In one of the smartest uses of a handheld’s two screens, Bowser’s Inside Story finds a way to reach the heights of the remarkable Superstar Saga
Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga introduced the concept of allowing players to control both of the Mario brothers simultaneously. What at first seemed like an idea that was too complicated to execute became, guided by simple gameplay mechanics and a battle system filled with action, one of the finest games to ever feature Nintendo’s iconic plumber and one of the best role-playing experiences in modern gaming. Partners In Time, its sequel, improved in many areas, but failed to impress because neither its world nor its mechanics had the charm and originality of its remarkable predecessor.
As a consequence, Bowser’s Inside Story, the third installment of the beloved saga, came to life as a game that had a steep hill to climb. In order to succeed, not only did it have to be great, it had to find a way to match Superstar Saga’s astounding quality and, by using the same core concept of partnership between Mario and Luigi, muster enough creativity to come up with enough new twists to achieve the refreshing nature of the Gameboy Advance classic. Whether or not it would be able to raise that bar high enough would pretty much define its status. As it turns out, the game did just fine in that regard.
It all begins when the Mushroom Kingdom is hit by a strange disease called “The Blorbs”. To stop the calamity, Princess Peach summons a council to determine how to act; during the meeting, it is discovered that the illness’ origin seems to be connected to mushrooms sold by a mysterious salesman in the nearby woods. Meanwhile, Bowser roams a forest and is humorously deceived by a man into eating a supposedly “Lucky Mushroom”. Later, when striking Peach’s castle one more time, the mushroom’s effect kicks in and Bowser swallows the entire council, including Mario, Luigi and Peach, which end up trapped inside his body. With the sudden turn of events, the evil Fawful, who had been pulling the strings all along, takes over the kingdom and it is up to Bowser and our trapped heroes to save it from its new ruler’s hilarious insanity.
As the over-the-top nature of its starting events indicates, as it is traditional for every game of the Mario and Luigi series, Bowser’s Inside Story is developed via hilariously silly dialogue. There is humor in nearly every single line spoken by the characters and some of the best ones are certain to make players genuinely burst out laughing. More importantly, the game sheds a light on the backstage acts of the Mushroom Kingdom, giving long-time Mario fans a deep look at the lives of Peach, Toadsworth, Mario, Luigi, the various species of beings that inhabit the franchise’s universe, and Bowser, the latter of which happens to be the star of the game; hence allowing players to glance through a very funny window with quite a view into the odd realm that is the Mushroom Kingdom.
Through most of the game players will control Bowser on the top screen while Mario and Luigi roam Bowser’s guts on the bottom screen. All of the characters are controlled with the D-pad, but Bowser performs his moves with both the X and Y buttons while the brothers act via the A and B buttons. Only one screen is active at a time, but switching between one and another is as easy and fast as it could possibly be, turning what would be an annoying task in some less polished games or in hardware that is just not as suitable for this kind of experiment into the simple press of a button.
While Bowser explores a big open overworld filled with different scenarios, Mario and Luigi tackle, via a side-scrolling view, the inside of Bowser’s body. Although the brothers are mostly stuck in a more limited perspective, the game equally throws smart environmental puzzles that require some backtracking and a lot of exploration towards all of the characters, making Bowser’s Inside Story feel like two different titles that are excellently designed and that are connected by the same plot.
Overall, the game has outstanding level design. Bowser’s Inside Story is at its best when Mario, Luigi, and Bowser must work together in order to accomplish the same goal. At one point in the game, for example, Bowser will come across a fountain of water which will fill his insides with the liquid, and Mario and Luigi must enjoy the changing water level to reach new areas and further explore the big guy’s body. At other times, Mario and Luigi must travel to specific body parts and engage in very compelling mini-games in order to unlock Bowser’s hidden powers, giving him supernatural strength for a while and allowing him to perform certain tasks and advance in his quest.
