Friday, March 28, 2014

Super Mario 3D World (Wii U) Review

Super Mario 3D World is a game of incredible joy and immense fun. This is probably the best compliment I can give to the game. Almost every inch of this experience has been polished and designed with care in order to bring a smile to the player. Mario moves with a tightness and precision that makes moving around in his world a pleasure and allows for an optimum input system that allows you to focus on maneuvering through the many varied and interesting obstacles in his path. The visuals are bright and beautiful; beachside levels glisten in the sun and food-themed levels are so delectable that I want to take a bite out of my TV screen. The catch here is that while 3D World is nothing less than a great video game and does a lot to set it apart from previous Super Mario games, it is still a very familiar experience, and is plagued by that feeling of "been here, done this, seen that, seen this" that has bogged down the Mario series since the original Super Mario Galaxy.

Despite this, one of 3D World's strengths is that it is not afraid to ignore recently overused series staples and do something new. While Bowser is present and accounted for, there's no Bowser Jr., no Koopalings, no clown copter, no airships, and no Yoshi; instead we have new bosses like a gigantic regal snake with a kickass battle theme, auto-scrolling train levels as well as Super Mario Bros. 3's auto-scrolling tank brigades recreated in 3D (more Mario 3 nostalgia, yes, but fresher than the airships), and a new dino buddy named Plessie. Yoshi does not need to be in every Mario game. Neither does anything besides Mario's ability to run and jump. 3D World is a more exciting and more engaging Mario game because it is not afraid to throw out conventions that have been bogging down the series for years in favor of a new experience. And even though Bowser is still here and I would appreciate a different villain for a change (the Mario series, even the platformers, have had villains other than Bowser, believe it or not), I don't mind Bowser in this game too much because of one of 3D World's other positive traits: it has personality.

We've seen Mario fight Bowser before, but never like this

Bowser isn't just the cliché that turns into a giant at the end of the game for the final lava-filled boss fight; he appears as soon as the first castle, driving a gigantic purple Cadillac and throwing soccer ball bombs at you. He has a swanky theme song and has taken to carnival life this time around; in fact, the game even toys with player expectations towards the end, delivering one of the more satisfying and original finales the series has seen in a decade. This is the kind of creativity I like to see in a Mario game, which can really be about anything at all and should feel free to branch out, something games like Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy understood, and that Super Mario 3D Land and especially the New Super Mario Bros. series do the opposite of. More so than any Super Mario game since Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario 3D World feels like a new Mario game.

Another aspect that helps this feeling is the plot and setting: 3D World takes place in a new kingdom known as the Sprixie Kingdom, where Bowser is not capturing Princess Peach this time but bottling a bunch of fairy-like Sprixie Princesses Link-style. While the game has merely traded one damsel in distress for another (or seven others, to be exact), compared to other recent entries, it's a revolutionary new story. So if Peach hasn't been kidnapped, than what is she doing in this game? Saving the day and kicking Bowser's ass, that's what! For the first time in a main series Super Mario platformer since Super Mario Bros. 2/USA, Princess Peach is fully playable, hover jump and all. So are Mario, Luigi, Toad, and a secret fifth character that isn't a secret at all because Nintendo decided to spoil the surprise before the game came out and let it be plastered all over the internet (I guess this is just how it goes these days, but still, I chose not to watch Nintendo's reveal video for this character and two seconds later the thumbnail of another video talking about the reveal video spoiled the character for me). I defeated Bowser at the end with Peach the first time just because I could (and sent the overgrown turtle flying into a pit of lava with a shrunken little Peach in one of the game's other Bowser battles), and after jumping, climbing, and Tanooki-ing with the princess for half the game, I see no sensible reason why she should ever play the damsel again, because she's clearly capable of handling herself against Bowser and his minions. Players can choose whichever character they want at the start of each course, and while Mario still handles the best, the variety each character lends to the game is another welcome new addition.
Above: a sort of new plot! Below: Princess Peach is finally playable again!
The Sprixie Kingdom isn't quite as distinct from the Mushroom Kingdom as the other different lands Mario has visited in the past, such as Subcon, Sarasaland, Mario Land (from Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins), or Isle Delfino, but it still features its fair share of fresh level themes and aesthetics. New or old, however, the level variety in this game is outstanding: just about every single level within the game's first nine worlds does something different from the others and feels unique, whether it's a new environmental theme, gimmick, enemy type, or something else. There's a trip to a circus for some trapeze-swinging action, a haunted shipwreck with rain splattering its deck, a Lion King-esque open Savanna drenched in the dying light of the sun, a tour of a Japanese-inspired castle (with some Chinese elements mixed in); then there are the Captain Toad levels, which are optional sections where the player cannot jump and has to navigate a compact environment avoiding traps and enemies. Not being able to jump in a Mario game sounds dull, but these little puzzles are a refreshing change of pace, don't go on so long or are so numerous that they get tiring, and are actually quite a bit of fun. Each course is a tighly designed little morsel of joy. I appreciate all the new level themes, like the train stages, savanna, and Japanese castle, but familiar tropes are welcome here too thanks to an always fitting and engaging atmosphere due to the mix of the game's colorful, vibrant looks and fantastic soundtrack.

Oh, the soundtrack! What a surprise, and it really shouldn't be, but with so many Mario games lately just recycling the same music tracks or remixing classic ones, the varied, jazzy, big bandy OST of Super Mario 3D World is such a welcome inclusion. The soundtrack is an example of why I respect this game because it represents the effort put into the presentation. It would have been very easy for the developers to simply slap the old airship theme as the BGM for the tank brigade levels (both the airship and tank levels share the same theme in Mario 3 after all), but a brand new track, one that echoes the old airship theme but is entirely original, was composed for these levels instead. So much care was put into the musical presentation of the game that an original track was composed solely for the only desert-themed level present in the game. This track will only be heard for a few minutes by most players, but the game's composers still went to the effort of creating an original piece for this level instead of recycling something else (there are a few other compositions that only play on a single level as well). That's the kind of dedication and care that the makes the New Super Mario Bros. series lazy, uninspired, and mediocre, and Super Mario 3D World special. I'm also surprised that almost the entire soundtrack was composed using live instruments. Even though it's mostly fully orchestrated, the soundtrack has a different feel than that of the Super Mario Galaxy games, which have a decidedly epic and grand flavor; 3D World's OST, on the other hand, is more akin to the style of classic Mario tunes, except made using a live orchestra. They're simpler, catchier melodies, but that doesn't necessarily make them inferior (and the game also isn't without its epic and moving pieces as well). But many of the tunes in the game also feel very different than traditional Mario fare or anything we've heard before in the series, making the soundtrack very unique as well. In fact, this is one of my favorite OSTs in any Mario game and I was constantly surprised and delighted with each new piece that I heard in the game. The overall theme of the soundtrack is jazz and big band-inspired pieces, but this doesn't encompass the entirety of the soundtrack and there is a ton of variety here. The big band athletic theme and it's more relaxed tropical remix are exciting and joyous; then there's the catchy violin of the other athletic theme; but the more slow-paced and moving ghost house piece contrasts these and feels more like something out of BioShock, but still fits the levels so well; the savanna theme is another favorite that I had stuck in my head after hearing it once in a trailer for the game, and I already mentioned Bowser's theme and giant snake boss, Hisstocrat's interesting and unforgettable melody, which I originally fell in love with when it accompanied the fantastic second trailer for the game. Even beyond the music, the overall sound design in 3D World, from Mario's tinkering footsteps on glassy surfaces and the creaking of boards as he explores the Japanese castle to all the personable one-liners and grunts and yelps from the cast, is exceptionally well-executed and just makes the game that much more charming.

