When the Switch came out nearly two years ago, few would’ve expected that Nintendo would still be supporting the ageing 3DS with new first-party software as far as 2019, yet here we are. Picking up the ball that the Paper Mario series has long since dropped, the Mario & Luigi series of RPGs has been a celebrated mainstay of Nintendo handhelds since the GBA, and this latest release only continues that legacy of quality. Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey is an enhanced remake of the third entry in the series, and while it may not be an enormous overhaul, it definitely deserves the title of being the definitive edition of an RPG classic.
The story opens with the Mushroom Kingdom falling to a terrible epidemic where toads are stricken by the bizarre Blorbs disease that causes their bodies to bloat to incredible size. Princess Peach calls an emergency meeting of the kingdom’s leaders, and things quickly go awry when Bowser is tricked into coming onto the scene by Fawful and inadvertently sucks up everyone in the room Kirby-style – including Mario, Luigi, and Princess Peach. From this point on, the game oscillates between the perspectives of Mario & Luigi – as they explore Bowser’s innards from inside and battle all kinds of cellular life – and Bowser himself, as he endeavours to reclaim his stolen castle.
As one would expect for this series, the plot is sufficiently goofy and the writing is stuffed full of jokes and gags, seldom slowing the pace down enough for an emotional or sentimental moment. Though it may be that some of the humour can come off as a bit campy and flat, there’s something to be said about a script that nails this sort of charming and lighthearted tone; part of the incentive to progress further is just to see what other madness will unfold next. The narrative isn’t deep by any stretch, but there are plenty of hilarious twists and turns along the way that make it well worth seeing through to the end.
Bowser’s Inside Story may be an RPG at its heart, but the actual gameplay unfolds into a brilliantly well-paced buffet that melds gameplay concepts from a variety of genres. Battles are primarily turn-based, but rhythm game-esque timed inputs are the key to overcoming your foes, not grinding or putting on the best equipment. For example, when a foe attacks you the incoming strike is always telegraphed, and if you’re dexterous enough, you can completely avoid damage or even land a counterattack by a well-timed button press. The same principle applies to when you’re on the offensive; your attacks can be bolstered to do considerably more damage if you have a keen eye for precisely when to strike.
Part of the charm of this battle system is how well it balances both player skill and decision-making; each new enemy and boss encounter is like a unique puzzle that, if mastered, can make the battle a walk in the park. The more complicated Bros. Attacks – special attacks that require both brothers to participate – often introduce new input styles of their own, such as utilizing the touch screen to power up a move. It’s this constantly dynamic gameplay, the kind that demands coordination and close attention, that can make the hours melt away so quickly; you aren’t just selecting attacks from a menu and watching the characters act them out – you’re actively participating in just about every element of the fight.
As one may have inferred from the title, Bowser is very much the star of the show in this adventure; we’d wager you spend more time playing as the ne’er-do-well than you do the bros. themselves. In combat, Bowser’s actions feel slow but suitably powerful and heavy-hitting; he punches like a truck and it’s clear from the get-go that he’s not just a stand-in for Mario and Luigi. When not embroiled in the thrill of combat, the lumbering oaf explores the countryside surrounding his castle in a top-down overworld that features some subtle Metroidvania elements. Often, you’ll come across an obstacle or barrier that Bowser isn’t equipped to deal with yet, encouraging you to explore further and see what you can come across. The world isn’t exactly dense with secrets – there’s a fairly clear path forward at all times – but stepping off the path to see where a trail leads often rewards you with new equipment or some extra coins to spend on items in the shop.
Similar to Bowser’s quest through the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario & Luigi explore Bowser’s insides from a 2D side-scrolling perspective, injecting some light platforming elements into their world. The bros will swim through water in the monster’s stomach, bounce on mucus membranes like trampolines, and smack nerve endings with their hammers to open new ‘doors’ as they work to help their foe from within. Swapping between the bros. and Bowser is seamlessly done with a tap of the button, and many puzzles and battles often require everybody to put in some work. For example, Bowser can vacuum up smaller enemies in a battle and send them into his stomach, where Mario & Luigi then take the stage to finish them off. Or in other cases, Bowser needs additional strength to lift an enormous object, so Mario & Luigi go to the necessary muscle to power it up. The synergistic nature of this uneasy alliance is thoroughly explored over the course of the narrative, constantly finding new and interesting ways of iterating on the dynamic.
