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.
Fits Like A Two Screened Glove
Partners in Time, the previous DS RPG, was a great time but didn't embrace all the possibilities of the system. Sure it used the two screens and four face buttons to ably keep track of the Bros, but Inside Story reveals all the missed opportunities; developer AlphaDream really dug deep and has provided not just an exceptional RPG, but also a decent showpiece for the system.
To start with, all of Bowser's standard special attacks involve the touch screen. Whether lighting Goombas on fire or being pushed around by Shy Guys, the controls of his more powerful and challenging techniques are a fun deviation from Mario and Luigi's button-based specials. But the best use of the touch screen comes when Bowser grows to Kaiju proportions and battles against giant mechanized opponents. Here you beat down your opponents using the stylus to smash and the mic to spit fire. It only occurs a few times, but they’re some of the most engrossing and taxing bits of the game. We certainly wouldn’t have minded a few more.
Mario and Luigi keep up with Bowser's DS-tailored shenanigans while you explore his surprisingly NES-like internal organs. Though more than half of their time involves 2D platforming, you’ll find a cornucopia of minigames while searching his interior. Some are rhythm games and swinging each brother's hammer in the right order, others are vertical shooters that have you blast the correct color spheres with the correct brother, and a third set with the two sent hurtling between different trampoline-like muscles. Only one, involving pushing the spinning siblings in the right directions, got annoying.
This is also one of the funniest games we've played all year. It's normal for the series to have such a light tone, but this was even cleverer than the previous entries. Perhaps Fawful taking center stage took it over the edge, but even without him the humor would be a huge draw thanks to several other standout characters.
There's Broque, a Frenchman made out of the blocks that are floating everywhere in Mario's world. He enjoys working with Bowser but refuses to help Mario and Luigi because of their history of smashing blocks. Fawful's second in command Midbus is wonderful, as the monosyllabic behemoth squares-off often against Bowser.
There's also entertaining twists on classic Mario characters. Our favorites included a group of Monty Moles that talk in bro-speak like frat boys, and Bowser's former minions who constantly and laughably suck-up to their new boss, Fawful. We won't reveal the circumstances of the Kuribo Shoes making a cameo, but we loved the sequence so much we nearly gave the game a 10 right then and there.
The localization of the already superlative game was even above Nintendo's usually high standards. Anyone could make the dialogue accurate in the translation, but to keep it funny in a whole other language takes some very hardworking and witty people. Kudos to series regular Nate Bihldorff and the team involved who expertly made every line of text burst with personality.
Just Shy of Heaven (aka Sky Land)
Okay, okay, we've been pretty positive to this game and deservedly so, but there has to be something that irked us even a little, right? Well, only a few. It might be too short for some genre fans, as we beat the game and completed all the sidequests in just over 23 hours. We're not complaining, as every RPG doesn't need to be 40+ hours long to be great, though others will disagree.
Though we will complain it was a little too easy. We died maybe four times, and two were during the aforementioned giant-Bowser stages. And to soften up the game even more for noobs, you'll find multiple Reset Clocks throughout the game which let you retry a battle you lost instead of reverting to your last save. Not bad per se, because no one’s making you use them, but it’s still a sign of dumbing down the challenge.
Never did the game feel more easy then when we collected the "hidden" items. Normally the collecting of junk to unlock a powerful special attack rarely feels worth the pain, but we found roughly 80 percent of the collectables without really trying. We almost appreciated not going mad on an Easter egg hunt, but then we felt like Nintendo was just patronizing us.
Above: Broque (left) loves the easy to collect Blitties
But that's about the worst our wretched hearts felt about the game. There are many worse gaming sins than "maybe too easy, perhaps a little short, you won't go mad treasure hunting." Otherwise we can't think of any reasons for any DS owner to skip this, especially when it’s the only Mario option for the fall.
Is It Better Than...
Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood? Yes. Leaving aside the tired debate of Mario vs Sonic, Inside Story is better in nearly every way. Sonic Chronicles is a great game with classy graphics and gameplay that took advantage of what Sonic does best, but Inside Story is on a whole other level.
Final Fantasy IV? Yes and no. Even on their third game Mario and Luigi are fresher than the infinitely rereleased FFIV. And Inside Story has a Fat Chocobo's weight in new ideas to counter FFIV playing nearly the same as it did in 1991. Still FFIV is more mature and has a current look to go with the timeless story, while Mario and Luigi look pretty similar to themselves in the first game for GBA.
The World Ends With You? Yes. WEWY has some inventive ideas for making RPG battles more action packed and exciting, but usually it was just too much information to figure out at once. Plus Bowser’s Inside Story is 200 times less emo, which is always appreciated, even if Mario and Luigi don’t rock the latest Shibuya fashion.
Just for you, Metacritic!
Takes the winning formula of the previous games and adds many new and addictive concepts to it. A refreshing sequel bursting with charm, wit and personality.
Sep 11, 2009