Sunday, May 3, 2015

Top 10 Final Battles: #9: Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga

My favorite brand of RPG is the Mario RPG (that doesn't have the word "sticker" in it).  They're self-aware, imaginative and hit the right balance of simplicity and complexity by rewarding both strategy and reflexes.  The imagination and challenge is shown through the many bosses that rarely appear outside of the RPGs, with big baddies like the Lava Piranah, Rawk Hawk, Midbus and Sunnycide.

But Mario RPGs have always stumbled when it comes to their final bosses.  There's usually something about them that makes them unmemorable.  Paper Mario's is just Bowser, the first Mario RPG's on the Super Nintendo and Bowser's Inside Story's weren't established well and the final boss of Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door comes right the hell out of nowhere even with foreshadowing and drags on for far too long.

Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga, even though it's one of the earlier RPGs, does it right.


At about the game's halfway point of the game you fight Cackletta, the game's main villain, after her plan to use the Beanstar macguffin gets wrecked.  She doesn't pull the "I was holding back" card either.  It's an early climax with its own music and the villain is actually defeated.

After she's defeated her toady Fawful sucks her energy into his omni-use headgear and is escorted out of the building Super Smash Brothers-style by the intervention of the local prince.

Sometime later, Fawful and Cackletta's ghost find Bowser unconscious after falling off of the Beanstar from a great height some time after beating Cackletta.  With nowhere else to turn to, Cackletta's ghost takes residence in Bowser's body.

The Mario universe seems to have the rule that spiritual posession means you take some of the visual traits of whoever you're possessed by.  In this case it turns Bowser into Bowletta, who is given control of Bowser's assets, including his airship and flying castle, with which she starts laying waste to the kingdom after a series of mishaps involving the Beanstar.

With the Beanbean kingdom under siege it's up to Mario and Luigi to fly up to Bowletta's castle to put a stop to it.  To get there, you fly up to the castle via Blablanadon (from earlier in the game), and once there, fight through all seven of Bowser's Koopalings (from Super Mario Brothers 3) and Fawful to make it to Bowser's throne room, where Bowletta is waiting.

Haughty with her newfound power, Bowletta gives the usual villain spiel: She's impressed you made it this far, she can't have you getting in the way of her plans and once the Beanbean Kingdom is hers she'll take over the Mushroom Kingdom as well.  For extra intimidation she sets the stage by spewing fire all over the room and burning the whole place up.  She must have a huge well of power in that body to be able to spew so much fire.

"My new country has no need for old Superstars!"

The music used is short, simple, and gloomy, which I feel was meant to evoke how much more serious Bowletta is from Bowser.  Bowser is bumbling and often turned into the butt of jokes in the RPGs.  Not so with Cackletta.  She's been a consistent, scheming threat through the entire game.  While acting as Bowletta she was only fooled once when the Mario Brothers pretended the Peach she captured was a fake, and even then that was understandable because she'd witnessed them use decoys twice already, including right before she died.

Her game-wide antics build her up for this intense conclusion.

Phase 1

Bowletta only uses one body part: Her mouth.  She must've been using Bowser's fire breath like it was a new toy because she utilizes it to its fullest effect, possibly with help from her magic.
Unlike Bowser, Bowletta is able to shoot solid flaming rocks of fire the size of your head called flarets, which she'll either spew at one of the brothers or at the ground as a stationary target.  If you don't destroy the flarets on the ground, she eats them for a health boost.

She can also let off a gigantic burst of fire that deals heavy damage to both brothers at once.  It's easy enough to jump over with the right timing, but that would be too easy.  As she inhales for it you have to button mash to destroy blocks she materializes to impair your jump before you can avoid it.

And if that isn't intimidating enough, she can also invoke the power cosmic and drop the stars on your head!  If you've played the Mario games, you know that very few entities in the Mario universe, such as the Star Spirits in Paper Mario, are able to pull off a move like that.
Like anything in the Mario and Luigi games that rains down on you, you have to hit them back at her with your hammers, which requires timing and observations to the color of the stars, as there are purple ones to fake you out.  Plus while she's in her cosmic state she's apparently so hot she can't be touched.

The fight calls for splitting focus with the flarets and both styles of evasion, which are pushed on you further by how heavily damaging Bowletta's attacks are.  It is a very effective boss battle.

Too bad it's only a transition.

A few turns into the fight, Bowletta screams out in defeat.  Contrary to what a guide online will tell you, this does not happen when her health gets too low.  I had it happen after a turn of dealing no damage and only hitting her with basic attacks.

The reason why the timer is turned-based is quickly shown in the game's biggest "oh crap" moment, even though it takes the brothers a second to realize what it is.

