Version tested: DS
You know what? After years of resisting it, I'm going to give in. I'm done rescuing princesses and ducking Bullet Bills. I've finally embraced my inner Bowser, and I couldn't be happier. Crushing stuff underfoot, burning things with flaming breath: why was I missing out on this for so long? I may even write a self-help book on the subject.
Bowser's Inside Story (the title doesn't refer to the Mushroom Kingdom's answer to Panorama, unfortunately) isn't the first time you've been allowed to play as Mario's oddly lovable foe, but it's both the most gimmicky and the most thorough opportunity you're ever likely to enjoy. Through the course of a 20-hour narrative, you'll get to know the boss of the Koopa Troopas inside out, exploring everything from Rump Command to the Nose Deck, learning to appreciate all aspects of his tortured and rather complex personality: the constant stream of sniggering asides (it's a cry for help), his minion-motivating skills, and the way he barrels through enemies and fragile landmarks with the mildest shove of his gigantic paw.
And the truth? It feels pretty good to be Bowser, thanks. After years of picking a path carefully around threats, jumping out of harm's way, and tackling challengers mostly from above, it's a pleasure to put those cares aside and relish a few hours of spiky, tortoise-shelled power.
Mario and Luigi haven't been forgotten, of course, but they spend a large part of this surprisingly deep RPG - the sequel to Partners in Time and the GBA's luminously cuddly Superstar Saga - creeping around unmentionable locations within the rubbery inner spaces of their greatest nemesis, sparking nerve endings to life, unblocking arteries and hitting strange nodules with hammers. Inside Story retains the fairytale simplicity of the previous games' plotting, but there's a new layer of gunk-tank ickiness to proceedings that sits surprisingly well with Alphadream's more self-aware take on the Mushroom Kingdom.
It starts, rather topically, with a nasty epidemic: everyone's coming down with the blorbs, a mysterious virus that causes them to swell to five times their normal size and roll around helplessly. Mario and Luigi are called in to investigate, but before they can get to the lab and start first-stage drug trials and double-blind placebo tests, they're swallowed up by Bowser, who's been drugged with a poisoned mushroom by series regular Fawful, causing him to inhale half the local population. From deep within their old enemy's internal organs, it's up to our heroes to power Bowser back up again with some rudimentary hands-on surgery, before taking the fight to Fawful and returning everything to normal.
Granted, there aren't many game franchises which would choose to take you inside one of the cast members for a sequel - if Halo: Colon Evolved was ever kicked around at Microsoft, it must have been at the end of a very long day, in which an awful lot of red-ringed 360s got sent back to the office - but Inside Story manages to pull the whole thing off effortlessly. It builds the rather disgusting premise into a clean-lined RPG, switching back and forth between Bowser's fairly brutal approach to exploring the over-world with the unfortunate plumbers' puzzle-heavy adventures, mostly located within his body.
It's a winning blend of game styles, but the show-stopping moments come when you need to co-ordinate between the two plotlines, filling Bowser with water, say, to open free-floating doors within his intestines for Mario and Luigi to slip through, or manipulating the monster's muscles from the inside so that he can lift boulders or bust open new locations. In other words, it's Zelda: A Link to the Past with a questionable medical degree.
And although the game quickly slips into a familiar structure, alternating exploration, puzzles, and bosses, the sheer variety of Alphadream's offerings ensures that it rarely lapses into predictability. Like the previous titles, Inside Story is still a brilliant introduction to the baseline mechanics of RPGs, but it's something of a genre mutant at the same time. It flips between rhythm action elements in the game's sprightly turn-based combat - while the basic attacks and emphasis on timing remain unchanged from the past two games, specials have been greatly extended, and Bowser comes with a whole new range of moves - to anything from an unexpected riff on Ikaruga, falling block puzzles, and massive side-scrolling rumbles in which you hold the DS like a book, launching attacks by swiping the screen and blowing into the microphone.
The scenarios match the shifting mechanics at every turn. Aided by some of the best localisation in any game, the script is a comic treat, filled with blustery courtiers and a very strange block-headed Frenchman, while the plot sees you dodging creepy intestinal parasites one minute and beating up an entire castle the next. It's a game in which no narrative twist is too stupid or unlikely to be incorporated, a screwball comedy in which series clichés are wrung dry, and while it's not quite as cameo-heavy as the deliriously self-referential Superstar Saga, it still has time for some unlikely nods along the way.
Fortunately, the whole thing doesn't look as disgusting as it sounds, either. Bowser's internal system is a brightly-coloured cartoon fun-house with little to be squeamish about, filled with sparking dendrites and glockenspiel bones, patrolled throughout by swarms of quirky enemies, while the over-world is classic Mushroom Kingdom whimsy - a patchwork of creepy forests and blazing sands, home to meatier foes for Bowser to tackle. Few game series have embraced pinks and purples as thoroughly as this one, and Inside Story is perhaps the artistic high water mark - every fresh sojourn through the monster's endocrine system turning up some delightfully squishy sights, each new boss battle filled with yet more wriggly animations.
Ultimately, Inside Story reminds you that the best adventures are often a matter of trust. Alphadream's games work because you can let them take you on their bizarre, comical journeys with no fear that you'll be bored or annoyed along the way. You can trust the developer to balance an approachable RPG system without gutting too much of the complexity (if anything, tweaks made to the levelling and item management mean this is the deepest Mario & Luigi yet), and you can trust it to deliver intricate puzzles without resorting to sheer fiddliness. Traditional issues remain - the opening few hours are weighed down with too many tutorials, perhaps, and the boss fights remain slightly long-winded, too often coming clumped awkwardly together - but genuine frustrations are rare.
Superstar Saga was, very quietly, one of the best games of its generation, sadly appearing too late in the GBA's lifespan to be much more than a cherished secret. Partners in Time was similarly smart but not quite so engaging, possibly because the inclusion of the Mario babies overburdened the controls while offering too little reward for the extra hassle. That's not the case here, however: the brother's old enemy is a triumph precisely because he provides such a contrast to them: he's a bullish idiot who allows you to enjoy your blunt powers with very few limitations. Inside Story is absolutely a return to form, in other words - and, in the end, you've got Bowser to thank for that.
9 / 10