Thursday, October 8, 2009

Game Review: Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story

mario_and_luigi_bowsers_inside_story_nintendo_ds_main Listen guys, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m not writing a post about books, or about books. I am. Or, at least that’s the way I feel.

I feel that way because I’m writing another post about video games, that red-headed stepchild of the Culture which we Blog about in the New Millennium. No less, this game stars both Mario and Luigi, and instead of having a simple, matter-of-fact name like Bicycle Diaries or a dignified to-the-point name like Year of the Flood, this game is called Bowser’s Inside Story. Even were I to choose those three words as the subtitle for my game (I wouldn’t), they definitely would not be in that order (definitely not).

Also, I’m a nearly 24-year-old dude who is writing about how he spent 30 hours with a video game starring cartoon characters, and he really enjoyed it. You should enjoy it too. Here’s why.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is the third in a series of role-playing games released on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS, the series itself being a spin-off or sister-series to Paper Mario, which began life as a spiritual sequel to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. It is a complicated pedigree, but there’s something about Mario and RPGs that blends exceedingly well. The RPG formula adds some depth to Mario, and Mario saps most of the melodrama and androgyny out of the tired old Japanese RPG, bringing with him a lighter touch and sense of humor that is almost universally lacking in the genre.

The Mario & Luigi series’ core mechanic is that you control both brothers at once, pressing A to perform actions as Mario and B to perform actions as Luigi. The overworld showcases the platforming and exploration for which the Mario series is known, while bumping into an enemy will trigger a turn-based battle similar to Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest or Pokémon.

Another important mechanic, specific not just to M&L but also to all Mario RPGs, is the concept of timed hits. In Final Fantasy or Pokémon, you tell your character what to do, and then the battle is taken out of your hands – you watch as the character performs the chosen action. In Mario RPGs, telling Mario to jump will make him jump, but pressing the button again at a precise moment will cause extra damage. The same goes for avoiding enemy attacks – it’s possible to fight very long battles without taking a single point of damage if you’re good enough. This keeps the player engaged, making it impossible (or at least inefficient) to play the game on autopilot.

Bowser’s Inside Story’s hook, on top of the above mentioned hooks, is that Bowser is involved. Not just as an adversary, mind you, but as a fully playable character – through a series of mishaps, Bowser has inhaled Mario and Luigi. Thus, for much of the game, Mario and Luigi are on the bottom screen fighting their way through Bowser’s insides, which is (oddly enough) composed mostly of two-dimensional maps evocative of older Super Mario Bros. games. Meanwhile, Bowser is on the top screen, bashing his way through obstacles and burning down vegetation with fire breath.

Things done on the top screen can also effect events on the bottom screen. Making Bowser drink water will fill up certain areas of his body with said water, enabling the Mario Bros. to access previously inaccessible areas. Mario and Luigi can run around in Bowser’s body, tweaking muscles and beating enemies, to give Bowser new moves or give him a burst of strength (this is often done through fun, monotony-busting stylus-driven minigames).

In case it is not already apparent, the game’s trump card is variety. Variety, the spice of life. Who wants to do the same thing every day for hours on end? That’s why they invented robots. A robot would probably have way more fun playing Final Fantasy than most people, especially that Final Fantasy (VIII, I think) where the best way to play it was to use summon monsters over and over again and mash the button to max out your damage – it’s a game that gets the job done for awhile, and then becomes soul-crushingly repetitive and trite, recycling the same stupid enemies over and over and over again. My friends, those three extremely similar bats are all intended to be separate enemies.

Mario and Luigi gets away with some of that, because this is a longstanding RPG convention and most people won’t bat an eye, but most of the time (especially compared to some Big Budget console games like the particularly egregious Eternal Sonata) a new area brings new enemies with it, and those enemies look and behave differently than enemies in other areas.

Playing as Bowser is also very different from playing as Mario and Luigi. They move differently, have vastly different attacks, and favor different play styles. Later on, Mario and Luigi gain the ability to travel between Bowser’s innards and the outside world, thus gaining access to areas already explored as Bowser – they can access different areas and secret items, and fighting the same enemies as Mario and Luigi is appreciably different from fighting them as Bowser.

The game does an excellent job of pacing itself and changing things up – just when you’re getting a little bored with Bowser, the game shifts its focus back to the Mario Bros., and vice versa. It breaks up the RPG, which runs a typical 25-or-so hours in length, into much more manageable chunks.

Of course, there are other selling points – as in past M&L games, the script is hilarious and wonderfully translated, full of in-jokes and regular jokes. My favorite example is that some moles, the Monty Bros., who speak almost entirely in bro jokes. The music is nice. The graphics are nice. There’s not a thing about it that isn’t at least good, and the vast majority of it goes beyond good and into great.

This game is just plain fun, and it (along with other gems like Scribblenauts) shows that the Nintendo DS, nearing its fifth birthday, has quite a bit of life left in it. For DS owners who are fans of either RPGs or of Mario (perhaps a given for 97% of DS owners), and indeed for anyone looking to make sense of the jam-packed holiday release corridor: this is one to get.

AlphaDream and Nintendo’s Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is currently available for $34.99 all versions of the Nintendo DS.