The past and future kings.
Hot on the wheels of his five millionth hit game in Mario Kart DS
, everyone's favorite overexposed, rotund plumber is at it again. This time, though, he's made sure to bring along more than a basket of magic mushrooms and a rad moustache – he's got one brother, two babies and a whole staff of comedy writers supporting his latest outing, the quirky and solid Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time
. The man never sleeps
And why should he? His games routinely kick a great deal of gaming ass, which is precisely what Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga did on the GBA last year. Partners in Time is sort of the sequel to that breakout RPG, but only in terms of design. Suffice to say, it carries on the gameplay, style and surprisingly smart humor introduced in the original while adding a few strange twists of its own.
Take, for example, the stargazing plot. Ages ago, a sinister race known as the Shroobs decided they needed a new world on which to party, and as luck would have it, the Mushroom Kingdom won the lottery. Armed with flying saucers and led by the fearless Princess Shroob, the alien invaders stormed Peach's Castle, kidnapped the princess (who cannot make it through the night without being kidnapped) and set about wreaking havoc across the land.
Mario and Co. find out about this in the present, where Professor E. Gadd (sigh) has conveniently just put the finishing touches on a time machine. Of course, Mario and Luigi pull a McFly and hurl themselves back in time. But while we know better than to mess with the past (no, thank you, Doctor Brown), the Mario brothers team up with their Baby counterparts and hop back and forth across time to put an end to this outrageous situation.
And man, outrageous is just the word for it. The writing is terrific; it's the same kind of tongue-in-cheek, self-referential fare that Nintendo pulled off wonderfully in the GBA game and the outstanding Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Your guide through the game is a suitcase named Stuffwell, who speaks like a robot abusing a Thesaurus. Classic Nintendo characters like Bowser come in and out of the story routinely, but stray from their typical scripts with odd, funny dialogue. The Hammer Bros. make an appearance, for instance, inexplicably speaking in perfectly 1337 hax0r. It's great watching Nintendo have fun with their traditional archetypes; even the most jaded gamer will crack a smile during some of the weirder bits.
The interesting team-based gameplay should at least warrant a grin. You control the four characters as two teams, wandering the land in real-time. Each face button is mapped out to control the action of a brother - A for Mario, B for Luigi, X for Baby Mario and Y for Baby Luigi. The two groups can be controlled as one by having the kids ride piggyback, or separately, a required act to solve many of the game's environment puzzles. You'll often send the babies into places the adults can't reach, like into a warp pipe to unlock a door, then switch to the adults to get through, unlock something else, and switch back. The whole setup is smart, accessible and engaging.
Making it even more so are the unique abilities of each team. The adults can perform a nifty propeller spin that can get them across wide chasms, while the babies get button-triggering hammers and drills for bypassing grates. Figuring out when to separate the teams and when to bring them together is a notable part of the gameplay, though the puzzles are categorically easy and mostly function as a break from the combat.
And you do a lot of fighting in the game, which is mostly a good thing. Reprised from the GBA game, the system is a curious mix of action and turn-based strategy. You select attacks in turn-based fashion, but can bolster their effectiveness using twitch skills. Jumping on an enemy's head does marginal damage, but pressing a button right as you land will dole out extra hurt. The system gets much more complicated when you start using the essential 'Bros. items.' You can hurl a turtle shell and bounce it back and forth between the brothers for exponential hits, provided you get the timing down. You can shoot all four brothers out of a cannon and do massive damage by nailing their landings correctly. The adults and babies augment each others attacks, and there's enough diversity here to keep your options open and the gameplay fresh throughout.
The other half of the combat is defense, which involves dodging or counterattacking by jumping or smashing things with a hammer. All enemies have a few attacks, but after a couple times you'll quickly pick up the patterns and timing. Decent gamers will likely avoid at least half of the attacks thrown their way, which is satisfying but can also result in a game that's easier than a jump to the left and a step to the right.
At least it's a marginally deep one thanks to the role-playing scheme. All four characters gain XP individually, though you can make a small adjustment to one of their five stats whenever they level up. Items can be found in the field or bought and sold at a shop, including badges and – you guessed it – pants. No fancy new hats or moustache styles, sadly, but what's there is decent enough. Pants.
Unfortunately, this cool combination of gameplay styles suffers from overly linear design. You don't do much exploring in Partners in Time, often just heading to the resoundingly obvious next segment and hacking your way through enemies until you reach a boss. It's good fun along the way, but experienced gamers will beat it into the past tense faster than you can say "flux capacitor."
It does, however, make good use of the DS. The bulk of the gameplay occurs on the bottom screen (mercifully there is very little touching involved), while the top screen acts as a handy map or inventory, occasionally even used during gameplay when the babies are exploring some hard-to-reach area. Cinematic cut scenes look great as they often span both screens.
For that matter, the whole game is delivered well. The world is brimming with color and the sprite animations are plentiful and attractive. It runs smoothly with nary a framerate hiccup, and though it doesn't take any graphical leaps, it isn't really supposed to.
The audio is a bit less exciting, mostly relegated to repetitive battle tunes and classic Nintendo-y melodies. Some overused voiceovers by the brothers grow a little annoying, but nothing that can't be overcome by sliding that little volume knob to the left. If only the funny writing extended to the limited voice acting.
But really, that's a small gripe in an otherwise great game. Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time is an exceptional blend of gaming styles filled with enough irreverent humor to please old and young alike. It could stand to be harder and less linear, but in the end this marks another winner for the mustachioed mascot.