Mario is probably the only character who started in another genre but has managed to adapt to the complex world of RPGs. That’s why we have been able to enjoy plenty of fun from the Mario/Luigi team in this genre since back in the age of the GBA. Yes, I know there were RPGs involving the franchise even before that game (such as Super Mario RPG), but they were solely focused on Mario, leaving Luigi in an ever more marginal role. However, in Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, we see them as an inseparable tandem i=on a quest through a bi-dimensional universe filled with turn-based combat and good humor.
Mario and Luigi was developed by AlphaDream, a studio formed by - amongst others - several former Squaresoft employees, including the original director of the Super Mario RPG project. This is the third installment of the franchise, thus closing a very unique trilogy. Bowser's Inside Story can easily be ranked as one of the best releases currently available for the Nintendo DS.
The story begins when the inhabitants of Mushroom City, for no apparent reason, start growing in size and begin rotating uncontrollably. This odd series of events prompts Princess Peach to hold an emergency assembly at her castle to address the crisis. As expected, the assembly lays it on Mario & Luigi to figure out what’s going on and fix it. Also, as usual, the gathering is interrupted when Bowser crashes the reunion and attempts to turn Peach into ashes with a powerful flame.
Mario saves her, of course, and neutralizes Bowser. The defeated nemesis is then reawakened by Kamek in an area far removed from the castle. Bowser wanders around for a while and stumbles upon a strange character who offers him a mysterious ‘lucky-mushroom’. Bowser gladly accepts it when the stranger promises that it will help him defeat Mario… but of course there was a catch. When Bowser eats it, he acquires the ability to suck in elements around him like a vacuum cleaner. He returns to the castle to finish off Mario, but instead accidentally swallows him, Luigi, and the princess. Mario and Luigi start their adventure here, inside Bowser’s entrails, looking for a way out. They form an uneasy alliance with their opponent, who longs to rid himself of his sudden parasites. The story is exceptional and particularly enjoyable; a true achievement that makes the previous M&L game, Partners in Time, look like a kids game. Also, the situations confronted during gameplay are surprising and brilliantly crafted.
Gameplay itself is a mixture of platform jumping and RPG: you can rise up in level, acquire items and abilities, interact with secondary characters, have a defined script, etc. Those who haven’t played the game’s predecessors will encounter several strange gameplay mechanics in this third part, mainly those related to the mix-genre issue. The control scheme is the main surprise, as it is adapted to best utilize the three main characters.
Thus, via the A button, you use Mario to jump or deliver hammer attacks. The B button is reserved for Luigi, while the X & Y buttons belong to Bowser (who can spit fire with Y and punch with X). Currently-selected abilities are activated with the aforementioned buttons, while you alternate weapons or other features with the R (hammer or jump, for instance). The D-pad is used to move characters, while the touch-screen is used for more specific maneuvers. In fact, you even get to use the microphone every once in a while. But let’s return to Bowser’s entrails for now. While inside, Mario and Luigi behave more traditionally. They will have to advance through the scenario by pressing A or B, alternating between jumps and combat (viewed on screen in real time) or interacting with their enemy’s inner organs. With regards to exploration, the biggest surprise is the need to optimize certain aspects of Bowser’s organisms at certain moments in the adventure. For instance, in a segment of the story, Bowser has to drag an island towards the beach with a rope. In order to help, Mario and Luigi must work their way towards Bowser’s arm in order to maximize his muscles and provide them with boosts to their strength.
Another interesting passage of the game occurs when Bowser approaches a fountain to drink water. You will immediately be warned that a sector has changed, and when you arrive to investigate you discover an aquatic level has appeared, filled with power ups and other interesting items. You have to navigate through the water to reach all the items, but if Bowser stops drinking, the water level drops. So you have to play on both levels, since in order to advance you will sometimes need a high water level, and in others you`ll need a low water level. This forces you to keep switching from Bowser to the duo and back again in order to complete the level. This intimate interaction between characters to advance the story is not just a whimsical addition to this one level, but a fair sampling of the whole game’s style.
The battle scheme remains turn-based for all three lead characters. What changes is that the reptile can use a few tricks not available to the plumbers. All characters can select from the following actions: Attack, Use Object, Abilities, and Flee. The extra command available to Bowser is the option to swallow his enemies for Mario and Luigi to finish off (or at least heavily damage them before ejecting them to the exterior again).
Like in the field, everything in battle is controlled with minimal use of buttons. Mario attacks, dodges, jumps, etc. using only the A button, while Luigi does the same with only the B button. Pressing both buttons simultaneously allows Mario and Luigi to perform a joint move and deliver double damage. Bowser can charge his fist and deliver more damage if we press X at the precise moment (the plumbers have a similar move with the hammer). Remember when we mentioned the microphone use? Well there is a section of the game in which Bowser has to use his fire breath, which is controlled by way of blowing into the microphone. AlphaDream have indeed left no possibilities unexplored with this one.
But not all of the glory of this title is invested in the gameplay alone. The visual excellence of the graphics, despite being a 2D side scrolling game, is noticable at the very beginning of the journey. It’s worth noting that Bowser’s adventure (and our plumbers’ as well, when they are outside of their host) takes an isometric view, while most of Mario and Luigi`s adventures take place from a 2D sidescrolling perspective.
The music includes an assortment of melodies of great quality and variety, and is generally fully in sync with events. On the other hand, the game enjoys a healthy repertoire of sound effects, and digitized voices of the most emblematic characters that will certainly delight players throughout the adventure.
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is a lengthy RPG, very durable and profound; perfect for almost any type of player. Ending the Adventure Mode can take some 25 hours, but that is without counting the several extra challenges that help prolong the experience. The game is of average difficulty, and has a very funny plot and narrative style.
This game boasts an enormous fun factor, and is also filled with references to the Mario universe. It sports playability reminiscent of Super Mario RPG, and is bolstered by a few contemporary elements, such as a soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura and `retro pure` sprite art. All these elements combine to form one of the best cartridges for the DS, and one of the best Nintendo releases of 2009. Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is a unique game, a must for any DS owner who loves the franchise or the genre.