When a retro-minded enthusiast is asked what game they would most like to see a sequel to, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars inevitably comes up. I’ve always found that ironic, however, given that there has been two solid RPG series in the Mario universe going strong for the past few decades. Granted, nothing has been quite as full-blown hardcore as Super Mario RPG (and another one would certainly be welcomed), but Mario & Luigi offers one of the best original RPG series on a handheld device. The fourth entry in the series and its 3DS debut, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team offers a delightful adventure chock full of new endearing characters and adds some 2D gameplay for good measure.
The game begins when Mario, Luigi, Peach and company are enjoying another peaceful day at Mushroom Castle when suddenly a mysterious dog arrives on a blimp and invites them to Pi’illo Island for a vacation. That doesn’t seem sketchy at all, so everybody hops on board when suddenly island Dr. Snoozemore shows up via video and seems threatening. That doesn’t stop everybody from continuing to the island, which is filled with strange blocky and bird-like inhabitants that seem to be hiding a secret. It’s soon discovered that the island was originally inhabited by the Pi’illos, who protected two stones on the island, Dream Stone (full of good dreams) and Dark Stone (a manifestation of nightmares), until one day the bat king Antasma stole the Dark Stone and shattered it, raining over the island and petrifying the Pi’illos in a dream world. Mario and Luigi venture into one of these dreamworlds only for Princess Peach to be kidnapped by Antasma. They now have to track her down by freeing Pi’llos from their incapacitation in hopes of defeating Antasma and restoring the island. Not rare for a Mario game, the story is utterly charming and features quite a few laughs along the way. The mystery of the story is intriguing all the way through and seeing the voiceless protagonists trying to communicate is priceless.
Going between the dreamworld and the overworld is a huge gameplay element in Dream Team and changes things up from past games. Instead of staying in a top-down view, the game switches between traditional RPG dungeon crawling and 2D gameplay more akin to classic Mario. Occasionally on the map, you’ll come a cross a pillow that allows you to go inside of this secret world when Luigi falls asleep on it. Don’t expect to start stomping on Goombas, however, as coming into contact with enemies in the world will still lead to a turn-based battle. There is, however, a large focus on platforming. This is mainly carried out with the help of Luiginary Works, which bridges the dream world with the real world. A Luiginary Work is activated by doing things like pulling on Luigi’s beard or tickling his nose on the touch screen. This allows him to become a pillar that Mario can use to swing to higher levels, a tornado that changes elements of the environment and more. While those who prefer straight RPG action might not be too keen on this, it breaks up the monotony and ties into the RPG elements very nicely. Most every one of these sequences is well designed and could probably be fleshed out into its own game.
But fear not RPG fanatics, as the classic turn-based combat remains intact. Battles are carried out using both Mario, controlled with the A button, and Luigi, controlled with the B button. When your phase is active, you can either attack, use an item or flee. Attacking occurs by either jumping or using a hammer (unlocked later in the game). Combat is all about timing. Upon jumping on an enemy, hitting the button again right before you land gives a second attack, where hitting the button at the same time again increases the amount of damage dealt. Hammers work similarly and must be activated at the right time during their wind-up to be effective. On the defensive side of things, every enemy utilizes a different attack that must be countered or defended against. Each has a pattern and a tell that must be memorized to survive. Battles also frequently switch to a 3D viewpoint, which not only takes advantage of its great depth on the handheld, but also increases the challenge.
Battle changes slightly in the dream world, as not only is Luigi slightly taller and more handsome, but also unable to be used in battle. Instead, he becomes a secondary attack activated by a successful attempt from Mario. Besides the basic attacks, there’s also Bros. Attacks. These are earned by collecting ten puzzle pieces in an area and can be activated anytime during battle if there’s sufficient BP (Bro Points). There’s all sorts of different Bros. Attacks including passing a Koopa shell back and forth, tossing bombs, shooting out of a cannon and more. There’s also Luiginary Attacks which are activated and unlocked the same way, but can only be used in the dreamworld. They all involve an army of Luigis and are quite hilarious to engage. Some of the best ones include rolling them into a ball, stacking them, hammerizing them and bursting them into a ball of flames. Most of the Luiginary and Bros. Attacks utilize the 3DS gyroscope, which adds an appreciated increase of depth to the controls.
Combining the tried and true RPG elements of the series with exciting new 2D gameplay, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is a joy to play. The story is charming, the characters are endearing (especially the Brocks, who could easily become classic characters) and its gameplay is arguably the most satisfying yet. There’s too much hand-holding at times, especially within the first five hours or so, but if that’s the price to pay for the game’s complexity, it’s well worth it. Perhaps we’ll never have another Super Mario RPG, but so long as this series remains as charming as it is in Dream Team, then that’s just fine.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS