Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story // DS

March 23, 2010

It would be lazy to describe Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story as the third instalment in a trilogy of Mario games that you’ve never played, but it wouldn’t be far from the truth. Developed by Alpha Dream and not the big N (with the reduced marketing budget that that entails) and featuring the plumber and his friends in an RPG-like mechanic, virtually guarantees that this series will never get the audience it deserves. Which is a shame, as it’s a beautifully polished gem that should be in every DS collection.

I HAVE CHORTLES!!

A lot of Bowser’s Inside Story’s charm stems from its plethora of characters, and the extensive dialogue between them. The sheer amount of text is initially alarming – I started up the game on a short half hour commute and I very nearly didn’t get the opportunity to save after the first story scenes. But soon, when allowed to relax into its unhurried pace, the game’s humour shines through repeatedly. The star of the show is undoubtedly its villian, Lord Fawful, who reprises his role as the big baddy, and constantly delights with his garbled English throughout. His speech is written as badly-translated Japanese, and the writers play on this theme superbly, often coming up with ludicrous put-downs for the playable heroes, such as ‘Fawful scattered your minions like litter from a sad, ugly cat. Are you wanting to hear them? For they are on the TV show. The TV show of your tears!’ and ‘Bowser keeps appearing like an ugly rabbit from the hat of a magician who stinks!’ His ‘I HAVE CHORTLES!!’ exclamation is a herald of his arrival throughout the game, and never fails to bring a smile to the face.

Not to be outdone, Mario and Luigi are always on hand to provide even more comic relief. Spouting fake Italian dialect and affectionate exclamations for each other, the Mario Bros. have never been more characterful. As always, Mario is the hero, and Luigi is often portrayed as a whimpering coward, reluctantly following Mario around because of his familial obligations, not because he wants to help out. And, in the biggest twist of the game, Mario’s arch nemesis Bowser is also a playable character and provides a hip, street-talking counterfoil to the Italian gibberish from the two plumbers. It all adds up to a take on the Mario universe that is at once faithful and irreverent, executed with such assured confidence that you could be forgiven for thinking that this is Alpha Dream’s IP – surely an incredible compliment in its own right.

Collecting Stars Stats

Pitched somewhere between Super Mario World, Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past and the Final Fantasy series, the sum total of Bowser’s Inside Story’s combat mechanics somehow manage to be greater than the sum of these disparate parts. Jumping on an enemy’s head in true Mario fashion in the top-down isometric hub world won’t result in the instant kill you were expecting. Instead, this action will transport you to a combat screen, much like you will find in any JRPG. Battles play out in turn-based fashion, both attacking and defending, and each successful hit reduces the HP (Heart Points) of an enemy until they are dead. There’s a lot to admire in this mechanic; Alpha Dream have infused timing-based mini-games into almost every action, veering away from the dry selection from a menu that you might find in older iterations of Final Fantasy. Press A to make Mario jump towards an opponent, press it again just before he lands on the enemy’s head for maximum damage, and then again for a second jump attack. Alternatively, whack your foe with your hammer, just one of the many iconic weapons from the series’ illustrious history which features here.

Basic attack and defence moves are enjoyable enough in their own right, but it’s the inclusion of Special Attacks, activated by spending SP points, that make the combat really shine. Thoughtfully-named attack ‘Green Shell’ utilises (you guessed it) a green koopa shell, kicked in turns by the plumbers by timing their unique button presses (A for Mario, B for Luigi – used for every action throughout the game) as the shell reaches each brother’s chunky brown Hush Puppy. The ‘Spin Pipe’ move sees the plump Italians clamber into a large, double-ended blue pipe which lifts in the air and spins end-over-end, progressively getting faster, and then plummets down onto the enemy’s head, with the player needing to memorise which character is in which end and press the correct button or bring the Special Attack to a premature end. Easily the best of the bunch though is the ‘Snack Basket’, where the player controls Luigi with the D-pad in order to gulp down a hail of sugary goodies which fall from the sky. Such immense calorific intake bloats Luigi into an enormous fleshy boulder, which Mario has to lift on his shoulders and propel into the air. Luigi’s landing then causes a tremendous shockwave which inflicts damage on all the enemies the brothers are up against. It’s pure insanity, and an excellent microcosm of the humour that Alpha Dream has managed to inject into the game.

Defeating these rank-and-file enemies is optional but important in levelling up Mario, Luigi and Bowser in order to take on the game’s tough bosses. Each downed enemy awards Experience Points, in true RPG fashion, a certain number of which allows each character to ‘Level Up!’. Each character, the stats for which are seperated into Heart Points, Special Points, Power, Defence, Speed and ‘Stache (or Horn), gains a set amount of these per level, which can then be augmented with a Bonus allocation chosen by the player. Will you go for more Heart Points, meaning you can take further damage before being downed, or more Power, allowing you to inflict greater damage? Or perhaps you might plump for ‘Stache, the effectiveness of the plumbers’ moustaches in achieving a ‘Lucky Hit’, where Power is doubled for greater damage? Factor in the ability to buy stat-changing Gear and Badges and you might start furrowing your brow in confusion, but the game does an excellent job in tutoring the player in everything he needs to know to succeed and progress up the ranks.

Every which way but loose…

Alpha Dream also excels in its use of the DS hardware. Action constantly switches from screen to screen, with players controlling Bowser on the top screen, and Mario & Luigi inside Bowser’s body (I’ll leave the plot details to the game itself!) on the bottom. Every face button is assigned, with X and Y specific to Bowser and the top screen, and A and B to the Mario Bros. on the bottom. Some Special Attacks are controlled using the stylus, whether that be by tapping a Goomba to send it careering into the sky or lining up a row of Bob-Ombs for massive damage, and sometimes the entire DS is rotated vertically into a book position when controlling the monstrous Giga-Bowser. The game even finds room to potentially humliate you on packed commuter trains by asking you to blow into the mic to encourage Bowser to breathe fire. In short, Alpha Dream puts the DS through its paces, weaving elements from many different genres into an extremely cohesive whole.

Some work better than others, however. The ‘vertical’ battles, where all actions are controlled by the stylus, can sometimes be frustratingly fiddly. A swish of the stylus across the screen in order to simulate Bowser’s punch often feels erratic, with seemingly identical motions bringing both ‘OK’ and ‘Excellent’ punches in the same battle. Whether this is a fault of the game design or just a battered stylus is something I couldn’t verify, but was a source of irritation throughout. Thankfully, these battles are sparingly-used, but they were the only points where I failed and it didn’t feel like player error. However, the developers excel so much in every other department that these gripes are easily forgiven.

The long and winding road

As with any RPG worth its salt, Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is a sizable undertaking. My playthrough came in at under 30 hours, which I managed to stretch out over a month of play on bustling trains and buses. In truth, the gameplay did begin to pale in its final third and the sprawling expanse of Peach’s Castle, but the epic closing boss battles finished the experience on a spectacular high note. It’s also worth noting that I didn’t flee from any of the ‘random’ encounters (any monster can be avoided by steering clear on the hub world) in order to boost my stats and because, put simply, the combat is so fun. Whereas the very idea of turn-based battles can make my blood run cold, here Alpha Dream manages to infuse them with so much character that it feels like playing a collection of intense mini games.

When you wrap the core gameplay mechanics with such a lovingly crafted world, populated by characters both new and established, and inject a brand of humour that establishes Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story as one of the most genuinely funny videogames of recent years, and you have a game which everyone deserves to experience. Set aside your reservations of the alien mix of Mario and RPG stylings; this game should be the jewel in the crown of your DS collection. Thoroughly, thoroughly recommended.

93/100

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