"Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is just as good as it was in 2009. It's still side-splittingly funny, clever, and genuinely fun to play."
I've always believed the mark of a good remake is when the player doesn't feel like they're playing a remake. Whenever I sit down with a new version of an old game, my hope is that it feels fresh and original, as it did the first time I played it. With most remakes, that's sadly not the case. A graphical facelift often isn't enough to lift an older title above dated mechanics and period-specific quirks. Thankfully, Nintendo seems to know the secret of creating a great remake and have shared it with their development partner, AlphaDream, for this 3DS refresh of the DS-era Mario RPG, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story.
Bowser's Inside Story is the third, and arguably the best, game in the Mario & Luigi series. An epidemic called the Blurbs has struck the Mushroom Kingdom, enlarging innocent Toads to gigantic, beach ball-like proportions. Furious that he wasn't invited by Princess Peach to assist with the crisis, Bowser is tricked by a mysterious stranger (who turns out to be recurring, Engrish-spouting baddie Fawful) into eating a sinister-looking mushroom. It causes him to literally inhale the Princess, her Toad advisors, and both Mario Bros. Now shrunk down and stuck inside Bowser's body, Mario and Luigi must find a way out, while also "helping" Bowser get revenge on the mastermind behind the Blurbs, Fawful. And, of course, rescue the princess. The ridiculousness of this plot and the hilarious dialogue throughout had me grinning, and occasionally laughing out loud, from beginning to end!
Underneath this glossy new package, Bowser's Inside Story is completely intact. It's incredible how, even after all these years, gameplay in the Mario and Luigi series can feel so fresh. The new graphical presentation only complements this. It looks just like you remember ... until you check out some old screenshots. AlphaDream has taken the already expressive and beautifully animated 2D sprites and world and rebuilt them from scratch with new levels of detail (though oddly, not in stereoscopic 3D). Another great enhancement comes as the ability to fast-forward through cutscenes. If you're a fast reader, or just want to get to the action, this feature is a welcome addition.
Any concerns that the Mario & Luigi-style of gameplay got a bit stale after the previous two installments can be put to rest because here comes Bowser! Arguably the main character of the game (his name is right in the title), controlling Bowser is very different from playing as the two titular plumbers. Rather than jumping and hammering, you're smashing with fists and breathing fire. It's very satisfying to roam the expansive world as Bowser, punching anything that gets in your way. But if you prefer Mario and Luigi, don't worry. You will be playing as them much of the time, too.
At any point, you can switch between Bowser and the Bros. While inside Bowser's body, the game plays very much like a classic 2D Mario side-scroller on the lower screen. Later on, you can move back and forth between the Mushroom Kingdom and Bowser's insides, allowing you to enjoy both the overhead and side-scrolling types of gameplay.
One of the best things about this series is its take on the turn-based battle system. Rather than just choosing the attack command, a la classic Final Fantasy, Mario & Luigi pulls from its platforming roots with timed button presses. By pressing the A button at the exact time Mario jumps on an enemy, you can enhance the amount of damage you inflict, giving you another bounce and opportunity to press A again to get a combo. This timed button press system also extends to defending yourself from enemies, as a well-timed jump can help you dodge an enemy's attack. The key to success in battles is to learn the patterns of enemies, to know exactly when to jump to avoid damage.
Adding depth to the combat system is the minigame-like nature of the special Bros. Attacks. Each attack is actually a short minigame involving timed button presses of increasing complexity. If you time it perfectly, you will inflict massive damage. If you mess up, Mario, Luigi, or Bowser will fall down, and you lose your SP for nothing. This dramatically impacted the way I fought battles, as I often defaulted to the special moves/minigames that I was better at rather than the more difficult ones that inflicted higher damage. Though fun at first, these attacks can get a little tedious when you are spamming them repeatedly in boss fights.
Bowser gets in on the special attack action too, but while you perform Mario and Luigi's special attacks with the A and B buttons, you perform Bowser's with the touch screen and stylus. It's a great decision, further differentiating the play style between Bowser and the Bros. by making use of the 3DS's unique capabilities. Speaking of new additions to the series, I can't forget the giant Bowser fights. Physically turning the 3DS into an open book format, you get to participate in giant monster battles that would make Godzilla proud! There are only a few of these battles in the game, but they are always a grand time!
The Mario & Luigi series wouldn't be nearly as endearing without the fantastic sound design and here, Bowser's Inside Story doesn't disappoint. The Mario Bros. gibberish Italian is back, still voiced by Mario-series voice actor Charles Martinet. Bowser's gigantic ego effectively shines through in his every roar and evil laugh. The music is catchy, like a Mario soundtrack should be, with every area of the Mushroom Kingdom having a unique and appropriate theme. And, of course, you are going to hear all of the usual Mario Bros. sound effects, from jumping to collecting coins.
Unfortunately, this remake has something dragging it down, and that's the new side story, Bowser Jr.'s Journey. This midquel is a substantial new story taking place alongside the events of the original. Its writing is as funny and clever as the main story, matching the silly tone, while telling a genuinely touching tale of friendship and responsibility about the evil Koopalings. Its gameplay, though, doesn't measure up to the high quality of its storytelling.
Graphically and sound-wise, Journey pulls its assets straight from their main game. I wish they also did that with the battle system. As entertaining as the dialogue and characters are, the battle sequences are painful to get through. Forgoing the awesome turn-based battle system, Bowser Jr.'s Journey instead uses a rock-paper-scissors, squad-based affair. After you've picked your squad of troops, the battles are automatically fought, with little input necessary aside from an occasional button press to activate a special move. This watered-down, RTS-like battle system is tedious to play and majorly hurt my enjoyment of this otherwise delightfully-crafted side quest.
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is just as good as it was in 2009. It's still side-splittingly funny, clever, and genuinely a joy to play. Bowser Jr.'s Journey is a major slog, but that doesn't diminish my overall enjoyment one bit. If you're looking for a fun, active RPG that will keep a smile on your face throughout hours of playtime, look no further than Bowser's Inside Story (or honestly, any of the games in the Mario & Luigi series)!
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.