Back when Squaresoft teamed up with Nintendo for Super Mario RPG, the idea of a turned-based mechanic featuring Mario and company was borne and since that moment back in 1995, the 'Italian Stallion' (…if anyone has ever called him that…) has never looked back, appearing in three different variations on the theme in total. However, whilst the 'Super Mario RPG' brand was never expanded upon, the off-shoots of Paper Mario and the Mario and Luigi role-playing adventures have flourished under the helping hands of Intelligent Systems and AlphaDream, respectively. The former placed Mario in a paper-thin, flat 2D world, whilst the latter, starting out with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga on the Game Boy Advance, took a more cartoon-like approach, transferring the core gameplay into a far more comedic setting, poking fun at the lesser-known Mario brother, Luigi. The follow-up, Partners in Time on the DS, then introduced the concept of controlling four characters, with Baby Mario and Baby Luigi sharing centre stage with the older brothers. For game number three, AlphaDream stretched the idea of dual-control further by allowing gamers the chance to switch between Team Mario and King Koopa himself, Bowser, making superb use of the dual-screen setup of the Nintendo DS.
Super Mario RPG impressed people with its pseudo-3D graphics, akin to the 'ACM (Advanced Computer Modelling)' technique used by Rare for the Donkey Kong Country games, also on the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and Paper Mario left gamers floored by how gorgeous the flat world and characters were in both the Nintendo 64, GameCube and Wii iterations. Keeping the idea of a unique graphical theme for each branch, Mario & Luigi is now renowned for its cartoon-like feel, with characters over-reacting in an amusing manner in terms of their gestures, facial expressions and general crazy animation. This latest outing is all that and more, pushing the series to new highs and proving to be one of the most enjoyable Nintendo DS games so far.
The Mushroom Kingdom is being plagued by a strange disorder called 'The Blorbs' that has infected the local Toad populace, turning them all into massive inflated balloons that roll around uncontrollably. Starlow, on behalf of the Star Sprites that protect the kingdom, discovers the root cause; some fiend had fed everyone with Blorb Mushrooms! Before Bowser even has time to become the bad guy once more, kidnapping Princess Peach, he gets booted out by Mario and left stranded in a place called Dimble Wood. Events transpire and eventually Bowser is tricked by Mario & Luigi's veteran villain, Fawful, into consuming a 'Lucky Mushroom,' which is in fact one of the 'Vacuum' variety and leads to King Koopa sucking up anything in his path, including everyone in the council chamber at Princess Peach's Castle. Thus begins an intriguing adventure where Mario and Luigi must work together inside Bowser to rescue all the inhaled folk, escape, and rescue the Princess. Play can be easily switched to Bowser in order to catch Fawful and overturn the trouble he has caused, but it is the team-work between the brothers Mario and the usual 'Evil One' that is imperative in Bowser's Inside Story.
The beauty of the third Mario & Luigi is how AlphaDream has smoothly integrated the use of both the plumber duo and King Koopa into the main story without making any of the gameplay feel forced. Whilst the Italian brothers do not spend the entire game inside the belly of the beast, they do find themselves confined to his innards for the majority of the adventure and the player's journey is split between controlling Bowser as he wanders around the Mushroom Kingdom in a top-down view, getting up to all sorts of mischief, and working as Mario and Luigi in a 2D plane when they need to explore various sections of the body they are stuck in, taking part in boss fights and numerous mini-games.
The divergence between the two sets of characters is strikingly different yet the juxtaposition in styles actually works better this way, with Mario and Luigi able to leap up onto platforms to reach items and make progress, as well as duck down to squeeze under tight spaces to gain entry to previously inaccessible locations, whilst Bowser relies more on his brute force to smash through obstacles and set fire to wooded areas to create new routes. The variety on offer makes for an extremely well-rounded experience overall, and prevents the long journey from growing tiresome or repetitive. If anything, players are treated almost to two differing storylines at once, able to flick between the two at will for the majority of the time. Bowser is intent on preventing Fawful from forever ruling his castle, whilst the microbe-sized Mario and Luigi are forced to undertake challenge after inventive challenge to muscle their way back into the real world, sometimes tweaking Bowser's body parts for their own advantage without him realising what is going on.
In some cases, Bowser may need help from the Mario Bros., but as he does not know they are inside him there is no conflict of interest resulting in him becoming furious at the thought of his arch nemesis being in the chasm of his large form. Aiding with digestion whilst Bowser chomps on too many carrots (Gut Check), or giving the giant beast an extra boost in his energy reserves for tackling a situation that requires the utmost of strength (Arm Centre and Leg Outpost); there are many ways throughout the adventure that the player can use Mario and Luigi to further progress. One standout is Rump Command where Bowser is initially crushed, but then grows larger than life thanks to an overdose of adrenaline administered by the brothers Mario. This leads to a special 'vertical' battle with the DS held like a book, á la Brain Training, where the stylus and microphone are used in conjunction to defend and attack accordingly. Outside of this, both parties must face off against 'regular' (used in the loosest sense!) enemies along the way in turn-based battles that fans of the Mario RPG line will be more than familiar with.
Bowser's battling technique is similar to that of Mario and Luigi, but his key moves rely on his brute strength (punching) and fire breathing power (super hot flaming balls aplenty), with the power of both being increased by timely button pressing and releasing, with the same applying to defending when it is the opponents' round in order to reduce damage inflicted. As with previous iterations, enemies are viewable in the surrounding locations, so can normally be avoided, but it is obviously advisable, from a levelling-up point of view, to ensure encounters are not cut out completely, especially given the ranking system introduced this time round (six for Mario and Luigi, four for Bowser) that permits more items to be equipped or bought. Jump upon an enemy with Mario/Luigi or hit spiky ones with their hammer, or with Bowser punch / breath fire at them in order to gain the upper hand and knock some Hit Points off right from the start. Timing is imperative both before and during battles. Additionally, one great new element used from time-to-time is that of Bowser choosing to inhale certain monsters, thus allowing Mario and Luigi to take over and cause damage before King Koopa regurgitates said enemy. Everything works extremely fluidly and with the Badge upgrades for accessing new in-battle moves, the whole system remains fresh until the end.
Presentation-wise, the game is a treat both visually and aurally, with the graphics being filled to the brim with personality and the soundtrack elevating the experience considerably. Yoko Shimomura-san is an extraordinary composer of videogame music, with her repertoire stretching to the likes of the Kingdom Hearts series, Legend of Mana on the PSone and even Atlus' Radiant Historia on DS, plus many more. Her work on the soundtrack for Bowser's Inside Story, with a helping hand from Nintendo veteran Koji Kondo on the remixes of timeless Mario themes, is exemplary, even likely to be defined as 'magical' in certain instances. Each and every piece of music slotted into the adventure is an instant classic, and mixed with the hilarious voice snippets for various characters -- especially the Mario Bros. themselves -- it is yet another string to this game's already extremely jam-packed bow! Speaking of humour, to conclude, whilst praise is heaped upon Nintendo's many Mario outings there is always a lack of real comedy antics to lighten the mood. Looking at the recently released Paper Mario: Sticker Star, for instance, goes to show that if anything the funny side of Mario's adventures is actually being extracted somewhat. Fortunately, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is not only a joy to play in general, but is truly laugh-out-loud funny on countless occasions.