Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. for Nintendo 3DS
I love the Mario RPGs, but I’ve been a bit concerned about their future as of late. After the massive disappointment of Paper Mario: Sticker Star, I’ve been concerned that Nintendo’s program of watering down their RPGs was set to continue, but thankfully, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. puts those concerns to rest. Each game in the Mario & Luigi series introduces a new gimmick; in Partners in Time it was the addition of Baby Mario and Baby Luigi, and in Bowser’s Inside Story it was the ability to control the brothers’ long-time foe. In Dream Team Bros, the gimmick is the ability to enter Luigi’s dreams.
This game primarily takes place on P’illo Island, a sleep themed tourist destination. Although it generally looks quite nice, it’s not particularly engaging to explore, largely due to the clichéd nature of its environs. There’s the desert part, the field part, the beach part, all stuff that we’ve come to expect from these games. Much more interesting is the dream world in Luigi’s head, although not quite enough is done with this. There was potential to go to some very strange places in this game, and Dream Team Bros doesn’t quite live up to it. Honestly, the Mario & Luigi games haven’t had a truly engaging setting since the Beanbean Kingdom of the original. This area is really the only one in which the game is surpassed by the other recent Mario RPG for 3DS, Sticker Star. Thankfully, Dream Team Bros. surpasses Sticker Star in almost every other sense.
Princess Peach, the Mario Bros. and her entourage vacation to P’illo Island after an invitation from its reclusive leader. It is soon discovered that Luigi’s extreme ability to sleep anywhere means that he can open portals to the world of dreams. It’s not long before a foul bat-like being known as Antasma is unleashed. Antasma is the foe of the ancient P’illo race, who have been petrified as stone pillows that can only be released if Luigi sleeps on them and Mario rescues them in his dreams. Mario & Luigi are joined by the prince of the P’illos, Dreambert, as well as Starlow from Bowser’s Inside Story, to stop Antasma and save the island.
Although the plot is naturally much more entertaining the main Mario games (and Sticker Star), it still feels like a step backwards. The Mario RPGs have traditionally been an opportunity to subvert the traditional Mario tropes, representing a knowing self-awareness on Nintendo’s part. Remember the curious and feisty Princess Peach of Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door? She’s gone, and is back to her uselessness of the main platformer series. The worst victim of this is Bowser, a character who in previous Mario RPGs emerged as probably the most interesting character in the Mario canon, a pathetic, almost masochistic figure, whose kidnappings are more motivated by bravado and insecurity rather than genuine evil. In earlier RPGs he’s a funny, obnoxious, but oddly sympathetic character, but he’s right back in standard villain mode here. Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation fame has a theory that Nintendo are intent on purging all subversive elements from their canon, and it’s hard not to concede him that point. Dream Team Bros. is definitely the least self-aware game in the Mario & Luigi series, and it suffers for it.
The P’illo Island element of Dream Team Bros. is standard Mario & Luigi; simple puzzles, some platforming and turn based battles. It’s still fun, but all the really interesting stuff happens in Luigi’s dreams. In these dreamscapes, Mario is joined by ‘Dreamy Luigi’, who is capable of many strange powers. In battle, Mario is the only active fighter, but all of his attacks are reinforced by a horde of Luigi clones, known as ‘Luiginoids.’ Special attacks are called ‘Luiginary Works’, and usually involve Mario wielding his army of Luigi’s, often using the 3DS gyroscope. Outside of battle, Luigi’s face on the touch screen can be manipulated to affect the dream world. For example, Mario and be launched around by Luigi’s moustache, or made to sneeze by tickling his nose. Returning from Bowser’s Inside Story are the giant battles, this time controlling Luigi, during which the 3DS is turned on its side and everything is controlled by the touch screen.
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. is a long game, perhaps too long as by the end I was getting a little bored. The battles, both on P’illo Island and in the dream world can get very repetitive, and the puzzles are usually rather easy with solutions spelt out for too clearly. However, I did like the difficulty of this game, which is probably the hardest in the series since the original. Sometimes the difficulty can feel quite cheap; the final boss’ random healing move was infuriating, but generally failure is due to your own reflexes inability to dodge or counter attacks. There’s quite a bit of side content too, from extra P’illo folk to rescue to a large side quest involving taking photos and sliding puzzles. I didn’t really focus too much on the side quests, but it was nice to have it there, and it will easily bump the play time up by at least another five hours for those who are so inclined.
My favourite parts of the game were those that involved puzzling and platforming in the dream world, using Dreamy Luigi’s abilities in interesting and fun ways. It makes the rest of the game feel a bit vanilla by comparison, but this is the kind of game which likes to keep things fresh and surprise you. How you get through each area isn’t always completely obvious, even if the areas themselves are generic. My favourites were a Zelda-esque trading quest in seaside town and controlling a giant drill in the desert, but there are plenty of other examples of the interesting ways you progress. The combat isn’t particularly deep, but it’s generally fun and only really wears out its welcome in the last few hours or so. The giant battles were a real treat; as cool as they were in Bowser’s Inside Story, the additional power of the 3DS allows these battles to be utterly insane, with a definite nod to Japanese kaiju films in how these fights play out. The controls, all on the touch screen, can be a bit fiddly, but overall they work well. In fact, in some ways this game reminds me of those early DS games which used the touch screen constantly for gimmicks. The difference is that back then those gimmicks usually held the game back, but here they actually work very well and support the core mechanics rather than undermine them.
I wasn’t sure about the oddly more realistic graphical style when I first saw it, but it really grew on me by the end. The Bros. are very well animated, particularly in battles, with a fluidity to their movements that just wouldn’t have been possible on the DS. The giant battles in particular, which take place in full 3D, look absolutely stunning, and genuinely awesome. The music is generally pretty great too, with only a handful of standout tunes, but more than I can recall from the other Mario RPGs. Alpha Dream have apparently been working on Dream Team Bros. for four years, and that level of effort really shows in the presentation.
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. is an encouraging sign that Nintendo aren’t done with this kind of game, and although it can’t quite rival the heights of Bowser’s Inside Story and The Thousand Year Door, it’s a great game and definitely one of the stronger releases in the Mario RPG canon.