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Published on 24th May 2017

Learning Japanese with Video Games: Mario and Luigi Superstar Saga


I'm a firm believer in learning Japanese through media. That's why most of us started studying it in the first place. I'm sick and tired of people saying not to learn Japanese through anime and games. Do learn Japanese with anime and games. Learn it anyway you want to. The most important thing is that you enjoy yourself while you study.

Today we’ll be looking at Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga or 「マリオ&ルイージRPG」as it’s known in Japan. 

This game was released in November 2003 and was a spiritual successor to Super Mario RPG on the SNES and Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64. 

Developed by AlphaDream, a second-party Nintendo developer made up mostly of former Square employees. 

Mario RPGs are known for subverting the genre troupes of both RPGs and the Mario series itself, and this game is no exception. The majority of the game is set within the BeanBean Kingdom, a neighbouring monarchy of the Mushroom Kingdom, complete with it’s own race of bean shaped people and eccentric royal family.

Story

The story tells of Mario and Luigi’s quest to recover Princess Peach’s voice from the clutches of Cackletta (Japanese: ゲラゲラモーナ Gerageramona), an evil witch who wants to use it to wake up the Beanstar. The Beanstar is, well,a star shaped bean. It has the ability to grant the User's greatest desire, and as such was put into a deep slumber so that it’s power could not be used for evil. The only way to wake it, is with a beautiful voice. A voice that - you guessed it - Princess Peach possesses. 

The game is unique as Bowser is not the main villain. In fact, at the beginning of the game, he teams up with Mario and Luigi to reclaim Peach’s voice. Cackletta replaces Peach’s voice with literal explosions, and Bowser doesn’t want to kidnap her if she’s going to wreck his castle every time she speaks.

The game is filled with witty dialogue and jokes, and features a genuinely interesting story. Highlights include Luigi hypnotising himself to believe that he is Mario in order to gain courage, an overconfident prince and a running gag where nobody can remember Luigi’s name, (although this joke did get a bit tired by the third game in the series). 

I’d go as far as saying that apart from the Cackletta’s minion Fawful (Japanese: ゲラコビッツ Gerakobitsu), Luigi is the standout character of the game. Unlike Paper Mario, where he is relegated to staying at home in the Mario Brother’s house and writing a diary, or Super Mario RPG, where he fails to appear at all, Luigi is a fully fledged main character and the game is all the better for it.

I’ve long held the view that Luigi is the more interesting of the two Mario Brothers. Mario is the face of Nintendo, and as such can have no personality traits whatsoever incase somebody somewhere gets offended. Luigi, as the less popular brother is afforded some leeway in his characterisation, and is all the better for it. Give me the coward Luigi over heroic Mario any day.

Gameplay

The game consists of two sections, over-world sections where the player controls the brothers and they navigate around their environment, and battle sections, where the brothers face off against enemies in turn based combat.

The most interesting mechanic that the game offers is allowing for control of both Mario and Luigi at the same time. In battle Mario is always controlled with the A button, and Luigi the B button. In the over-world the brothers position can change, but one brother is always controlled with one button. 

As the game progresses, Mario and Luigi will gain new abilities such as a tornado jump or high jump. These abilities are accessed by switching the brother's position and pressing the L & R button to select the desired ability. Although this is a functional system, it never feels fully intuitive, and on certain timed puzzles where switching between brothers and abilities quickly is required, it can be downright frustrating.

Superstar Saga follows in the footsteps of Paper Mario by allowing for an extensive amount of player interaction during it's turn based battles. By pressing buttons at the correct time, the player can dodge and even counter attack enemies. During the Brothers turn, timed button presses can lead to more powerful attacks. Special “Bros. Attacks” are available where Mario & Luigi work together. By pressing the A and B buttons at the right time, Mario & Luigi are able to deal out attacks that do massive amounts of damage to enemies. Due to the games player interaction, if you play well and dodge every attack, it is possible to complete the game without taking any damage. This incentivises paying close attention to every battle, and helps to relieve the RPG battle fatigue that many JRPG's are known for. 

How good is this game for learning Japanese? 

My opinion? Great. 

The language is simple to understand, and when kanji are used, they are usually readable. There were a few times where I had trouble deciphering basic kanji due to the GameBoy Advance’s small screen, but running the offending kanji through the google translate app always cleared up any confusion I may have had. 

Some characters have the Japanese anime tendency of ending their sentences in odd ways, and some of the jokes went over my head, but I was never completely lost, and was able to follow the main thrust of the story with very few problems. 

I like to make a excel document of new words I come across when playing a game in Japanese, here's a sample of what I wrote out for this game. 

KanjiHiraganaRomajiEnglish Meaning
大至急だいしきゅうDaishikyuuAs soon as possible
沈没ちんぼつChinbotsuSinging (i.e. a boat)
深呼吸しんこきゅうShinkokyuuDeep breath
景気けいきKeikiBuisness
文明ぶんめいBunmeiCivilisation
究極きゅうきょくKyuukyokuUltimate

As you can see, it's a very diverse cross section of words. I've become attached to using daishikyuu in everyday conversation, much to the bewilderment of everyone around me. 

Differences in the Japanese and English version

The largest difference between the two versions of the game is the character of Fawful 「ゲラコビッツ」. In English he speaks with an amusing affect, speaking English like he learnt it from somebody with only a loose grasp on the language. He has a fondness for using odd, often food based metaphors and idioms. 

In the Japanese version he just ends his sentences by saying rurururururururu. 

Credit should be given the localisers of the game, Nate Bihldorff and Bill Trinen. Thanks to their stellar work, Fawful has stuck in the mind of anybody who has ever played this game. Here's a comparison of Fawful's dialogue in both versions. 

You can clearly see the leeway that the translators were afforded with their localisation:

Another key difference in the Japanese and English version comes when you visit the Chucklehuck Woods, or the ゲラゴーニュの森 (Geragonyu Woods) as it is known in the Japanese version. An old Man has been maturing a special soda by telling it puns. Obviously jokes such as these don't translate across languages so they have been replaced in the English version with more appropriate (but equally terrible) English jokes. 

In the Japanese version, the jokes are all standard, terrible puns, or 親父ギャグ (dad jokes) as they are called in Japanese. In the English version the jokes are still terrible, but all relate to soda.

Non localisation based differences include tweaks to certain items and badge effects, made to balance the game for the Japanese release. These balance tweaks are impressive, as there was only an 11 day gap between the North American and Japanese release dates.

Conclusion

It took me a total of 20 hours to complete Mario and Luigi Superstar Saga. Along the way I was treated to interactive and unique battle mechanics, a sometimes laugh out loud story and I even learnt a few new Japanese words along the way.