Think back to some of the best RPGs of the last two generations. The ones that stick with us, the ones that play on nostalgia, and generate the clearest memories, are the ones that provide moments; the touching little sparks that bring a world and its characters to life.
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, the fourth in the handheld series to feature the dynamic duo, brims with these. It excels at throwing up a constant barrage of funny, thrilling and game-altering surprises, all of which gel together with the kind of finesse and confidence that Nintendo fans have come to demand.
This time the pair are invited to Pi'ilo Island along with Princess Peach and her shroomy retinue. Once there, Peach is inevitably half-inched, this time by bat-shaped antagonist Antasma. In the initial act of rescuing her the Bros. discover an ancient race of sentient cushions mysteriously locked away in a cursed dream world. (Stick with us.) So, the dynamic duo set out to explore and puzzle their way through both the real world and the Dream World, to rescue the unfortunate folk from their plushy slumber-filled fate.
Controlling Mario and Luigi will feel familiar for those weaned on the series' previous entries, with each plumbers' skills activated using A or B buttons respectively. This is true of both dodging and countering, too. Unlike the menu-heavy fair of many typical JRPGs there's no room to sit back and casually hammer at commands. Actively timing jump or hammer attacks is key to successfully overcoming foes.
FLY ANOTHER DAY
Take the Flybee. This chap has a spiky cranium, something no plumber wants wedged between their nates. Smack the buzzing foe with a hammer and it flips over, letting you do higher jump damage by timing your stomps on its softer, now sky-facing, rump.
Enemies quickly become unpredictable and countering their abilities is a case of watching their animations carefully rather than looking through reams of weakness stats. As a lob-omb flings its trio of bombs at you, for example, you'll have to play a quick-fire game of 'Find The Lady' to ensure you bat away the real bomb and leave the duds to bounce past. Everything you do in combat, from a simple attack to a complex, shell-kicking Bros. Attack, requires active participation, making the whole experience deliciously involving.
Even when you've managed to pin down how you think enemies will act, there are still surprises, with tons of in-battle mini-games, starting easy and moving all the way up to tandem fire flower flame barrages. In the Dream World many of these special attacks require hugely different control methods. The Luiginary Ball attack, for example, is brilliantly executed by using the 3DS' motion controls. It's rare that you end up doing the same things.
It's funny and thrilling, its ideas gelling with the kind of finesse and confidence Nintendo fans have come to demand
Exploring the top down real world maps is also an active experience. Expect no simple switch flicking here. Puzzles constantly throw up new surprises, from bashing Mario on the head with a hammer to make him shrink to fit through gaps, to using a drilling platform to crunch rocks and roller coast your way into hidden areas.
Then there are those aforementioned 2D platforming-centric Dream World dungeons. To save a Pi'ilo from eternal slumber, Luigi - as the only member of the capped caperers capable of falling asleep instantly anywhere - has to zonk out on top of them. As he does so a portal into the Dream World opens for Mario to jump through.
'TACHE (BANDY) HOOT
It's here that our new favourite plumber, the focus of Nintendo's Year of Luigi campaign, takes centre stage. Luiginary Works puzzles involve interacting with the lankier plumber's adorable dozing mug on the bottom screen in order compliment Mario's platforming antics up top. Tug on his moustache and a nearby bush will reach out making for an ideal Mario-pult. Spin his nose around and a drill turns, letting Mario leap large distances via centrifugal force.
Our favourite, though, involves building a tower of Luigi's, all pointing, flailing and gibbering, to help Mario bash through walls of enemies or rocket skyward, smashing through blocks. The puzzles aren't challenging, but they areinventive.
All of these gameplay moments are wrapped up in a story which does a great job of selling its characters to you. Little touches bring characters to life, like Mr. Brickle's New York drawl (evoked through witty text-based dialogue), or how, when Mario first enters the depths of Luigi's subconscious, little messages like 'You're so cool big bro!' float past.
It's also worth mentioning how the 3D, while certainly looking great, is actually a genuinely useful asset. It's much easier to kick a red shell into your enemy when you can define the depth of its trajectory.
But by far our favourite moment comes about 10 hours into the game, when you think the game settled into its stride and revealed its hand. At the risk of spoiling things, we'll just say something utterly mad happens, an event that reminds you just how good Nintendo are at contriving brand new ways to play.
It feels harsh to level criticism at a game which works so hard to be different, but there are a few areas that could have made Dream Team a bone fide essential. The Luiginary Works puzzles, as we've mentioned, can be over simplistic, especially when lined up against recent 3DS mind-chunderer Luigi's Mansion 2. As such you'll rarely feel like you've had to work to overcome a Dream World dungeon. Also, while there is a lot of gear to collect and equip, apart from badges - which bestow specific effects such as healing abilities or negating damage received - there's little noticeable difference between them, apart from minor stat boosts.
These niggles aside, however, Dream Team's shotgun blast of diverse gameplay types meld together into a well-crafted, complimentary package, constantly pushing you forward in a quest to find out what next awaits. And the biggest compliment we can pay? That it leaves you wishing all RPG sequels were as ready to ditch convention.
It's not quite top tier, but Dream Team remains a diverse RPG built on genuinely fresh ideas.
- Bursting with new gameplay ideas, endless surprises
- Battles are refreshingly active
- Great use of 3D
- Puzzles are too easy
- Equipping new gear doesn't feel impactful