Great in short sessions
Bowser's inside story is a 2009 Christmas gift that I've been slowly completing over the trips I've taken in the last two years. At least the first 80% of it is. The final portion of the game was completed in a more traditional manner, as a marathon session to reach the end. The two states in which I played the game served to highlight its strengths and weaknesses and ultimately shaped my final perception of the game.
First impressions of the game are amazing. The art style is fitting for a Mario game while aptly integrating images far beyond the scope of the pipes, mushrooms, blocks, and Goombas that typically constitute a Mario game. This is done to render the inside of Bowser's body, where Mario and Luigi spend the majority of their time, while making Bowser's innards seem perfectly at home in the Mario universe. The game also succeeds at conveying scale and perspective as the majority of the game is played from Bowser's point of view.
The music is catchy and the sound effects comical, but the presentation aspect that truly shines is the writing. Using nothing more than simple, exaggerated animations and concise speech bubbles, the writing carries story without ever getting unnecessarily wordy or slowing down the pace. The story succeeds more so for the way it is told than the content itself, which features only the most basic of arcs, but cleverly incorporates allusions to real-world themes.
Bowser's inside story sets itself apart from other console or handheld RPGs, by integrating platforming and mini-game aspects into its turn-based battles. Attacks and special attacks are executed and enhanced by timed button presses or gestures from the stylus. Embarrassingly, the game also requires the player to blow into the microphone, but on a crowded flight this can be simulated by rubbing ones finger over the mircrophone hole. On second thought, that may be even more embarrassing.
The combat holds up well in short sessions and by the time you have figured out an enemies attack patterns you are on to the next. The cracks start to show in longer play sessions, however, especially towards the end of the game. Bowser's inside story uses the formula of requiring special abilities that allow access to new areas, which leads to back-tracking through old areas and repetitive battles with low-level enemies. Often this is compensated for by the gear and level progression meta-game, and although these aspects are present, they are limited and typically only make numbers differences to how combat plays out.
For its successes in keeping combat fresh in the short-term, Bowser's Inside story still trips up on the oldest of adventure and RPG tropes. During my extended session to see the end, combat repetition wore the momentum built by the story down to a game-play crawl. The final battles had me wishing for the end. Had I engaged the final act in shorter sessions, as I had done for the majority of the game, this may not have been noticable, but the grinding aspects are there and should be noted.
To those looking for short sessions or those more averse to grind fatigue, Bowser's Inside story is a wonderful pocket RPG that presents a humorous and distinctive look at the Mushroom Kingdom. It does not entirely transcend the JRPG genre, but is as close as any DS game will probably get.