Ever since their novel reformulation of the traditional RPG back in 2001 with Paper Mario, Nintendo has proven repeatedly that they know how to produce quality role-playing games that evade the usual gripes with the template (with or without the help of Square Enix). While the Paper Mario titles were developed by Nintendo’s own Intelligent Systems, the handheld-based Mario & Luigi sister series—passionately assembled by AlphaDream—has really come into its own as well. The most recent of those games, 2005’s Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, didn’t quite match the brilliance of Superstar Saga (2003, GBA), though it was still entertaining in its own right. But now that I’ve spent nearly twenty hours with AlphaDream’s latest, I’m happy to report that the story is quite different this time; not only does it live up to the luster of the original, but it’s indisputably the best of the series.
Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story gathered a bit of attention this past E3 when we first published impressions, but it was hardly the star of the show. The general sentiment was that people had begun to expect the continuation of the series, and, as is often the case, along with that expectation came relative complacence. But coasting along the status quo isn’t an option when it comes to the Mario RPG games… and that fact is made triumphantly obvious throughout this latest adventure, which is zanier, funnier, more creative, more ambitious, and better balanced than any of the previous games in this fantastic series.
Somebody ought to tell Fawful that this is a Nintendo game.
Except a lot less 80s-ish and a lot less Dennis Quaid.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the general premise, in Bowser’s Inside Story, you’re, well, exploring inside of Bowser’s body. But before we move into all of that, let’s address the story.
A strange illness sweeps across the humble Mushroom Kingdom, referred to as The Blorbs. Similar to our own H1N1 (except replacing such symptoms as nausea and upper respiratory congestion with, say, swelling to “blimp size” and then rolling uncontrollably to and fro), the disease has reached epidemic status. One toad accounts:
It comes without warning! First, you balloon to blimp size! Then the rolling! You roll away! Oh, the horror of the blorbs!
Princess Peach calls for an emergency meeting to discuss a plan for eradication of the malady. Summoning the help of the Star Sprite Starlow (a fellow of such pep! Such verve! Such unswerving confidence!), she is informed that… well, you’d better turn to the Mario Bros. for help—what a surprise.
What could possibly be the cause for such a terrible pandemic? The theory is quickly posited that it could be one suspicious vendor in the Mushroom Kingdom who happened to sell all of the victims a certain mushroom—a Blorb Mushroom, to be precise (this is some serious detective work here). And if you really want to put your Adrian Monk-like skills to the test, see if you can guess which cackling, grammatically-challenged figure is behind the shadowy cape (go ahead, guess).
Anyway, it’s not Bowser. Speaking of which (without spoiling too much), following a failed attack on Peach’s castle, Bowser is thrown to a nearby forest. There, the real villain (you guessed it), Fawful, manages to trick old Bowser into ingesting a vacuum shroom, which, rather inconveniently, causes him to inhale random objects considerably larger than you might think his physical size would allow. Before his respiratory fits have ceased, he’s already managed to (accidentally) inhale most of the inhabitants of the castle, along with Mario and Luigi, Princess Peach, and the aforementioned star sprite.
And thus, the adventure commences, with a discombobulated Bowser collecting his bearings, and an even more bewildered couple of plumbers wandering through the giant lizard’s innards, trying to figure out what in the world just occurred.
The Art of Multitasking
Like Partners in Time, in Bowser’s Inside Story, you’ll once again be controlling two groups of characters. However, this time, in addition to Mario and Luigi, the other group consists of Bowser alone, who controls entirely differently. You still use X and Y to manage him on the top screen, but rather than jumping, he is able to bash objects and breathe fire (and, of course, you collect plenty of additional skills as you progress).
You can switch between the two groups on the fly by simply pressing one of the buttons corresponding to whichever group. At that point, the top or bottom screen lights up (depending on who you are controlling), and off you go. The instrumentation of the music also changes completely to signify a change in which group you’re controlling—a cool aesthetic effect. This sort of rapid-fire switching is quick and painless.
Both stories are equally fantastical and generally quite funny. Mario and Luigi are, of course, on a mission to cure the Blorbs and eradicate the (badly-articulated) threat of Fawful, while Bowser’s goals somewhat intersect: he just wants his castle back so that he can kidnap the princess and take over the Mushroom Kingdom. Shock of all shocks.
Activities inside Bowser’s body directly affect those happening in Bowser’s world, and vice versa. One of the earliest examples of such causality is when Bowser is pulling a rope. Reluctantly working in conjunction with him, Mario and Luigi must travel through the “nodes” in Bowser’s body to his bicep, where they then have to volley a series of electrical impulses back at his muscles to feed him the strength to succeed. This sort of thing occurs throughout the entire game, with Mario and Luigi tinkering with everything from the adrenal glands to eradicating an excessive accumulation of fat (by way of battling little pieces of meat—take that, Alli)! It’s definitely different, and most importantly, it’s positively fun.