The level designs are varied and gorgeous
The visual presentation is also simply delicious. Everything is bright, whimsical, colorful, and polished. Even basic-looking levels truly come alive with details like bell-shaped trees that jingle as Mario and friends climb them. Seeing Mario's fantastical world in HD is delightful. Dense jungles sparkle with atmosphere, the sun glints across pristine water slides, and the delectable layer of frosting on the giant cake Mario is traipsing across looks marvelous. There are also other wonderful details throughout as well, such as the way water drips down the screen during rainy levels and wind ripples across grassy fields that reflect the sunlight, or the visual flair caused by an explosive Bob-omb-induced chain reaction. On that note, the lighting is also particularly impressive across the experience. 3D World is visually euphoric, but it isn't perfect. Sometimes characters and objects can look like they are made out of plastic and rubber (this is especially noticeable during rainy scenes and when taking a look at Plessie up close) and certain textures, such as those of grass, trees, and the fur on the cat suit look artificial, like AstroTurf or styrofoam. These details can make the world feel fake at times, but it's not detrimental to the experience. This is an overall gorgeous game, but I think I still prefer the art direction of the Galaxy games.

This is a stunning-looking game
As should be expected, the level design in 3D World is top-notch and there are plenty of new gimmicks that make things interesting, such as the heavily-advertised clear pipes, which make for some fun designs. The level designs do feel a bit on the easy side, however, thanks to the terrain often being wider to accommodate for multiple players and levels placing less of a focus on precision platforming as a result (as a side note, I have tried the multiplayer and it's fun but chaotic; unless you have two to four players willing to cooperate with each other, you might not get a lot done, but it can still be messy fun for a laugh). 3D World is also stuffed with probably the most power-ups of any Mario game to date, both old and new. While I initially thought that returning power-ups like the Tanooki suit would feel forced, every power-up gets its time to shine and each one has several levels designed with it in mind. I'm not a fan of all of them, such as the cannon box, which isn't bad, I just don't like how it keeps constantly shooting automatically unless you charge it up, and the "boot skate", which would be a lot of fun if it controlled the way your character normally moves, but instead it feels loose and awkward and all in all simply controls terribly. The main newcomer, the cat suit, however, is perhaps the best new power-up since the classic days. The cat suit not only adds oodles of charm and personality to the experience, but it's simply a lot of fun to use, a joy to master, and useful in numerous ways, such as being able to climb up a wall to save yourself from a pit, or being able to dive-bomb enemies from above. The sheer amount of things a player can do with the cat suit, some that don't even serve much of a function but are just there for fun, and the attention to detail with the cat-like animations is impressive for a single Mario power-up. They definitely weren't lazy with this one. The double cherry is also interesting and a lot of fun, especially when used in conjunction with other power-ups like the fire flower. There are even some power-ups that are hidden abilities that the game doesn't teach the player how to perform up-front. Like other modern Mario games, most levels give you the same power-up throughout a level and levels often somehow revolve around a single power-up. I wish there was more mix and match experimentation with power-ups across the levels like in classic Mario titles, where bringing a fire flower into a level might be useful, but a raccoon leaf might also prove useful in the same level (and when losing a power-up actually felt like a big deal since you weren't guaranteed to get the same power-up two seconds later). I do, however, feel like 3D World does a good job in providing a fair balance of all of its powers across stages (with the head-lining cat suit being used most frequently of course), so every power-up gets a lot of use and nothing feels shoehorned in simply for the sake of it (like Yoshi does in New Super Mario Bros. Wii). It is also great to see the Mega Mushroom in a fully 3D game and not only do the giant character models look great but it's a ton of fun to use.

Even without any power-ups, Mario's moveset is more full than ever in this game; he can roll, roll jump, spin jump, butt stomp and then fly into the air with a new high jump...the range of available actions is vast, and while not all are always useful, they're fun to learn and play around with. The only move that seems to be missing is Mario's triple jump (you know: WAH! YAH! WAHOO!), which was also absent from 3D Land. As I mentioned, the game's base level design isn't particularly challenging (until the game's final, optional, unlockable level, Champion's Road, which completing with all five characters, a feat required for 100%, is probably the most difficult challenge I've ever completed in a Super Mario game), but I don't particularly mind this because players can control how challenging they want the experience to be because as always, going for the hidden collectables in each stage (this time, green stars and stamps) adds more challenge (and while most of these are fairly straightforward to locate, they are sometimes harder to actually acquire and a select few are truly deviously hidden). Also, I don't need Mario games to be extra challenging as I play them mainly to have a fun and joyful experience rather than for a very steep challenge. After finding all of the collectables in a level, there's not much else to these courses though. Sure, there are a few other fairly easy-to-find hidden secrets that yield 1-ups, coins, or a power-up, and replaying levels is fun just for the sheer quality of their aesthetics and design, but I feel like there's not as much depth to these stages as in classic Mario games. I'm still finding new secrets to this day in Super Mario Bros. 3 and I feel like every nook of the levels in that game holds some kind of mystical prize and going out of one's way to fly off the screen or check every pipe is always rewarded. I miss the days of hidden warp whistles and ducking behind the scenery, of carefully hidden secrets that blew my mind. 3D World has a few things like this that I didn't find and had to read about online, but very literally only two actually (as far as I know that is...). Again, it's fun to replay stages just because of the joy of it all, but I feel like I've rung 3D World dry whereas repeat visits of classic Super Mario games often yield new treats. To be fair though, this is not an issue exclusive to 3D World, but one I have with most modern Super Mario titles.