It is in the merging of these two worlds, and the incredibly creative scenarios that AlphaDream creates in order to force the trio of heroes to cooperate, that the sheer genius of the game emerges. The title is a constant stream of clever conundrums and absurd situations that must be solved in inventive ways with the cooperation between Bowser and the brothers, all powered by the fantastic writing that permeates the Mario and Luigi franchise and the unexpected light-hearted conflicts that only the Mushroom Kingdom’s diversity of characters and places could offer and make plausible.
Bowser’s Inside Story follows in the footsteps of its predecessors by keeping the very same battle system mostly intact. Attacks must be performed with timed button presses in order to be fully effective. Besides, each and every move performed by the vast number of enemies, whose variety of attacks keeps battles fresh and challenging for a sufficient amount of time, can be avoided with a lot of practice and great timing. Not only does the constant button-pressing add action to the turn-based battles, it also demands a lot of skill and reflex from players, creating an RPG experience with the right balance between thrill and strategy.
Moreover, the characters have special moves that require an even bigger sequence of timely actions in order to be landed successfully, which makes them as fun to perform as they are powerful. Mario and Luigi, as usual, will join forces in insane combined attacks, and it is up to players to know when to press the A or B buttons correctly; as for Bowser, his specials are particularly delightful.
The King of Evil will have different minion squads in his command. Each of these groups (Koopas, Goombas, Bob-Ombs, Kameks, and etc.), when called, will trigger a fun mini-game on the bottom screen requiring players to use their stylus to perform different actions that will fully maximize the attack’s power. Instead of feeling like tacked on mini-games, those are finely integrated into the title’s fabric, coming off as very natural and amusing activities.
The battles are also smart enough to take advantage of the game’s core concept: the synergy between what happens inside Bowser and on the outside world. There are some specific enemies that appear on the top screen that can be swallowed by Bowser only to be finished by the brothers inside his body. This concept, although relatively common in minor conflicts, will be used more intensively and creatively on the game’s cleverly designed boss battles, which although not as challenging as those found on its two predecessors are still a blast to play through.
The traditional Mario and Luigi turn-based battles are – surprisingly – not the game’s action pinnacle. Since Mario and Luigi is a naturally over-the-top series, developers decided to go all out in that department with the implementation of clashes that star a giant Bowser facing equally enormous enemies. These occur whenever Bowser is dealing with a life-threatening situation, as in those perilous moments the brothers will be able to trigger his giant form from the inside.
When Bowser grows big, the DS will have to be turned sideways as he faces massive structures in battle, such as a train, a castle, and others. By exclusively using touch screen controls and the microphone, players will be able to punch, breath fire, throw fireballs, and do much more in order totally obliterate massively sized enemies in epic affairs that while thrilling may, unfortunately, occasionally come off as being too scripted despite their undeniable visual goodness and adrenaline-pumping nature.
These battles, however, highlight the fact that, visually, Mario and Luigi is a delight, especially on its ridiculously beautiful character models. Mario, Luigi, Bowser, and the others are wonderful examples of pixel art animation, and the polish put into the game’s graphics as a whole, including exuberant colors and design, is certainly a high-point for the system. The scenarios have definitely been improved compared to the series’ previous installments, but the leap in this particular field is not nearly as eye-popping as the one achieved by the models; still, they are very impressive sights to look at.
Aside from a level of difficulty which will barely affect experienced players and giant battles that could seem too predetermined, Bowser’s Inside Story is nearly flawless. Developers have gone out of their way in order to make every single second of the adventure a wonderful gaming moment whether because of its nice story, amazing battles, overwhelming creativity, or fun mini-games. It is a title whose dialogues, soundtrack (including the funny gibberish Italian spoken by the brothers), characters, and settings are oozing with utter charm.
Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is the defining moment of the Nintendo DS. As the handheld approached the end of its cycle, Nintendo and AlphaDream crafted the ultimate double-screen masterpiece, which utilizes every single feature the system has to offer in a very natural and fun way while squeezing every bit out of the machine’s hardware. Match that with great level design, a brilliant core gameplay concept, amazing art, the unique charm of the Mario RPG titles, over twenty hours of gameplay and you have one of the best titles Nintendo has ever put out in the market and one that safely lives up to the wonders of Superstar Saga.