Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time
Posted by D on March 2, 2006
Right as I was saying there will be reviews and whatnot here.
This is a Nintendo DS game unsuprisingly featuring the ubiquitous Mario and his brother Luigi. Except it’s not just the normal pair there is baby mario and baby luigi to shepherd and marshal too. I fully expect the next sequel to also feature an elderly Mario elderly Luigi and to be some manner of 3-way, zimmer-frame racing simulator, 3D platform game and RPG combo. One can only hope.
I’ll gladly come clean now and say that I enjoyed playing this game and I’d even go so far as to challenge anyone not to enjoy playing it. Yet I could not help but feel cheated and disappointed once I came to the game’s resolution (more on that later). Nonetheless, there are many things that are great and glorious about this game. Upon loading, the graphics and music that greet you are well within the cartoon, cutesy standard that you’d expect from the Mario genre. I’m ever the sucker for a repetitive, cutesy melody so I’m happy to be absorbed by any game’s melodies. I’d even go so far as to admit to whistling along for almost the entire duration of the game play, something which I’m sure my housemates especially appreciated.
Starting the game introduces us to Mario and Luigi who appear to be needlesly hanging around Peach’s Castle, I imagine that Mario is still after some of that sweet, sweet princess action, who can blame him, who hasn’t seen those racy pictures on the internet. After some random plot about a time machine we reasonably quickly get to fighting the first monster which initially appears to be little else than your standard turn based, menu driven combat not entirely dissimilar to the Final Fantasy series (less the time bars). So far so good nothing especially interesting, a little more plot and then we’re sent packing back in time to rescue Princess Peach (time machine tribulations you see).
With the first main area of the game gives a good idea of design sensibilities whereby each region of the game is more or less modelled after the various regions from within the other Mario games. So expect to see desert regions, Bowser’s castle and thwumps everywhere. Like many games these days, this first region also acts by way of a tutorial, introducing the combat and how to navigate the world. By this point, with the exception of the Mario theme, there is almost nothing that makes this game stand out from any other RPG out there. So it’s a relief that at the end of this region, when come across baby Mario and baby Luigi, the game transcends its mundane, so-so RPG beginings.
Once you have the babies on board, the combat system that the game utilises really comes into its own. The game’s interface is simple and intuitive, of the four main buttons (A,B,X,Y) on the DS each one controls a seperate character, when it’s that character’s turn you use their button. The button selects that character’s menu items and performs their moves. Sounds simple. And for the most part it is. Things start to get challenging, and pleasingly so, when you start adding the special moves or combat items into the fray. Take the green shell, selecting to use it in combat with Mario makes him kick it at your enemy doing a small amount of damage, as it rebounds Luigi gets a chance to kick it back at your enemy. Get the timing right and you can keep kicking the shell back and forth between Mario and Luigi, causing more and more damage but the shell gets faster and faster making this simple trick increasingly difficult to perform. Done correctly this is exceedingly satisfying, the timings feel natural and the graphics, sounds and immediacy of the interface reinforce the timings and make it fun to learn and perform these moves. With the addition of the babies one of the babies will climb onto the shell and when the shell gets to your enemy you can press that babies’ button to dish out more damage, at the expense of more tricky button pressing. This pressing the correct character’s button at the right time while everything gets faster and faster is the core mechanism for how all the combat items function. Some are easy to marshall and some are difficult but all are fun and satisfying. That these timings feel so right and that the interface is simple and feels like it is actually responding to what you’re telling it is what makes the game so fun to play.
Another aspect to the combat and one that I’m not too sure of is that you can avoid taken damage and even dish out some more when you are being attacked. If a monster attacks one of your characters pressing that character’s button with the correct timing can avoid the attack. Get the timing spot on and you’ll even cause the monster some extra damage. As fun as this is I think this poses a huge problem for the game as it makes a huge amount of the combat unnecessarly easy. The combat is fun and a great departure from just selecting options from menus but I really don’t think there was any need to make it so easy.
The issue of game difficulty is a tricky one here. To a point the difficulty curve of your subsequent battles is well designed, you never meet a monster that is suddenly much, much harder to kill than you’re capable of. On one hand this is a good thing, I never have to hang around in an area with high experience point monsters so that I can level grind for 3 hours just so that I can (finally) kill the next boss. I really, really appreciate that, in fact pointless level grinding is my biggest bugbear in RPG games. It doesn’t just add nothing it actively detracts from the gameplay experience. If I wanted to perform dull repetitive tasks I’d get a job on an assembly line. it’s an annoying and exceedingly cheap way to make your game last longer. Yes, I’m looking at you Final Fantasy. On the other hand it feels as though they’ve tended too far on the side of caution and made the monsters too easy to kill. At no point during the game did I have any real fear that I might die and have to go back to the last save point. The only real exception to this rule was the final boss battle, it took me nearly a full hour to kill her (in part due to my own stupidity/lack of lateral thinking). So I wonder about this difficulty curve, is this supposed to be a game for small children or is it supposed to be a game all mario fans? The way it plays out I tend towards the prior interpretation and I think that’s a real shame. Not least as kids are better at computer games than that.
Outside of the combat the game plays like a slightly peculiar platform game. You’re not just navigating your characters around a map going from fight to fight there are various platforming elements to contend with; things to jump across, buttons to press, puzzles to solve. All this is handled excellently, although almost all the puzzles resolve by splitting the babies from the adults and sending one group one way while the other group goes the other way. Not entirely dissimilar to Head Over Heels in fact. The forced, nearly top down, perspective rarely gets in the way of these platforming elements and it is well integrated into the game, it’s a nice nod in the direction of the the game’s heritage.
Finally I should address my greatest dissappointment with the game; it’s length. Peach’s castle for the main part acts as a world/level select area and initially it looks as though there might be a world to select for every room in the castle. It looks as though there will be an awful lot of game to play sadly this turns out not to be the case. I think in total it took me 18 hours of play time to complete so having bought the game on Friday evening I was finished on Sunday night. In that time I went shoe shopping and to the gym twice so I was hardly sat indoors constantly sloggin away at it. That was dissappointing especially as some of the last RPGs I completed had gameplay times in excess of 60 hours. This sensation of short gameplay is further compounded by a complete lack of side quests, the whole thing plays through in a very linear manner, it lacks the freedom you see in Zelda or Final Fantasy where I can ignore the plot for a while and explore other parts of the map and find all the hidden bits and pieces. Not that this would be necessary if there was just more plot to play through. When you get to the final boss you haven’t really been playing for long and it’s the first point where the difficulty curve picks up. It feels much more like the final boss should have been the end of the first chapter in the game with a further 3 or 4 chapters worth to play through.
In summary this is a game that is a totally joy to play, I can’t put that across enough, yet it has a couple of serious shortcomings. As a gameplay experience I feel drawn to award it a high score but it’s shortcomings stay my hand. I don’t feel I can award Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time anything more than…