Two Mario releases in just one month?! January certainly has been kind to fans of Nintendo's moustachioed poster boy as it has welcomed in the release of New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe and a remake of Bowser's Inside Story. The latter has been repackaged with glossier visuals and an all-new tactics-based story segment that sees Bowser's heir, Bowser Jr, take the spotlight. This quirky entry marked the pinnacle of the series back in 2009 when it released on the DS, but after all this time does it still hold up, or have the years left it feeling a little hard to stomach?
Bowser's Inside Story starts as a curious illness known as the blorbs is sweeping the Mushroom Kingdom and causing the unfortunate to comically swell up and balloon in size. Panic-stricken, Princess Peach holds a town meeting but it's not long before Bowser crashes the party and is promptly sent on his way by Mario and Luigi. An enraged Bowser foolishly devours a mushroom handed to him by a shady-looking merchant, which causes him to uncontrollably inhale everything in his path (including our friends in the Mushroom Kingdom who miraculously fit inside him). It is soon revealed that this was all the handiwork of an evil genius known as Fawfal and it's up to Bowser and the bros to grudgingly team together to rid the kingdom of this new threat.
Like previous Mario & Luigi adventures, Partners in Time and Superstar Saga, the third instalment features a mix of platforming, puzzle solving and turn-based combat. You control both bros in tandem with the A button commanding Mario and the B button for Luigi and there are overworld segments where you can press X to switch over to Bowser. Battles here are structured on timing as tapping the action button at the right time will enable you to land extra hits and counter attacks. There are even special bro moves that are inspired from the main platforming series that transition surprisingly well to an RPG format such as kicking green shells and using scorching fire flowers.
Bowser's Nose Deck and Flame Pipe and other bodily regions make for explorable regions unlike anything we have seen before in the Mushroom Kingdom and it was intriguing to see what the green beast had swallowed up during his tantrum. It's not just a fresh coat of paint that this concept provides as it also makes for some great moments between all three characters that really take advantage of the dual screens of the 3DS. In one early section, Bowser chugs flowing water from a fountain which causes his body to fill up and allows the Bros to swim to higher levels. There's even a special move where Bowser inhales smaller enemies allowing the bros to take over the battle on his behalf.
Besides a few subtle tweaks, the updated visuals are the most significant change made to Bowser's Inside Story and we couldn't help but feel conflicted by them. We felt that the DS original had a lot more charm within its cartoony pixelated style and this look we feel would age more gracefully just as Super Mario World for the SNES has, for example. The new look does have more of cinematic flair to it though and moments like watching a blob-infected toad toppled through a bedroom wall never looked as sharp or detailed. As the title is already playable on the 3DS via backwards compatibility we wish that there was more than just a visual change to warrant a purchase. Some extra content such as new enemies or new equipable gear would have helped to sweeten the deal.
Bowser Jr's Journey unfolds alongside the main story and sees the bashful young turtle assume the role of leader in the absence of his father. It differs from Bowser's Inside Story as it features tactical squad-based combat, where strategically placing your troops and matching type advantages will lead you to victory. You are able to assemble a team of up to nine minions and these are comprised of three different types: flying, melee, and ranged. The type advantages and weaknesses are simple to grasp (there's a handy triangle to refer to) and reminded us largely of the rock/paper/scissors combat style of the Pokémon series.
Battles typically last three to four rounds and are won after you defeat the opposing team's captain (you lose too if Bowser Jr is knocked out). You don't have direct control over your minions but instead, you'll have to respond to timed prompts and use Bowser Jr's CP points for special moves. There's a wide range of troops from lakitus to spikeys and paragoombas and each come with their own stat profiles and distinctive attacks. There's also different formations you can place your troops in for bonuses and there's stat boosts you can receive depending on which character you've selected as your First Officer. Planning is essential here though, as once you're out on the battlefield there's no changing these aspects and you're pretty much left to watch things unfold.
What hurts this mini-episode the most is its pacing. Unlike the core game, there are no open world segments so you'll find yourself trudging from battle to battle with just the odd story content sprinkled in. We should add though, that the writing here is top notch and is on par with the core game but the action can feel awfully repetitive and we found ourselves having to put down our 3DS after just a few battles at a time. Locations you will be battling in are also taken straight from the main Bowser overworld sections. It's understandable why the devs opted for this as both stories are happening at the same time, but if you are coming to this right off the back of the main adventure you may start to crave a change of scenery.
Bowser's Inside Story still holds up a decade later as one of the finest spin-offs in the Mario universe but we couldn't help but long for more with this remaster. The updated visuals we found a little hit and miss and we felt nothing of significance had been implemented to the core experience. Bowser Jr's Journey we found to make an interesting contrast with a more tactical style of combat but it suffered from repetition and pacing issues due to its lack of gameplay variety. With the original being available on the 3DS already due to backwards compatibility it makes this one tough to recommend, especially if you've already made the plunge.