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

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

"The king has been dethroned. Manipulated, betrayed, and forced out of his own castle. His military has been decimated; everyone has been either slaughtered or brainwashed into following the new regime. His few remaining supporters have gone into hiding. The common folk are falling prey to a disease spread by the invaders. And the worst part? All of the realm’s heroes are gone…and it’s the king’s fault. He ate them. The princess and her servants, too. Swallowed them whole, and left them to..."

The king has been dethroned. Manipulated, betrayed, and forced out of his own castle. His military has been decimated; everyone has been either slaughtered or brainwashed into following the new regime. His few remaining supporters have gone into hiding. The common folk are falling prey to a disease spread by the invaders. And the worst part? All of the realm’s heroes are gone…and it’s the king’s fault. He ate them. The princess and her servants, too. Swallowed them whole, and left them to rot in his stomach juices. Of all the things Bowser has done over the years, that has to be one of the sickest and most disturbing yet. With the Mario Bros. out of the way, he’s the only one left that has any chance of saving the Mushroom Kingdom.

It’s pretty ironic. One of the most famous villains in video game history unwittingly becomes the savior of the land he has spent decades trying to conquer. Bowser is hardly a hero; his stupidity and gullibility are showcased frequently. He’s not an idealist, either. While some RPG protagonists are motivated by a desire for justice or peace, Bowser is out for revenge and power. However, the game makes the effort to present him beyond the typical weaknesses and character flaws. He might be a hulking, fire-breathing brute, but he can be a capable leader and skilled fighter when the situation calls for it. Some of Bowser’s finest moments (taking down gargantuan bosses and reuniting with his minions especially) demonstrate an unparalleled amount of courage and determination. His crusade is impressive, even if he blunders through nearly every step of it. Taking back an entire kingdom seems an impossible task, but Bowser is strong (and stubborn) enough to pull it off.

He won’t be going at it alone, either. Despite being swallowed by their arch-nemesis, the Mario Bros. are still alive. While Bowser is busy with his quest, they’ll spend nearly half the game exploring his massive gut. The game allows you to switch between the characters with a push of a button; Bowser’s adventure dominates the upper screen with a top-down camera perspective, and Mario and Luigi side-scroll along the Touch Screen. Much of the game revolves around the Bros. supporting Bowser by playing mini-games. The big guy need some arm strength to get past an obstacle? Have Mario and Luigi hit electrical impulses to stimulate his muscles. It goes both ways, though; Bowser can drink water to flood an otherwise impassible room, use an x-ray to highlight invisible blocks, etc. There’s nothing particularly impressive about such challenges, though. The puzzles and platforming areas are ridiculously easy, and the Mushroom Kingdom is too small and linear to inspire exploration. It gets better once you gain some of the characters’ secondary abilities - drilling underground, smacking things with mallets, and breathing fire are among the most frequently used - but the overall design comes off as lacking.

The combat mechanics are the only remotely challenging aspect. The game utilizes the typical turn-based and menu browsing system found in most RPGs, but its button commands and emphasis on timing make it unique. The Mario Bros. have been crushing their enemies’ skulls underfoot for decades, so it’s not surprising to see jumping as the default offensive option. However, that classic attack is far more effective if you press the corresponding button right before the hit connects; depending on your accuracy, Luigi might bounce off his target’s face or dish out an insane amount of damage. If you’re trying to dodge an oncoming attack, a poorly-timed jump will be disastrous. The power of Bowser’s punches, fire breath, and defenses all revolve around timing as well. The game makes it easier by providing visual cues for all the characters; an enemy might throw a specifically colored or positioned projectile, perform different animations, etc. Once you get the hang of it, it’s entirely possible to survive the toughest battles unscathed. But if you don’t catch on quickly, your characters will be slaughtered within a turn. It‘s easy to learn, but crucial to your survival.

The game rewards your prowess with a steady stream of unlockable supermoves. Some of these are fairly straightforward, like bouncing a Koopa shell off an enemy or spamming the battlefield with fireballs. The further you get in the game, however, the more complex they get. The Mario Bros. can play tennis with meteors, use a head-mounted spring to boost jumping attacks, and send stars raining down in a sparkly display of devastation. While these are extensions of the button timing mechanics of the regular moves, Bowser’s specials are all controlled with the stylus. There’s nothing quite as badass as tapping hordes of Goombas and turning them into living Molotovs, or lining up Bob-ombs to make kamikaze runs. It doesn’t get really gimmicky until the boss fights. Having to turn the DS sideways is bad enough as it is, but blowing into the microphone to power the Fire Breath attack kills the fun. The battles are epic (taking down an entire castle is pretty challenging), but a lot of the Touch Screen interactivity is needlessly tacked on.

It’s the humor that keeps things from getting too tedious. The game takes plenty of opportunities to make fun of Luigi’s relative lack of popularity - some of the characters still regard him as Mario’s sidekick - or how Bowser gets tricked by allies and enemies alike. Hearing the Mario Bros. speak Italian-accented gibberish never gets old. There are some nice references, too; old school Nintendo fans will recognize the nod to the Kuribo’s Shoe level from Mario 3, which has a character getting stuck inside a defeated enemy’s mouth and hopping helplessly around. Not to mention the disturbing Link to the Past parody in which a fairy-shaped creature rises out of Bowser’s fatty slime to aid the heroes. The game hides its grotesque themes with bright colors and well-animated sprites. It makes sense, considering how gameplay focuses so much on reading your opponents’ moves. Everything in the Mushroom Kingdom, from the Toads’ houses to Bowser’s bubbling stomach acid pits are presented with a fair amount of details and cartoon-style designs. It’s not the most impressive stuff on the DS, but it works well enough.

Despite its shortcomings, Bowser’s Inside Story is still an excellent game. It focuses on one of the most unlikely characters in the franchise and presents him in an almost entirely new light. Yes, Bowser is an idiotic and gullible jerk. That’s the beauty of it. His flaws are what make him different from any other Nintendo protagonist, and it works so well. The same goes for the unusual gameplay mechanics; switching between Bowser and the Mario Bros. to complete dungeons is a great twist to the formula established in the previous games. It’s a shame that more effort wasn’t put into creating some truly difficult platforming and puzzle sections. The only difficult aspect of this game is its combat; while the button commands and timing sequences remain unchanged from the last Mario and Luigi titles, they’re still vital to your success. There are plenty of opportunities to use the Touch Screen, but a few of them feel unnecessary and added in as an afterthought. Regardless, this game is still one of Nintendo’s most refreshingly clever ideas. Bowser might not be a perfect hero, but he’s entertaining.


disco's avatar
Featured community review by disco (October 10, 2009)

Disco is a San Francisco Bay Area native, whose gaming repertoire spans nearly three decades and hundreds of titles. He loves fighting games, traveling the world, learning new things, writing, photography, and tea. Not necessarily in that order.

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randxian posted November 06, 2009:

Fantastic! I particularly enjoyed reading about the nods to classic bits from older NES and SNES games. The review as a whole is very descriptive and insightful.

The only thing I would work on is perhaps the intro. Tell me a bit more about these invaders. Who exactly is King Koopa fighting?

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