Getting to know Bowser from the inside out was never so much fun.
Even if Square-Enix hasn't made a Mario RPG since Legend of the Seven Stars on the Super Nintendo, the legacy has successfully lived on thanks to some very quirky and innovative takes on the iconic Nintendo franchise. Alpha Dream's Mario and Luigi RPG series is one that has been going strong since its 2003 debut on the Game Boy Advance, all due to a combination of simple to learn, hard to master gameplay and lots of colorful humor. Bowser's Inside Story is the third game in the series, second on the DS, and this time around the adventure goes very deep into the very innards of one of gaming's most lovable villains.
Bowser's Inside Story starts somewhat like a typical Mario game. While Bowser does jump in to try to kidnap Peach, the story begins with a very weird pandemic hitting the Mushroom Kingdom. A mysterious disease called "The Blorbs" is turning the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom into huge, round balls. The plot slightly deepens when, after experiencing defeat at the hands of Mario, Bowser consumes a vacuum mushroom that makes him suck everything in sight, Peach and Mario brothers included. It's all a dastardly plan devised by Fawful, a villain introduced in the first Mario and Luigi game, Superstar Saga. This starts yet another lighthearted adventure where the Mario brothers survive Bowser's innards while working together to rescue the Mushroom Kingdom from Fawful's rage.
While the stories in the Mario and Luigi series have never been deep or intricately written, they always provide an amusing element of fun and quirkiness that makes the iconic characters even more enduring, especially Bowser, who now gets to show his stuff as the main character. This is complemented by a superb localization and dialogue that is aware of its cheekiness. There's even reference to classic Nintendo games if you pay enough attention.
The Mario and Luigi series is a franchise that honors its RPG backgrounds but injects its own ideas to create gameplay that looks simple but actually has a lot of depth to it, honoring the ideas employed by RPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. At first glance, Bowser's Inside Story looks to play the same as previous Mario and Luigi games, but there are actually a lot of additions that make the gameplay even more immersive, even if some of them feel gimmicky.
The battle engine in the Mario and Luigi games puts a lot of emphasis on timed button and rapid presses in order to add more interactivity in the turn based battles. This new entry promptly follows suit. With the basic attacks of all characters, you can time your button presses so you deal more damage to the enemy. When the enemy attacks, players can either dodge their moves or counterattack at the right time. This makes the game an exercise in timing since all enemies have different attack patterns and may surprise the player if they aren't playing attention.
Even if you have to control three characters, they all control in the same manner, with their attacks being major differences. Mario and Luigi have their famous jump and hammer attacks, while Bowser bring his fire breath and punch to the table. In addition, Bowser also has the ability to suck enemies or items while in battle. Any enemy that he sucks turns into an enemy for Mario and Luigi while traveling inside of Bowser, creating dynamic gameplay elements where all three characters get to participate in the same battle. All three characters can use special attacks, though they are earned in different manners. Mario and Luigi earn new special attacks by collecting ten puzzle pieces. Bowser gains his abilities by rescuing his minions during his own adventure. These attacks cost SP but pack a powerful punch, useful during some of the heated boss battles.
As you gain levels you are awarded new ranks, such as the mushroom/flower etc. ranks with Mario and Luigi, and bronze, silver and gold ranks with Bowser. The higher the rank the more equipment you can use. Mario and Luigi can equip pants, shoes, socks and more, while Bowser can equip different shells and bracelets.
There are also other additions to the formula. When playing as Mario and Luigi, the player now has the ability to use badges in battle. During the adventure, players can earn the right to use badge actions. At the bottom of the screen there is a badge meter that fills up every time the plumbers successfully connect their attacks. Once it is full, the brothers can do a special action. Badges can be purchased, allowing the player to experiment with various effects and create battle strategies on the fly.
Bowser's side of the story introduces use of the DS's touch screen and microphone. At certain points, Bowser will gain the ability to grow huge, allowing him to attack gigantic monsters. When these battles happen, the player turns the DS on its side and uses the touch screen to throw a punch. To use the fire breath attack, the player must blow into the microphone. It's a gimmicky way of enhancing the battles, but it's very fun and doesn't happen often.
Since the story takes place both inside and outside of Bowser, there are two levels of exploration. Mario and Luigi's adventure takes place inside of Bowser's body. There, they explore the innards in search of their Mushroom Kingdom allies, battle enemies, and solve puzzles. Bowser explores the Mushroom Kingdom as he attempts to defeat Fawful while accomplishing his own agenda. What's really neat is that all three characters can interact with each other in order to unlock new areas and defeat enemies. For example, when Bowser drinks water, it turns his body into a swimming level for Mario and Luigi to explore. This kind of interaction allows passages to open or be blocked, depending on the situation.
Mario and Luigi can even enhance Bowser during key moments in the story, such as stimulating his muscles by participating in a rhythm mini-game, and giving him an adrenaline rush by shooting at different colored dots. It's this level of ingenuity that makes the game such a blast to enjoy, never creating a dull moment in a game that was already captivating to begin with.
Finally, both the plumbers and Bowser can learn new abilities to use while exploring their respective worlds. For example, Mario and Luigi can learn a drill attack than can be used to discover things buried in the ground, and Bowser can learn to do a button stomp and hit big switches.
The world of Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is one filled with so many surprises, this review can't name them all. Never have I seen such a game that uses everything to its strength, from the use of the DS's technology to mini-games that tie everything up in a great package. Gameplay is lengthy and balanced, clocking in at around 15 to 20 hours, more if the player decides to truly discover everything the game has to offer. The title is also challenging without being impossible; every enemy can be defeated if you study its attack patterns. It makes the game very inviting for RPG fans as well as Mario fans.
The game's only flaws, which can be minor, is that some elements feel a tad too gimmicky, such as the use of the touch screen and the microphone. It can also get tedious switching between characters during some of the puzzles and exploration-heavy elements of the story. But in the end, these flaws can be forgiven thanks to the level of polish presented in Bowser's Inside Story.
A lot of attention has also been given to the visual and sound departments. Simply put, the game is a visual wonder thanks to its bright and inventive use of colors and detailed character sprites. They are large and very expressive, with some great character design at work. The only issue is that some sprites are overblown to the point of becoming pixilated. The soundtrack uses classic Mario themes well, along with some original compositions that feel right in Mario's world. And even if used in limited quantities, the voice acting is fantastic thanks to lively interpretations of Mario and Luigi by the great Charles Martinet.
Fans who loved the first two games shouldn't hesitate in picking up Bowser's Inside Story. It features everything that makes the series enjoyable and adds onto it everything but the kitchen sink. Despite a few minor flaws, it's a game that features an ingenious game design synonymous with Nintendo games and is easily one of the best DS games of the year.