Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey (3DS) Review
Revisiting one of your favourite games of all time is fraught with danger; will it be as good as you remember, or will age cut through nostalgia-tinted glasses to diminish what was a fondly-held memory? First released on the original Nintendo DS, Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is the third in the Mario & Luigi RPG series, and the one I consider to be the unmatched pinnacle of the saga. Imagine my relief when I realised the 3DS remix of Bowser’s Inside Story is every bit as good as my memory recollects.
Unlike many Mario games, Bowser’s Inside Story begins with a crisis before Bowser rears his horned head, instead of the usual calm before the inevitable firestorm. Here, the Toads of the Mushroom Kingdom have been afflicted by a mysterious illness known as the “blorbs”, causing those affected to swell to comically large proportions, rendering them immobile. As a result, Princess Peach calls for an emergency conference to discuss a potential cure for the blorbs. Bowser arrives midway through the conference, incensed that he wasn’t invited, but is quickly defeated by Mario and Luigi, blasting the Koopa King into a nearby forest. Keen to atone for his defeat, Bowser eats a strange mushroom offered by a cloaked figure familiar to fans of the Mario & Luigi series, which causes him to violently inhale everything in his path. Upon returning to Princess Peach’s castle, Bowser unknowingly inhales its occupants, including Mario, Luigi and Peach, who are then trapped inside Bowser. What follows is a plot that threatens the safety of the Mushroom Kingdom as well as Bowser’s domain.
Due to the bizarre premise, you get to play as both the Mario Bros. and Bowser interchangeably, which offers a great amount of gameplay variety throughout the trio’s unlikely adventure. After a relatively brief introductory period, you’re able to switch between the duo and Bowser at will and explore their surrounding environments en route to reclaiming their homelands. While inside Bowser, the Mario Bros.’ sections play out in 2D-sidescrolling form, jumping around and using various abilities to solve puzzles in their quest to escape Bowser. With Bowser, you explore a sort of 3D-isometric landscape, punching and breathing fire to break obstacles and initiate battles with enemies. Each character has a face button assigned to their actions; Mario uses “A”, Luigi “B”, while Bowser adopts both “X” and “Y”, and the shoulder buttons cycle through different actions as they learn new abilities to use in the field. For the most part, each 3DS screen represents the two teams; Bowser’s action takes place on the top screen, while the Mario Bros. are relegated to the bottom screen – a very literal representation of being stuck in the pit of Bowser’s insides.
Bowser’s Inside Story contains many clever environmental puzzles that require clever use of each character’s abilities, including moments where all three characters need to work in tandem to solve a dilemma. For example, Bowser – in his boneheaded stubbornness – attempts to lift an object much heavier than he is capable of moving. While doing this, an area of Bowser’s anatomy flashes via an overview map to indicate Mario and Luigi can navigate to and assist by stimulating Bowser’s muscles through a mini-game, giving their host the temporary strength to succeed in his action. Another hilarious moment is when Bowser needs to guzzle water from a hydrant to flood his insides so Mario and Luigi can swim to previously inaccessible heights, but then Bowser needs to stop drinking so the duo can navigate past an obstacle that floated up with the water. This requires you to regularly switch control between the Bowser and the Bros. (which sounds like a great alt-rock band name) to change the water level, move through Bowser’s body, change the water level again and so on – the animation of Bowser gulping down water from a spraying hydrant is a goofily funny sight. These scenarios sound utterly ridiculous, because they absolutely are, in a way that only a Mario game could do to such great and humorous effect.
Like previous entries in the series, Bowser’s Inside Story’s battles are highly interactive encounters, and, thankfully, not random-chance – you can clearly see all enemies while exploring and can choose to engage at your leisure while scoring that all-important first strike. Battles are turn-based, with each character and enemy trading barbs one after the other while you maintain a strong sense of control regardless of whose turn it is. The face buttons controlling each character remain in place here, with each mapped to a different command as the battle requires. In addition to the standard RPG commands of using items or fleeing, you can also view guides at any time to see a detailed breakdown of all attacks and counters at your disposal. As the Mario Bros., you choose between attacking with a jump, hammer or using a powerful Bros. Attack that consumes Bro Points (BP) for each use. Each attack requires timing various button presses correctly to deal the most damage, triggering the satisfying “Excellent!” feedback in all its flashy glory. During opponents’ turns, you’ll be able to dodge or counter depending on the nature of their attack. The extra level of interactivity and dexterity required in Mario & Luigi’s combat makes for much more engaging fights than many other RPGs, and Bowser’s Inside Story does this the best thanks largely to the addition of the title’s unlikely anti-hero.
Bowser adds another welcome layer to combat, requiring the use of both “X” and “Y” for punches and fire breath respectively – the latter of which changes to ducking and using his spiked shell for cover during enemy attacks. The big, beefy boy feels satisfyingly heavy to control, with each movement and attack feeling distinct from the more limber Mario Bros.
Additionally, Bowser’s version of Bro Attacks, “Brawl Attacks”, cleverly use the touch screen to power up his recruited minions for mega damage. Continuing with the uneasy alliance, Bowser eventually learns how to control his inhalation power, letting him engulf smaller enemies, where the perspective switches to the bottom screen and Mario and Luigi fight the newly-digested foe. While battles are largely separate between the two teams, these occasional tag-team moments provide a clever bit of strategy and another dimension to combat.
