wii U Virtual Console would include Gameboy Advance games, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga was one of the first games to come to mind (the other was WarioWare: Twisted). Suddenly my love of the series was rekindled. Even moreso, I began remembering just how great Superstar Saga was. What other game involved an old man telling jokes to a barell of soda pop for 1,000 years?
It's actually quite a hard call between the first and third entries, similar to the ongoing "which is better" arguments of the first two Paper Marios. Hard to say if my answer will ever be 100% definitive, up until last month I would have said Bowser's Inside Story took the cake, but my rekindled interest in Superstar Saga currently has me seeing the highlights of the original to a greater degree, and at this point in time I might say Superstar Saga wears the crown.
Which brings us to Dream Team, the fourth entry in the series due for release on Nintendo 3DS this Summer. I actually thought that between the four year wait and the ending of Bowser's Inside Story (which desicively writes Fawful, a mainstay of the series, out of the equation), that Nintendo was through with the series. And when the latest (and most disappointing) Paper Mario was released on Nintendo's newest handheld, it further seemed to suggest the Mario & Luigi series was in limbo.
But now, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team has been announced, and with great timing for me personally, given my renewed interest in the series. The game looks to carry on the gameplay and style of the past games, with some new 3D environments and pre-rendered characters models added. The twist this time around is that much of the game will take place in Luigi's dream world, which opens up all kinds of possibilities for both the gameplay and humor for the game.
Since the Paper Mario series has been stripping away many of the RPG elements that made us love the series in the first place, it has been the duty of the Mario & Luigi series to hold up the mantle created by Super Mario RPG back in 1996. If Dream Team ends up as good as Superstar Saga or Bowser's Inside Story, it will be a dream come true, indeed.