Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey Review — A Classic RPG with an Enjoyable Add-On
Everything fun from Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story gets a facelift, but what's new might not be special enough for another purchase.
With every Mario RPG game comes its own unique gimmick, and Bowser’s Inside Story perhaps has one of the most memorable. Enhanced for the Nintendo 3DS, Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story encapsulates some of the best this subseries has to offer: a colorful art style, joyous music, quirky humor, sharp writing, a fun “other” character in Bowser, and a relatively intuitive timing-based battle system. All of this remains intact in this fun package—even if the new Bowser Jr.’s Journey add-on somewhat falters.
It’s a package that is absolutely worthwhile for young ones who missed out on the game nearly ten(!) years ago. However, veterans such as myself may instead question why we’ve received this new edition in lieu of something brand-new to take this subseries forward. Mario & Luigi may not be the most popular RPG series, but those who love it really love it—which is why it seems unfortunate that it appears to be treading water. The fundamentals are still there, and it’s probably fun as you remember it—but you’ve likely already decided whether you want to double dip or not.
The gimmick in Bowser’s Inside Story is that Koopa King himself—due to the machinations of the fan favorite Fawful from Superstar Saga, Bowser has ended up inhaling a bulk of the occupants in Peach’s castle. With this mass distraction, Fawful makes a power grab, and Mario and Luigi, who are now inside Bowser, must form an uneasy alliance with their archnemesis in admittedly creative ways.
Again, it’s a premise lifted directly from a 2009 DS game, but it still works. After the first entry, each title in the Mario & Luigi RPG series has been a different version of “Mario and Luigi team up with blank,” and Bowser has remained the most effective blank of them all. Players will switch between the brothers on the bottom screen, navigating 2D space like the classic platform sidescrollers, while Bowser is on the top screen in full 3D space. What happens on one side will affect the other, with generally fun results.
Meanwhile, back at Bowser Castle, Bowser Jr.’s Journey follows Bowser’s offspring in his own parallel adventure. Misled by Fawful’s minions, Bowser Jr. goes on a fool’s quest of sorts, leading the classic Koopalings to guide and essentially babysit the heir to their boss’s throne. It’s a rare chance to actually experience the voices (narrative, not literal) of these characters, with a rare look into their dynamics and relationships in the short cutscenes in between. The gameplay, however, is completely different from the base Bowser’s Inside Story game.
I’m unfamiliar with the remake of Superstar Saga for the 3DS, but it is my understanding that that version had a similar gameplay mode to Bowser Jr.’s Journey. Rather than the turn-based RPG battle system of usual Mario RPG fare, Journey plays more like a simplified real-time strategy. Players will put together a formation of minions, with Bowser Jr. as the captain, fighting off opposing groups of minions in mostly autonomous battles.
With three different units (melee, throwing, and flying), it’s essentially rock-paper-scissors. Between levels, the game tells the player what enemy units they’ll be up against, down to the very formation they’re in, allowing them to make a formation to counter it. Minions will occasionally have special moves, which will require the timed button presses familiar from the base game. The first couple of worlds are a slog, with an onslaught of tutorials from the Koopalings, and having little control over the gameplay save for some commands (i.e. denying enemy special moves or rallying your troops) was frustrating.
Unexpectedly, I became invested by this side-mode. Again, simple rock-paper-scissors rules, but as I gathered more minions and the enemies became more difficult to ward off, the gears began to turn in my head. What would be the best way to optimize the troops I had at my disposal? How could I use certain formations and shapes to my advantage? Which minions are worth leveling up? Which Koopalings should I swap in for which, due to their passive abilities? It doesn’t make for its own exceptional standalone game, but it isn’t dead weight pulling the game down.
As for the base game: have you ever played a Mario turn-based RPG? Bowser’s Inside Story is more of that.
Gun to my head, I probably couldn’t tell one what all of the gameplay changes from DS to 3DS Bowser’s Inside Story received—it’s been ten years since I’ve played the last one. Granted, I don’t think any fans are devoted enough to be able to tell the subtle differences, but one thing I can definitely say is that the battle system’s simplicity and the feedback it provides through visuals and sound still feels quite satisfying. Whether there have been refinements or not, the Mario & Luigi method of gameplay still works to this day.
Playing through the base game’s story provoked a unique sense of deja vu—everything felt vaguely familiar, and I was able to piece together scattered memories of myself playing the original DS game. There were times where I questioned whether a minor gameplay feature (i.e. making both brothers jump with the Y button) was new or something I had just forgotten in the past literal decade. I do miss the old sprites, however, with the new lighting and texture changes in the 3DS games not having the same color and pop that the GBA and DS games had.
There are thrilling moments to be had—sequences that require quick switching and involve a lot of cause and effect between Bowser and the brothers are genuinely exciting, and portions with a giant Bowser fighting a mechanized castle, controlled with the 3DS on its side, provides an epic feeling unusual to Mario games. Mario & Luigi hasn’t gone too far since the original release of this game for Bowser’s Inside Story to now feel outdated, but in the age of the Switch, and the expectation of evolution at some point, I question the lasting power of this new release.
If you’ve never played the original and you still get some utility out of your 3DS, Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey is an easy recommendation. I imagine that this would be a small audience, but surely there are young’uns out there who have not experienced the wit and humor that this game has to offer. Ten years later, and I still grin every time Fawful says some variation of “I HAVE CHORTLES!” Moreso than any other modern Mario game, it adds a lot of personality to these otherwise silent and stock characters.
But as I mentioned at the top, if you’ve already played the original, you’ve likely already made your decision on purchasing or skipping. It’s a fun ten-year-old game, but it’s still a ten-year-old game.