Let's be honest with each other: the DS has more quality RPGs than anyone has the time to play. We get paid to do it and even with 30 hours a month on public transit we're still woefully behind. And yet here we are again with another high-profile DS RPG that comes out the same month as at least three others that we can think of. What makes Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story any more worthwhile than the rest of this creamy crop? Pull up a toadstool and listen.
A Traditional Original
Mario RPGs have been around for nearly 15 years and have always successfully mixed tried and true RPG staples with the skill-based platforming found in the core Mario titles. This entry is no exception, as it still requires skillful leaps in the overworld (as in a standard Mario adventure) and precise button presses for offensive/defensive moves during the game’s RPG-style battles.
Just as in the past, the Mario Bros go questing with Mario assigned to the A button and Luigi on B. When battles begin, don't expect to keep one eye on the screen and the other on your email, as each attack needs careful timing for maximum effectiveness. Example: when you select “Fight” on the menu, you don’t zone out while the attack unfolds. You watch intently, waiting for the correct time to push A again and deal even more damage (or block it, if you’re defending). Learning your enemies and their different tells can mean the difference between dying to a low level enemy and taking no damage in a boss fight. Though mostly unchanged from previous games, the battle bits are still engaging and make each battle feel like they matter, and most importantly, help reduce the general tedium of RPG battles.
The story is reminiscent of previous games, but in the best possible way. The Bros explore the Mushroom Kingdom in the hopes of curing the mysterious illness “the Blorbs,” which turns people into giant, spherical fat-bodies. The cause is revealed very quickly as Fawful - the top henchman from the outstanding Superstar Saga - has spread the illness around to make the Mushroom Kingdom ready for conquering. Does he kidnap Princess Peach too? Of course he does, though his purposes are a bit more complex than Bowser's.
Above: We welcome the return of Fawful, Mario's funniest enemy
Speaking of Bowser, he’s home to the most drastic change to the formula this time around. He’s still introduced as a humorously incapable villain, but after he swallows both Mario bros (we’ll let you see why and how), you’re able to switch between them at your discretion. Bowser wanders the Mushroom Kingdom in search of Fawful on the top screen while the Bros sift around Bowser’s guts on the bottom, desperately trying to find a way out of their nemesis’ innards.
In battle, Bowser plays comparably to Mario and Luigi, though obviously his fighting style is a bit more brute force than the Italian siblings. Whether you’re punching the crap out of guys or blowing fire, the attacks still involve the same level of attention in battle, and thanks to Bowser's newfound ability to suck (lolz), he can inhale enemies and let the two plumbers continue fighting them in his stomach. That’s got to be a first, right?
Even though the story has some of the usual set-pieces - kidnapped Princess, Mushroom Castle overthrown, collect a certain number of star things - the plot moves in surprising ways. It almost feels random as the next corner Bowser turns leads him to a bizarre new situation, like eating a giant carrot or sneezing his way to a remote island. It takes time for the story to ramp up until all the pieces are laid out for Mario and Luigi to save the world, but the twists and turns are so delightfully absurd it’s hard not to smile and take them in stride. Bowser is already a world-famous villain and thanks to the situations found here, his stubbornness and downright stupidity have made him an exceptional co-star as well.