One especially cool way that this plays out is during a few special boss fights when the bros. cause Bowser to grow to roughly the size of Godzilla, requiring you to battle with the 3DS held sideways as he tussles with foes of titanic proportions. Here, the graphics take on a 3D (though sadly not stereoscopic) visual style, and controls are entirely handled via touch screen inputs. Although these battles are few and far between and feel somewhat gimmicky, they just go to show the kind of creativity on display throughout the whole of Bowser’s Inside Story; Alpha Dream really swung for the fences with this one.
This being a remake, Bowser’s Inside Story drops the detailed pixel art of the first few games in the series in favour of a more vibrant visual style that somewhat calls to mind the original Super Mario RPG. Though maybe a bit uninspired in their theming, environments are nonetheless diverse and detailed in how they’re presented to the player; little things like schools of fish swimming beneath the ocean’s surface or blood cells rushing past in the background of Bowser’s innards show that careful attention was paid to making the world feel lively. The lack of stereoscopic 3D is certainly a shame, especially considering that Mario & Luigi: Dream Team featured it, but this is nonetheless a gorgeous looking game that exemplifies how far a strong art style can carry a game.
Those of you who played the original game back on the DS are probably wondering what got added for this remake, and as far as the base game is concerned, not much. Aside from the expected remastered visuals and controls, various quality-of-life improvements have been brought on to keep things streamlined. Features such as the option to practice a bros. attack before spending the BP or the option to hold down the ‘R’ button at any point to speed up gameplay and cutscenes help to make the game more approachable overall; no enormous changes, just some smart nips and tucks here and there. The original game is largely untouched, then, but Alpha Dream wasn’t content to simply push out a more-or-less straight remake and call it a day.
Upon first booting the game, you’re given the option to play Bowser’s Inside Story or Bowser Jr.’s Journey, the latter being a brand-new side-campaign featuring Bowser’s bratty son. Bowser Jr.’s Journey tells a tale that runs parallel to the events of the main game, occasionally dovetailing with major plot beats, and centers around Bowser Jr.’s self-imposed quest to earn his father’s approval, dragging the Koopalings (who are basically his babysitters) along for the ride. The writing here is just as strong as in the main campaign, even featuring a few new characters and cameos, and while Bowser Jr.’s Journey is considerably shorter, it acts as an excellent companion piece that fills in backstory around certain events.
Gameplay here trades in the turn-based battling of the main game in favour of a real-time strategy simulator which is much simpler than the main game’s combat, but surprisingly deep in places. Progression is handled on a level by level basis and sees Bowser Jr. leading eight other recruits in one to three-act battles that play out live. Though all the characters are controlled by AI, player input is frequently needed when a recruit performs a special move, requiring a well-timed button input much like in the main game’s combat system. Bowser Jr. is also given a set amount of ‘CP’ every battle which let him put out orders that buff his team or debuff the other team; knowing how to read the battle and when to drop a rallying cry is critical to victory.
After each battle, all involved recruits will gain experience and a few new ones will be recruited, gradually deepening your options for team compositions. Every recruit is classed under one of three combat styles that interact with each other in a rock-paper-scissors-like fashion; melee characters beat ranged units, which beat flying units, which beat melee units. Before entering each level, you can preview the types of units that your foe will be using and tweak yours accordingly, switching out Goombas for Paratroopas as you see fit.
Though you can only take eight other units at a time, each unit must be placed in a 3×5 grid which dictates their formation when the battle starts; it’s important to factor in which units are put on the front lines and back lines. Laying out units in certain ways can also trigger special formation bonuses that boost certain stats or attack types by a certain percentage, encouraging players to constantly be experimenting with the types and positions of units.
There is clearly plenty of depth to this RTS setup, but it loses a bit of its lustre as time passes; there are issues with repetitiveness in these battles that never quite go away. Despite new enemies and allies being introduced at a brisk pace, gameplay ultimately boils down to watching them all fight and occasionally intervening when the game prompts you to. Battles can, of course, be expedited by holding the R button down, but this is merely a band-aid for a deeper problem; it’s fun to drop in and knock out levels every now and then, but continuous play grows boring rather quickly.
Even so, those of you that are taken by this alternate side-game have a decent amount of replayability to look forward to; Bowser Jr.’s Story features an in-game achievement system for hitting certain milestones, along with a bestiary of enemies, allies, and formation types that take quite a few hours to fill out. You definitely won’t spend as long on Bowser Jr.’s Journey as you will on the main game, but considering that this is a side mode that was thrown in to sweeten the deal of the remake, there’s more than enough to keep you busy for a while.