Space, it turns out, was not to be Mario's final frontier. Super Mario Galaxy 2 will no doubt offer players the chance to explore on uncharted planets, each with their own idiosyncratic colours and creatures and gravities. But it will be a case of extending our reach into the known universe rather than delving into a new dimension. By contrast, Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story breaks new territory, offering the chance to literally get under Mario's arch-enemy's skin and, for the first time, take to inner-space.
Here Bowser's veins and arteries are the winding roads along which the plumbers travel. His organs are the boss-fights, his stomach lining the backdrop. But contrary to what you might expect, this isn't a quest to take down Mario's spiked nemesis from within. Rather, you must help Bowser overcome challenges in the outer world by stimulating muscles and latent ability from within. Mario and Luigi act as inverse parasites whose influence on their host body is critical to his success.
But the pair's microscopic toil is hardly philanthropic. Mario and Luigi have been, rather obviously, ingested against their will and their overarching quest is to somehow make their way out of Bowser's body (we can count six possible exit points…). So rather than acting like the foreign bodies that they are, they work alongside Bowser on their quest, his continued well-being key to their survival, their usefulness also key to evading his cleansing antibodies.
So when Bowser's thrown a rope by a Frenchman stranded on an island and asked to haul the very ground back towards the mainland so he can get off, Mario and Luigi's job is, via a simple mini-game, to stimulate his arm muscles, powering up Bowser's strength to the task at hand as they work to pull their friend close while keeping their enemy closer.
The form and function of this, the third entry to the Mario and Luigi RPG series (as its known in Japan), will be familiar to players who enjoyed forebears Partners in Time and Superstar Saga. It would be churlish to describe the series as a Fisher Price RPG as its mechanics are surprisingly deep and its ambition different to the typical number-crunching grind of a traditional JRPG. Rather, you move through environments as in a side-scrolling platform game. Battles with enemies switch to a turn-based JRPG-style affair, albeit one that emphasizes timing and action over long-haul tactics and strategy.
Ever since SNES title Super Mario RPG (developed by the formative JRPG developer, Squaresoft) Mario's role-playing outings have sequentially devolved from the linear epic usually associated with the genre. Bowser's Inside Story is perhaps the most fragmented title in the niche yet, switching play between Mario, Luigi and Bowser himself (two distinct sections of the game that play quite differently). There are two suites of high-score challenge mini-games that isolate elements of the battle-system and test your proficiency at them.