Sitting on my whiteboard at work are a few feature ideas I scribbled out over the past couple of years, one of which is still there labeled "Bowser's Big Break." Nintendo's uberantagonist is quite possibly the only core Nintendo character over the past couple of decades who has never been given the keys to a starring videogame role, and my feature idea was to highlight different game ideas where Bowser could find himself as the star. Nintendo has beaten me to the punch: Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is, unofficially anyway, his "big break." The third game in the Mario & Luigi series lets gamers run amok as the koopa king in the fantastic RPG design, and this fact – along with the hilarious script, epic battles, and fun new gameplay modes – makes this sequel the best in the series.
It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of the Mario & Luigi series, ever since its start on the Game Boy Advance in Superstar Saga. The Alphadream-developed franchise essentially fixed what I think is broken in the traditional Japanese-style RPG games. First of all, the game never took itself seriously – Nintendo gave control over its precious Mario characters and the Mushroom Kingdom to the developers, and they went over-the-top to produce a tongue-and-cheek script that almost parodied pretentious RPGs. It also focused on a battle system that required more than basic menu selections. It involved the players with skill-based challenges, so while they could certainly watch the attacks unfold on-screen, to really take advantage of the power of the attack the game needed help from the player with well-timed button presses as the attacks played out. Then there's the idea of having players directly control two characters together, and tying those characters' action to individual action buttons really made the game its own design.
And of course, no random battles. Thank god.
Superstar Saga was a fantastic Game Boy Advance RPG, and Nintendo and Alphadream followed it up rather quickly with Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time on the Nintendo DS. It, too, was also a great adventure that built upon the established ideas from the original, but it was hard to ignore that the designers simply took all the two character gameplay elements of Superstar Saga and spread them out to four characters in the sequel. But if that was the only problem with the follow-up, then Alphadream's doing pretty well.
Watch the video review of Bowser's Inside Story.
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is Alphadream's third game in the RPG series and for this one the team really took its time to produce something that, while sticking with the established formula, offered up something completely fresh and new. And in this case, giving players control over Bower as one of the key characters definitely fits the bill. And since Bowser is a big, burly behemoth the designers couldn't just recycle the same moves from the previous games. He gets his own skills and his own attacks.
The game's story revolves around the Mushroom Kingdom dealing with an outbreak of "the blorbs," a disease that's causing the residents to balloon up to round, immobile sizes. Bowser breaks in to cause his usual mayhem, but ends up eating a tainted mushroom that forces him to inhale Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and other victims into his enormous body. Now Mario and Luigi are micro-sized and lost inside King Koopa's gut without his knowledge, and while Bowser tries to regain control over his empire swiped by Mario & Luigi series nemesis Fawful, the two plumbers worth through Bowser's insides to help out when needed. It's absolutely bizarre and surreal, and well worth playing just to see how all the crazy tangents come together at the end.
Even though this is a Mario & Luigi game, it feels more like it's Bowser's show as you'll be playing him well more than half of this 25 hour adventure. The game will continuously switch between Bowser and the Mario and Luigi team as the story unfolds. Bowser stomps around almost entirely in the standard top-down view, while Mario & Luigi – stuck in Bowser's gut – are in more traditional side-scrolling levels that nod to their more noteworthy adventures. But what's really great is that the game has been planned and thought-out well – Mario and Luigi will eventually find their way out of Bowser's body, so the top-down world has been laid out to accommodate both Bowser's and Mario & Luigi's unique skills for puzzle solving.
There are many, many smaller mini-games throughout the course of Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, but none as noteworthy as the epic battles where Bowser grows to gargantuan size and fights equally huge enemies. It's very Japanese (think Godzilla, Ultraman or the Super Sentai (Power Rangers) series) but it's oh-so-awesome to see it all played out – the game changes both in control and in visual style here: turn the system on its side and control Bowser's attacks with swipes and taps of the stylus. The action ties both screens together as a single display, with a dynamic camera zooming in and out of the fight to really show just how immense the characters are. These fights are basic but incredibly satisfying, and you'll be doing them more than once in Bowser's Inside Story.
Though the game definitely uses some moves and skills from the previous two games in the series, it never ignores the fact that players may have done them before. The writing acknowledges this, so when Mario & Luigi learn a new move that they've already been performing in Superstar Saga and Partners in Time the characters make sure to nod to the player that it's not exactly new. And you can completely skip any tutorial if you want to, entirely handy for those who've gone through the first two games in Mario & Luigi.
For Bowser, since he's the lone leader, his fights are usually solo where Mario & Luigi doubleteam their battles. For the Super Special attacks, Bowser can call upon his minions for some special abilities – these attacks require the use of the stylus on the touchscreen (one of the few "touch sensitive" moments in this Mario & Luigi adventure), and the game will always pause the action and call out when you should take out and put away the stylus.
Because this is an RPG Bowser's Inside Story does have an end, but when everything's all wrapped up in a nice package you'll be told there's a bit more to see. So after the end credits roll following the final epic battle, you'll probably have a bit more to see and do before you hit 100 percent. In my review I spent about 25 hours to completion, but I hadn't completed all the sidequests or earned all the hidden items and attacks. And once I'm finished writing this review, I'm diving right back into the game to finish it all.
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