So here we are. The first of the Retrospective Reviews, and since we’ve last played and reviewed a platformer, I thought we’d stick with the theme by playing one of the Grand Old Plumber’s games on the 3DS. Mario & Luigi Dream Team Bros. -or sometimes just known as Mario & Luigi Dream Team outside of Europe and Australia- is the fourth in the Mario & Luigi series, which melds traditional platforming with role-playing elements such as stats, equipment and turn-based combat. Sounds like it shouldn’t work, yet it does. Beautifully.
Story-wise, picking up Dream Team first instead of playing through the series in a canonical progression doesn’t hinder the experience. If there are references to previous games, they are very subtle, plus given that any Mario game normally has the plot line of ‘Bowser kidnapped Peach… again‘, you can pretty much pick up what’s going on quickly. This time though the setting is on the sunshine vacation spot of Pi’illo Island, home to a mysterious civilisation that had the power to access dream worlds. As such, the inevitability of accidentally causing one of the main antagonists to be released from his prison in the dream world which starts the entire adventure proper is just a case of getting through tutorial after tutorial. So far, so much like a normal Mario game.
However, bold experimentation in the gameplay is the key in Dream Team. While you’re negotiating both characters in a top-down 3D overworld more often than not, Mario will have to dive down into the 2D side scrolling dream worlds of Luigi while being assisted by Dreamy Luigi and the Luiginoids. If I’m honest, I would say that the dream worlds are the best part of the game as it brings back memories of the traditional platforming games, with a gimmick known as the Luiginary Works being used to solve the puzzles within the worlds. With this, you can effectively summon the Luiginoids to take different forms to solve different problems; a stack of Luiginoids will mean you can reach higher ground with their crouching jump, destroy blocks by stomping on them and general run enemies over (well, you can run enemies over in all the forms). The Luiginoid cone on the other hand lends itself better to crossing wide gaps by propelling itself, while the ball form lets you roll around at high speed, throw it around to whack blocks into smithereens and also sling you from one hook/hoop to another. And that’s just scratching the surface; Luiginary Works can vary from world to world, from having the ability to launch Mario to higher ground to even controlling the gravity and time in the dream worlds. All that by controlling what’s happening to the real Luigi on the touch screen e.g. pulling on his moustache to affect a Luiginary to grab and throw Mario up high.
The 3D overworld is more or less where the role-playing action takes place. While you will of course learn skills that will help traverse the platforming parts, it can sometimes take a little while to get used to it, especially since you have to control Mario and Luigi at the same time; the A button doesn’t automatically mean that both brothers jump, you need to push B to get Luigi up in the air too.
It’s the same with the combat. What inevitably happens during situations where you need to dodge or counter an attack is that your thumb is resting against both buttons if, like me, you have all the timing and rhythm of a tone deaf drummer. Those with better skills will be able to get into a good pace once they’ve figured out all of the tells and signals of the enemies the plumbers face in both worlds, or indeed get the timings of the Bros. Attacks down pat. Unfortunately for me, my experience with anything to do with timing often ends up to me becoming a frustrated, panicking mess. Luckily for me, there is the option to go into an Easy Mode if I fail a battle, which does feel like cheating but… hey, every little helps when you’re as rhythmically challenged as I am. (It’s more than what you get from a rhythm mini game in some RPGs…)
But what really makes combat interesting is the Badge System. Even though there are only twelve badges to collect, they all have different effects depending on their combination, which encourages swapping badges in and out so that you can store those effects to release when needed. You never know when a total refill of health and power points (or Bros. Points in this case) could be needed, and since using a badge effect doesn’t take up a turn, that means you can heal up instantly if you’re in a pinch, or even have a chance to cause the enemies to become dizzy if you’re in a hurry and need a bit of extra time to defeat them. To add to this, there is also the rank-system which, when you’ve reached a new rank, will allow you to choose and utilise whatever bonuses you wish, from cutting the cost of BP needed to use Bros. Attacks to adding extra gear slots. Of course, with only five ranks and some bonuses only available until reaching certain ranks, you’ll never be able to have all the bonuses in a single playthrough. I’d also say it’d be in your best interests to probably vary your bonuses between Mario and Luigi as they both have very different stats – that is to say, Luigi is hardier and has more BP, but Mario has more power and speed on his side. Mix and match and let your play style dictate what bonuses to pick.
Of course, not every game is perfect, and as much as I love Dream Team Bros. it certainly has its flaws. The main issue for the game is the pacing of the story; sometimes its really very good at moving the story along, and then you reach points where you just end up having to backtrack to areas you’ve already explored to reach areas you couldn’t access before getting a high jump. Backtracking for the sake of story is, in my opinion, just lazy storytelling. If I want to backtrack, it should always be because I want to locate petrified Pi’illos to save, go digging for stat enhancing beans or look beyond the areas that were inaccessible until I got the necessary skill, not because I absolutely have to in order to advance the story. The other issue of Dream Team Bros. is its tendency to grab your hand and walk you through everything it can. Now for the beginning I get, but getting a mini-tutorial in the middle of the game just because we discovered a new Luiginoid form or new Luiginary Work just starts to become a tad bit trite. I mean, come on, I am a fully functioning humanoid that managed to figure out that pressing the A or B button often means something good happens. Just let me figure it out on my own.
So in conclusion, would I recommend this game? Yes. Yes most definitely. You should play this game because, also sticking to the theme of nostalgia and how its been used by the gaming industry, this is not just a good example, but a great example of how to use nostalgia to its best effect. The 2D side-scrolling sections of gameplay are reminiscent of the Mario games I used to play on the Gameboy Colour and Gameboy Advance, while also reinventing it with new mechanics and physics puzzles to play around with. On top of this, it also cleverly mixes the familiar platforming format with the traditional RPG elements, adding another layer of gameplay and another string to the Grand Old Plumber’s bow. On top of that, the worlds are at its colourful best, with characters that have oodles of personality and plenty of humour, and of course classic Mario-style flair that has aged very well. There is a lot more positive about the game than there is negative in this solid addition to the Mario franchise. So go on, give it a go.