Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today
to mourn the passing of AlphaDream, the company responsible for the cult favourite Mario and
Luigi series of roleplaying games. While gone, this studio will not be forgotten. They have left an indelible mark on the Super
Mario universe, and have been instrumental in defining the way we view many of the core
characters from this series. Instead of focusing on the loss that we feel
at this time, let’s instead celebrate the life of AlphaDream. Let us look back on how this very unusual
studio came to be, all thanks to a friendship, and then falling out, between Nintendo and
Squaresoft. Before we can talk about AlphaDream, we have
to talk about Super Mario RPG, arguably the proto-Mario and Luigi game. In the early ‘90s, Squaresoft (which had
not yet absorbed rival Enix) had a problem. Their games, particularly their Final Fantasy
series, sold very well in Japan. Their long, nuanced, well-crafted story-driven
roleplaying games were a labour of love, and domestic audiences appreciated this. Outside the country, though, Square’s games
didn’t fair quite as well. Perhaps there was a language barrier, or a
general challenge at getting foreign children to sit still and read dialogue. Maybe Square’s signature battle mechanics
were simply too complicated for Westerners to wrap their heads around. For whatever reason, many Square games were
simply not living up to their potential. It was costly to localise such long games
into English and other European languages, so Square needed a big hit to help break into
this market and develop a reputation. One attempt at doing so was Mystic Quest,
a roleplaying game that was envisioned as a very simple, dumbed-down version of Final
Fantasy. This, alas, didn’t exactly grab Western
audiences’ attention in the way Square hoped it would. So what else could they do? They needed a cuddly, cute, eye-catching character
that could drive sales of their game. They decided that they needed Mario. Square and Nintendo had a fairly good working
relationship at this point in time. When contacted about the chance of a collaboration,
Mario overseer Shigeru Miyamoto jumped at the chance. Then he saw what Square had actually envisioned. They imagined the game as a 50-50 hybrid of
Mario and Final Fantasy, and showed off a piece of concept art featuring Mario riding
on a horse and wielding a sword. Shigeru was unimpressed. “That’s not right!” he announced. Mario could use a hammer as a weapon, perhaps,
but he would never use a sword. Bear in mind that we were still nearly a decade
away from Super Smash Brothers at this point. It became clear to Square that if this collaboration
was to work, Shigeru expected a Super Mario RPG to look and feel like a Mario game. Square’s own signature design choices would
need to labour under the surface instead. So, the game was designed as a fun, silly,
lighthearted affair – one that perfectly reflected the Super Mario aesthetic of the
time. The directors for the game were a pair of
Square employees that had previously worked as writers on Mystic Quest. Yoshihiko Maekawa and Chihiro Fujioka were
both relatively new to game design, although Chihiro had enjoyed a long career as a game
compose already, having made music for such classics as Combat Simulator: Battle Gorilla,
and Earthbound. No, not that Earthbound. Another one. From 1983. Yoshihiko and Chihiro, along with other staff
members from Square, poured their heart and soul into Super Mario RPG, and the result
was the breakout hit that the company had been hoping for. While it came right at the end of the SNES’s
lifespan and was expensive to produce thanks to its costly cartridge hardware, the game
ended up selling well enough in America to justify more Mario RPGs. It didn’t sell particularly well in Europe,
though. This is possibly something to do with the
fact that it wasn’t actually released on the continent. Square was still hesitant about localising
the game into a bunch of different languages, so they hedged their bets and didn’t bother
trying. Flushed with success after seeing the North
American sales figures for Super Mario RPG, Nintendo and Square were eager to work together
again. Then, seemingly overnight, their partnership
fell apart. As Nintendo worked on their 64-bit follow-up
to the SNES, rival Sony was pushing the PlayStation – a console that Nintendo had inadvertently
helped to create when they reneged on a deal to release a disc-based games system. The PlayStation used discs which were very
easy to develop for, and very cheap to print and sell. Nintendo’s insistence on sticking with cartridges