3D World has more tricks than just a cat suit
Overall, 3D World does a lot right. Some things I haven't mentioned are the new overworld map, which feels familiar but still unique and new and while it's nothing amazing, it's still fun to roam around and discover hidden secrets on (most of which are very simple to find admittedly) and it's at least vastly superior to the boring level select in 3D Land. I like that the game features a lot less Mario 3 nostalgia-farming as well and mainly references a different classic Mario game for once (Super Mario Bros. 2/USA). In fact, 3D World pays tribute to the series as a whole, instead of solely to Mario 3, with throwbacks to Super Mario World, 64, Galaxy, and the classic NES trilogy peppered throughout. While throwbacks are nice, the Super Mario series is becoming notorious for relying too much on them, and while 3D World does feel like it has more of its own identity than many other recent entries, I'd still prefer something entirely new that doesn't care about players' nostalgia. The Miiverse integration is also nice and I enjoyed posting my thoughts about numerous levels after completing them, whether to complain about something I didn't like or praise a particularly compelling level design (although the miniscule character limitation on these posts is rubbish). Super Mario 3D World is just an overall charming, whimsical, and genuinely enjoyable game and the amount of variety and creativity within kept me wanting to play more and more until I'd seen it all.

But 3D World still isn't quite where I want the Super Mario series to be and this is mainly due to a still recurring "been there, done that" feeling persistent throughout the game. This is easily the most original Mario game in at least three years, but it still has that tried and true formula of "travel through eight main worlds containing five+ levels and a castle (or in this game's case, either a castle level, train level, or tank level), with three collectibles in each level (four this time counting the stamps)". The game is full of delights, but it still feels like going through the motions in the end and as the game went on, I began to feel a bit of fatigue due to the repetitive nature of a formula that I'm so familiar with. The game also feels very reminiscent of the Super Mario Galaxy games and Super Mario 3D Land (besides just being the same brand of 2D/3D Mario hybrid that 3D Land is), utilizing a lot of familiar and re-used level gimmicks from those games. Stage gimmicks like the flip-swap platforms and beat blocks are still great ideas, but some of these gimmicks we're seeing for the third time in this game and they've run their course at this point. I'd rather see brand new ideas in their place.

I always maintain that all the Super Mario games up to and including the original Super Mario Galaxy feel completely different and unique from each other (barring the original Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2, also known as "The Lost Levels" and the original New Super Mario Bros., which I've always thought feels like a watered-down version of Super Mario Bros. 3, with elements borrowed from other classic titles as well for the sake of nostalgia): Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2/USA, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World all have their own distinct identities; Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy all distinctly stand apart from one another as well. The two Game Boy titles, Super Mario Land and Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins are also two very unique experiences. But just as the four New Super Mario Bros. games all blend together and lack their own unique personalities, the four Nintendo EAD Tokyo-developed games--Galaxy 1 and 2, 3D Land and 3D World--all share elements in common as well. Power-ups, level gimmicks, some music, and other elements are shared from game to game and while these four games are mostly more distinct from one another than the New Super Mario Bros. series (and vastly superior to that series in every other way as well, with 3D Land being a possible exception), they still mix together and cross identities in many ways and as a result don't feel like the bold individuals their ancestors are. As I said earlier, 3D World feels more like a truly "new" Super Mario than any other entry in recent years, but after completing it, it still doesn't feel nearly as fresh as Super Mario Galaxy did in 2007, or Sunshine did before that. All this homogeneity makes the Super Mario series feel less special than it did before, less like each game is a separate, innovative entity that justifies its existence and more like the series is becoming a "yearly franchise" where each new title takes the previous one, adds some new elements to what already exists and "updates" the franchise rather than reinvents it. For an on-going series as old as Mario, this "reinvention" is necessary to keep the series relevant and engaging, otherwise it will become stagnant and even an old fan like me will lose interest.

Recurring level gimmicks like the red and blue flip-swap platforms (top to bottom: Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario 3D Land, Super Mario 3D World) contribute an ever-growing homogeneity between the Super Mario games
3D World's other main issue is its refusal to let go of archaic design concepts that just don't belong anymore and only seem to be here for the sake of tradition. Does anyone care about "score" in these games anymore? Did anyone ever care about the score in a Mario game? This isn't an arcade game and we've had more tangible goals in platformers for decades. And in a game that auto saves after every single level, what is the point of lives again? The Mario series needs to take a page from modern platformers like Rayman Origins, which has no lives and a checkpoint in every new section of a level. But at the very least, extra lives do give you some incentive for exploring and something to collect as well as incentive to collect coins (which are still so bizarrely satisfying to collect for some inexplicable reason). But then again, Rayman Origins retained collectibles, but set up a different sort of reward system where by collecting enough Lums (little creatures that are Rayman's version of "coins" or "rings" basically), players could unlock extra content like different character skins instead of more pointless extra lives. The lives system and score are trivial matters though and while they don't need to be here, they also ultimately don't affect my overall enjoyment of the experience. However, there is one other outdated design mechanic that does affect my enjoyment and it is also my largest issue with Super Mario 3D World.

The damn timer. Giving players an average of 400 half-seconds (because Mario seconds are shorter than actual seconds) to explore each level is a huge design oversight in my eyes, and I find it hard to believe that a game with such care and polish put into every other category managed to have such a stupid flaw. The timer adds nothing to the experience but takes away so much. Some say the time limit adds "challenge". Bullshit. Rayman Origins doesn't have a timer. Donkey Kong Country Returns doesn't have a timer. Both of these games are overall far more challenging than 3D World. The timer adds nothing. You know what else Rayman and DKCR have in common? They both have optional time attack modes, which is what 3D World should have had. Why craft such detailed, beautiful levels only to rush me through them with an obnoxious time limit? Hard as I tried, as the game went on, I couldn't help myself from constantly glancing up at the upper right-hand corner of the screen, constantly in fear of the timer counting down. Overdramatic? Maybe, but this one oversight seriously impacted my enjoyment of this game.

