7.2
Score

Pros

  • Great overall presentation
  • Bowser Jr.'s Journey is a standout attraction
  • Giant Bowser segments are fun when they pop up
  • Micro-improvements over the original release help the game run smoother
  • Fun characters make the story more interesting

Cons

  • Combat can take forever sometimes
  • Exploring Bowser's body doesn't feel as good as it should
  • Boss battles show the worst of the combat system
  • Repeating minigames for story reasons is the worst justification
  • Why does Bowser only have DNA in his Airway?

Final Verdict

I came for the Inside Story, and ended up staying for the strange and redemptive Journey that came later.

BOWSER JR. SAVES THE DAY

Reviewing new versions of older games can be tricky. Judging whether they’re pixel-perfect recreations of their original release, improved in some way, or hacky con-jobs is one level of complexity. A whole other layer is thrown on when that game gets significant new content. A major factor to consider is if the enhancements make the game better, or if the changes will affect consumers in some way. In many circumstances, I’d say no, most new content like this isn’t worth it. It’s content that was cut for a reason, or struggles to fit in alongside what’s already there. There are, however, exceptions to the rule – and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey is one of them.

To keep it simple: I didn’t enjoy Bowser’s Inside Story itself, but I loved the Bowser Jr.’s Journey. I’ll admit, I never played the DS original, but I went in with the belief that this game was in my wheelhouse. I like a lot of Mario games. I also love RPGs. I have nostalgic memories of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga on the GBA as a kid, and have played enough of the other Mario RPGs to have a passing familiarity. Yet, even with all the research and preparation I did, I still came away disappointed. No amount of looking stuff up can compare to the real thing.

Though Bowser’s Inside Story didn’t click with me, I still think the premise remains interesting. Bowser sucks up Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and half the Mushroom Kingdom in the middle of an investigation into a new medical phenomenon known as the Blorbs. In order for everyone to succeed, Bowser must be tricked into working on Mario and Luigi’s behalf while they seek a way out, and duping Bowser is all too easy. At every twist and turn, the usual Nintendo charm is evident and the writing remains sharp. As far as I’m concerned, the presentation of the game isn’t the problem – my complaints rest with the gameplay. 

The curse of the Blorbs.

The battle system works like a lot of turn-based RPGs, but with a Mario twist. When attacking or defending, there’s a button prompt that, when pressed at the right time, maximizes damage or dodges attacks. There are also minigame sequences for every special attack. I’ve liked this system before, but this time found it increasingly clunky as it got more complex. It often felt I was completing a checklist just to have an opportunity to do some good damage, and then repeating the steps over and over because the game considered it challenging, not because I was blowing the strategy. This feeling only amplifies in battles that involve both Bowser and the Mario Bros. – if Bowser sucks up an enemy, that whole boss fight is put on hold for Mario and Luigi to beat them up, sending the action back to Bowser when they’re done. I get what they’re going for, but switching back and forth breaks the pacing of boss fights, making the entire experience more of a slog. 

Bowser Jr.’s Journey goes out of its way to address Jr.’s bratty behavior.

Another issue I have is how the game handles exploring Bowser’s body. On the outside, Bowser travels in a regular RPG overworld, while on the inside the Mario Bros. explore the Koopa King in a series of one room areas and mini puzzle dungeons connected together by a map. Because these sections are opened as the player plays more of the game, the story often dictates which area will be next and what important features it will have, regardless of logic. Apparently Bowser’s DNA is concentrated in his Airway, and the way Mario and Luigi have to revive their host rests in his Rump Command. If the developers had made Bowser’s body like a giant dungeon that branched off into different sections, made sense anatomically and incorporated the direction of the story all at once – I would have enjoyed the game more. It just feels strange to be so confined to a map when the rest of the game is about moving around like a traditional RPG. It feels like a technical limitation that this 3DS version could have eliminated.

I came away from Bowser’s Inside Story disappointed, but feel lucky to find some solace in Bowser Jr.’s Journey. A return of a mode featured in the last 3DS Mario & Luigi remake, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, this iteration acts as a side story to the main game. Featuring a strong character arc for Jr. that goes into his need for his dad’s approval and why he acts so spoiled and petty, this somehow gets buried considering that the real draw here is the gameplay. In a complete separation from Mario & Luigi, battles take place on a grid, with formations of up to nine minions at once. Jr. stays in the back of the squad acting as the Commander, while the player must decide which minions to put in front of him for each battle. Different troops have weaknesses and strengths against one another, and there are special units whose powers can turn the tide of battle. Along the way there are also First Officers whose powers augment Jr.’s and serve as a last line of defense should all of the other minions be taken out.

The fighting itself takes place automatically similar to a Fire Emblem battle, but instead of choosing when to attack, the player must keep watch to counter the enemy’s special attacks, and know when to launch their own specials as well. Each battle consists of three to five individual fights that must be won in a gauntlet, and each area can have anywhere from five to ten or so levels – making this mode basically another RPG that can take about as long to complete as the main game itself.

Mario and his Luigi also pop up in Bowser Jr.’s Journey, but only briefly.

Though this is the second outing for this new mode, I’m already convinced that it’s a gameplay loop that can stand on its own as a new product. I had a lot of fun configuring my troop formations, keeping up with the story, and unlocking more abilities for my favorite units. The developers at AlphaDream may need to add some more meat on the bone to make a fully-featured release – more customization options, better ways to recruit new troops, perhaps even a home base to mess around with – but I can see this evolving into a digital and physical release pretty easily. They could just call it Bowser Jr.’s Minion Battles and promote it as the latest extension of the Mario franchise. I think there’s an audience for it.

It feels weird to say that Bowser Jr.’s Journey is what made this game for me, but it’s true. As an enhanced remake, Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey does well at preserving the game that already existed, tweaking it a bit, and including new content that’s meaningful and well thought-out. My problem is just that I don’t like the base game to begin with, making this kind of a mixed bag. The game looks great, and I recognize how and why others may like it as a whole, but my praise is only so limited. I think it’s kind of ironic to play an enhanced version of an older game and come away only liking the new content, but I suspect I’m one of a few people who will think this way. That’s my truth however, and I can do nothing else but stick with it.

-7.2/10

Big Head Mode: Unlocked

This review was conducted using a retail copy of the game that I purchased. It is also available digitally on the Nintendo e-shop and originally available on the Nintendo DS without Bowser Jr.’s Journey. If you’d like to contact me regarding this review or anything else, you can always do so on Twitter, or by emailing me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com