meant that its console was a lot less appealing to developers. So, Square jumped ship. Their next Final Fantasy game took advantage
of the PlayStation’s unique features, and as a result, Final Fantasy 7 ended up being
the big super global smash hit they’d been dreaming of. Not to be outdone, Nintendo partnered with
Intelligent Systems to create Paper Mario. This game was made without the input of many
developers that had worked on Super Mario RPG, and as such, had a flavour and feeling
that was very much its own. So where did AlphaDream come into all of this? Tetsuo Mizuno, the former president of Square,
left the company in 1998 amid a dramatic shakeup. At the end of his gardening leave in 2001,
he formed a brand new company. This company would make classic roleplaying
games. It was staffed by many veterans of Square,
such as Chihiro and Yoshihiko. It was destined for big things. That studio was called… Alpha…Star? They later changed the name to AlphaDream. AlphaDream’s first game, Koto Battle, is
a card game for the Game Boy that’s not dissimilar to the Pokemon Trading Card Game. It won acclaim domestically, but it was never
released to foreign markets, again because localisation is very, very expensive. After this came Tomato Adventure for the Gameboy
Advance, which I wish we had got outside of Japan. Chihiro served as the director for both of
these games. Then, in 2003, came Mario and Luigi: Superstar
Saga, directed by Yoshihiko. This perhaps more so than the Paper Mario
series was the spiritual successor to Super Mario RPG. AlphaDream’s staff had worked on the first
game, and knew how Nintendo liked things to work. Shigeru Miyamoto served as a producer on the
title. Essentially, the gang was all back together,
and they were able to take the ideas they’d tinkered with in their first Mario roleplaying
game and expand them into something more. Luigi’s inclusion in the game was particularly
important during development. This was the first time the character had
been included in a major role in a roleplaying game, and as such, AlphaDream had a lot of
scope to flesh him out and develop his personality and relationships with others. To put things simply, they kicked him. Then, when he was down, they kicked him again. Luigi became something of a punching bag in
this game – a meta commentary on the way that he was often viewed as little more than
Green Mario in main series games. It built upon his cowardice from Luigi’s
Mansion which had been released two years prior, and really ran with that as a theme. It was here that Luigi developed the persona
of an earnest underdog; not as popular or cool as Mario, always in his brother’s shadow,
but always trying to do his best. Just between you and me, this makes Luigi
far more relatable and interesting as a character, and it’s probably why he’s developed his
own enthusiastic fanbase over the years. Together, Yoshihiko and Chihiro, along with
the rest of the team at AlphaDream, delivered an enjoyable roleplaying game that went on
to be one of the standout hits of the GBA’s library. While many other handheld games of this era
were simply ports of existing SNES games, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga is a wholly
unique labour of love which sparkles with wit and originality. The studio went on to make several other games
that built on this formula. Partners in Time, Bowser’s Inside Story,
Dream Team, plus a crossover with the Paper Mario series, Paper Jam. Some of those games were so good, AlphaDream
made them twice! Remakes of Superstar Saga and Bowser’s Inside
Story were among the last games to be released for the 3DS. So as we say goodbye to this dedicated, creative,
inventive studio, let’s take a lesson from their triumphs and successes. The bittersweet moral of AlphaDream’s story
is that there’s more to success than financial gain. While the Mario and Luigi series was often
popular, it was never very profitable for the amount of work that went into the games. These big, sprawling epics took a lot of resources,
and often launched on dying consoles when sales were at their lowest. Thus, the company has run out of steam, and
money. It has, however, left behind a legacy of engaging,
enjoyable games that have left an impression on the Mario universe as a whole. While it’s sad that we won’t get any more
Mario and Luigi games from AlphaDream, we can at least enjoy what has been left behind,
and be grateful that we ever got such beautiful games in the first place. Maybe sometimes it’s better to make the
thing you want to make, rather than worrying about what you should make. If that means losing money? Fine. At least you’ll be proud of what you’ve
accomplished.