The third game in the Mario & Luigi series. I played the original DS version a long time ago as a kid, so I picked up the 3DS remake for this one to see what was different.
The big selling point of this entry is that Bowser is a playable character, and in fact the main protagonist. At the start of the game he is tricked by Fawful (the understudy of the villain from Superstar Saga) into eating everyone in the Mushroom Kingdom, forcing Mario and Luigi to work with him from within his body to fix things.
This was a really great game, much improved from Partners in Time. As I’ve said previously, I love Bowser, and getting to play as him was a wonderful power trip. He and the brothers had distinct playstyles, including in the overworld, and I loved all the bizarre levels inside Bowser’s body. It still lacks some of the things I liked about Superstar Saga (no magic :( ), but manages to be good in a different way rather than feeling like a downgrade as Partners in Time did.
I think my most pertinent criticism is that the battles still feel repetitive and easily solved. They aren’t as trivial as in the previous games (I actually lost against some bosses!), but I didn’t find myself varying my strategy much, even against the weirder bosses like Kretin. The Bro Socks accessory gives you effectively infinite uses for special abilities, so every battle is just using your strongest special attack every turn. There were a lot of bosses where I felt like I had seen everything they had to offer and figured out their patterns so well they could no longer even touch me, but I still had to chew through tons of unnecessary HP. It wasn’t nearly as bad as in Partners in Time, thank goodness, and some bosses do change their attack patterns at low health, but it was definitely still noticeable. I think the “all or nothing” approach to dodging is at fault here, as I brought up when I reviewed the first game — you’re either good at dodging and don’t engage with the strategical resource management elements at all, or you’re dead. It makes the game more of an action game with RPG elements than the other way around.
(The optional superbosses help provide a bit more challenge, but I still found them mostly trivial thanks to the KO badge, even when I fought them below the recommended level. They did at least last long enough for me to appreciate some mechanics I breezed past in the main game.)
This unfortunately extends to the overworld too, this time — midway through the game the brothers get the ability to exist Bowser and explore the main world themselves, which sounds cool but effectively means you have to explore every area twice to get everything. I didn’t mind getting to do some 3D platforming with the bros, but I think they should have committed more to certain areas being exclusive to Mario or Bowser.
Also, the new badge mechanic is utterly broken. The bros now have a meter that charges when they execute action commands correctly, and when it fills they get a special bonus that can be used as a free action. This ranges from recovering HP to doubling EXP for the battle to sextupling the damage of your next attack, all of which can be upgraded by getting stronger badges as the game progresses. It’s basically a limit break system, and a very cool one that fits well with the action mechanics! Except that in an already easy game, they’re totally overpowered. They charge so frequently that I could coast through most areas on the healing power without having to even touch my items, and the damage booster absolutely demolishes bosses if paired with a strong bro attack. I get the sense the designers had a lot of ideas they wanted to throw in, without much consideration for how they all balanced together.
Storywise, the game was very fun. Fawful is just as delightful a villain as Bowser — I loved his funny speech style and zany schemes. It’s also really interesting to have a voiced protagonist for once — in previous games, Mario and Luigi always just stood around while everyone talked around them, but Bowser is a total chatterbox. It made him a lot more involved in the story and allowed the villains to engage in much more repartee.
The graphical “improvements” provided by the remake are… mixed. I think the environments look nicer, but the character models look too realistic, and lost some of their cutesy Mario charm. In particular, the full polygon models for the kaiju battles looked terrible and caused visible lag. Pixel art is so much better, pls go back game industry.
Overall, a very good entry into the series, with lots of great Bowser content. I do have to wonder just how much of the fetishy content was intentional, though; playing this game as an adult raised a lot more eyebrows than as a child.