The story in most Mario games boils down to three things: Princess Peach is ransom fodder, the Mushroom Kingdom residents are hopeless at damage control, and Luigi treads that fine line between hero and zero. But though these elements have been in one combination or another in just about every Mario game for more than two decades, Nintendo has almost always managed to put some new spin on the classic Mario formula to keep the games fun and interesting. Case in point: the recently released Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, a fun and funny action role-playing game for the Nintendo DS that tosses Mario's longtime nemesis, Bowser, into the action as a playable character. The odd coupling of hero and surly shelled villain--who you just know is chomping at the bit to smash the mustachioed plumber--makes for not only comedy gold, but also a complete gold-star experience that's definitely deserving of your time and money.
The game finds the Mushroom Kingdom weathering its latest calamity: a mysterious ailment known as the blorbs, which causes the locals to balloon out to the point where they can't move. Mario and Luigi are called in to help, but when Bowser crashes the party, a series of sitcom-like shenanigans ensue that leave Peach, the brothers, a star sprite, some toads, and some magic pipes inside Bowser's belly. The villain behind it all is Lord Fawful, whom you might remember from Superstar Saga on the Game Boy Advance. He's a resident of the neighboring Bean Bean Kingdom and has designs on a powerful artifact buried beneath Toad Town. Fawful's evil intentions for the Mushroom Kingdom see him hijack Bowser's castle and brainwash the koopa king's minions. This leads Bowser to end up playing the role of unlikely hero in the adventure. His real motive is that he wants to be the only Peach kidnapper and mayhem bringer in town, but given the circumstances, no one's really complaining.
There's plenty of Nintendo's patented good-natured humor, which deftly walks the line between genuinely funny and cheesy as you progress through the story. The storytelling is kept fresh thanks to the inclusion of some new, eccentric faces that allowed the writers to have some fun. Fawful is a chatty, ungrammatical nightmare; Starlow the star sprite is helpful but surprisingly punchy; Bowser is a self-absorbed, impatient but likable jerk; and the two French block people, one of whom is looking for the perfect massage, are as funny as they are bizarre.
As you make your way through the story, your time is divided between controlling Bowser on the top screen and directing the brothers on the bottom screen. You'll usually be able to switch active control of Bowser and the brothers by simply hitting the buttons that correspond to them. The X and Y buttons are used for anything related to Bowser's attacks, while the A and B buttons are tied to the brothers. The control system is smooth and easy to use. This ease of use is a key component to many sequences where you'll have to make Bowser engage in activities to move things around in his guts to let the brothers get by. For example, sometimes you have to direct Bowser to chug water to shift some obstacles in his innards so the brothers can slip by, or position him in front of an X-ray machine to cause certain walls to disappear.
At the start of the adventure, Mario and Luigi are confined to Bowser's insides, which are miniature worlds unto themselves. The koopa king's roomy interior is broken up into areas that correspond to the different parts of his body. Initially, the brothers will spend the bulk of their time inside Bowser acting as his support staff and helping him deal with random physical problems as they arise. For example, you'll have to guide the pair to Bowser's throat and do some work to restore his flame breath. Later in the game, the brothers serve as a medical team and get some resuscitation going when heavy things, such as castles, fall on Bowser, which happens a lot more than you'd think. One of the side benefits of the internal work the brothers do is opening up more powers and abilities for Bowser to use. However, as you get further into the game, circumstances change and the boys are able to move in and out of Bowser's guts courtesy of the magic pipes he swallowed.
The action sticks closely to the basic template that has been set in the Mario & Luigi series since the first game appeared on the Game Boy Advance, albeit with some cool DS updates. Bowser and the brothers each have a number of different unique abilities that you can unlock over the course of the adventure. The brothers' abilities are mostly team-based actions, such as standing on each other's shoulders, using an air-filled Mario, burrowing underground, or smashing Mario into miniature size, to name a few. As always, new abilities let you access different areas and find the many secrets peppered throughout the land. When in combat, you can access a different set of combo moves that make up the brothers' chuckle-worthy special attacks. One noteworthy example sees you stuffing Luigi full of pastries so that he balloons out, and then tossing him in the air so he can slam down to the ground and damage your enemies. As with normal attacks, if you time your button presses right, you can do bonus damage to your targets, which is both satisfying and key during boss fights.
When you're playing as Bowser, the action works in more or less the same way, but with a very cool twist. When you're exploring, the irritable monarch has fewer moves at his disposal than the brothers, and he's not big on subtlety. For example, when faced with an obstacle, Bowser can often stomp, slam, roll, or burn his way past it. When using Bowser in combat, you have a basic punch and flame attack, as well as a powerful breath attack that lets you inhale items or small enemies. The breath attack is handy for finding hidden block kittens spread throughout the world as well as for passing the buck in battles. When enemies are inhaled, they'll end up in Bowser's stomach, where Mario and Luigi can take them on, which makes for some interesting multipart battles. Bowser's special attacks differ from the brothers', thanks to his many minions. Each special attack uses a set of minions, such as goombas, koopas, and bob-ombs, and requires you to use the touch screen to perform the attack. Finally, Bowser has several unique combat sections in which he grows to Godzilla-like proportions. These require you to turn your DS on its side and use the touch screen and microphone to attack and to collect items. Bowser's size boost doesn't offer him too big an advantage over his enemies, though, since they're as big as he is and just about as mean. These sections offer a cool change of pace that adds to the game's already impressive amount of variety.
While the main story sends you through various locations in the Mushroom Kingdom to explore, battle, solve puzzles, and drive off Fawful, that isn't everything there is to do. One of the best aspects of the game is the variety of activities to take on. Over the course of the adventure, you have the option to solve puzzles, give massages, look for hidden items, and engage in minigames. The game's role-playing elements keep things simple and accessible. Bowser and the boys earn experience and level up as they progress. New to the leveling system is a ranking system that determines which gear you can equip on the characters and which shops you can buy gear from. Another new twist is the way that badges are implemented in battle. Badges are items you can purchase and equip on each brother, separately from gear, and they will offer a variety of effects depending on the badge combination. The only minor ding on the game's offerings is that, outside of going back to earn a secret rank, there isn't much reason to go back and replay the game once you've finished it.
On top of all this superb and varied gameplay, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story boasts a colorful and crisp art style, impressive character animation, and some whimsical audio design that's perfectly in keeping with other aspects of the game. It's a fun, accessible role-playing game for the DS that anyone with even a passing interest in the subject matter shouldn't miss.