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CONSOLE: Nintendo DS DEVELOPER: AlphaDream PUBLISHER: Nintendo
RELEASE DATE (NA): September 14, 2009 GENRE: Action-RPG
// review by SoyBomb

Do the Mario! ...er, and do the Luigi, too.

Man, Mario sure has done a ton of stuff over the years. Aside from his plumbing career (which is likely failing by now, considering the guy hasn't actually been in Brooklyn since... uh, I think 1993 when that lousy feature film came out), Mario has been a construction worker, tennis player, pro kart racer, and even a physician. But never has Dr. Mario been quite as invasive as he is in Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story. Joined by his underrated brother, Luigi, he must embark what may be his biggest -- or, technically speaking, his tiniest -- journey to date: delving straight into the belly of the beast!

Set in the vivaciousness of the Mushroom Kingdom, the game takes illness to a new level as many citizens come to suffer from a condition known only as "The Blorbs", which causes those cute little mushroomy fellows to bloat up immensely like they just ate at a Polish buffet to the point where they can no longer move under their own power. Considering how round they have become, I guess they could be rolled around, which also helps to collect litter around the kingdom. There doesn't seem to be any immediate method of curing these individuals, so a grand meeting is held in the castle, attended by the Mushroom Chancellor, Princess Toadstool, the Mario Bros., and a Star Sprite, Starlow, at which point they all determine that a bad mushroom breed has caught this calamity. However, things never go well and Bowser unsurprisingly shows up to cause havoc and steal the princess. Mario and Luigi ain't havin' none of that, so they rough him up and send him packing. Bowser, not pleased at the results of his conquest, stomps sulkily to Dimble Wood, where he meets a mysterious stranger (later discovered to be Fawful, known as quite a creeper from previous Mario RPG titles) who offers him a great Lucky Mushroom. But this mushroom has nasty effects; it causes Bowser to spin into a fit of uncontrollable rage while inhaling everything around him. He makes it back to the castle, where he unknowingly inhales Mario, Luigi, Starlow, and the Princess, before falling unconscious for a little while. So now there are multiple goals at hand: save the Princess, cure the Blorbs, and get the heck out of Bowser's nasty body!

Under the guise of a game consisting of platforming and sheer exploration of the many cartoonish areas that compose the Mushroom Kingdom and surrounding regions, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is actually an RPG wrapped in an adventure fur coat. However, the RPG battle system -- in which Mario & Luigi encounter enemies by choice, or by force if a boss battle ensues -- is far more interactive than those RPGs of the 16-bit era. It's not a matter of simply choosing to Attack or Defend or to use an item. You are required to use reflexes to keep yourself alive in both attack mode, where you will want to try and press your character's button (Mario gets A, and Luigi uses B... always) at just the right time to cause extra damage. As well, you'll use that same button to dodge or counteract your opposing party's attacks, either via a jump or hammer smash. Supposedly, you can watch each and every enemy and what they will do next is determined by a signal they make with their body. Sometimes the signal is quite clear and you can feel quite prepared; other times, the signal is so subtle that you'd better just hope the enemy does what you expect. And it won't.

Over the course of the game, the Bros. will also be able to acquire, through the collection of Attack Pieces, new abilities which require SP (Special Points) to use. For example, the first trick you learn is the Green Shell, where you can kick a green shell (GASP!!) at an enemy, then back to the opposite brother, who must time his kick correctly to boot the shell. This can go on back and forth as the shell speeds up for increasing amounts of damage until you miss and boot air. Another amusing tactic, called the Snack Basket, requires Luigi to munch on falling food until he fattens up. Mario must repeatedly press A to gain the strength to toss him in the air, and then you must guide Luigi to fall directly onto enemies in his plump state. There is the opportunity to practice these special moves, and believe me, if you don't practice, you're likely to fail right when you need offensive assistance the most. Oh yeah, don't forget to bring those finger reflexes.

