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Robert’s Inside Story (of Lameness)

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m taking a break from talking about the inconsistencies in the multiplayer modes of two of 2010’s biggest releases to make an impassioned plea: Dear Lord, help me. I cannot, for the life of me, stop playing Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story.

I missed this gem the first time around, as I was in China gearing up for my first semester at Beihang University and preparing to educate classrooms filled with people that had years of wisdom and experience over me about life and finding one’s self in an increasingly complicated modern age. If you’ve ever uttered “pirate” and “China” in the same breath and you weren’t referring to Chow Yun-Fat’s forgettable performance in the even more forgettable third Pirates of the Caribbean installment, you should have some understanding and insight into my inability to secure a legitimate copy of Bowser’s for my poor, at-the-time neglected DS.

Almost two years after it came out, Bowser’s has been sitting comfortably in my DS’ card slot and my handheld is once again marked up by fingerprints across its jet black surface. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Bowser’s that makes it such a joy to play, but I can name a few things I like. It’s an RPG, all right, but it doesn’t offer me any of the niceties normally afforded from a 40+ hour investment in other JRPGs. Actually, I would hesitate to lump Bowser’s under the JRPG banner, or any “_RPG” banner, for that matter. Battles are played out simply enough through turn-based combat. Characters with the highest speed attribute get priority over slower characters and take an action. Wash, rinse, repeat. However, the added dimension is that in both attacking and defending, jumps and hammers found in the side-scrolling Mario and Donkey Kong games are used to inflict extra damage or completely avoid a ground-based enemy’s charge. If one times their jump well enough, they might land on the enemy’s head, meaning they take no damage and, to loosely borrow a fighting game term, get to punish their enemy.

Bowser’s doesn’t offer the same type of character empowerment and progression as seen in JRPGs, where picking up the Ultima Weapon or Rainbow Sword in FFVII or Chrono Trigger allows your character to deal damage higher than their own HP count. Getting powerful gear is nice in Bowser’s, but it’s not an absolute necessity. If the player has good enough timing and can predict incoming attacks while adding that extra oomph to their own attacks, gear and defensive attributes largely become moot. There’s no need for strong equipment if the player isn’t taking any damage in the fights. In some of the boss fights that the titular Bowser gets in, gear and attributes aren’t even a factor.

This is anything but a shortcoming. Bowser’s has managed to take the linearity and mechanics other RPGs hailing from Japanese studios to create something that, while firmly rooted in tradition, manages to transcend convention due to the parts of its whole. It’s largely light-hearted affair that is self-aware and seems to take joy in the moment-to-moment humor that completely glosses over the “save the princess or else” storyline. Speaking of humor, there’s tons of it in the game. Nate Bildhorff and his team of localizers are to be commended for their work: from Bowser’s tough-guy fails to Fawful’s awesomely bad Engrish dialogue, I can’t think of the last time I laughed out loud so frequently at a game that didn’t have Tim Schafer’s name on the cover or wasn’t Portal.

More on point, I brought up a historical anecdote–or historic in the sense that I experienced it–about my return to Beijing because I’m now wondering how I would have received Bowser’s at that time in my life.

That statement might not make that much sense. Let me give you some context.

I’ve looked back on a lot of my years, and in each instance, I can track one or more games to what I was going through in the days of my youth. While awaiting my C-averaged report card to come home in the mail, I would count down the days until my chastisement playing Shadowrun on my Genesis. Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father was a triumphant discovery for me, and I wanted my friends to stop talking about Mortal Kombat so I could, just once, launch into a discussion about Voodoo and destiny. Multiple playthroughs of Square’s Einhander were conducted through one of my darkest periods of high school uncertainty, where friends succumbed to peer pressure and suddenly donned unfamiliar-looking masks without giving me fair warning. After watching my friend show me it for the first time and then subsequently dreaming about playing it in the months to follow, my soon-to-be stepfather brought with him from the East Coast a strong shoulder for my mother to lean on–as well as a PC equipped with a 800 MHz PIII processor and a TNT2 video card that could play Deus Ex. And I remember when I went off to college and was, for the first time, on my own, I celebrated by hooking up my PS2 and continuing my game of Beyond Good & Evil.

Anyone who waxes nostalgic about their youth and their experiences in the games they played holding analogous or allegorical connection to what they were going through in life is exaggerating through their teeth. I don’t define my experiences through games, but I view my gaming experiences as just parts that add to and augment  my total memory of things that have transpired in my life. It’s not so much that they added or detracted from my experiences; if anything, they serve as unique points of reference for me to look fondly back on. I’ll always associate “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins with junior high, the smell of cigarette smoke and vinyl seats takes me back to my summer spent in Taiwan with my grandparents, and Final Fantasy Tactics calls back memories of my first-ever breakup.

Appreciating Bowser’s Inside Story on its own merits is a simple enough pleasure, and playing through it at this point in my life is an exuberant affair to say the least. Phone contact is contact of the rudimentary sort, but it never has and never will feel like enough. When my wife finally arrives in California come late-March, it’ll have been close to six months, or half a year, since I last left her standing there in Terminal 2 at Beijing International Airport. When I inevitably look back on this moment, I’ll also see Bowser’s Inside Story and all of its humor, innovation, and joyful whims forever etched into this point in my life. It’s an association I’ll always make, and I’m really grateful for that innocent but conveniently portentous association. Like I said before, it’s all context. Wonderful, wonderful context.

On the day we registered as a married couple, Zoe and I played Gears of War 2 cooperatively. I passed Zoe the good controller, and I tested the limits of my ability with a busted Right Trigger that would clamp down at the most inopportune of moments and cause me to shred through entire clips of Lancer ammo. Howling with laughter as I bled my ammo reserves dry, I could only watch as my wife meowed like a scared cat and tried to run away unsuccessfully from a Flamer unit in Horde mode. Laughing, we decided to shut the 360 off for the moment and watch Atonement instead. So far, we have yet to complete the campaign together, and it’ll happen or maybe it won’t. That might also be why I sometimes have difficulty finishing certain games at certain points in time; like the moments I’m concurrently experiencing in my life, I don’t ever want them to end.