I never have much of an issue with the timer is 2D Mario games and even in 3D Land because the levels are always short and compact enough for me not to notice it, but many of 3D World's levels are much larger, more detailed, and encourage exploration, especially with the new cat suit that makes me want to climb every single wall just to see what's up there. I can't tell you how many times on my initial runthrough of the game I found myself annoyingly running out of time and having to either rush through the rest of the level or kill myself after reaching the mid-way checkpoint flag to reset the clock. I might be able to overlook the timer if it was adjusted accordingly, giving much more time for larger levels and less time for shorter ones, but it seems that little thought was put into this aspect. Some of the levels in 3D World are designed less as linear point A to B environments and more as open areas that invite exploration. 3D Land had levels like this as well, except that game always gave the player not only more initial time but plenty of extra time bonuses to find in the level, so while the timer still shouldn't have been there at all, it at least never hampered my enjoyment of that game. The open levels in 3D World don't give the player nearly as much time as those in 3D Land did.

The timer problem really hit home for me on the gorgeous, open "Sprawling Savanna" level, where after going through an opening portion of the level, cat Mario is unleashed on a wide-open plain full of bunnies to chase, little goodies to collect, and secrets to find. There's just one problem: the first time I was playing this level, when I got to the actual "savanna" part of the level, which is really where the course truly begins, I looked at the clock and I only had 163 seconds left to enjoy myself. Look, I take my time with games, I'll admit, but ignoring the fact that I never thought that taking my time to enjoy and appreciate every inch of a carefully-crafted level is a sin, this is still absolutely unforgivable. But what makes me even more angry and also baffled is how the Savanna level gives the player a starting time of 400 seconds on the clock to complete it, with a handful of +10 seconds bonuses scattered throughout that barely add much comfort, while some other stages that are more linear and much shorter give the player 500 seconds. I noticed that most of the levels in the first world give the player 500 seconds but later worlds' levels offer less time with most levels starting with an average of 400 seconds. I assume that this is supposed to add "challenge". Again: bullshit. It's irritating and makes the game less enjoyable, plain and simple, especially when the level in question is open and designed to be explored. In fact, there is a shorter, more compact version of the Savanna level in one of the game's special worlds (which remix old stages similar to the special worlds in 3D Land), and not only does this shorter version give the player more time to start with (500 seconds) but it contains a +100 seconds bonus in the level. I had more than enough time to finish this level, but had to rush through the first version. If the timer is an attempt at added challenge, than why is the supposedly more challenging version of the level equipped with much more time? It's ill-thought-out, stupid design in an otherwise expertly-crafted video game. That's just really frustrating. When I revisited levels that I was familiar with in the game, the timer became less of a problem, and many levels do contain those +10 and +100 seconds bonus clocks (I found them often being an inadequate bonus though), but even very early in the game, the time limit was a huge sore point for me that frustrated me to no end. Here was a beautiful, fun, creative experience that I really wanted to love, but couldn't because of a poorly-thought-out, archaic design mechanic from the 80s. This stuff needs to go, Nintendo. It really needs to go. (Note: keep in mind that I'm not referring to the levels that are specifically designed around having a short time limit, such as the ones that start with 100 seconds on the clock or the mystery house levels which give a player 10 seconds to complete a short challenge; the timer is these stages serves a purpose and does add to the experience. There is a big difference between these levels, which are purposefully designed with the time limit in mind, and the incorporation of the timer in traditional stages.)

I know you want to enjoy that beautiful sunset, Peach, but only 146 seconds left on the clock: better hustle! (this is the beginning of the "Sprawling Savanna" level by the way)

The game has some other issues, mainly a perspective issue when it comes to precision platforming. Because many of the levels have a fixed camera with a view from the side (as opposed to behind the player character) and yet players must maneuver Mario through a 3D space, there were several times during my play-time that I miss-judged jumps and or didn't land where I thought I'd land due to the awkward perspective. It's not a game-breaking issue, but it is an issue that I also sometimes had with 3D Land and one that isn't present in the fully 3D Mario games like Galaxy. There is an option to change the camera angle in most levels (though not all), and also a more free-roaming camera mode, but these options are very restricted and I found that although flawed, the game's default camera position was still usually the most ideal option available. Mario's handling is also a bit different than in previous 3D installments with the game employing a "three-tiered" style of running that can take some getting used to. When holding down the run button, a character will start doing a light jog before bursting into their full-on run. This mechanic can feel a little sluggish at first, and I often found myself having to run around in circles on narrow platforms just to keep my momentum up, as stopping would mean having to slowly "charge up" my run again (if I did stop, I would usually also run around in a circle until it was fully charged). It's an odd and cumbersome design change that I eventually got used to, but I'm not sure why the running doesn't just work like it did in 3D Land. 3D Land had a similar style but Mario went into his full running speed very quickly after holding down the run button. Running feels natural in that game, but it feels less so in 3D World. I'm usually constantly holding down the run button in a Super Mario platformer, so having this slightly stilted system does make the control a little less than optimal (although bursting into that full run as a trail of dust erupts behind Mario is very satisfying and once you are in a fun sprint, a character feels very satisfying to control). I also encountered a weird glitch several times throughout my playthrough. The game would freeze while it was in the process of saving and would get stuck in a never-ending loop where it just wouldn't stop saving. This would cause me to force a shut-down of the console and risk losing my save data. This happened to me about five times and there didn't seem to be any apparent cause; it also wasn't just my game as far as I can tell, because I read about some others having the same issue online. Thankfully, I never lost any save data, and because the game auto-saves after every level, I would only have to reply the last level that I just recently completed. I was lucky that this never happened after completing one of the game's tougher challenges, and if this had happened after completing Champion's Road with any of the characters, stuff would have been broken. I probably wouldn't have a working Wii U GamePad anymore.

The new way running works can be awkward and the perspective of the action can sometimes lead to frustrating mistakes

Super Mario 3D World is flawed and familiar, but it's also fresh and fun. Despite the game not being quite the bold new Super Mario game that I want, it is an undeniably polished and immensely satisfying video game. It has heart and a kitty-fueled fun personality that many other Mario games lack these days. Every little detail of this game (besides the timer) has been carefully crafted with the express purpose of bringing delight to the player, such as being able to decorate a giant cake landscape with rainbow-colored sprinkles with the touch of a finger to the GamePad, the way that Mario and co. kick up massive dust clouds as they run and how Mario holds his hands at his sides full sprint in the same way he did in Super Mario Bros. 2/USA ("mayor Luigi"-style), and how players can blow into the GamePad's microphone to send a group of tiny Goombas flying off a cliff. Oh, right, I guess I should mention the GamePad-specific abilities. By blowing into the microphone and touching the GamePad, players can make certain things happen. This can be used for added charm like the things I just mentioned, or in more practical ways like being able to find secret blocks and shake trees of their contents. The Japanese castle level has players opening sliding doors with the touch of a finger and banging on gongs with a tap. There's also one very gimmicky level that uses the touching and blowing features to manipulate platforms: it's a decent idea, but I'm thankful it's only in the one level because to be honest, it's a bit of a mess. Touching platforms on the GamePad while trying to jump across them on the TV screen and holding the microphone up to your face constantly to move other's not terrible, but it's just unintuitive. This kind of thing reminds me of the forced motion control levels in the Galaxy games; you know, the worst part of those games? I wish EAD Tokyo would just spare us and leave this gimmickry out of their Mario games. This shoehorning of GamePad support is exactly the opposite of the subtle way that I want the technology to be used.

