Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story actually made me feel excited to play a traditional Japanese-style RPG. That's no mean feat; it's something I thought I might never feel again. Thanks to my dwindling patience for this genre's stagnant design and my lack of free time to plod through its notoriously longwinded, overwrought storylines, I haven't given serious attention to a JRPG in a long time. Leave it to Nintendo to reel me back in, as the company has again parlayed the brothers Mario into a third lighthearted, fast-paced RPG that's easy for anyone--not just current or lapsed JRPG fans--to enjoy.
To me, the genius of the Mario & Luigi series is the way it takes the boring aspects of turn-based RPGs--namely the turn-based battles--and punches them up with quick little reflex-based tricks to hold your attention and speed up the whole process. As before, Mario and Luigi attack with hammers and (surprise) by jumping on enemies, and if you hit the right buttons at the right times, you can add more power to your attacks. What's more, every enemy in the game gives you subtle, clever hints about how it's about to attack you, so if you closely examine these clues you can dodge the attacks and avoid taking damage entirely. With the right combination of attention and reflexes, it's possible to make it through random encounters quickly and emerge completely unscathed. That's a satisfying feeling, every time, and even three games into the series, it's is still a great way to keep the flow of the game moving and make it more fun to play through random battles than simply issuing menu commands and trading abstract damage values with enemies. Exploration of the overworld is similarly enhanced with some rudimentary platforming and block-bopping, as in the previous games. It's just a fun game to play.
Nonetheless, in general terms this is exactly the same formula the two previous Mario & Luigi games used, but it's a good one that really keeps you on your toes and staves off the boredom that can plague other RPGs' combat. And the game puts its own twist on the formula with a strange premise straight out of Inner Space. Superstar Saga's hilarious verbal contortionist Fawful finally steps into the villainous spotlight here with a magical plot to make Bowser inhale everyone in the Mushroom Kingdom, including the Princess, a bunch of Toads, and of course Mario and Luigi themselves. The bizarre result is that you play half the game as tiny little Mario brothers--exploring locations inside Bowser's body like the Nose Deck, Pump Works, Flame Pipe, and Rump Command--and the other half stomping around the real world as Bowser himself. Ol' King Koopa has his own set of special attacks and defensive moves that make him a bit different to play than the Marios, and while I initially felt like the game leaned a little too heavily toward Bowser gameplay, things eventually shift in such a way that you feel like you're getting to spend plenty of quality time with both sides.
It helps that Bowser totally steals the show. Inside Story is an absolute riot, full of endearing characters and a droll sense of humor that comes primarily from the ridiculous things coming out of those characters' mouths. If you remember Fawful's nonstop ludicrous turns of phrase in the first game, you can expect that kind of hilarity on a frequent basis from nearly every character you run into in this sequel, with special mention for a heavily French-accented item vendor who also happens to be a coin block. Getting to play as Bowser gives you an amusing glimpse into the Koopa King's megalomania. His ego hilariously fills the room as he reveres the magnitude of his own evilness in one breath and then bosses around a battalion of goombas with the next. I almost can't believe this game made me stop and ponder the plight of Bowser as a displaced evil tyrant--there's a certain forlornness to the way he stomps around the halls of his own castle, trying to convince all his old minions that he is in fact a cooler bad guy than Fawful. That I did stop and think about it might say all that needs to be said about the quality of the game's writing. It's worth playing for the humor alone.
Though the basic format hasn't changed from the first two games in the series, there are enough little additions and distractions to keep this sequel fresh. The designers manage to mix in all sorts of smart little minigames here and there to break up the role-playing; you'll do some Space Invaders-style shooting to amp up Bowser's adrenaline, and play what amounts to a basic rhythm game at various times when he needs an extra boost of energy to a specific body part. There are also some collectibles, like badges you can equip on Mario and Luigi that fill up a meter as you fight which grants you free heals and the like. The extras make it worth exploring the Mushroom Kingdom a bit more once you have the freedom to do so.
The developer, AlphaDream, has wisely kept this series firmly rooted in two dimensions, with fantastically colorful level artwork and some of the most smoothly animated, expressive sprites I can remember seeing in a DS game. It's a marked improvement over Partners in Time and a real achievement, in a less-is-more sort of sense. I also have to give credit to the characterizations of Mario and Luigi themselves; even though they don't say any specific dialogue, their wild gesticulations and occasional mumble-mouthed faux Italian voiceover make them as important to the game's story as anyone.
At first, I wanted to fault Bowser's Inside Story for hewing so close to the format of its predecessors, but the more I played of it, the less I could deny how expertly made it is in every aspect. It's an all-around fantastic portable game that's completely worth playing, whether you enjoy it in bite-size chunks or plow straight through it from start to finish.