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Mario has tackled nearly every genre at this point: platform, racing, sports, even RPG. The nice thing is that, with a few exceptions, Mario has excelled at all of them, but nowhere more surprisingly than RPG. Every Mario RPG I've played has been pure gold, from the original Super Mario RPG to Paper Mario (Mario Story in Japan) and the original Mario & Luigi Superstars for GBA. So, it should have come as no surprise to me, and anyone else who has played a Mario RPG, that Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, is no slouch.
We begin in the Mushroom Kingdom's past, with baby Mario and baby Luigi being called to Peach's castle to entertain her (and fight baby Bowser). While Bowser is easily dispatched, the castle suddenly comes under attack from a group of UFOs belonging to a race of aliens called the Shroob. Fortunately, all the tykes and Toadsworth escape in Baby Bowser's ship.
Meanwhile, in the present, the adult bros., Professor E. Gadd and Toadsworth are awaiting the return of the princess from her trip through time in E. Gadd's time machine. Unfortunately, when the time machine returns, it is heavily damaged and instead of the princess emerging, out comes a really strange green alien-thing, which Mario and Luigi have to tackle with all due haste. The princess should really just stay home. Really.
Anyway, the time machine manages to disturb the fabric of reality, creating a time hole in the castle, and so the bros. head back in time to Baby Bowser's ship, which is immediately blasted out of the sky by the Shroob UFOs. It is now up to Mario and Luigi and their baby counterparts to rescue Princess Peach, find the pieces of the Cobalt Star, and put an end to the reign of the Shroobs.
The best things about the story of any Mario RPG are in the way the characters gesture and react. While Mario & Luigi are far from silent protagonists, their faux-Italian form of communication includes a healthy serving of hand and body gestures that get the point across better than words ever could. The fact that the characters are nigh-invincible and rather malleable in story sequences helps a lot, as well.
Of course, the dialogue is quite funny as well, and I did my fair share of chuckling throughout the game. Nintendo manages to make very likable and memorable characters, and the dialogue helps convey their personality quite well. Granted, the whole "save the princess" storyline is anything but original, it doesn't matter, because hey, it's Mario. You knew what you were getting into when you bought this game.
Lack of originality is not necessarily a bad thing. The gameplay is a perfect example; if you played any other Mario RPG title, you can pick up this game ASAP and probably be pretty decent, too. For those of you not familiar with Mario RPG gameplay, it is turn-based, and involves choosing an attack option and pressing the specified button during the attack to coax out extra damage from the attack. The big difference this time around is the inclusion of the babies, which allows the bros. to eke out even more damage from their attacks. With more characters to keep track of, though, the button timing can get a bit more difficult.
Those familiar with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga on GBA will find that the Bros. Attacks no longer take up Bros. Points, but rather use consumable items (called Bros. Items) that can either be used by two brothers or all four, depending on the item. The potential for damage can be pretty much unlimited for some of the Bros. Items, and are a necessity for any boss battle.
The only downside to the gameplay is that things are much more linear this time around than they have been in previous Mario RPG titles. While this makes figuring out where to go next a breeze, it does make the game much shorter, as there is less "other stuff" to do. You're looking at probably a 15-20 hour game in Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, so for many, this might be a just-rent title. Still, you should have fun playing it.
Graphically, Partners in Time, like most DS games, doesn't take nearly enough advantages of the DS's graphical capabilities, looking like a title that could have been (and probably was developed for) the GBA. Everything is sprite-based and colorful, with vivid pastels and primaries everywhere. The sprites have a few cute animations, but this is not a game you're going to play for its graphical presence. Still, the bright and airy colors will definitely keep the mood upbeat.
However, while graphics don't do much to impress, one of the high points is definitely the soundtrack. Returning from the previous GBA title, the game is scored by Yoko Shimomura. I really enjoy Shimomura's work, and you can definitely tell it's her. Most of the pieces are upbeat and happy, although she does manage to include some surprisingly touching themes, such as that of the ruined Holli Jolli town and the Star Hill theme. And of course, some Mario standards are included as well, thanks to Koji Kondo. Overall, the soundtrack functions very well in-game, and only enhances the presentation.
Finally, we get to one of the most vital elements of this game: control. For a title that requires successful button pressing to survive, control is of the utmost importance. Fortunately, Partners in Time delivers admirably on this front, and with the exception of once or twice while using a Copy Flower, I didn't feel gypped by the controls at all. Still, it can sometimes be confusing to switch between the babies' controls and the adults' controls on the fly, but that's part of the challenge of the game.
Overall, I'd recommend this game for any fan of Mario RPG titles, anyone looking for a nice solid RPG for the DS, and of course, people who enjoy smiling, since this game will brighten your mood. For most people, however, this will be a rental rather than a purchase, given the short length. Still, I recommend giving it a playthrough even if you don't buy it. It'll make you smile.