In the sea of all the recent disappointments in the series, from the New Super Mario Bros. series to Paper Mario: Sticker Star, Super Mario 3D World is easily my favorite Mario game since Galaxy 2; it's just not quite the next revolution and that next truly original game that I want from the series. It's annoying that some of the game's flaws could have easily been fixed with more options. If people want a timer, why not just have time trials unlocked after completing a stage once like every other modern platformer has? Why not an option to turn the timer off at the very least? And on that note, can I please have the option to turn off the game-breaking White Tanooki Leaf from ever appearing in a level? But damnit, 3D World, when you're this unrelentingly, gleefully fun, I just can't stay mad at you.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Mario and Luigi: Dream Team (3DS) Review

To preface this review, I just want to say that I love RPGs. Some, hell, most of my very favorite experiences in gaming have come from RPGs or action RPGs. A good RPG with a great atmosphere, engaging story, interesting characters, and solid gameplay has won me over time and time again. To make things more relevant to this review, the original title in the Mario and Luigi series, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga for the Game Boy Advance, is one of my favorite games of all time, and maybe even my favorite of the nine current Mario RPG games. So when I say that Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is just kind of boring, it's not because "I'm just not into RPGs".

Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is a polished game. It looks great, it sounds great, and it plays great. It also has a really interesting concept: using a sleeping Luigi as a conduit to dive into various "dream worlds" as the brothers explore an island that was once the home of a kingdom of pillow-headed people known as "Pi'illos" (still pronounced just like "pillow" though...I think). All of the components are in place for a truly imaginative experience and a memorable RPG. There's just one problem: the game just isn't that captivating.

But let praise be given where it is due. The gameplay is tight and responsive; Dream Team uses the same sort of turn-based, contextual action-focused battle system that all of the previous Mario RPGs have employed where timing certain button presses can both deal more damage to enemies when using attacks and also allow Mario and Luigi to avoid the attacks of their foes. It feels very satisfying to pull off attacks and every sound effect and cue in battle just feels good. The feeling of impact when you jump on an enemy, the satisfaction in getting an "Excellent" when successfully pulling off a stronger attack with precise timing and execution; it's all very gratifying. The game is also very pretty, presenting a colorful world built from an interesting mix of 3D environments and 2D character sprites. Some of the character artwork is really impressive, especially on some of the larger characters in the game, which possess an impressive amount of detail and personality. The animation on all the different characters and monsters in the game is also top-notch. The soundtrack is high quality as well, with series and RPG veteran composer Yoko Shimomura returning to compose the tunes. Each track fits its environment well, and there are several stand-outs, such as all the battle themes (the standard battle theme which doubles as the main theme of the game is one of the reasons I was persuaded to pick the game up; it's just so dang catchy), and several of the area themes, chiefly those of Somnom Woods and Dreamy Somnom Woods, are very pleasing to the ears and fit their environment perfectly. Although some of the music does begin to get repetitive after a while and I found myself getting sick of a lot of the tracks in the areas that tended to drag on a bit too long (this might be more the game's fault than the music's though...more on that later).

The game also has some genuinely great moments. Most of the boss battles are a lot of fun and there are some regions on Pi'illo Island that stand out much more than others. I got a lot of enjoyment out of exploring the resort town of Wakeport, meeting its denizens and participating in a fun trading quest. I love detailed towns in RPGs and Wakeport has a very fitting atmosphere and a lot to do in it (at least upon your first visit). The highlight of the whole game for me, however, is easily the Somnom Woods region. You don't explore it until late in the game, but the developers really did save the best area for nearly last. The region has a fantastic presentation and atmosphere and the overall level design of the region is fairly engaging as well. If the rest of the game was more in line with the inspired, interesting atmosphere of Somnom Woods, this review might have been a lot different...
Dream Team's mix of 2D character sprites and 3D environments looks quite nice

So Dream Team is polished, it's competently made, and it has some fantastic moments. But...

Dream Team on the whole just isn't that interesting or engaging, and there are a number of reasons for this. For starters, I've seen all this before and done all this before. The overall structure of the game, as well as its plot, themes, etc. are all very banal. The game starts with a slow opening full of tutorials (there are way too many intrusive tutorials across the game as a whole actually), then Peach is kidnapped, then you proceed to go from area to area on one errand or another; there's the traditional late game fetch quest that has been in every Mario and Luigi game, and the game culminates with a long, painfully drawn-out slog through yet another lava-filled castle.

In addition, Dream Team may have a fresh coat of paint in terms of its setting and dream concept, but underneath all that, this is just Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story again (the previous game in the series). The mix of 2D and 3D environments and the idea of manipulating the outside world to affect an inner world is ripped straight from that game, as is the way the player acquires new special attacks, and as are the giant Luigi battles, which can either be an exciting highlight or a frustrating mess depending on if the gimmicky touch-screen and motion controls want to cooperate or not (the final giant battle culminates in an awful motion-controlled sequence where one screw-up means you have to start the whole sequence over). During these battles, sometimes I would go to flick the touch-screen with my stylus and I would either not press the screen firmly enough or miss altogether and while this may technically be my own fault, something like this would not be a problem if I could just press a button or use an analog stick. Also, I don't know what Nintendo's obsession with tilting the whole 3DS to perform actions is, but it's just not as fun as they think it is; at best it's mildly amusing, and at worst it's less precise than traditional controls and hampers the experience.