Oh my god!  JC, a bomb!
That is indeed a bomb, and the timer on it reads 0.  Earlier when fighting the last few Koopalings the bomb instantly kills you if you don't defeat the boss by the time the timer hits 0 after a set number of turns.  Bowletta has far more health than they do so that's pretty unfair.  However, it shows more of her pragmatism as opposed to Bowser forgetting the tools at his disposal.

Believe it or not, this insta-kill plan actually works.  The bomb explodes and both brothers instantly die.  You lose!

As a final coup de grace, Bowletta gives the brothers one last respite...

And thus Bowletta inhales them, swallowing them whole and eating them before topping it off with a victory roar.

This is something that's kind of confused me about Bowser's body.  Apparently when he inhales people whole they shrink to tiny size while in his body.  Even in Bowser's Inside Story, a game largely about traversing his body, the shrinking is never explained.
One thing's evident in this game though.  He needs some Tums.

Phase 2

Mario and Luigi wake up inside Bowser, which in this game is portrayed as a flaming hell decorated like his castle as if to say "Inset final battle here."  There, hanging on to only 1 hit point each, they see its occupant.

This is where the true final battle begins, and with its heavy metal backbeat matching the flaming metal background, the music lets you know it.

This final battle requires even more dexterity and reflexes than Bowletta.  Cackletta's soul has a head, two arms and her heart in the middle.  By video game logic you of course want to wale on the heart, but she covers it until her head and arms are gone.  Furthermore, each limb gives her one attack every turn, meaning with all three she can attack you three times!  With three a turn, keeping up a defense can get intensive, and since you start the fight with 1 HP each, she can hurt you before you have the chance to heal, killing you on the first turn!

Here is where Cackletta really emphasizes her magic.  With nothing but flicks of her fingers and muggings of her face she calls balls of lightning to volley between the brothers, falling energy balls, lazers from her eyes, circling flames that keep changing direction and even a ghostly visage of Fawful that fires a diagonal stream of fireballs!  She puts out all the stops!

If only Gadd gave us his Poltergust instead of freakin' coffee!
She puts those segmented arms to use too with an attack that's particularly tricky to dodge.  She simply stretches them out and rotates them around her torso.  It's obvious you have to either jump over them or stay grounded to let them pass over you, and it's telegraphed by her eyes.  However, she quickly starts moving her eyes at a really fast pace with only a split second to react and time the jump right with each brother if necessary.
  When she starts switching the height of her arms and changing directions it gets even worse.

It is a long and arduous battle, depending on your level.  Every time you take out all her limbs, which itself takes a few turns, you only have a few turns to hit her heart with everything you've got before she protects it again, giving it a sense of urgency.  There's not much use in attacking the limbs while the heart is out either, as it can pump life back into them to heal them.  Thankfully, as long as the fight may be, it's not as long as the hour-and-a-half-long marathon boss of Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time, which makes it much more fulfilling to beat instead of annoying.
Like any truly final battle, you'll want to use every last one of your special attack points to use all your most powerful brothers attacks.  There shouldn't even be a single turn in which you use a normal attack.

After your long fight of vicious assault in a burning hellfire, Cackletta is finally eliminated for good.  Her spirit is expelled from Bowser's body, and without a place to hold it, it dissipates.

Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga excellently establishes its main antagonist and pays off the buildup to the final confrontation with this challenging and well-executed payoff.  What makes this final battle even better is the little things to pick up on.  In addition to knowing not to use up your special meter for the unwinnable first phase, extremely perceptive players will figure out that each of Cackletta's soul's hands is weak to one of the brother's elements.
Throughout the game there are blue and red color-coded enemies that typically represent the two elements the brothers learn: thunder for Luigi and fire for Mario.  Fire-using enemies are weak against thunder and vice-versa.  This is established with a boss you fight shortly after getting those powers.

Cackletta's soul's hands aren't color-coded like other enemies with the weakness, but if you pay close attention you'll notice that when they don't spend a turn attacking with both hands, one uses fire and the other uses thunder.
Granted, not exploiting the weakness and using your most powerful attacks works just as well, but it feels rewarding to find hidden details.

Bowletta alone also introduced a lot of concepts that would be used in future games.  In addition to bringing out the Koopalings after several years, she was the first in the Mario and Luigi series' tradition of the final boss being an alternate form of Bowser (if you technically count that less-epic minigame boss at the end of Partners in Time as that game's final one).

As mentioned before, it's also the first time you go inside Bowser's body before the third Mario and Luigi game used it as a primary setting.

Out of all the Mario and Luigi games that have come out on stronger systems, Superstar Saga is still my favorite one, and this final battle is a major contributing factor.
But that's enough Witch slaying.  Starting with #8 we're going to start seeing battles against foes in higher powers.

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