Game developers often talk about iteration. When I began writing about games, I was perplexed by this word and even more bewildered by its verb form: iterate. Why, I wondered, would a developer purposely choose to repeat what he or she had done before? My understanding of iteration stemmed from its standard definition: "to do again, repeat," from the Latin "iterationem" which means "repetition."(1)
But a closer look at the etymology of the word reveals that a common synonym for iterate is rehearse, and when I discovered that little tidbit, the full meaning of the word opened up to me. In the theater we don't practice a play; we rehearse it. Practice implies doing something over and over again until you get it right. Rehearsal is a discovery process wherein doing something again reveals new ideas or information that can be useful in the creation of something we collaboratively build. The kinship I feel with game designers and developers comes from this sense that we speak each other's language...even if I don't know a thing about middleware or C++.
I mention this because the genius of the iterative process is clearly at work in the game I've been playing for the last ten days, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story. While it's possible to see iteration as a way of cashing in on a successful game - adding a few features and pumping out an annual edition - the latest Mario & Luigi game suggests its predecessors have essentially been rehearsals for this culminating masterpiece. Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is the finest and most fully realized Mario RPG ever made, and that's saying something for a highly regarded franchise that includes the original Super Mario RPG, the Paper Mario series, and two previous Mario & Luigi games.
If careful iteration produces notable refinements, what's so refined about BIS? Aside from its top-to-bottom graphical polish and colorful interface, (aesthetically, this game sets a new standard for sprite design and animation on the DS), the game distinguishes itself in two areas that have become M&L signatures: writing and tone. It's easy to isolate the gameplay elements, the RPG elements, the platforming elements, etc., and these all contribute to the experience BIS delivers. But I contend the flavor and spirit of this game are communicated most powerfully via its sharp canny dialogue and self-aware conceit that establish a playful link between game and player.
Mario & Luigi games are a hoot because they're cleverly written and expertly localized. Developer AlphaDream distills the signature characteristics of each Mushroom Kingdom resident and gives comedic voice to those traits. Dialogue is often delivered in a manner reminiscent of Chaplin's City Lights, with voices speaking gobbledygook in varying pitches suited to each character, ridiculing the notion that characters must speak, but embracing the necessity.
The game winks at the player by ripping styles of dialogue from other games. Globins talk in medieval fantasy-speak ("Thou hast dropped something in yon mucus pool, methinks"); Fawful, by far the most entertaining character, speaks in badly translated Japanese-to-English ("Fawful is gorging on his plan of win! And still he has hunger!") and ("Now I have chortle time. Fawful scattered your minions like litter from a sad ugly cat. Are you wanting to hear them? For they are on the TV show. The TV show of your tears.")
Bowser, a big dumb vain lug encounters a standard-issue sensei trainer who speaks in spiritual non sequiturs:
Bowser: That doesn't even make sense!
Midbus: Sense is for the weak.
Bowser: (smashing his own head with his fists) Stop talking to me!!
Midbus: You are unenlightened.
Bowser: TOO MANY WORDS!
More than in previous games, BIS presents a humorous, but disturbing picture of a society ruled by a charismatic leader. Fawful has brainwashed the citizens, and an eerie cult of personality has emerged that won't tolerate dissent:
Citizen: Fawful trading cards, Fawful keychains, fudgy Fawful cookies! Fawful action figures, hot Fawful sausages, Fawful magic beverages! I gotta buy it ALL, man!
Citizen: If you asked me what Lord Fawful's best feature was, I'd have to say
those sweet swirly glasses. Those swirls show the cyclical nature of
the world, am I right? Now THAT is deep fashion.
Citizen: His best feature is his marvelous teeth. In those spotless, shiny teeth, we see our very souls reflected. They're our greatest treasure.
The game knows it's a game. It knows it's a Nintendo game. More importantly, it knows it's a game you hold in your hands. Even more importantly, it knows it's a Mario game you hold in your hands. BIS plays with this awareness in innumerable ways, from subtle character cameos and self-mocking Wii Fit craze references to mini-games and rhythm challenges that put you under the hood, so to speak, of Bowser's ridiculously prodigious feats of strength and gluttony. Playing as Bowser (it's really more like playing on behalf of Bowser, a pivotal distinction) is a blast, and the control/gameplay differences between him and M&L are stark and tangible.
BIS knows Bowser is an empty 2-dimensional character, so it locates you inside that space, transfigured to a game space with all the Mushroom Kingdom accoutrements. And so you're Mario and Luigi on the bottom screen, and you're Bowser on the top screen...except that you're not. You're manipulating a piece of gaming hardware (buttons, stylus, screens, microphone, book mode - you name it) to navigate in, out and around Bowser's body, and the game consistently reminds you of this thematically and mechanically. The benefits of iteration can be seen mostly clearly here, as the game's masterful use of the DS contrasts sharply with the tacked-on feel of its predecessor Partners in Time.
A downside of iteration is that it can sometimes lead to feature-bloat, and BIS teeters on the brink of it. The rhythm game additions are a welcome touch, but the maze-like complexity of some areas is needlessly confusing, and the backtracking required occasionally feels tedious. My main complaint, likely not shared by many others, is the game's length. It took me nearly 30 hours to complete BIS, and while most of that time felt fun and rewarding, most players will never see the end, and that's a shame. I had the luxury (?) of playing the game for extended sessions during a bout of the flu. Remembering where you are and what you're doing could be challenge if you take an extended break between play sessions.
Quibbles aside, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is one of the best games I've played this year, and it's another reason (Scribblenauts and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor are two others) to keep your DS charged up and close at hand. As Toadsworth says, "I feel like a gut spelunker." Who knew spelunking guts could be so much fun?