Review: Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (DS)

Is the third time the charm for the Mario & Luigi series?

After years of hearing Super Mario RPG fans clamor for a sequel, Nintendo put developer AlphaDream to work creating a new Mario-themed RPG for their Game Boy Advance system back in 2003. But instead of copying the same ideas used in the original Super Mario RPG, AlphaDream came up with the idea of making the player use the two Mario Bros. as a team in order to traverse the game's many areas and do battle with the various enemies along the way. This gameplay idea not only made the game extremely unique, but it also added a lot of strategy to the turn-based battles and even the exploration itself.

The game was quite popular among RPG fans and wound up spawning a sequel on Nintendo's DS system that was also quite well-received - so much so, in fact, that AlphaDream decided that a third game was in order. But instead of merely continuing the same gameplay ideas as those found in the previous games, they decided to give the game an overhaul in the gameplay department and not only add tons of new features to the combat system, but also to the exploration sections of the game as well. The end result is easily one of the most uniquely playable DS titles to date, and one of the most enjoyable.

While there are tons of new gameplay ideas in this third release, the main component of using the two Mario Bros. as a team remains intact. This time around you've got another character to make use of in the form of Bowser, and with that comes a whole host of new play control twists. After eating a strange mushroom, Bowser immediately inhales many of the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom, including Mario, Luigi, and Princess Toadstool. This forces you to use Mario's nemesis to move around the various areas in the game while Mario & Luigi explore his insides in an attempt to locate the princess and keep Bowser progressing through the tricky parts of the game. While this might sound overly complicated, the game does a marvellous job of taking you through the various tasks you'll undertake while you're inside Bowser's guts.

The first thing you'll have to come to grips with is moving around inside the various body parts of Bowser. You'll soon find that in order to help your former enemy use of the various parts of his body, you too will have to perform specific tasks inside of him. If Bowser can't lift a heavy object, you'll have to move over to his arm and perform some unique mini-game-like task to pump up his strength. As you progress through the game, you'll find yourself moving to various parts of his body when he needs your help. While a big part of this teamwork will be used during your exploration in the game, it also plays a key role in battle as well.

As Mario and Luigi, you'll have to do battle with any enemies you encounter while inside of Bowser, and this is where the combat most closely resembles that of the previous Mario & Luigi titles. You'll still control both Mario Bros. separately using the "A" and "B" buttons, but the game does toss in a few new special moves to liven things up. While you'll still have the trademark jump and hammer moves, you'll soon acquire tiny puzzle pieces that, when collected, will net you new special moves to use. These range from Koopa shells you can kick back and forth between the two brothers, to the special fireball attack. You'll even gain the use of badges that will give Mario and Luigi special skills and abilities when their gauge is filled up while doing battle with enemies. And as much fun as the battles with Mario & Luigi are, you won't get the full experience of battle until you take control of Bowser.

While moving around the various areas of the game, you'll normally be in control of Bowser in this game. This means you can break certain items using his punch or burn through trees and brush using his Fire Breath. As you progress through the game, you'll even be able to power up these moves to make them even more effective. Much the same as Mario and Luigi, Bowser also has to face off with enemies in battle. This can range from a standard turn-based battle with enemies to combination battles that require Bowser to inhale certain enemies and then have Mario & Luigi help out from inside of him. There will even be times when Bowser will become huge in size and you'll be forced to hold your DS system vertically in order to take part in epic battles between huge foes using the stylus. Not only are these epic battles a lot of fun to take part in, but they're a nice diversion from the standard battles you'll generally be involved in.

The addition of the new battle styles is one of the best new features in Bowser's Inside Story, but there are a lot more new twists to be found as well. The platforming sections of the game that Mario and Luigi take part in bring a whole new edge to the game and make exploration a lot more fun and interesting. Likewise the huge variety of mini-games that you'll use to help Bowser out from inside also add even more playability to the mix. Not only will you be using the standard d-pad and button configuration, but the stylus will also be required for many of the mini-games you'll play, not to mention a few of the special combat moves. It's just one more way the game mixes things up along the way.

While the Mario & Luigi titles have always had a very playable feel to them, AlphaDream really outdid themselves with this third release. There are so many amazing new gameplay additions that you'll wonder how they were able to squeeze so many new twists into one game. As familiar as it feels, it's so fresh at times that it feels like a completely new gaming experience altogether. The unique idea of working from the outside and the inside of Bowser not only makes for a wildly entertaining story line, but it also adds a whole new level to the combat system itself. And since you'll constantly be doing something different, the game never feels the least bit stale or repetitive at any given point. As enjoyable as previous Mario & Luigi titles were, they don't hold a candle to the fun and originality found in this third release.

As far as visual presentation goes, Bowser's Inside Story doesn't stray too far from the look of the previous titles in the series. All of the sugary-sweet Mario-style visuals are back and they're as vibrant and detailed as ever, but what makes this third game shine are the little visual touches it adds to the mix. For instance, the transition from the outside of Bowser to the inside is always a fun one to watch, as are the brand new transitions into battle that are unique to each character. The inside of Bowser and the many new enemies you'll do battle with throughout the game also make for some unique graphical elements. It's clear that the gameplay itself wasn't the only area of the game the developers wanted to improve upon and it ended up giving the game an increased level of visual polish that fans of the series will definitely appreciate.

The Mario & Luigi series has always featured solid audio experiences, and Bowser's Inside Story is no exception. Not only are there some absolutely outstanding musical tracks in the game, there is also some fantastic voiced character dialog as well. It doesn't go much beyond a few choice phrases here and there, but it really adds a nice level of charm to the game. The sound effects are equally impressive and round out what is easily the best audio presentations yet in the series, and one more reason to rave about this exceptional gaming package.

Conclusion

Alpha Dream created a fantastic take on the Super Mario RPG idea years ago with their original Game Boy Advance Mario & Luigi release, but they've taken the concept to new heights with this third title. While it would be easy to rave on and on about the game, the best way to sum everything up would be to say this: Bowser's Inside Story is the kind of game that will remind you why you love playing video games in the first place and is easily one of the best DS releases to date. If you only buy one game the rest of this year, make sure it's this one.

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