It seems like lately I’ve been dying for the chance to throw my recent gaming history out of a window and scream “Oh screw this, I’ll just talk about an older game I love!” And while one day I will eventually have an hour on Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy, and I also have a pretty nifty Caesar III blog planned, then for now I’m continuing the trend of writing about ‘not bad but disappointing games’, and none in recent memory were more simultaneously excellent and disappointing than the first Mario & Luigi RPG on the DS, Partners in Time.
While he hasn’t quite approached the levels of Pokémon or Final Fantasy, it’s surprising how many RPGs Mario has starred in. Super Mario RPG was one of the best RPGs on the SNES, which is arguably the best console for RPGs, tied with the PS1. What made Super Mario RPG work was beautiful presentation, a charming cast of classic characters and new additions, and a combat system that combined the turn-based battles of RPGs with the Mario Universe effortlessly.
Then there was Paper Mario for the N64, which I would say was the best RPG on the console if that was really a compliment in any way, but instead I’ll say that it’s the best Mario game on the console, which frankly still doesn’t do it justice. Part of why I’m so impressed is that every positive thing I just said about Super Mario RPG also applies to Paper Mario, but it was still inventive and original. The same can also be said about Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.
Even given the high standards that Nintendo have for Mario titles, Superstar Saga was a surprisingly great RPG, especially considering that it was on the Gameboy Advance, which I felt didn’t have that many original RPG series, aside from maybe Golden Sun. Even though all three Mario RPGs I’ve just mentioned have their own style of open-world exploration and turn-based combat (and above-average soundtracks) then they manage to incorporate a traditional Mario ‘feel’ in the games, mainly by way of a – and I don’t like using this word – ‘wacky’ sense of humour that’s actually quite funny.
Then I played Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time. This is one of this blogs full of criticism that starts with a disclaimer that this is still a really good game and I liked it, but it’s the first of 4 Mario RPGs I’ve completed (I’ll get round to ‘Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door’ soon, and Bowser’s Inside Story after that, I promise) that had noticeable flaws which actually quite irritated me. Possibly because it’s the first Mario RPG I’ve played that was a sequel to one of the others, although I can’t see that getting in the way of me liking ‘The Thousand Year Door’ when I finally get round to playing that.
I guess this is similar to my hour on Sly Cooper 2, since once again I’m talking about a sequel that’s not bad but disappointing, but the difference here is that Sly Cooper 2 was an internal conflict, a game I acknowledged as an improvement but still felt let down by in a few areas, whereas Partners in Time gives me no conflict because it’s flat-out not as good as the first game. As always in RPGs, the two biggest kinds of gameplay are overworld exploration and combat, and both of them are executed well, but with more glaring flaws than before – flaws that don’t ruin the game, but manage to actively prevent it from being as fun as it could be.
Let’s be kind and go over the positives of the game first of all, because there are lots and lots of them.
This seems like an odd place to start, but I thought the story in the game was pretty good. Normally when a game has a plot that’s ‘pretty good’ then that’s hardly cause for celebration, but Mario games aren’t exactly known for a strong plot. Not that Partners in Time is award-winning, but compare it to other Mario games – it has a main villain who isn’t Bowser, a new race of bad guys who have never been seen before, and the while some important members of the cast are Mario, Luigi, Peach and Bowser, the idea of having two timelines is, well… this is hard to explain.
You know ‘so bad it’s good’? I always thought that was a difficult thing to pull off, but it’s possible, and it’s easy to understand. Some things are just so bad that it becomes humourous and entertainment is drawn from that. For movies there’s ‘The Room’ and for music there’s ‘Friday’, and it’s become ingrained in our culture, sometimes annoyingly so, that it’s more fun to laugh at something thought to be funny in an accidentally bad way than it is to be funny in a straightforward way.
I never thought I’d ever see something that was ‘so unoriginal it’s original’ though.
That’s what ‘Partners in Time’ is, with the addition of the playable characters of Baby Mario and Baby Luigi. The original two characters were Mario and Luigi, and honestly, I did not think that the next two characters I could control would be baby versions of the same characters I was controlling before. It was genuinely surprising, and I was surprised that it was surprising because… it’s really obvious when I think about it, and it’s incredibly rare for something to be so obvious that it’s un-obvious.
(For the record, the previous contender for the best example of ‘so unoriginal it’s original’ was ‘Game Wars’.)
So Mario and Luigi are joined by Baby Mario and Baby Luigi. Is this good? Bad? I have no idea, but I thought it was surprising, so take that for what it’s worth. Onto some other positives; the biggest strengths of the game are the plot, the soundtrack, and the humour. Once again, I’m on no hurry to download the music, but it was catchy, tense, and it served as good background noise for the variety of locations in the game, both those that are new and those that have ties to the old Mario world.
