[25 October 2009]
It seems quite common that there are overall fans of a particular medium who have certain genres they’ve never quite gotten a handle on. Perhaps it’s a music fan who seems to like everything except for jazz, or a film connoisseur that doesn’t quite see the appeal of gangster movies. Personally, despite my affection for video games at large, I’ve rarely been swept off my feet by a traditional RPG. I never really had the attention span for any Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest titles. Even games like Fallout 3 and Knights of the Old Republic, games that attempt to hide the tabletop RPG-inspired elements of chance under the hood, didn’t quite grab me. Sometimes I’ve wondered if it’s even the gameplay mechanics of these kinds of titles that keep me away. Perhaps it might be that such titles are almost always set in some grim future or fantastical past, neither of which generally hold much interest for me.
Really, the first RPG I fell for was Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga for the GBA. While Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the SNES and Paper Mario for the N64 preceded it by some time, it was Superstar Saga that finally hooked me enough to play an RPG, any RPG, beginning to end. Somehow, populating an RPG with characters I’d grown up with in addition to smart simplifications to leveling systems and a complete disregard for character classes made the title intriguing enough for me to start and enjoyable enough to finish. By bridging a light RPG experience with graphics and sound that belong in a platform game, these titles games seem to have been designed to be remarkably approachable. As a whole, the Mario RPGs are so much more consistently enjoyable then it seems that they should have any right to be. With the possible exception of Mario Kart, they arguably represent the most successful presentation of the Mario cast of characters outside the context of a traditional platformer.
Bowser’s Inside Story is a logical progression of the framework demonstrated by Superstar Saga and Partners In Time, but it also represents another step in the characterization of Bowser. It’s been quite some time in the Mario universe since Bowser has actually been a threatening figure. He has clearly been subjected to a softening that has not been thrust upon Ganon, Ridley, or any villains from other Nintendo franchises. Rather, these days, he’s bumbling and lovable, if ill-intentioned. His quest in this game, then, really has little to do with some desire to kidnap the princess. Rather, he’s simply trying to save his own castle and get his minions back from a new threat. As much as is possible in this cartoony world, it’s difficult not to sympathize with him.
The game has a split presentation. The mechanics of Bowser’s adventure are very similar to those of previous Mario RPGs. Mario and Luigi, however, have been sucked inside of Boswer and must explore his internals. The camera inside Bowser presents Mario and Luigi from a two-dimensional perspective, so although their portions of the game are not quite platform adventures, they sometimes feel as though they are. But what keeps the two games from being entirely separate are the many situations in which one side must help the other. Bowser might need to chug water in order to raise a barrier in his stomach that the brothers can swim under. Similarly, Mario and Luigi might have to stimulate Bowser’s arm muscles in order to allow him to pick up something extraordinarily heavy.
In my estimation, the two most important elements of a Mario RPG are the combat mechanics and the script, and Bowser’s Inside Story does not disappoint on either count. As far as combat goes, it smartly sticks with the quasi turn-based mechanic of its forebears. By allowing the attacking player an opportunity for additional damage with good timing and the defending player the ability to either evade completely or counterattack an incoming threat, combat essentially becomes something resembling an action rhythm game as opposed to a more traditional RPG combat style of war of attrition. As such, each battle even against enemy types that you’ve faced previously can be quite rewarding. It becomes less a matter of having the right equipment to beat a particular class of enemies and more a function of how much you’ve learned from previous encounters with them. To be fair, enemies with large amounts of hit points can be tedious, since the battle simply becomes about performing the same evasion and attack over and over again until they’ve finally been worn down. But this is certainly forgivable. As has been true for Mario RPG titles since the beginning, the script is extremely smart and funny and rife with in-jokes and silliness. The main antagonist Lord Fawful in particular is entertaining whenever he’s on screen.
It will be interesting to see where Nintendo chooses to go from here. I don’t believe that the series is in need of any kind of reinvention so long as we aren’t exposed to titles like this too frequently. These games seem to indicate a solid framework around which which new adventures can simply be periodically released, arguably Nintendo’s biggest strength. If the charm, cast of characters, sense of humor, and streamlined mechanics of Mario’s previous RPG outings didn’t appeal to you, Bowser’s Inside Story likely won’t either. But for series fans, it’s another incredibly solid entry. For those that like me largely avoid RPGs, and have never experienced the unique Mario take on them, Bowser’s Inside Story is an excellent place to start.