Review: Mario & Luigi: Dream Team

MarioLuigiDreamTeam

Colin Powell once said, “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.” Obviously this decorated leader of men did not have a lot of time for video games in the years between his formative years in the Bronx and his annihilation of the Republican Guard in Iraq – however much of that life story sounds like the arc of a new, scrappy military commander in a Japanese strategy game.

In Capcom’s Little Nemo: The Dream Master, Nemo had, what one assumes to be, magic dream candy to lure unsuspecting animals into being his beasts of burden. The Dreamscape in Final Fantasy VI could absolutely affect people from the real world, even if they had their own magic. I hazard to say that a Mr. Frederick Kruger certainly used some sort of weirdo dreamworld magic to kill teenagers in the real world, all without breaking a sweat. Continuing this fine tradition of contradicting the author of the Powell doctrine, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team tells the story of two mustachioed, jumping plumbers making the dreams of the green one a reality for him and the red one.

The tale starts with Mario and Luigi going on a fancy trip with Princess Peach and her entourage of Toads as she is want to do. It doesn’t seem like Luigi has ever actually saved, spoken to, or otherwise interacted with Peach, but he knows Mario, so he’s in. The diplomatic visit is to the luxurious Pi’illo Island with its impressive hotel and resort. After a short introduction to the island, the crew learns that the name of the island comes from the advanced race of ancient beings named the Pi’illos who mysteriously disappeared some time ago. While Mario is going through a series of tutorials, Luigi decides to take a nap on the least appropriate resting surface available, a museum quality, antique stone pillow. Through the magic created by this slumber, Mario is able to enter his brother’s dream so that he may rouse him from a REM cycle upon which cold water has no effect. This is but the first step on the quest of a hundred dreams.

This is the fourth game in the Mario & Luigi series and all of these games have been very similar to the first one, going so far as to have recurring characters and frequently making call backs to earlier games, and this game is no different. The major difference between this game and the other three is that the graphics have changed. Since the first game there has always been some mechanic to separate the games. In Partners in Time it was having Baby Mario and Luigi to mess around with, and then Bowser’s Inside Story had Bowser as the main character with the Bros. helping him from inside his massive shell like a Nintendo-ed version of Innerspace. Here the hook is that Mario can enter 2D sections of the dreamscape while most of the game is spent with Mario running around a 3D world, with Luigi directly behind him. By completing the dream areas, Pi’illo people – who look a lot like red pillows with nubs for arms and legs sewn on – will be rescued from their petrified pillow state. The pillow of doom mentioned above is the first of many recused Pi’illos. Sometimes these plush men and women will help the Bros. access new areas by throwing them upwards, but most of the time they will only pop back to life and say a lot of words that summarize as “Thank you.”

Exploring the real world is simple. The brothers of Mario can perform their signature jumps with the A and B buttons. Series veterans will have no problems, but new players may find the requirement to press both buttons at the same time to clear gaps difficult at first. If only Mario jumps, Luigi will fall into the pit they are trying to clear, warping both Bros. to the start of wherever they were jumping from, or more likely Luigi will just follow along on a different level of an area, unseen and undirectable. This issue is due to both brothers being controlled at the same time with the directional circle, no matter if they are on screen or not. Eventually the Bros. will get hammers and learn ways to explore the world other than jumping. Luigi can bash Mario on the head and either bury him in soft ground, allowing him to tunnel around, or cause him to compress like an accordion to squeeze into ducts and the like. There are more moves than these, many familiar, which will allow players to explore previously inaccessible areas. Much like many other open-world Nintendo games, there are rewards for re-exploring new areas when new powers are acquired, but no requirement to do so.

When not in the real world, Mario will enter Luigi’s dreamy mind which is a warped, 2D version of reality. These areas, all contained within the magical pillows scattered throughout Pi’illo Island, call for Mario to find someone trapped in the dreamworld or destroy shards of nightmare that turned the Pi’illo into a pillow. I did it by taking away an apostrophe, the letter i and adding a w, but the dark bat demon antagonist Antasma needs shards of nightmares which Mario can break. In the dream world Luigi can, at specific points, use the power of his unconscious mind to alter his surroundings. One of the first abilities is that he can enter a palm tree to make it look like Luigi’s cartoonish face with his mustache as the fronds. On the bottom screen of the 3DS a sleeping man in green will lie and the touch screen can be used to tug on his sweet stache. This will then influence the dream world to cause the palm tree’s leaves to stretch, bend, and if Mario grabs onto one, fling him to new heights when you let go of the mustache. Another dream power summons a hundred Luiginoids to form a column with Mario at the top, bowling over enemies and hitting far switches to solve basic puzzles. Screwing with Luigi while he is sleeping is fun, so much the better that it allows Mario to get more coins.

