Across all of its platforms, Nintendo's flagship Bros have seldom hit a bum note. They have delighted fans and drawn in new gamers for many years, and their most recent title for the Nintendo DS continues their dream run. Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is the third game in the Mario and Luigi series, and continues the RPG arm of the empire. The indomitable plumbers have appeared in so many genres it's sometimes hard to keep track, but in the RPG, Nintendo have really found a calling that suits them. Like its two predecessors, Inside Story has released overseas to rich acclaim, and the praise is going to continue to be heaped on here at NZGamer.com.
The Mushroom Kingdom, as always, puts the fun in fungus, and it's here again that the story begins. The Toads have been inflicted with a mysterious illness called the Blorbs. The Blorbs causes the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom to inflate, leaving them to roll around pitifully and beg for help. Doctors are stumped, and there's no answers forthcoming until Bowser gets fooled by a stranger in the woods, and eats a magic mushroom. The evil genius behind it all is Fawful, (making a comeback from his appearance in Superstar Saga). He wants the Mushroom Kingdom for his own, and by giving everyone the Blobs he hopes to gain the upper hand. Sick and wild, Bowser rolls over to Peach's crib, and sucks up the group gathered there to try and work out what to do about the Blorbs. This includes Mario and Luigi, who aren't ready to lay down without a fight (surprised? Nah, me neither).
It's a plot typical of setting up great Mario Brothers fare: absolutely madcap and peppered with bizarre, convenient plot-movers. Soon you stop questioning it, and by the time you're through the battle tutorials and running around inside Bowser, everything seems alarmingly normal. The game has two modes of play: one inside Bowser, where the Bros need to advance around his body destroying enemies and gaining experience, and the other where you play as Bowser. Early on, the Princess's aid, Starlow, will tell you that the group sucked up by Bowser are imprisoned in different places around his body. Starlow also communicates with Bowser, after the lizard-king wakes up in a strange cave and has to find his way out. Starlow doesn't reveal his identity to Bowser, nor tell him that Mario and Luigi are stuck inside him, because despite the epic strangeness that Bowser suddenly finds woven into the very fabric of his life, his main goal is still to beat the crap out of Mario. With Starlow as guide, the brothers need to set about releasing everyone.
The game gets underway with its fantastic battle system, brought forward from the other games. Battles are turn based, and the enemies are vast and varied, requiring a number of different techniques and strategies if you want to be victorious. Introduced in Bowser's Inside story is the collection of Attack Pieces, to learn special attacks. The brothers and Bowser are able to learn a range of powerful attacks for use in battle, each with its own attributes. Using special attacks requires Skill Points, which are listed next to HP in the game's attack screen. The better the attack, the more skill points it will use, but breaking the attack out in and of itself is only part of the fun.
One such attack, that you'll get early on in the game, is the Fire Flower. You'll all be familiar with this strange vegetation, no doubt: it has appeared in many guises throughout the Mario Brothers universe. Here, it allows both Mario and Luigi to shoot fireballs by pressing the action buttons (A for Mario, B for Luigi - this isn't new). The ability transfers between the brothers during the fight, so you need to take care to watch the fireball swell in the hands of whatever brother is able to shoot. If you are too slow, the ability will fade away, and your turn will end. But if you can time it just right, you will be able to send a hail of fireballs at multiple enemies by repeatedly tapping the appropriate button.
In Bowser's case, many of the special attacks use the touch screen to great effect. In one, you'll touch sprinting Goombas to set them alight with Bowser's fire-breath, before they shoot into the sky and then rain down on your foe.
Depending on how well you time and execute your attacks (and this goes for low level jumps, punches and hammer attacks, too) you'll be given a score represented by either "good," "great," or "excellent." These will have an effect on how much damage you do to your opponent, but also what kind of post-battle items you might gain. You can win power-ups, coins, etc which will help you further your adventure. Like all great RPGs, Inside Story is packed with such treats, and as well as being available throughout the world, you can also pick them up at shops. There's a handy shopping district inside Bowser's body, set up by inhaled Toads. Talk about making the best of a bad situation.
The stats of all three playable characters are subject to change throughout the game. There are the obvious level gains, but also various boosts, item bonuses and the ability to equip gear. One can't be expected to save the Mushroom Kingdom wearing just one set of overalls, can one? In the gear screen you will be able to play with the bits and pieces you obtain throughout the game and watch your stats rise and fall depending on how you want to roll. You are also able to change things up with the use of badges, which are available as you progress. Again, these are able to be found or bought, and each will have different effects.
There is a massive amount to explore and play with in Bowser's Inside Story - it won't get boring in a hurry. Yeah, it's an RPG which means a beginning, a middle and an end, but there are so many little intricacies and customizations available that you could probably play through several times without doing it the same way every time. There are also several mini-games to best, which will add length and depth - and that's not even taking into account how much fun these irreverent little side-quests are.
If you listened to the Podcast last week, you'll have heard that the dialogue in this game is pretty damn funny. I don't know how many RPGs I have played through that have been fantastic games let down by poor writing. That's not the case here. Inside Story is consistently amusing with great speech-flow. It's something pretty special to crack up while playing a game, I think.
Fresh and vibrant graphics, and brilliant sound effects and music round out a near perfect score for Mario and Luigi. This is a rewarding gaming experience, and pushed to say something negative about it I could only add that it seems almost effortless. The story is sort of so crazy that it gives the impression that the formula for creating a new Mario and Luigi game is:
1. The Mushroom Kingdom/Princess Peach is under threat.
2. Add as many made up words as possible.
Super-villains like Fawful are easily brought to life and without significant changes to the battle system for whatever comes next, I have trouble seeing how the RPG series can go on turning out gold. These games are also fairly difficult (and in that way a little bit exclusive) which can be a real turn off for some.
M&L: BIS comes out late this month, and all fans of the series should add it to their NZGamer.com profile wishlists. For those of you looking to start with the series, I would recommend going back to Superstar Saga, if only so you can skip through, what seemed to me, a mammoth game mechanics tutorial at the start of Inside Story. It'll also give you some nice background and a feel for how these games play, as well as possibly being cheaper. Mario and Luigi are like the Dolce and Gabbana of videogames, and there's always an applicable premium.