Nintendo has this very clever method of hiding some of its most brilliant and best-executed ideas inside the most unassuming packages. On the surface, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is simply a rehash of the RPG franchise that has seen stellar sales and a steadily increasing fan base. Under the surface, however, lurks a game with lots of fun and creative new concepts that come together in brilliant ways. The end result is a title that's a hit with RPG fans, Mario nuts and gamers in general, and the only fault to be found with Bowser's Inside Story is that the game doesn't quite push these great new concepts as far as it could.
The first thing you need to know about the game (and ultimately the only reason you need to buy it) is that Lord Fawful is back. Yes, the grammatically challenged evildoer from Superstar Saga has returned, and he's just as hilarious as ever. The evil genius has unleashed a plague known as the Blorbs on the Mushroom Kingdom, and he also manages to trick Bowser into eating a special mushroom that causes the Koopa King to unknowingly inhale Mario, Luigi, Peach and many other kingdom denizens. Thinking he has managed to incapacitate all his enemies in one fell swoop, Fawful sets out to find the Dark Star and harness its power so that he might be the world's greatest villain.
Naturally, Bowser doesn't like that idea, so most of the game's plotline revolves around the big bruiser trying to kick Fawful out of town and reclaim his spot as the Mushroom Kingdom's true lord of evil. All the while, Mario and Luigi are bounding around Bowser's innards looking to rescue the lost princess and find a means of escape so that they can mete out their own brand of Italian justice. The whole setup is one of the more unique premises in all of gaming, and it's doubly welcome in the RPG genre, which is known above all else for having some of the most stale and predictable stories around.
The gameplay should be familiar to anyone who's played the previous games in the series, with platforming and exploration elements mixed in with the game's hybrid turn-based combat. Mario and Luigi still attack with jumps and hammers, and players can still dish out extra damage or repel enemy attacks with a well-timed button press. This time around, though, Bowser gets in on the act as well with similar mechanics, and his special attacks add an additional layer of entertainment with their clever use of the touch-screen and stylus.
One of the main complaints of the series over the years has been that the combat can get pretty boring after a while. After all, once you learn an enemy's attack patterns, blocking or countering becomes essentially automatic and the game can fall into the level-grind pitfalls that plague other titles. Thankfully, Alpha Dream has thrown in a few new combat wrinkles to spice up things a bit. First up is the occasional appearance of what I like to call "Giga Bowser," where the Koopa King swells into the size of a skyscraper for some truly epic boss battles. These fights require players to hold the DS sideways, and the combat strategies and attacks are so fundamentally different from the rest of the game that they provide a great change of pace. Furthermore, these encounters are spaced out throughout the game perfectly, appearing regularly enough that you feel comfortable with the mechanics while still managing to be rare enough that you never feel like it's becoming an overplayed gimmick meant to artificially add variety.
The other fun new mechanic is a sort of co-op combat system between Bowser and the bros. Some smaller enemies can be inhaled by Bowser, and once they're down in his gut, Mario and Luigi can team up to finish them off. Oftentimes, this mechanic is used merely as a way to make fights a bit easier, but in some boss encounters, it is a critical piece of the puzzle that players will have to fully utilize in order to succeed. Unfortunately, this is one of those mechanics that doesn't live up to its full potential, as the co-op combat really never manages to stand out as much as it should. The game really would have benefited from leaning a bit more heavily on this concept, but it still manages to be an entertaining distraction when it is available.
The co-op mechanic is more cleverly implemented in puzzle-solving, but it again ultimately falls a bit short. There are certain instances where Bowser may interact with something in the environment that changes part of his body, such as drinking water to fill up his gut or breathing in cold air to soothe a sore throat. These actions create tangible changes inside his body, and Mario and Luigi can use these environmental shake-ups to access previously unreachable areas or solve tricky puzzles. The concept also extends to some rhythm-based mini-games, where the bros must massage Bowser's muscles so he can move heavy objects or learn new moves, so it's truly a mutually beneficial relationship.
Again, it's a really neat concept that works amazingly well but yet doesn't quite go far enough. All of the puzzles are self-contained and relatively simple, and interacting with environmental objects has absolutely no effect other than the immediate area of the puzzle needed for story progression. If, for example, you have Bowser start drinking water and then head off to a different part of his body in the hopes of opening a new path and discovering hidden items, then you're out of luck; it only works in the area that the game has specified for the sake of driving the plot forward. Casual gamers likely won't care about this setup, but more hardcore RPG players who love side-quests and exploring in unorthodox ways will be disappointed.
One thing that isn't at all disappointing is the game's visuals, as the art direction and execution are among the best on the DS. The bright color palette really makes the Mushroom Kingdom spring to life, and the character models are absolutely perfect representations of each individual. While Alpha Dream didn't take any risks when crafting this game's style, it also managed to avoid any mistakes, and the result is a beautiful title that really stands out on the handheld.
The other big selling point of Bowser's Inside Story is that it's funny, and the humor works on several different levels. From Fawful's broken English and Bowser's "I'm so awesome that no one else could possibly be as awesome as me" attitude, to the brothers' made-up Italian gibberish (see how many times you can catch them randomly throwing in the name of foods), the dialogue and writing shine throughout. Sure, it may not be cutting political satire, but the game is genuinely entertaining, and you'll find yourself letting out a hearty guffaw on more than one occasion.
The bottom line on Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is that it's one of those games that every DS owner should buy, period. Regardless of your feelings about RPGs, the title is just so entertaining and well-executed that you're nearly guaranteed to love it. The game's few blemishes aren't really flaws at all, but rather opportunities that weren't fully exploited. It genuinely doesn't get much better than this folks, and it would be a travesty if you miss out.
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