Mario and Luigi's eternal struggle against the forces that threaten the Mushroom Kingdom—and frequently kidnap Princess Peach—continue in Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, the latest in the lighthearted, action-oriented role-playing game series.
This time, series staple bad guy Fawful has tricked Bowser into eating a particular strain of mushroom that causes him to inhale the court of the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach included. There's also a nasty Toad affliction going around, known as the Blorbs that needs curing. Of course, the goal is to save the Mushroom Kingdom and rescue Peach, with much of that work being done by Mario and Luigi, trapped inside the anatomical depths of the King of Koopas himself.
Players will control both Mario and Luigi and Bowser, offering two very different styles of play but with a common goal. Should you dive into Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story?
Gameplay Over Storytelling: I've never been much of a fan of the conventional role-playing game genre, largely because I find the storytelling to be heavy-handed and the gameplay to generally be dull. But after playing the first Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga on the Game Boy Advance, I got hooked on developer Alpha Dream's formula. The series features timing-based gameplay that ensures a level of amusing rhythmic action on both offense and defense, one that rarely becomes stale. Part of that is due to the fact that the Mario & Luigi games regularly throw new skills, new items, new special attacks, and new characters at the player right up until the very end. Oh, and the storytelling? It may be skin deep, but it's certainly not dull.
Having The Chortles: One reason the story portions of Bowser's Inside Story are more enjoyable than what many other RPGs have to offer is simple. They're funny. The well-written dialogue is often worthy of out loud laughing, all of it delivered with well-directed animation. Some of the gags offered are for the older Nintendo fan, as the game makes reference to past Mario games and even Pro Wrestling for the NES. There are also self-inflicted jabs at Nintendo's current offerings, with a handful of Wii Fit jokes peppered throughout. It may not be as freshly entertaining or so disarming with its brand of humor as the first Mario & Luigi game, but it's still great fun.
Bowser's Guts: The bizarre fantasy anatomy of the Mushroom Kingdom's biggest Koopa is a trip. In these portions of the game, when one controls Mario and Luigi, the player will be doing plenty of 2D platform-adventuring. You'll also play a simple Galaga style shmup, whack hammers in a musical rhythm game, solve puzzles and flick the stylus in various mini-games. It's a very different experience from the portions played in the outer world as Bowser and, later on, the Bros. Alpha Dream crafted two very different experiences, one familiar to Mario & Luigi vets, another closer to recent console Mario RPGs.
Stylus Control Redux: The previous Mario & Luigi game on the Nintendo DS, Partners In Time, didn't take advantage of the platform's touchscreen in the smartest of ways. But during some of Bowser's boss battles, Alpha Dream really mixes things up. It's not worth spoiling, but there are some memorable moments—some of them occasionally frustrating in their length—while holding the DS like a book and blowing into the microphone.
Still Beans To Be Found: Even after spending more than 20 hours playing Bowser's Inside Story, there's still plenty left to discover, from power ups to Special Attacks to badges that still elude me. I did indulge in a handful of unnecessary side quests and the odd bean hunt, but I left plenty behind to dig out when I return to the game. The better part of all this stuff left undiscovered? I'm entertained by the game's mechanics enough to want to return for another 20 hours.
Complexity Without Losing Simplicity: The list of flashy Special Attacks is greater, the badge attribute system deeper, and the equipment options more robust—the Bros. can wear socks, shoes, and gloves in addition to their trademark overalls—but Nintendo and Alpha Dream ease the player into all of it brilliantly. Bowser's Inside Story actually lets the player practice Special Attacks at any time, so learning these techniques is much easier than before. There's not much in the way of intricate upgrade and item interaction systems to learn (should you actually be interested in such a thing) but series vets will find the customization in this entry far greater.
Goomba Engines And Broque Monsieur: The game features plenty of familiar enemies—Goombas, Koopas, Bullet Bills and Bob-ombs—but every visual trademark in the Super Mario Bros. series gets played with a remixed to a wonderful degree. Two of my favorites are the coal powered Goomba machines and shopkeeper Broque Monsieur. His interactions with the Mario Bros. touches on a great, unexplored topic of the series. Warp pipes and coin blocks as part of Mario universe anatomy is a wonderfully bizarre thing
Long Winded: Well-written and visually amusing though it may be, sometimes the Mario & Luigi series gets a little too wordy for its own good. And sometimes those moments of dialogue just seem to drag on, particularly if they occur before an extended boss battle. Bowser's Inside Story addresses some of that impatience with Retry Clocks that let the player restart a fight, but sometimes the fluffy storyline and copious tutorials interfere with the fun. Also, does every single character have to have some quirky speech affectation? Some of the globin here make be want to tear out my globin.
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story may be the best entry yet in the portable role-playing game series. Alpha Dream and Nintendo have slathered detail on every aspect of the game, expanding the experience well beyond what Partners In Time brought to the franchise. Even better, there's little of the repetition or control complexity that bogged down that entry. It's easy to recommend to just about any Nintendo DS owner, a near-perfect correction from the misstep that was Partners In Time.
Even if you don't consider RPGs your "thing" it's worth checking out what Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story has to offer, especially if you've never played a Mario & Luigi game before. This is some of the best content to grace the Nintendo DS, a gorgeously produced game that delivers on all fronts. Find a place for it on your list of games to play this year.
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story was developed by Alpha Dream and published by Nintendo for the Nintendo DS on September 14. Retails for $34.99 USD. Played storyline to completion, which was about 20 hours.
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