Okay minions, now let’s get in formation
The Mario & Luigi series for me has always been a nice palette cleanser from the more nitty, gritty, stat-heavy RPGs that found their way onto my DS and 3DS. Where many RPGs bank on a player’s appreciation for the minutia of building strong characters and teams, the Mario & Luigi games would rather test the hand-eye coordination you’ve been building up over the various years of playing Mario platformers. There are levels to gain and experience points to earn, but Mario & Luigi, and really all Mario RPGs in general, don’t care about all that. These games just want players to sit back, press the appropriate button at the appropriate time, and enjoy the story. And with Bowser’s Inside Story, there is one hell of a story to enjoy.
Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey (Nintendo 3DS)
Released: January 11, 2019 (NA), January 25, 2019 (EU)
Mario and Luigi may get top billing, as it is their series, but really this is Bowser’s tale. After gorging himself on a mysterious mushroom, the reptilian ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom inhales everything in sight, including pipes, several Toads, Princess Peach, and the two titular plumbers. It’s all part of a plan set in motion by Fawful, the chortling antagonist of Superstar Saga who is out for revenge against the Mushroom Kingdom. After sucking down the Mario brothers, Bowser must unknowingly work with them to stop Fawful before he gets his hands on an ancient artifact known as the Dark Star.
As with 2017’s Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, Mario and Luigi are controlled individually in battle and in the field with the A and B button respectively. Bowser uses X and Y and players are able to switch between the brothers and Bowser with the press of a button. Most battles feature either the brothers or Bowser separately, but certain fights allow players to team the trio up. Bowser can inhale an enemy into his gut where Mario and Luigi fight to finish them off. This isn’t always an option, and in some boss battles it’s absolutely mandatory, but it does add a hint of strategy to what is otherwise an easy RPG. Well, it would add strategy, if the game didn’t make it blatantly obvious when you should and shouldn’t be inhaling.
The asymmetrical co-op between the brothers and Bowser is at its best when players are having them work symbiotically. If Bowser needs to lift a heavy object, Mario and Luigi can work together to stimulate his muscles. If the brothers need to reach a ledge high up in Bowser’s stomach, he can drink loads of water that allows them to swim up to it. With most RPG trappings absent from the Mario & Luigi franchise, it’s this emphasis on clever puzzle-solving that arguably makes Bowser’s Inside Story the best of the bunch. Well, that and the absolutely stellar script.
The story to this episode of the brothers Mario hasn’t changed all that much since its original telling. It’s still the same, hilarious tale of Blorbs, Emoglobins, and French-Canadian retailers. Nothing about this game takes itself seriously except for the various tutorials, that you do have the option to skip. I still remember how to play this game from my last go around, including the mandatory touch screen portions, so I was okay skipping over any of Chippy’s chalk talk. Bowser’s Inside Story has a lot of dialogue, and there is the option to speed things along if feel the game is getting too chatty, but I soaked up every word spoken by the various NPCs who dot the land. Like with most other Mario RPGs, this game has personality, and personality goes a long way.
What has changed is the look of the everything. The DS original still stands on its own today with its bright and colorful pixel work, but the art direction found in the 3DS version is brilliant. Every character in this game is wonderfully expressive — Luigi has never been more animated — and exploring the depths of Bowser is visual eye-candy. Never have the innards of a giant, golf-playing, go-kart racing reptile look so good. 3D graphics are seen throughout the kingdom, and while they add to the new cinematics as well as the massive Bowser battles, I’d have preferred if AlphaDream kept everything sprite based because it is a bit jarring to see the lush, pixel visuals blemished by arguably cheap looking leaves and treetops.
The other big addition to this edition of Bowser’s Inside Story is Bowser Jr.’s Journey. Like Bowser’s Minions, Journey is a side-story to the main narrative. With Blorbs affecting Goombas in Bowser’s Castle, Bowser Jr. takes it upon himself to find the cure with a journey set into motion by a trio known as the Best Fitness Friends. The gameplay of Journey can best be described as strategic sumo wrestling. Players will pick up to eight minions to put into play, setting them up on a 3×5 grid. There are three types of minions — melee, ranged, and flying — and each type falls into a rock-paper-scissors strength and weakness triangle.
After setting up your army, you let them loose and hope for the best. You can see your opponent’s formation beforehand to prepare, but honestly, it can often feel like nothing more than chance. There is some player input in these battles, activating special moves or using skills to turn the tide of battle, but it’s mostly a hands-off experience; an experience I didn’t find all that interesting. It’s a surprisingly detailed mode with much to consider going into every fight. It’s just when I finally crafted the perfect team and was ready to throw down, the positively passive battle that followed simply couldn’t keep me interested.
Bowser Jr.’s Journey adds a few hours of gameplay to the final package, but the action wears thin quite quickly. I would have given up on it after an hour or so if not for the side-splitting story contained within. Bowser Jr. is at his absolutely brattiest here and the Koopalings, Bowser’s original kid-sidekicks, are hilariously exasperated trying to get the enfant terrible to pay attention and focus on the task at hand. Their narrative is exceptionally well-written and actually quite relatable to anyone who has worked for a family business, where you bust your ass off only to realize the owner’s insufferable kid will one day be your boss.
It’s tough to recommend this release to anyone who already owns the DS version, a game that is still completely playable no matter which member of the 3DS family you own. Everything that was great about the original is still great here. But if you’re one of the dwindling number of people still rocking a 3DS and you have yet to take a trip to the bowels of Bowser, it’s an unforgettable adventure full of wit, charm, and comedy. Bowser Jr’s Journey may not add anything worthwhile in regards to gameplay, but it does reaffirm that the strength of the Mario & Luigi franchise lies in its writing.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]