I’ve been playing two different role playing games on my Nintendo DS lately. Both Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky are solid titles that have the basic explore, search, and grow mechanic that tends to draw me in to RPGs. While they both have a sort of Nintendo-esque take on life (no horror or graphic violence here) each one plays out distinctly differently. While the new Mario & Luigi title has a sort of puzzle/platform mixed into the game, the Mystery Dungeon title might be best described as a Pokemon adventure without having to capture any Pokemon.
Bowser’s Inside Story
In the Mario & Luigi title, you alternate playing between the duo of Mario and Luigi and Bowser. At the start of the game, the brothers are sucked inside Bowser and spend most of their time exploring and fighting off threats in there. In the meantime, Bowser wanders around the kingdom trying to retake his castle and (perhaps) helping the rest of the kingdom along the way. Combat is the standard to this series, it is turn based with each character getting one action per round. Choose an attack and execute it, but if you press buttons (A&B for the brothers, X&Y for Bowser) at the right time and sequence, you can boost your effectiveness. Defending from enemy attacks is also possible. While exploring you occasionally come across new abilities (fire breathing, a big old hammer, etc…) which have dual functions. You can often use them as special attacks during combat, but also serve to open up new areas to explore by demolishing hindering terrain. One of the nice features of the game’s story are the interactions between the brothers inside with Bowser on the outside. Occasionally, the game will present minor chores for the brothers to perform in order to help Bowser accomplish his goals. Anyone familiar with previous titles in the series will know what to expect of the title. I’ve found it fun to play while the story unfolds itself. However, there isn’t a whole lot of long-term strategy to be employed, just fight the fights and solve the puzzles as they come.
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky
In this RPG, players take on the role of a human turned into Pokemon form and then set out on a quest of self-discovery, being sure to save the entire world at the same time. The game might be best summed up as a randomly generated dungeon crawl on training wheels. Your team of Pokemon (starting with two and growing up from there) take on tasks which are then accomplished by entering into randomized dungeon mazes. (Although the settings are rarely dungeons, forests and many other settings are available.) Completing quests earns you money and a bit of notoriety, which then pushes forward some of the events in the core storyline (someone is messing with nature, find out who and why and stop them.) Your control your little pokemon as you march around dungeons. In a Rogue-like way, every step you take in a dungeon takes a turn and all the other monsters (and your companions) then also get a turn. Move next to an enemy and you can attack with your basic attack or one of your special pokemon attacks. As with most pokemon games, using a special attack of one type (water, fire, or grass, for example) may be particularly effective or weak against another type. In addition to a few monsters, the dungeon is littered with items to pick up. At first you don’t have much storage space, but later in the game you have more to spare. While each dungeon is randomly generated, you can “save” it by writing down code words to send to a friend to have them try the same dungeon. Quests trigger off arriving at the correct dungeon “level”, and if you collect enough tasks you can typically get several done in one trip. The game is a nice little exploration RPG that is suitable for the younger set (provided they can get through a little reading – enough to match quests with the correct locations to visit.) Older gamers will not find a whole lot of decisions to interest them other than dungeon delve, rest up, rinse, and repeat.
Comparisons and Contrast
Both games have a fairly rigid storyline that plays out over the course of the game, but the “feel” of the game is different for each one. Mario & Luigi has a definite two-dimensional platformer style of feel – since that is how M&L explore through Wario’s insides. Even the combat, with its focus on button pushing at key moments remind me of playing a platform game – but a platformer with a strong ongoing storyline. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon has a top-down view and reminds me heavily of the old ASCII character based game called Rogue where one would explore a dungeon to see how far in you could get. Grid based exploration with randomly dropped items make the game even more Rogue-like. Perhaps props should be given to the designers for showing a new generation the basis of the computer RPG. (Rogue and other Rogue-like games were some of the earliest games played on computers and computer mainframes.)
In addition to their linear storylines, the main characters in both games are quite constrained in their development. In M&L, you can choose to emphasize one aspect of a character each time that character levels up, to give a few extra points to that attribute. Of course, do that too often and you get diminishing returns for that attribute (so you’re encouraged to spread out your points somewhat). Beyond a couple points here and there, there are no more options to customize. In the Mystery Dungeon title, you get to “choose” your starting Pokemon (through a self-reflective survey) so there is a bit of choice at the start but then stat improvements are completely built-in for the rest of the game. The one thing you can do is feed your Pokemon appropriate materials to give them permanent boots of one type or another. (Eating color coded jellybeans, protein, and other special items grant a Pokemon permanent, ongoing improvements.) These items are fairly limited so you can spend them all on a single Pokemon or spread them out over a few to have a broader base of Pokemon from which to choose.
As a gamer partial to the old-school RPG games that focus on high character customization and more open ended storylines, neither game quite scratches my RPG itch. However, Mario & Luigi: Bower’s Inside Story is still a fun game to play. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky is also fine game, but one that I would recommend for younger gamers or big Pokemon fans. It lacks enough strategic depth for me to recommend it to older teens and adults..