A lot of Mario games involve stomping or hammers to eliminate Koopa forces in simple platforming fashion. Here that is still true, but the combat flows more like a traditional JRPG. Once an enemy is encountered, the game will dissolve from the world into a battle screen with the enemies on the right and the Bros. on the left. When it is Mario or Luigi’s turn they will select from a variety of attacks and then carry them out just like any hero from an early Dragon Quest game. The Bros. don’t “Attack,” they “Jump” and leap twenty feet in the air and come slamming down on their foes. Many games have gotten by on this alone, but the Mario & Luigi games keep you involved by requiring precise timing to maximize the damage. To give out the most hurt, and to make the battles take less time, when jumping on an enemy the right Bro’s button must be pressed just as he is about to hit the enemy and, if successful, again as he jumps up and stomps a second time. When it is the enemy’s turn to attack, jumping at the right time can let the mushroom aficionados avoid damage or sometimes even counter attack. All of the enemies have unique attacks which telegraph which Bro they are going to attack and how. The key is to memorize all of these attack patterns. Fortunately, each area only has a limited number of enemy types, so it does not take a photographic memory to succeed.

Outside of having good reflexes, the battle system is not very deep as the most pressing question is often “Can I jump on that guy, or do the spikes on his head tell me perhaps I ought to try another kind of attack?” It is surprising that as simple as the mechanics are, the numbers around them are fairly deep. There are different pairs of overalls that can be equipped which will boost defense, but can also raise other stats and have special effects in sacrifice of a higher defense score. Defeated enemies grant experience points which lead to predictable levels and stat increases, but after a certain number of levels, the Bros. will rank up and grant each Bro a perk. Like in Fallout, these are passive bonuses that can do things like increase the rate at which experience is gained, how many pieces of gear can be worn, or how much power one brother has versus another. It is possible to grow the brothers identically, or perhaps have one be Mr. Defense who can take a licking and use healing items and have the other be a paper tiger. 

Additionally, the Bros can find and equip badges which charge up as they attack and eventually join together into a badge power that can be stored for later. These powers can do item-saving things like heal 30% of each brother’s hit points, or can be interesting and raise everyone’s attack value, friend and foe alike. This can be a risky proposition, but worth it. There are dozens of badge combinations to explore as each Mario badge can interact differently with each one Luigi can find. None of this depth is necessary to succeed–the game does have an easy mode and there is usually enough money to buy all the healing items you could ever want–but it is great that the ability to min/max is here for those that are big RPG geeks.

When I first saw screenshots of this game, I thought Nintendo had switched to 3D character models. Except for sleeping Luigi and a few other instances, they have not. The sprites for the characters have been faded in a way that is a bit off-putting at first but makes more sense when the 3D-mode is switched on. Most of the games with 2D characters look like someone is holding a cutout of an animation cell in front of your 3DS when it is in 3D mode, but for some reason the way these characters are rendered against the polygonal backgrounds actually seems believable. It is not the way that I want to play the game, but at least it is a viable option. The same cannot be said for most 3DS games. The areas are all distinct and it never feels like traveling through the red version of a different dungeon. What music is not original is a remixed version of classic Mario tunes, as one would expect. The characters are far more animated that they have been in the previous games and all in all it looks good. There are no sights or sounds that are memorable, no dramatic scene or display of raw graphical horsepower, but Pi’illo Island is a pleasant place to visit.

With serviceable looks and combat that can get a bit repetitive over long stretches, depth or no, what pulls me back in to these Mario & Luigi games again and again is the fantastic localization. The entire game is written with a light heart and full of memorable characters. From Bowser’s minions referring to him as “His Grouchiness” to the stuck up Pi’illo Prince that will accompany the Bros. to the two bulked-up cactus men concerned with building massive muscles and “beefiness,” the characters are great. There are some familiar faces from the old games who make an appearance, but knowledge of the earlier installments is in no way required. The environmental puzzles manage to thread the needle between too hard and nakedly obvious to form an enjoyable experience when punctuated with the battles, which require planning and twitch skill. Mario & Luigi: Dream Team probably is not anything of substance that you’ll remember long after it is over, but it is a good dream and a joy while it lasts.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Funny characters
+ Engaging battles
+ Decently long without getting boring

Cons:
– Hard difficulty spikes on several boss battles
– Combat can get repetitive, there are only so many dodge and attack combos

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Release Date: 8/11/2013
Genre: Action-RPG
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.