Most of Dream Team's core concepts, like the giant Luigi battles (below), are borrowed from Bowser's Inside Story (above), where they were brand new ideas

The generic, cliché environments in the game do little to help this overwhelming feeling of familiarity either. This is supposed to be the exciting new land of Pi'illo Island, but it actually is just another romp through "grass land", "desert land", "mountain/snow land", "beach land", "forest land", and "lava castle" in roughly that order as well. I don't mind familiar environment tropes in games as long as the area does something new and interesting with the trope or otherwise has some kind of captivating atmosphere, but lately most recent Mario games have proven again and again that they are content with not doing anything new, interesting, or captivating. With the exception of the forest region known as Somnom Woods that I already mentioned, none of these very familiar environments offer anything particularly interesting. The beach area is just your typical tropical beach area, the desert is dull and uninteresting, and the mountain region just seems to drag on forever and ever, and I was so sick of its musical theme by the end of it (at least the snowy region of the mountain has a different version of the theme, but it's still based on the same melody). The level designs themselves are decent, but nothing new for the Mario and Luigi series and nothing special really. Pi'illo Island as a whole also feels less like an organic world open to exploration and more like a bunch of levels artificially glued together, which doesn't help the game's overall generic feel much. Just compare the map from Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga's Beanbean Kingdom to Dream Team's Pi'illo Island:

The Beanbean Kingdom (above) is an open, interesting world; Pi'illo Island (below) is nine levels glued together

But the "real world" of Pi'illo Island is only about half of the total space you'll be traversing in the game. There are also dream versions of every single area. And they're even more dull. Seriously, these sequences should have been amazing; I mean, just imagine what the crazy dream worlds of the Mario universe look like (besides this, of course)! Well, whatever you're imagining is far more interesting than the lazy jumble of identical rooms that make up each dream world. These sequences just aren't interesting visually or atmospherically, which makes slogging through them a chore, especially since you are required to go through them after making it though the very lengthy real world sections. The game just isn't paced well. After exploring a large region of Pi'illo Island and fighting a boss, you feel like you should make some progress and move somewhere new, but instead you still have a massive dream version of that area to get through, with another boss waiting at the end of that. And even besides that, there are also other smaller dream sections that exist in each region in addition to the main dream section (although many of these are admittedly optional). This whole process of real world region followed by large dream world sequence repeats for every new area you visit; it's very predictable and gets very old quickly. The dream worlds possess the same environmental theme as their accompanying real world regions (just in a more abstract way), as well as an alternate version of their musical theme, so it all feels incredibly redundant. Most notably though, the dream worlds don't feel magical or special; they feel generic and uninspired, like walking through a particularly busy screensaver or something (again, the dream version of Somnom Woods is the exception because it possesses something most of the rest of the game seems to lack: a captivating atmosphere). Maybe part of the issue is also that Mario and Luigi's real world is already so fantastical itself, that there's not much contrast when entering into the dream worlds, which only seem slightly more nonsensical. But really, that's not an excuse, because the bottom line is that it just feels like not much thought or effort was put into the dream worlds' visual design or atmosphere, and if they had put more effort into this department, I'm sure these sequences would stand out more.

Although they have a boring atmosphere, the dream sequences do bring the game's main new gimmick to the table: Luiginary abilities. Within the dream world, there are things called "Luiginary Works" which are basically pieces of scenery that Luigi's dreamy self can combine with. After doing so, the player can mess with Luigi's sleeping body located on the 3DS's touch-screen in order to affect some change in the dream world. Again, it's an idea carried over from Bowser's Inside Story, where certain actions outside would affect the levels inside Bowser's body (and in that game, certain actions inside also affected Bowser in the outside world). These actions range from simple things like pulling Luigi's mustache to manipulate Luigi-themed tree branches that can launch Mario into the air and rubbing his nose to make him sneeze and blows objects from the background to the foreground, to more complicated abilities like manipulating the flow of time and the law of gravity. The most frequently used and the deepest of the Luiginary abilities is when Luigi splits apart into multiple "Luiginoids" that Mario can use to perform a variety of actions, from forming a giant stack that can jump super high to turning into a Luiginary tornado that can hover over pits. These abilities are fun to use and have their merits, but in the end, a neat mechanic just isn't enough to make me look past the bland dream environments. The dream areas are also very linear (as is most of the game as a whole) and just feel like monotonous trips from point A to point B across various identical-looking rooms. Usually, if I'm going to be exploring a large area or going through any kind of lengthy, time-consuming sequence in a video game, especially in an RPG, I need it to have some kind of interesting atmosphere or level design, and while the level design in Dream Team is adequate, overall things just aren't very engaging atmospherically.

The dream worlds are an uninspired mess of shapes and colors, and all sections of a given dream area look identical to one another

The Luiginary abilities also carry over to battle in the dream world, although with unique battle-specific attacks that are unlocked as the game progresses. While in the dream world, Dreamy Luigi fuses with Mario, which allows Mario to perform a bunch of interesting Luigi-powered attacks. These attacks are actually really fun to do and mastering the ones that are more challenging to pull off effectively feels satisfying. Controlling Mario as he uses a crowd of Luigis to form a massive hammer to smash foes is both very gratifying from a visual standpoint and from a gameplay one. Battles in the dream world are quite a lot of fun, if not a bit repetitive (although I never got tired of the flurry of Luigis that followed and mimicked my hammer attacks). Battles in the real world aren't as interesting to me, mainly because I just don't like most of the real world special attacks you can unlock in this game (I like all of the dream world ones though and more importantly, I found them far more manageable and usable). The easier ones get dull really quickly and maybe I'm just unskilled (even though I've been playing this series and Mario RPGs with similar context-sensitive actions for years), but I swear some of these attacks require super-human reflexes, while others rely too much on wonky motion control (of course). There is one attack that tasks the player with memorizing which order a bunch of Marios and Luigis jump out of a cannon and then with pressing the A and B buttons accordingly for each brother as they descend on a foe and then the game expects you to repeat the process with the brothers descending in the opposite order. Mario and Luigi fly out of the cannon at lightning speed and they both look identical besides their red and green colors, and all in all I just found it nearly impossible to tell which brother was which and memorize their order. Basically, this attack was useless to me because I just found it unusable, and a lot of the real world attacks follow suit; they're hit or miss and it's really lame when I just can't use certain attacks in an RPG because I either find the mechanics of them totally unwieldy or unwieldy enough that they aren't worth using in lieu of a more reliable attack. One or two screw-ups when using these attacks and they do very minimal damage, which made it far more practical for me to just stick with the ones that I could perform competently, which in turn means I was sticking to only about two or three different special attacks in real world battle for most of the game, which is repetitive and boring. To be fair, there is an option to slow the attacks down to make them easier to perform...but that's getting into Super Guide territory and I ain't havin' none of that (even though there's so much of that in this game, it's often hard to avoid all the ways the game wants to hold your hand and never let it go).
All in all, the action-based battles that have been present in every Mario RPG since the original on the Super Nintendo are still fun, but battles just get awfully repetitive, especially early on when your list of available actions is very limited (but late in the game wasn't much better for me because of all those attacks, Mario's in particular, I found too troublesome to use). Besides special attacks, the bros. can use items, jump on foes, or whack them with a hammer, so there's not much variety (why did they ever get rid of the awesome elemental abilities from Superstar Saga, anyway?) Battles, even standard battles with common mooks, also go on for way too long sometimes. Besides performing Mario and Luigi's attacks, there's also the lengthy process of waiting for the enemies to attack and trying to dodge their attacks (and even common grunts often have multi-part attacks). Boss battles, on the other hand, are an even worse offender as some of these baddie's attack turns seem to go on forever, with some of the bosses seeming to perform no less than three lengthy attacks in a row when it is their turn. During the last boss in particular, I felt like 70% of the battle was just waiting for my turn. The game isn't very challenging by any means, but it still feels a bit unfair when I get two chances to do something (with one chance usually being wasted on healing in the tougher fights) and then have to endure a painful three-minute gauntlet from a boss.

