Games 10/20/09: Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, Saw, Deca Sports 2

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story
For: Nintendo DS
From: AlphaDream/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

“Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story” is, in a few words, a whole lot more of the same stuff that comprised the first two “Mario & Luigi” games.

And that, frankly, is perfectly fine. AlphaDream’s “Mario & Luigi” games are practically a genre unto themselves with the way they infuse traditional role-playing game conventions with an extensively satisfying element of action, and it’s hard to object to another chapter of what has emerged as the funniest and smartest piece of storytelling ever to emerge from Nintendo’s extensive library.

The basic crux of “Story” should ring familiar to “Mario & Luigi” vets. You control Mario and Luigi at the same time, and most of the action outside of battle consists of helping the brothers get from story point to story point through a mix of puzzle solving and traditional “Super Mario”-style platforming.

The game’s battle system obeys the same rules as a traditional turn-based role-playing game, but most of the attacks, dodges and counterattacks play out in real time like a traditional action game. Every enemy has a tell, and every attack — be it the classic jump attack or a tag-team maneuver involving both brothers — has an extra measure of effectiveness if you time its execution perfectly. Figuring the ins and outs of all this stuff is, once again, a ton of fun.

“Story,” for its part, raises the series bar in both the gameplay and storytelling departments by giving the brothers’ arch nemesis a share of the starring role. Bowser exists in two forms — as a third playable character and, as the title implies and the blissfully absurd story explains, a living dungeon — and both roles inject the game with far more freshness than appearances would otherwise suggest.

For starters, Bowser has his own bull-in-china-shop style of getting around, which lends new dimensions to the action that plays out between battles. His brutish fighting style naturally gives way to a wholly unique set of combat tactics, including some brilliant touch screen tricks in which he can mobilize Goombas and other minions to do his bidding. The trajectory of the storyline has the brothers working in tandem with Bowser, and the game comes up with some pretty clever ways (no spoilers) to have them work together despite being at odds and in wholly different places and predicaments.

But Bowser’s most memorable contribution to “Story” may be to its story, which ranks among the sharpest and most infectiously funny sagas to grace a game all year. “Mario & Luigi” games have never been hurting for great characters and fantastic dialogue, but Bowser’s crabby, perennially confused but deliriously proud turn here is pure gold from start to finish. “Story” occasionally gets a little too wordy for its own good — especially when it comes to detailing the game’s basics to players who already know what to do — but when there’s so much good stuff to experience, a few dry bits are more than acceptable.

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Saw
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Zombie Studios/Konami
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, strong language)

Say this for “Saw’s” video game debut: Be it on purpose or by accident, it pretty bluntly captures (as best a video game can, anyway) what it must feel like to find yourself trapped inside one of the Jigsaw Killer’s traps.

Mostly, that’s to the game’s credit. From the very first moment “Saw” cedes control to the player, you’re trapped inside a puzzle, and the only assistance the game provides is a simple overview of the basic controls. The puzzle isn’t exactly a mindbender, but it is smarter than your typical “hit switch to open door,” and it’s awfully nice to see the game respect its audience’s intelligence and expect players to figure their way out without help.

That’s a trend that continues throughout the entirety of the game, culminating in some tough end-mission brainteasers that have you racing the clock while a person you need to save screams in your ear to hurry up. Those with fragile nerves will find them frayed not only by these moments, but also by a series of other timed challenges in which you need to escape a room before a trap goes off and kills you. In later levels, “Saw” has no issue stringing several of these challenges in exhaustive succession.

But that’s not all — and not necessarily because Zombie Studios intended to compound your character’s misery. As the storyline explains, there are a number of people who need you dead so they may live, and “Saw’s” awkward movement controls and downright clumsy combat controls most certainly give those poor souls a fighting chance.

“Saw” partially circumvents this issue by giving you some nice abilities with regard to barricading enemies off and even luring them, “Bioshock”-style, into some traps of your own. But those same traps — which kill instantly — also work on you, and some of them are easy to spot only if you tiptoe the whole way through. “Saw” occasionally has the gumption to place one of these pitfalls right near the next checkpoint. Passing through a meaty stretch of the game only to miss a single tripwire, die instantly and start over is about as cheaply unsatisfying as it sounds, and if you’re the impatient sort, it’ll drive you crazy the more it happens.

When all these aspects — time limits, easy-to-miss traps, voices in your ear, your two left feet — work in tandem, “Saw” feels like an exercise in sanity awareness more than a video game.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Playing “Saw” isn’t intended as a form of feel-good escapism: It’s supposed to frighten you, stress you out and propel you into a continuous state of unease. Be it though great ideas or occasionally though incompetent design, that’s a task at which this game absolutely succeeds.

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Deca Sports 2
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Hudson
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Last year’s “Deca Sports” was one of the more fortuitous benefactors of the Great Wii Mini-game Compilation Gold Rush, so don’t look so surprised to see a sequel turned around so quickly and in time for the similarly fortuitous holiday gold rush.

“Deca Sports 2,” like its predecessor, tries to ape and outdo the “Wii Sports” model by cramming 10 different sports onto the same disc. Though some selections bear a close resemblance to the first game’s sports, the 10 picks — ice hockey, tennis, kendo, petanque, mogul skiing, speed skating, motorcycle racing, darts, synchronized swimming and dodgeball — are, at least technically speaking, all new.

Some of the game’s problems, however, are not. Like the first game, “DS2” doesn’t let you play as your Mii character. A simple team/character-editing function lets you design a facsimile, but part of what makes the “Wii Sports” games so personable is the chance that one of your friends’ or family’s Mii characters might make a surprise appearance on the opposing team.

More problematic is game’s inability to capitalize on the new Wii MotionPlus peripheral, which gave the sports in “Wii Sports Resort” a level of control precision the original “Wii Sports” couldn’t even imagine. Some of the sports in “DS2” — particularly petanque, which you might better recognize as bocce — demand a soft touch that just isn’t possible here. It’s still playable — unlike darts, which just feels broken — but it could have been “DS2’s” sleeper surprise if it afforded players the kind of control the MotionPlus makes possible.

Most of “DS2’s” other selections don’t suffer as much, but that’s primarily due to the fact that they don’t really benefit from motion controls in the first place. Ice hockey and dodgeball are fun (if sometimes factually suspect) interpretations of their respective sports, but there’s no reason the actions caused by generic flicks of the Wii remote wouldn’t have worked just fine (and perhaps better) as button presses.

That goes as well for some of “DS2’s” more oddball picks — synchronized swimming, speed skating, mogul skiing — which use rhythm game conventions to interesting effect but demand more speed and responsiveness than the Wii remote can realistically provide.

Only kendo and motorcycle racing — which has players hold the remote sideways and steer with it — seem to employ motion controls with tangible benefits. Tennis has obvious benefits too, but “DS2’s” take on the sport can’t even match what Nintendo did three years ago, to say nothing of what EA pulled off in “Grand Slam Tennis.”

In the end, “DS2” feels a whole lot like its predecessor — about $10 too expensive even at its budget $30 price, and detrimentally concerned with providing quantity over quality. As always, there’s fun to be had when others are part of the equation, and “DS2” does provide some kind of local multiplayer component for each sport. (Ice hockey, tennis and dodgeball also work online, but only time will tell if a community develops around the game’s serviceable online multiplayer component.)