The humour deserves another mention, because even though I’m 21 (and a half) at the time of writing, this was still the funniest game I’ve played in recent memory (since ‘Project Rub’ at least, and all its bizarre situations) thanks to the funny-for-all-ages antics of the Mario Bros and their baby counter-parts. Even though Fawful takes a back seat and there’s nothing that matches the ‘Luigi dressed as Peach’ scene in Superstar Saga, it’s still hilarious to watch Mario talk to an NPC, while in the background, Luigi, carrying both babies, runs screaming from an enemy (only to return to the screen when he’s chasing the babies who are now chasing the enemy with a mallet.)
Unfortunately, I think it’s about time I mentioned the negatives, and really there are only two big areas of the game which have noticeable flaws. Unfortunately (again,) these two areas of the game that could use improvement are ‘exploration of the Overworld’ and ‘general combat’. Unfortunately (and that makes three,) you may realise that those two areas of the game describe, in fact, the entirety of the playable experience from start to finish.
Once again, the game is overall still easily better than ‘good’, but let’s just jump into the problems. The Overworld is fun to explore, but not easy to explore. Pretty early on in the game, the babies join your party, and everything after that feels… I wouldn’t say ‘unnecessarily complicated’, but complicated nonetheless. Not counting the start and select buttons, the DS has 6 buttons, A, B, X, Y, and the L and R shoulder buttons. Four of those buttons are mapped to a different character, and there is no way you’ll go through the whole game without making a few mistakes. This says more about me than it does about the game, but I still screw up playing Double Dragon II because A and B don’t control different attacks, but different directions that your attacks aim towards. Having control of four characters at any given time is going to be tough for me.
When you’re carrying the babies, pressing X or Y will throw them, usually so that they can explore a smaller area or use a designated baby-spring to get to new heights. Also, since the babies are the ones carrying mallets, if there’s a button to hit, they’ll need to do it themselves. It’s mainly just so that they can get into little areas that Mario and Luigi don’t fit into though, and although this isn’t bad, it can lead to a few more problems.
First, Baby Mario and Baby Luigi will inevitably be more levelled up than their adult counterparts because they face battles on their own from time to time, and Mario and Luigi just don’t face much by themselves. If you’d like, you could throw away the babies before a battle, but that’s not getting Mario and Luigi bonus experience, it’s just denying other party members a chance for the same. Also, as mentioned before, the babies have the mallets. If Mario and Luigi get into a fight and someone uses a move that requires a mallet to repel, in Mushroom Kingdom language, you’re up a flagpole without a starman.
Second, when the party splits up, it makes good use for the dual-screen Nintendo DS and you can see and control both mini-parties. The problem is that control switches between the two in awkward and clunky ways – when controlling the babies, press A or B to regain control of Mario or Luigi. How is this awkward? Well, pressing A or B makes the Mario Bros jump. Doesn’t sound like a problem, but several times during the game, the babies are controlling a moving platform that Mario and Luigi are currently on. The platform moves, but you don’t, so if you jump and it moves out from underneath you, you’ll be landing on spikes and heading back to the beginning of the room.
I’m not going to pretend that this happened dozens of time – it happened 2 or 3 times, maximum – but that was little consolation when it DID happen. I was minding my own business, trying to regain control of Mario and Luigi, but I couldn’t do that without making them jump, and when you’re dealing with slopes, blocks and moving platforms, a stationary jump just isn’t helpful. Why couldn’t they program the game so that pressing A just returned control of the Mario Bros to you? Why the mandatory jump?
Adding to the confusion are the different abilities of the Mario Bros, and the way you have to use them. In order to do any special move, the babies and the Mario Bros must be separate. Then, pressing R changes the function of the A and B buttons for Mario and Luigi. Pressing B makes Luigi jump onto Mario and then they do a weird floaty-thing that gets past some areas. Pressing A turns Mario and Luigi into an equally weird Bros-ball that can roll to locations fast. Both the floaty-thing and Bros-ball can hit the babies, giving them new abilities that I don’t want to discuss because I’ve just realised I’m doing the job of the manual.
Anyway, there is no way you can get used to this in just a few hours, and Partners in Time is a handheld RPG, so you’re lucky to get more than 14 hours of gameplay out of it in the first place. It’s not the most difficult thing in the world to control, but it’s time-consuming; sometimes in the Overworld you’ll need to use a Bros move, so you throw the babies somewhere (babysitter of the year award right there) and I know this sounds petty but it takes about 2 seconds for them to and until they land you absolutely cannot switch control to the Mario Bros, or press R to change their moves. Sounds not bad, but half the time if you’re not careful where you throw the babies, they land near enough to you that they automatically climb back up onto Mario and Luigi’s backs.
I’m just nitpicking now, so let’s get into the combat. For the most part, it’s really good, and I especially liked the extensive use of the Bros items in the game. If you use a green shell, you have to press A and B at the right time so that Mario and Luigi continue kicking the shell back at the enemy, doing bonus damage – but if you have one of the babies too, they’ll climb onto the shell and in between pressing A and B, you can press the baby’s button and do bonus-bonus damage. It’s hard to get used to, but the rewards are high, and it wouldn’t be fair if it was easy-peasy.