Particularly when countering foes, Bowser’s options feel even more dynamic than that of the Mario Bros. This is because the moustachioed duo is automatically assigned to jump or swing their hammers on a button press depending on what attack comes their way. Conversely, Bowser forces you to choose between punching or ducking, and it is rarely immediately obvious which you should do, with some encounters requiring a mix of both to successfully counter. Every enemy produces a subtle tell before each attack, which indicates what attack they’re about to launch and how you should respond. Early on, these tells are relatively obvious, such as an enemy’s eyes looking up or down to indicate whether they’re going high or low. However, these tells become increasingly clever, forcing you to memorise what each indication means, lest you see the game over screen over and over again.
Although it may appear there are many systems at play in Bowser’s Inside Story – without even going into the levelling up and gear system – there are plenty of great difficulty modifiers so players of all ages and skill levels can enjoy this colourful adventure. Some of the settings include power-increasing Easy Mode, plus other tweaks that make timing attacks easier and enemy movements easier to predict.
Bowser’s Inside Story looks fantastic on the 3DS, receiving a facelift from the original DS visuals to give characters and environments more of a fleshed-out 3D look that really pops. These new graphics and shader effects give the characters a lovely smooth animation that occasionally looks similar to claymation, especially the Mario Bros. while exploring Bowser’s innards. As is the base standard for all Mario games, Bowser’s Inside Story’s colour palette is gorgeous, with many varied areas and characters capturing a dazzling mix of light and dark. Plus, far from being the gross entity, one might expect, Bowser’s insides are quite homely, with the inhaled Toads opening up shop replete with neon signs and cosy furnishings – Bowser sure inhaled a lot of weird stuff! There’s even a Toad who charges coins to drink some weird bodily fluid he found that apparently heals HP and BP, in some shady black market-type scheme he’s got going on. Perhaps this is created from the face-of-KFC-candidate Bowser eating his HP and BP-restoring fried chicken and cheese? There’s also a bunch of delightfully strange antibody-type residents that make silly references to anatomy and speak with a verbal tic constantly adding “globin” to their sentences.
Many of Nintendo’s localisations do a fantastic job of translating the humour to western audiences, and Bowser’s Inside Story continues this strong trend. The writing is consistently funny, especially Bowser’s man-child antics, and the incoherent babbling sounds the Mario Bros. communicate in while everyone else speaks in clearly-written text boxes. Bowser’s Inside Story is packed with wit and snarky characters piling on the giggles – usually at Luigi’s expense. The way Green Mario brushes off each barb is further proof why he is objectively the best Mario Bro. Additionally, there is such attention to detail given in every scene and encounter which can be easy to miss if you breeze through the interactions, including facial expressions and characters dozing or looking bored during conversations.
New to the 3DS release of Bowser’s Inside Story is the side-game Bowser Jr.’s Journey, a tactical auto-battler that sees Bowser’s son take off alongside the Koopalings to cure their Goomba army of their own blorbs affliction. Prior to battles, you can swap out Bowser Jr.’s mini army with various minions including Goombas, Koopas, Boos and so on. Each battle sees you take on several waves of enemies, and achieving victory lets you progress to the next battle via the menu. The classic combat triangle adopted by many games is in play here; air beats ground, ground beats ranged, and ranged beats air. Along the way, you’ll recruit different units such as the ground-based Goombas, the ranged Shy Guys, and the flying Paratroopas, where victory will largely hinge on the unit selection screen. During battle, you’ll occasionally be able to press a button to time a special attack, but it’s otherwise predominantly automatic. There’s something about Bowser Jr.’s Journey that feels like a Nintendo mobile game; it’s well-made and a welcome addition to the package, but it’s only a small morsel alongside the meaty serving of Bowser’s Inside Story. There are funny moments with Bowser Jr.’s bratty antics, but I could only play the secondary mode for short bursts before wanting to move on to something else.
One thing I didn’t expect to experience while playing the refreshed version of Bowser’s Inside Story was a renewed appreciation for the 3DS as a platform. Since the Nintendo Switch’s launch, I’ve neglected my New Nintendo 3DS XL in favour of the form factor and TV capabilities of the Switch. I’ve either bought and not played, or simply overlooked several very good 3DS titles since 2017 because of the wealth of content on the Switch. However, in dedicating time to playing Bowser’s Inside Story, I realised that this game would simply not have been possible on the Switch, or any other platform for that matter. The clever use of the two screens and the unique feel of the 3DS are an integral core of the game’s experience. I was among the many who dismissed the remake’s announcement, lamenting the fact it was not going to be on the Switch, therefore not worth my time. I was phenomenally wrong. This 3DS version of Bowser’s Inside Story is the definitive edition of the game.
Bowser’s Inside Story is a colourful, innovative and witty RPG adventure with a thoroughly engaging combat system; one of the best Nintendo DS games is now one of the best Nintendo 3DS games. Bowser Jr.’s Journey is a welcome – if light – addition to the package. However, most importantly, the main game remains the ultimate Mario & Luigi experience for many more reasons than introducing us to Bowser’s love of fried chicken and cheese.
+ Bowser's inclusion elevates Mario & Luigi's already engaging combat to another level
+ Gorgeous visual facelift
+ Consistent humour and wit
+ Fantastic use of the dual screens for puzzles and combat
- Bowser Jr.'s Journey is totally okay, but merely a sideshow to the main game