Luiginary abilities are the highlight of the dream sections both inside battle (above) and outside battle (below)

Drag. That's what this game is: a drag. It just drags on in every department. Slogging through the real world areas, and then slogging through a drawn-out dream section, and slogging through every little battle that can drag on for too long themselves. This feeling of everything being stretched out to its limits carries over to the whole game. This game just drones on and on, and at times it feels like the developers simply didn't want players to finish the game. You should encourage me to want to delve further into your game, not push me away by artificially dragging out every aspect of the experience. There's also that drawn-out late game fetch quest I mentioned earlier which has you retreading back through every main area. I normally don't really mind this kind of thing, as I like revisiting places to cover all the ground I couldn't reach before due to lacking a certain ability, but this game was long enough already and this really feels like obvious padding to just stretch things out even more. Then there's the final dungeon, the aforementioned lava-filled castle I've seen a million times before, which is so needlessly drawn-out that it took me about four sittings just to get through it. The main part of the dungeon is basically repeating the same exact lengthy sequence three times, and fighting the same boss three different times. Why do I need to repeat all this three times? Again, do you want me to complete your game or not?

*sigh* And now there's the plot...I'll warn you right now, there's going to be spoilers. Although, I will say the general direction of the plot was spoiled for me before playing and all it really did was make the whole affair slightly less disappointing for me, because if I'd gone in completely blind, I probably would have been vocally cursing at how uncreative Nintendo is these days. So if you're like me and you like new, original plots and villains in your Mario RPGs you might want to be spoiled if you plan on playing this game. Honestly, after how bafflingly disappointing Paper Mario: Sticker Star's "story" was, you'd think Nintendo was purposefully defecating on my fond memories of the brilliance of the pre-Sticker Star Mario RPGs at this point (in fact, just stop reading this and go play Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga; it's still the best of the Mario and Luigi series).

The plot could have been something special, but it falls prey to Nintendo's recent insistence on homogenizing every single Mario game and making the plots in these games as trite and as stale as possible. Things start out intriguing if a bit unoriginal: our heroes are invited to Pi'illo Island for their third(?) group vacation at this point in the overall Mario series, an ancient place that used to be home to the now supposedly extinct race of fluffy Pi'illo folk, but which is now a tourist spot that has attracted attention from all corners of the Mushroom World. Again, not the most original of concepts in the Mario series, and I can't help but feel that this plot was just an excuse for the developers to cram as many cameos from the whole of the Mario and Luigi series into the game as they could, using the excuse that they were all either taking a vacation or otherwise heard about the island being the new hot spot, but there was still a lot of potential here. A new villain known as Antasma, an awesomely-named and awesome-looking "bat king", arrives on the scene and sucks Princess Peach into the dream world, forcing the brothers to embark on yet another quest. It's eventually revealed that Antasma was responsible for the Pi'illo Kingdom's downfall long ago before being sealed away in the dream world. Now he's making his return and Mario and Luigi have to try to help the newly-reawakened Pi'illo ruler Prince Dreambert stop Antasma from spreading darkness across the world and all that. While the immensely worn-out cliché of a kidnapped Princess Peach is groan-inducing, Antasma was still a new face and if he was anything like his very reputable Mario RPG villain brethren (the Shroobs from Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time not included), and taking into account the interesting dream-based set-up, we could have had something intriguing here. The war between Antasma and the Pi'illos should have been the focus in this story, and with some more character development between Antasma and the Pi'illos, this could have made for a fairly simple, but nice new story in the world of Mario.

But then Bowser shows up.

Yup, suddenly Bowser! People complain about Ganon hijacking the plot in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, but Dream Team is on a whole other level. Twilight Princess's inclusion of Ganon is elegant compared to Dream Team's handling of Bowser. Bowser literally just randomly shows up out of nowhere because "he heard the princess got captured and that's his gig". That's slightly humorous (if a bit of an overdone joke at this point in the Mario RPGs), and I wouldn't mind Bowser playing some kind of role in the game, maybe as a side villain the brothers encounter every now and again (similar to his role in most other Mario RPGs), but what isn't humorous is that Bowser, who has zero connection to anything going on the story, ends up being the main antagonist and final boss of the game. Bowser and Antasma team up for a while, but Bowser ultimately ends up being the primary threat. Instead of developing Antasma more and having something new and interesting, Bowser is artlessly shoehorned into the game (half the time he doesn't even seem to know what's going on and Antasma has to explain everything to him), and as a result Antasma is not given the attention he should have been given and ends being a very uninteresting villain himself. The outcome is a game with two boring villains instead of one interesting one.

Top to bottom: 1.) New villain Antasma shows promise 2.) Bowser shows up and hijacks the plot 3.) Instead of being able to develop into an interesting new antagonist on his own, Antasma now has to carry Bowser around with him (literally)
And the story is also boring as a result. It wasn't much to begin with, but it had potential to at least have some kind of interesting dynamic between Antasma and the Pi'illo folk. Anyway, there's a magical wish-granting MacGuffin (what is this, the 70th one of those in a Nintendo game now?) that the villains want to get their hands on and spoiler alert but they eventually do and use its power to build a big, generic floating castle, where they sit in the sky for the entire second half of the game and don't do anything until the heroes get enough power to arrive at their doorstep and beat them up. The adventure culminates with both a battle against a gigantic Bowser and one against a smaller, but still larger-than-normal Bowser, with the princess being rescued in the end (and Antasma? He gets an anticlimactic, pathetically easy penultimate boss fight before the main event with the larger-than-normal Bowser and exits the scene with little fanfare or impact). It's tired, it's boring, and I'm sick of it. It also has no business being in a Mario RPG, a series that has typically subverted the Mario stereotypes and delivered interesting new villains and situations. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars has a gang of sentient weapons. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door has a secret society that lives on the moon. I mean, the Mario and Luigi series itself went from a game where you play as Bowser for most of the game and the villain is an insane talking bean who took over the Koopa King's castle, turning it into a giant theater and enslaving all his minions with mind control.

Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story ends with (spoilers for that game ahead) Mario and Luigi starting a fight with Bowser. Just as the battle begins, the credits begin to roll. While the outcome of the battle is shown during the credits, the player doesn't participate in it because we don't have to; we all know how it's going to turn out. It's almost as if the developers of Bowser's Inside Story knew that Mario and Luigi's fight with Bowser is cliché and predictable and thus found it appropriate to end on that note rather than deliver another in-game fight. In fact, the whole entirety of Bowser's Inside Story is playing against the tired old Mario and Luigi vs. Bowser plot by delivering a completely fresh experience where we play as Bowser trying to reclaim his castle and minions, all the while having Mario and Luigi still present for a bizarre adventure in the villain's bowels. Dream Team follows this by stupidly and lazily pitting the brothers against Bowser in the same kind of plot that the previous game thought was boring. Um, what?

Even though I'm very sick of him right now, I don't particularly mind Bowser being a frequent antagonist in Mario's main platforming adventures as long as the adventure itself is something fresh, but the Mario RPG series, which is far more story-heavy than a Mario platformer, has up to Sticker Star and Dream Team existed uniquely as a special canvas for developers to go wild with their creativity and explore unheard of new avenues of Mario's universe. Dream Team started to do this, but then for whatever reason (I have this sinking feeling that Shigeru Miyamoto had something to do with it...) they decided to tastelessly shove Bowser and a general feeling of stagnation into their creative project. What's the point in having such a generic, stale plot? How does this benefit the experience? I just don't get it.

Despite its relatively shallow plot, Dream Team's script is massive, with the game being full to bursting with dialogue. A fair amount of effort was put into the script, and I appreciate the dialogue of minor NPCs changing throughout the game and in response to what is going on in the story, with some humorous quips that can be easily and entirely missed by less thorough players. Unfortunately, the humor which has always been a staple in Mario's role-playing adventures is very hit or miss in Dream Team. There are some genuinely charming characters and funny moments (the Zeekeeper is a highlight and I'm quite fond of the "Elite Trio", who originally made their debut in Bowser's Inside Story), but often times jokes either go on for way too long or get irritating after they are repeated ad nauseam. The first time a character makes the silly exclamation of "Let me nap on you!", it's silly and a bit comical; the next five times the same character repeats this "joke", not so much. A lot of the dialogue just ends up being wasted time and the game isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is, especially compared to all of its Mario RPG brethren. Also, in addition to Bowser being shoehorned into the game, there are also other characters from the previous Mario and Luigi games that just seem to show up on Pi'illo Island for no better reason than it's a popular vacation spot or for no special reason at all. I'm fine with Starlow returning from Bowser's Inside Story mainly because the plot needed someone to wait outside and mess with Luigi's sleeping body while Mario and Luigi explored the dream world and I also actually enjoyed seeing residents from the Beanbean Kingdom (the setting of Superstar Saga) such as the Hooskis and Beanish folk. But it's never explained why Broque Monsieur, a block collector who ran a small shop in the Mushroom Kingdom in Bowser's Inside Story, basically runs the entire tourist operation on the island along with his fellow Brocks, and Popple the thief from Superstar Saga shows up for a few brief scenes and one boss fight that could easily be removed from the game without sacrificing much. Altogether, I appreciate the references to Superstar Saga and the Beanbean Kingdom throughout the game, but some of it just feels forced and ultimately it all just makes me wish I was playing the superior and more original Superstar Saga instead. Dream Team as a whole just feels so much lazier than previous games in the Mario and Luigi series.

Dream Team is full of familiar faces, although some of these cameos feel forced

Between the familiar plot, terribly-handled and awkward jamming of Bowser into the story, clichéd areas, uninteresting atmosphere, and incredibly repetitive structure, I feel like I had to force myself to finish this game, and that's not a good thing. The bottom line is that Dream Team just isn't all that engaging, especially if you've played any of the other Mario and Luigi games or any Mario RPG in general. A Mario RPG about going inside of dreams should have been marvelous, but the tired plot, tired villain, tired locations, and uninspired dream areas all bring the experience down. One captivating area and one very captivating area, plus some fun and unique mechanics in the form of the Luiginary abilities just don't make up for an overall lackluster experience. A polished game does not equal a special one, and neither does Dream Team exist in a vacuum where it can avoid being compared to its superb forebears in the Mario RPG series: games like Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Paper Mario, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Super Paper Mario, and Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. I had issues with Bowser's Inside Story (I'm not crazy about the 2D sections in that game either), but at least that game is clever, creative, full of new ideas, and a fresh and original experience. Solid gameplay also doesn't mean anything in an RPG if the atmosphere and plot are dull. I feel that Dream Team is mainly just a big missed opportunity; it should have been something truly wondrous, but Nintendo's current insistence on blending every Mario game together by using the same environmental clichés and the same old Bowser kidnaps Peach plot, as well as AlphaDream's (the second-party developer of the Mario and Luigi series) choice to make the game a re-skin of Bowser's Inside Story just end up making the game boring. Dream Team has more heart than Paper Mario: Sticker Star, I'll give it that, but it is still a far cry from the Super Mario RPG elite. I think it might be time for Nintendo to rethink the whole Mario RPG series, maybe retire the current Mario and Luigi and Paper Mario series and do something brand new. If the series, which was once one of the Nintendo's most creative and interesting, continues on as it is now, it will inevitably become a worn-out and empty husk of what it once was. And that makes me sad.

If my opinions in this review sound familiar to you, than you probably watched Yahtzee's Zero Punctuation review of this game. Yes, I did watch his review, as well as several others, before writing this, but his opinions didn't affect mine at all (nor did anyone else's). I simply wholeheartedly agree with most of his sentiments about the game in the review and I recommend you give it a watch. I don't always agree with Yahtzee, but he always makes an intelligent (and often hilarious) argument and sometimes he just really nails it.