Same goes for Bowser, although he has a few interesting tricks of his own, many of which he'll learn over the course of the game through the aid of fellow travelers offering him a hand, or internal sherpas Mario and Luigi cracking down on his organs and revealing powers he never knew he had. Bowser can punch his way through groups of enemies. He can also eventually breathe some heavy fire, though only with your assistance by blowing frantically on the DS microphone. Sadly, the microphone is not always responsive. I recall many instances of blowing really hard but having nothing happen. What the farkbot?! As Bowser travels, he'll be able to recruit different former Koopa Troop members (Goombas, Shy Guys, Magikoopas, etc.) and command them in battle to attack enemies, often requiring a special stylus-based activity to launch them. Occasionally, Bowser will also grow to grand sizes (bigger than castles!) for battles, which will require you to turn your DS horizontally and use primarily the stylus and the DS mic to control his activities. Considering the occasionally frantic activity required on the touch screen in this scenario, combined with my inner desire to prevent deep scratches, things aren't always as responsive on the screen as I'd like them to be. Maybe I'll just blame the hardware and my wussiness against the fragility of the screen. And let's not forget the adventure portion, in which Bowser will also be able to punch, dash across gaps, and even curl up into a ball and roll up walls that he can sink his spikes into (he'll need some chiropractic therapy first before he can pull off that yoga move).

Kickin' it, old-school style.
Burn, baby, burn!

The game switches somewhat frequently between the adventures of Mario and Luigi inside Bowser's interior and the exploits of Bowser himself. Although this is definitely a welcome idea, I believe the developers made a bitter mistake in creating a disequilibrium in gameplay overall. Frankly, for a game starting with "Mario & Luigi", I felt the classic pair weren't used as much as they ought to have been. The focus of this episode in their lives was clearly to show off Bowser's cool moves. It's somewhat reasonable if such a tactic was used as a means to downplay the fact that Mario and Luigi have already done this before and do not wish for their presence to appear stale. But the overuse of Bowser is a bit much, and to be quite honest, it could create a level of discomfort and uncertainty to younger players not familiar with this type of gameplay, especially since Bowser is always a party of one. I thought RPGs had advanced past single-member parties. These aren't Dragon Warrior times anymore. It would have also been nice to have seen Bowser team up with his rivals more directly; indeed, they can work together to defeat foes, but it typically involves Bowser inhaling something and Mario and Luigi battling that enemy or object separately inside Bowser's body.

If there was any Mario game that I would declare as sporting lively graphics, it would be this one. Everything is bright and cheerful, even in the supposedly darker regions of deep caves or deeper orifices of Bowser's body. While the areas are not explicitly detailed, that doesn't seem to be the artistic direction the designers were aiming for. Mario, Luigi, and Bowser all seem to purposely inhabit this cartoonish universe, and that's where the charm lies. The music is fair, although no particular compositions stood out for me (except for Fawful's mysterious theme song, which is very easily recognized), but the cute sound effects more than make up for any shortcomings here. I love hearing Mario and Luigi banter and discuss things in unintelligible Italian. At least, I think it's Italian. They ARE Italian plumbers...

Admittedly, this game is not perfect. Some characters speak with such irritating worse-than-Yoda-esque dialects that you just want to walk away and not even bother to get their help. Young children still forming their language skills are going to be occasionally confused. I also discovered (as I am reiterating) that I don't have the best reflexes to succeed in a game like this -- I found myself getting hurt too often simply due to overwhelming quick attacks or because I could not predict what an enemy would do and who it would do it to, even though I'm supposed to be able to watch the enemy and figure it out. This reflex nonsense reminds me very closely of Legend of Dragoon for the PlayStation, where you needed to press buttons at just the right time for any attack to be effective. Maybe I'm just an old man complaining... yeah, that must be it.

Well, I wouldn't trust this game as a solid resource for studying amphibian biology, but regardless of how I feel about requiring cat-like reflexes and touch screen accuracy, it's still a fun title worthy of the critical praise it has received thus far because it's a neat little step away from classic-style RPGs and features all the wit one could possibly squeeze out of the Mushroom Kingdom. I don't recommend it really to the younger crowd (not for content, but for complexity of what is physically required), but us older coots can get more of a thrill out of it. And please, people, stand up for Luigi's rights! He's more than just a second banana! He's an icon of helpfulness, support, and green fashion sense! Give him another game -- a good game -- because products like "Luigi's Mansion" and "Mario Is Missing!" simply do not do him justice!


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