As brilliant as they are, most of Mario's games are exercises in expediency. The surreal landscapes and characters of the Mushroom Kingdom pass by in a blur, as players race against the clock to triumph over ever-harder platform-jumping challenges.
But every so often Nintendo will release a role-playing game set in this strange fairy tale universe. It's on these rare occasions that we can linger in Mario's stomping ground, and get a feel for just how deranged his friends and enemies really are.
This is the third Mario RPG from AlphaDream; this Japanese developer also brought us Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga for the Game Boy Advance, and Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time for the DS. They've retained the basic game mechanics of the series: open world exploration, and turn-based combat enhanced by quick-time events. Yet these basic building blocks have been reassembled into new combinations, and the result is a fresh and inventive take on staple RPG gaming.
This overhaul starts with the plot – it's very, very silly. After gobbling down a dodgy mushroom, Bowser has gained the power to inhale anything or anyone, sucking them down to microscopic size. The Mario Bros. soon find themselves no bigger than amoebas, exploring a strange new platform-rich environment: Bowser's cavernous innards. Meanwhile, the reptilian tyrant finds his castle under attack, and his lands overrun with candy-obsessed invaders. This gruesome threesome soon learn that they must work together if they are to defeat the buck-toothed new super-villain who's moving in on their turf.
Exploration, combat, and puzzles are all enhanced by the need to swap back and forth between Bowser and the Bros. For instance, Bowser on the top screen might be having some trouble moving a heavy object. At this point, you would switch to the touch screen, move Mario and Luigi to his arm muscle, and bash away on a nerve ending with steel hammers to boost its power.
Combat is turn-based, so you can take your time choosing between the extremely simple tactical choices (attack, special attack, buff, flee). The difficulty lies in actually executing these moves – precision timing is needed both to maximise damage and to counter enemy attacks. The baddies telegraph their moves, so when you cop a hit you can be certain that either your memory or your reflexes are at fault. Since it's easy to stuff things up, combat can get quite intense.
In a typical battle you might belt a monster a few times as Bowser, then suck it in so the Bros. can work it over. Levelling up all three characters in concert is crucial, and rewarding – one of the stats for Mario & Luigi is 'Stache'; the bigger and bushier it gets, the higher their luck.
The few flaws present in the game are systemic. It's difficult to gauge the scarcity and value of the collectible items, and the wandering monster battles tend to get old fast. Monsters include lollipop-addicted Goombas and animated chains of rotting teeth; this is fitting, for the game, overall, is sickly sweet. What ultimately makes Bowser's Inside Story worthwhile is the quirky variety in its environments and puzzles – it's more of a box of chocolates than an all-day-sucker.