Bowser can also inhale enemies mid-battle to send them to battle with Mario and Luigi. Many boss battles not only take place in multiple stages, but also require you to switch back and forth between the plumbers and the lizard to get the job done. It’s a totally unique and clever way of integrating dual-world simultaneity without it feeling like a chore.
While we’re on the subject of battles, they’re standard fare for the Mario & Luigi series (don’t worry if you aren’t familiar with the design; Bowser’s Inside Story features a terrific collection of optional tutorials throughout the story). You’ll find the usual mixture of RPG and action, such as rewards for well-timed button presses and counterattack defense techniques such as jumping on attackers (at the proper time) or striking them with your hammer. Bowser, on the other hand, can crouch into his spiky shell or punch back assailants. You can deduce which counterattack to apply by paying careful attention to each enemy’s movements; once decoded, without too much trouble, it’s easy to tell what their move will be via their telegraphed preparations.
Both groups (Mario/Luigi, Bowser) each have their own set of special attacks as well, which are unlocked by scavenging the environment for either attack pieces (M/L) or caged minions (B). Mario and Luigi’s are of the traditional button-press variety, and they include the classic shell-kick and Fire Flower attacks, as well as several new techniques based on other power-ups and the like. Bowser’s special attacks, on the other hand, are all touch-based, and the distinction is actually a welcomed one; one attack sees you tapping Goombas as they run toward the enemy to light them on fire, while another requires you to connect the wands of Magikoopas to send fireballs across them. There’s even a “badge” system in place for the Mario brothers, but it’s a new idea: a gauge at the bottom of the screen fills each time you execute a well-timed attack, and once it’s full, you can tap it to produce a variety of effects dependent upon the badges both brothers are currently wearing. It’s simple, yet fun.
The battles are many, but there are no random encounters, so it’s often possible to avoid fighting enemies if you’re getting tired. Fortunately, these battle sequences are also most often entertaining, though ADHD-afflicted gamers such as myself will find them a bit slow and lengthy at times.
The importance of variety
Apart from the rock-solid gameplay, however, the best two aspects of Bowser’s Inside Story are certainly its variety and its sense of humor. The game constantly throws new concepts at you, but it’s never overwhelming—instead, it’s rejuvenating. Just when you’ve gotten into the swing of things, Story throws you a curveball, and the next thing you know, you’re piloting a ship shmup-style and blasting blobs of norepinephrine and adrenaline. Or you’re being quizzed by melodramatic Emoglobins (heh!) inside of Bowser to test your memory. Or you’re playing as giant Bowser, breathing fire at squads of paratroopas—DS vertically-oriented—in an assault on your captured castle. It’s just one hilarious surprise after another.
Furthering the smorgasbord of different gameplay varieties are a number of mini-games like the shoot-‘em-up referenced above. Other examples include:
A carrot-eating puzzle game (called Gut Check) which requires you to stylus-tap pieces of food as quickly as you can to break them up into digestible bits (and even make use of digestive enzymes to “digest” all bits on-screen at once!)
A rhythmic version of the muscle-stimulating impulse-volleying game, which almost plays like a music game
A leg muscle challenge where Mario and Luigi trampoline back and forth off muscle tissue to assist Bowser in pushing an object
While some of these mini-game ideas are recycled throughout the story, none of them ever feels stale or irritating. That’s partially thanks to the second component: the game’s extraordinary sense of humor. This all begins with the dialogue, which has been masterfully formulated—laced with idioms and slang and glowing personality—by the experts on the NOA localization team. Seriously; it’s so good, it’s a joy to simply travel around and speak with random NPCs, a requirement which is often considered tedious in many RPGs. The best of all these vivid characters is, of course, our good villain who must have failed English, Fawful. The linguistically-handicapped antagonist applies such absurd permutations to basic sentence structure that it’s hardly ever boring listening to him speak.
Everyone else is hilarious, too. Another one of my favorite groups is the Emoglobins you find throughout Bowser’s body (yes—plenty of biology jokes such as this abound). These woe-is-me metalloproteins speak in ridiculous poetry and like to suffix random adjectives with –ish, making discussion with them an exercise in hilarity. Thankfully, as comical as the dialogue is, it’s always easy enough to comprehend the conversations—“it’s not globin science”.
Overall, the game features a truly stunning amount of variety, all polished to a ridiculous extent, which works to keep the player interested throughout the entire adventure. Not only are the battle sequences as fun as they’ve ever been (better), but the stuff in between is so unpredictable, entertaining, and faithful to the Mario universe—featuring all the requisite platforming and countless tributes to its history—that you’re certain to be smiling the entire way through. It all continues to expand the entire time, too, so it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever become bored (let’s just say that if you think this game merely consists of Mario and Luigi traveling through Bowser’s body and that’s it, you’ve got another thing coming).