Release Date: November 28, 2005
Buy 'MARIO AND LUIGI: Partners in Time': NDS
A dual-screened follow-up to Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga for the Game Boy Advance, Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time pulls together role-playing, platforming and a simple but refined presentation in one of the Nintendo DS' most rewarding titles. Its mostly clever storytelling provides another layer of interest for anyone not quite won over by Mario titles that tend toward straight-on cuteness. It's still a saga of an imperiled Mushroom Kingdom, but Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time stands alongside its predecessor as one of the most sophisticated, not to mention fun, expressions of the Mario universe.
This time around, evil Shroob space invaders are hassling Princess Peach, and time holes have opened up all over her castle. Sounds dire, indeed, but those swirling portals also let you chase Shroobs and affiliated evildoers across the Mushroom Kingdom and the space-time continuum. They also set up Partners in Time's central gameplay twist: In addition to Mario and Luigi, you get to play as toddler versions of the older brothers. You take the quartet from Hollijolli Village to Yoshi's Island to the innards of gigantic Yoob the Shroob and beyond, jumping, hammering and even admiring some scenery along the way. You've got plenty of collecting to take care of, too, as you need those Cobalt Star shards to set things right, and you have to pay for those extra pants somehow.
Teaming the geezer brothers with their drooling counterparts creates a dynamic that plays out equally entertainingly in combat and exploration. It's rare at any point in Partners in Time to catch yourself hunting for the next battle because the puzzles are getting tiresome, and it's just as uncommon to feel like you're suffering through the combat just to get back to the puzzles. One is just as rewarding as the other.
Partners in Time doesn't shy away from the basics, so if you're a Superstar Saga vet or have a been-there attitude toward Mario in general, don't expect a radically unique experience. Lots of climbing into pipes and jumping on the heads of foes awaits, but every level-up moves you closer to more complex environments and new moves to help you puzzle out how to get from one end to the other. Luigi, for example, learns a spin move from the Toadsworths (elder and younger) that lets the older duo leap wider gaps and helps them stay aloft for even greater distances when you make use of conveniently occurring tornadoes. Baby Mario can drink himself plump with water so that baby Luigi can hammer it out of him to put out fires. Together the babies can drill underground to get behind gates and locked doors. All familiar stuff, but its every bit as fun as it is comfortable.
As you progress, the game forces you to split up the quartet to solve puzzles and use moves that the older brothers can't manage when saddled with the kids, and that the kids can't pull off when they're not free to run around on their own. Each pair proves perfectly capable of handling themselves. If anyone gets in a tight spot, health-replenishing and 1-up mushrooms are relatively easy to find, and you can also buy clothing and badges to beef up your attack and defense stats.
Combat has been spiffed up since Superstar Saga, but the turn-based attacks and judicious item-usage persist, rich with options for how to take down Shroobs and occasionally demanding some above-average hand-eye skills. It begins with basic jumping, but when the more aggressive foes show up in larger numbers, it's time to break out the Bros. Items. These are the tools that let you offer a more formidable threat to the entire evil crew you face in each fight with weapons like Smash Eggs that you can backwards-kick in the air between the brothers, and Red Shells that move on to the next enemy after dispatching your first target.
Dropping baby versions of Mario and Luigi into the action deepens the combat that much more, and adds more complications to the precision button-pushing. The kids can knock the Smash Egg higher before the oldsters kick it into enemies to inflict more damage, for example. This keeps the combat lively and a tad stressful, in the most fun sense of stressfulness. You can also avoid and repel attacks with jumps and hammer strikes, and it's a skill you need to learn early before you face the more clever enemies like Baby Bowser's self-replicating stooge Kamek. Poor timing means suffering more damage than you need to, and missing out on counter damage you could be dealing to Shroobs and their allies.
Partners in Time throws a diverse lot of enemies your way. Alternately inflatable and shrinkable Drs. Shroob, particle-weapon-toting Shroids, stampeding Bullies -- it's an army of wackiness that never surrenders. Many of them sport several attacks, so effective countering is always an on-your-toes affair. Just as you get used to the Swiggler's seismic wave attack, it extends its tail/fuel pipe into the sky to power up some Shroob saucers that blast you from the DS' top screen. Some enemies also regenerate HP -- with the help of storm clouds and other forces aligned against you -- if you're not careful, making thoughtful usage of Bros. Items and mushrooms a necessity. Do something silly like waste a Green Shell on an enemy flying above your ground-based attack, and you might find yourself hurting later on without the means to pound a tougher set of foes.
When you're not fighting, figuring out what do and where to go next is mostly a pleasurable piece of cake, though the controls sometimes present an unwelcome but manageable mechanical challenge. The shoulder buttons toggle the secondary functions of the face buttons, and while it's not usually a matter of urgent timing to pull off a drill maneuver or a spin jump, it is awkward enough to take you out of the game for a moment to switch between moves. The basic platforming action sometimes demands precision to a frustrating extent, but once you learn to manage the double jumps necessary to keep the brothers moving in sync, having to redo platform sequences is an issue only in areas like Toad Town that sport more demanding platforms.
The lack of clever touch-screen usage is the biggest control-related disappointment of Partners in Time. Given the inventiveness of the rest of the action, you wonder why the imagination doesn't extend to putting the stylus to greater use. As it is, the dual-screen setup is used mostly for training, following enemies that attack from the air, launching the baby brothers into higher areas and the like.
Partners in Time's visual presentation is excellently polished and nicely tuned to the DS' capabilities. The brothers themselves sport familiar red and green and move about smoothly enough, but the supporting cast steals the design show. The green-tinted, nauseated Swiggler stands out among the larger characters, as does Baby Bowser in the tinier category. Yes, it's all Mario-cute, but expertly wrapped up with the storytelling.
The story itself falters every now and again with some easy-sounding snippets of dialogue, but for every reference to a "snackaholic," at least five character-driven lines like Baby Bowser's "good cookies and evil milk" come along to redeem the occasional slip. That tone dominates the story, successfully so and to such an extent that the need to meet characters -- like Kylie Koopa, ace reporter -- and to read the next exchange of dialogue drive you through the game as much as a desire to explore new levels. The music, certainly familiar territory for Mario fans, can reach a distracting level of fancifulness, but most often it's a pleasing accompaniment to the action.
An engaging narrative that actually inspires an urge to read all the text, fun and evolving combat, and a smooth coat of presentational polish make Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time a compelling package. Even if you're inclined to turn up your nose at the Mushroom Kingdom milieu, Partners in Time is worth a look for its storytelling approach, especially if you missed Superstar Saga, and if you can take your RPGs a little on the whimsical side. As long as you're the sort who can appreciate the gameplay potential of all this built on top of basic platformer conventions, Partners in Time is an essential DS experience.