This weekend, after dropping off my daughter for ballet class, I took a seat on a bench outside the studio alongside the dancers' parents and siblings and began playing Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story on my Nintendo DSi. About ten minutes into it I realized that a quartet of my benchmates-two tween boys on one side and a girl and her mom on the other-were leaning over both of my shoulders staring intently at the game.
Such is the power of Nintendo's iconic plumber (and his only slightly lesser known bro).
Mario's ability to captivate people of all ages and both genders is second to none, and rightly so. The games in which he and his crew-Luigi, Princess Peach, Toad, and the rest-have appeared have been delighting players with their innocuous yet utterly compelling mechanics for decades, and this latest entry is one of the best yet.
The third edition in the Mario & Luigi series, Bowser's Inside Story sees the bros' spiky-shelled arch nemesis inhaling the duo (along with Princess Peach and the rest of Mushroom Kingdom's royal court) at the outset. Once inside the enormous turtle, Mario and Luigi travel around his innards, visiting such locations as the Nose Deck, Trash Pit, and, my personal favourite, Rump Command, battling parasites and Bowser's immune system alike as they try to track down Peach and escape their organic prison.
For the first time in the series players can also control Bowser as he tries to save his castle from the colourful Lord Fawful, the franchise's true villain and frequent orator of disconcerting yet memorable monologues (example: "Bowser will visit the crying room soon, and the crying will be like a savory soda for my soul").
Bowser plays much like the bros. He has a collection of distinctive abilities (such as burning down trees and punching rocks to dust), but battles feel very similar. During Bowser's turn players select actions-such as flame breath, vacuum inhale, or flee-from a carousel. When play flips to enemies, we try to discern how they will attack and take appropriate defensive measures by, say, making Bowser cower under his shell or punch whatever is coming his way.
Players can switch between Bowser and the bros at will, and there are plenty of junctures at which the action in Bowser's macro world intersects with play in the bros' micro realm.
For example, Bowser might need some strength to push something over, at which point we jump down to the bros on the lower screen, lead them to Bowser's arm, and start stimulating it by whacking electrical signals at his nerves.
After softening up opponents in battle Bowser might then inhale them, which will send the baddies down to Mario and Luigi who will use their own signature attacks-hammers and turtle shells-to finish them off.
If Bowser needs to eat something really big, the bros might help him by breaking apart the chunks as they arrive in his stomach and tapping enzymes that make the food digest more quickly.
If Bowser drinks a lot of water, his guts fill up, allowing Mario and Luigi to swim to areas of his body previously innaccessible.
You get the idea. It's a constant stream of diverse, clever, and unexpected scenarios. I'm about a dozen hours in (and only about half-finished, it would appear), and my attention has never wavered. The only reason I've ended each of my play sessions is because of outside circumstances-like, say, my daughter exiting her ballet class.
While she was still twirling and jumping I'd struck up a conversation with the kids and the mom on the bench, all of whom were eager to talk about Mario. He's like the Beatles of the interactive world-it seems everyone knows him, loves him, and has a story to share about time spent enjoying his work. Inevitably, we got to chatting about our favourite Mario titles. The brothers said-almost in unison-theirs was Super Mario Galaxy. The mom had fond memories of Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo64, while her daughter professed affection for New Super Mario Bros. for the DS.
The girl asked what my favourite was. Oddly, I was stumped. It seems every time I begin playing a new Mario game it becomes my favourite, only to be usurped by his next adventure. Not surprisingly, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story feels like the best of the mustachioed plumber's games to date.
It probably won't enjoy its reign at the top for long, though. New Super Mario Bros. Wii is slated to be released in just a couple of short months, and that one appeals to the old school gamer in me like no other Mario title has in years.
It's good to be a Mario fan this fall.
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