Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time Hands-On

Mario and Luigi return to save the Mushroom Kingdom on the DS. Now with 50 percent more babies!

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Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time is the sequel to 2003's stellar Game Boy Advance title, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. Development on the DS game is being handled by Alpha Dream, who crafted the GBA game. The game offers a similar irreverent approach to your typical Mario scenario--Peach and the mushroom kingdom are in need of help--and runs far with it. The work-in-progress version of the game we tried matched the GBA game's wit, inventive gameplay, and impressive graphics, while it tossed in some smart uses for the DS hardware.

Mario and Luigi team up once again to save the world in Partners in Time.

As the game opens, trouble is brewing again for the Mushroom Kingdom. The big twist this time is that the kingdom isn't endangered by a local threat. In fact, the threat to the peaceful kingdom isn't even from this world. It seems a dastardly alien race called the shroobs has decided it's time to relocate to greener pastures due to decidedly unpleasant conditions on their own world, and they descend on the Mushroom Kingdom. Of course, this being a Mario and Luigi game, things don't go quite the way they're supposed to. The end result? You'll have to journey to both the past and present to save Peach and the kingdom, making use of adult and baby versions of Mario and Luigi.

The game's intro cinema sets things up nicely, offering a tease of the villainous shroobs. Though we still haven't seen what, exactly, they look like, we'll go out on a limb and say that based on their silhouette, they look a lot like mushrooms. You'll then get a look at baby versions of the brothers as they wind up heading to Peach's castle in the past, which dumps you into the first battle. Much like in the GBA game, this brings you up to speed on the basics of combat. Your first foe is Baby Bowser, of course, who is intent on snagging Peach.

If you played the GBA game then you should have no trouble diving into this game, because once again, you'll control each brother with one of the DS's buttons. Combat will feature the same core mechanics of turn-based attacks that require well-timed button presses for maximum efficiency. After your primer, you'll wind up in the present to check out the adult versions of the boys as they gather at Peach's castle to witness the debut of Professor E. Gadd's newest invention, a time machine. Of course, the minute you see E. Gadd's underwhelming assertion that the machine is 99.9999-percent safe as Peach pokes around it, you know trouble is afoot.

Time travel will play a big part this time around, as Mario and his bro will meet younger versions of themselves.

Now, while the introduction sets the stage for the story and gameplay basics, it's really just the tip of the iceberg--Alpha Dream has not cranked out a by-the-numbers sequel. The gameplay in Partners in Time is a good deal more sophisticated than the GBA game, thanks in part to the DS's dual screens. Not too far into the game, the older brothers will wind up in the past and bump into their younger selves, which results in the two sets of bros joining forces. This maps out perfectly to the DS's button layout; each brother will basically be assigned their own button. You'll control the Marios with X for adult Mario and A for baby, while adult Luigi will be B and baby Luigi is mapped to B. While this may sound a little complicated, it's not that bad.

When Babies Attack

Each set of brothers will have their own specialties. The babies will make use of assorted hammer attacks, while the older brothers will focus mainly on spin moves. While many of the attacks will be familiar, you'll find some new ones in the mix, including some that make use of all four brothers. For example, the older brothers can now grab each other's ankles and roll around in a ball. If you manage to roll over the baby bros, you'll squash them into a thin, pancake-like state that will let them access new areas. You'll also be able to split up the bros, which is where the dual screens come in. From what we've seen, the top screen will typically serve as a map when you're rolling with the brothers. When all four of the boys are together, the babies will usually cling to their corresponding brother's back. However, when the need arises, you can send them off on their own and control both sets of brothers separately.

The brothers' foes this time around? An evil group of aliens known as the shroobs.

The babies also come into play during battle, which has undergone some changes since the GBA game. The Bros. Attacks have been replaced by Bros. Items, which lets you perform specific attacks based on the items. For example, a cannon will let you fire all four of the brothers at an enemy, while a fire flower will let you use the quartet to fire a flaming projectile. As before, button-pressing and timing is key to combat. For example, the cannon attack launches the four brothers at an enemy. When the attack starts, the quartet are shot into the air and come down on the target in random order. It will be up to you to hit the DS face button in the order the boys hit to cause the most damage.

In the case of the fire flower, the boys will pass around a flaming projectile and build up its potency in a button-mashing version of "hot potato" that finds you hitting the button that corresponds to the brother holding the fireball. If you do well you'll cause megadamage when you finally shoot it off. You'll also find attacks that just use pairs of brothers, such as a dual Mario attack or dual Luigis. Timing will also play a large part of combat again, because besides getting the button presses down for combat, you'll once again need to focus on your timing when being attacked. As before, all your foes will feature subtle hints that clue you in to their attack patterns, which lets you time your evades, reducing or preventing damage to your party. Combat will also get an added dimension, thanks to DS rumble cartridge support. The rumble felt as though it was implemented a bit more smoothly than in Metroid Pinball.

The visuals in the game look outstanding and make use of a plethora of new effects for combat and the "time holes" you'll use to swap eras. As we mentioned, the top screen will serve as a map of your surroundings and denote areas of interest, such as save points and the aforementioned holes. As far as the characters go, the whole game features a beefed-up look compared to its GBA cousin, with large, well-animated sprites that feature the fledgling series' trademark humor. The standout in our brief time with the game was likely Baby Mario's animation during combat. You'll see the tiny tot standing with his fists up, trying to balance his enormous hat and look nimble while rocking a fat pair of diapers. Besides familiar faces such as Peach, the bros, and Professor E. Gadd, you'll see some new characters such as Stuffwell, your time-traveling suitcase companion that will serve as your inventory system. However, this particular set of luggage is chattier than in the original game, because he's a creation of the professor.

A nice mix of animated sprites and colorful environments gives Partners in Time an attractive look.

The audio in the game seems fine, with a respectable amount of sound clips and catchy tunes. We'll admit to a bit of disappointment right now: The battle theme we've heard doesn't quite have the catchy hook of the one in Superstar Saga. However, what we have heard is solid across the board.

Based on what we've played, Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time is looking like a smart sequel to Superstar Saga. The top-notch visuals, fresh gameplay, and a liberal dose of humor certainly look as though the game is headed in a positive direction. We'll know for certain shortly, as the game is slated for release later this month exclusively for the Nintendo DS. Look for our full review then.

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