There's life left in the old dog yet.
The turnaround in fortunes of the Nintendo DS is truly amazing. The platform started off with a relative bang from the game-buying public and the press, but in the following months sizzled down due to a lack of killer apps and the initial interest in the PSP. It almost seemed a foregone conclusion that the DS was destined for the video game graveyard—where it would rest eternally along with the Virtual Boy, Jaguar, five million copies of E.T., and the Dreamcast.
But that didn’t happen. The DS is now one of the hottest selling systems globally, supporting killer app after killer app, and winning over gamers and the overly critical journalists. Once so dismissive of the DS, now I find myself as one of its biggest fans. And it’s easy to see why with the likes of Mario Kart DS, Meteos, Advance Wars: Duel Strike, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, and Kirby Canvas Curse. Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time is yet further validation of my newfound love for the once shat upon system.
The plot is as predictable as the sun rising in the east; the same old screaming Princess Peach needs rescuing again by our favourite moustachioed plumbers: the Mario Brothers. The slight twist being: Mario and Luigi must travel back in time to team-up with their baby counterparts in order to fend off the alien invasion and save all of Mushroom Kingdom. As clichéd as it is, the plot is still one of the funniest around; the crude humour and self-ridiculing of the “kidnapped Princess Peach needs rescuing again” plot is there, showing that the game doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Though the game makes no use of the DS microphone and only one truly gimmicky use of the touch screen, the duel screen, however, is put to excellent use. The lower screen displays the four heroes, while the top presents a very useful map. One of the issues I had with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga was the map. It was so utterly useless that it made getting lost in the open-ended world a reoccurring frustration. Partners is far more linear then its older sibling, giving off a level-like vibe. The linearity also adds structure, and smoothes out the overall flow; however, there is still plenty of scope for exploration.
An issue I have with most RPGs is the incessant random battles and the continuous need to fight to level up. A few recent releases spring to mind (I’m looking at you Dragon Quest VIII). This is usually done because of a reluctance to break from tradition, and only serves to artificially lengthen gameplay. Partners in Time is by no means an epic at 25 hours, but it knows its platform; it is a portable title meant for quick bursts of gaming. There are no cheap tricks to drag out the game and no random battles, so you choose when and if you fight.
The battles are a real-time/turn-based mixture, which keeps in line with the series. Mario, Luigi, and the babies are each controlled via a face button, and it’s with these buttons that you will defend, attack, and heal. Attack, defending, and counterattacking are akin to music rhythm games: you jump and fire in time to protect yourself and deal maximum damage. The genius being: even though the combat is simple, it does require genuine skill and quick reflexes. And though some strategy is needed, the interface is very accessible—as one expects from Nintendo titles. The only gripe I have with the combat would be that some battles last too long, and once you are used to a particular fighting technique you do tend to stick with it. (Though that’s hardly the fault of the game.)
But these are just a few smudges on an otherwise brilliant adventure. Mario can run, double jump, swim shoot fireballs, dance, play football, golf, tennis, baseball, snowboard, race karts, party, pinball, play doctor, educate, paint, and now time travel! After all of that you’d think he would have shed a few pounds, but he hasn’t. What he has done, however, is what he’s been doing for nearly 25 years: entertaining gamers young and old; redefining genres; and retaining his title as the most iconic, diverse, and loved gaming mascot. And long may it continue!