A lot of the other Bros items don’t get as much use, except for maybe ‘Cannonballers’, which fire everyone from a cannon and you press their character-button when they land for massive damage. Seriously, I only beat the final boss because I was practically spamming them whenever my health wasn’t low, and they do about 200+ damage each time – a LOT for a game like this.
Another good point is that there’s a final boss, a final final boss, a beefed-up final final boss, and a post-final boss boss. Sounds bad, but RPGs normally have a few marathon bosses thrown in, so I enjoyed them – especially the post-final boss boss. Without spoiling anything, they give you no turn at all, constantly attacking you, and the only way to beat them is to time your counter-attacks well so that they end up hurting the attacker. It’s not too challenging and it’s really fun, a great end to the game.
But the combat had flaws, and I’m going to tackle the biggest one right now using my unique skills. That’s right guys, making a return from my hour on Resident Evil 5, once again I’m going to resort to my EPIC MICROSOFT PAINT DRAWING SKILLS!
I’m going to draw two people in an RPG. Whenever I have to name two people in an RPG, if I can’t use the default names, I always go for ‘Ness’ and ‘Paula’ after… some game I played. Here are Ness and Paula, guys!
That’s a bat and a frying pan if you’re wondering what strange things they are holding.
Unfortunately, somebody they know is a massive douchebag, because said douchebag is trying to throw something at them! Here’s a quick quiz – which one of them is the spiky ball aimed at? Ness on the left, or Paula on the right?
(I know this is stupid, but there’s a serious point behind it all, I promise.) I’m just going to assume that you got it right, so now here’s another question. Douchey McBag is now attacking them from the ground, and Ness and Paula are in the battle position found in Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time! Which one of them is being attacked?
I very quickly ran out of the necessary enthusiasm that would result in Ness and Paula having different stances. Or facial expressions. It’s Microsoft Paint, what do you want from me? Again, I’m just going to assume that you got it right. Now here’s the killer question – as is the case in Partners in Time, Bagdouche McGee is now attacking Ness or Paula from the air. Which one of them is about to be hit?
It kind of looks like it’s going to hit Ness, but bear in mind that Ness isn’t hovering above Paula – you have a sideways view of a battlefield in which Ness is standing further away from Paula. The spiky ball of doom could be on the same vertical plane as Ness, or the same as Paula. Is there any way you can tell which plane it’s on?Is that one a little harder to guess? Can you tell just from looking at this which one of them the projectile is aimed at? No?
Well, that’s how Partners in Time does it.
This isn’t a massive problem, mainly because the way you’re attacked in Partners in Time, and every game in the Mario & Luigi series for that matter, is kind of revolutionary in the sense that you can avoid/deflect attacks and take zero damage (and that’s the worst possible result – the best is that you take zero damage and fire off a damaging counter-attack.) Still, they balance this out by having the enemies hit HARD, and there are no inns and no Pokémon Centres.
The only time the hard-hitting was a big problem was when Luigi was ‘confused’, a state in which you cannot avoid or deflect any attacks, and before I could put him back to normal, he was hit with a very strong, multi-hitting attack which ended up knocking him out, despite him being almost at full health (and this was near the end of the game, so his HP was past 100.)
Overall though, I can’t deny that there’s a balance in the game. The attacks are powerful from everyone, but you can just dodge them, and even if Mario gets knocked out, Baby Mario comes out to continue fighting for him until he can be revived. It’s actually quite admirable that another RPG can add a quirk to the traditional turn-based fighting system we have in RPGs and really pull it off, but in moments like the one I described with Microsoft Paint pictures before I was so rudely interrupted by myself, the game doesn’t really pull it off at all.
Sometimes you’re attacked by projectiles that end up falling vertically onto you, which can be almost hilariously difficult to avoid considering that Mario and Luigi are in fact in a vertical line themselves. If you think being attacked diagonally is hard to react to, you haven’t played enough ‘Partners in Time’ to see true frustration. Still, these aren’t incredibly common attacks, just… relatively frequent enough to be notably annoying.
So in conclusion, the game is good, but it’s flawed. I feel like I’ve explained the flaws more than I explained all of the good things, so let’s have a quick recap. Controlling the Mario Bros and the babies can be irritating at times, and sometimes combat is hard to react to since you don’t know who’s being attacked. Also, the game is relatively short, and while other RPGs usually have a hook to keep me coming back, like the combat in Tales of Symphonia or the collecting in every Pokémon game ever, I don’t see a point in coming back to this game any time soon.
On the positive side, the soundtrack is great, and the plot manages to introduce some new baddies and some new allies, which is doubly-impressive for a Mario game. There are more than a few laughs to be had in battle and out, and although it’s not perfect, I’d gladly take the battle-system in this game over the vast majority of other RPGs.
Another thing I liked was how well the game used the dual-screens of the DS, with one screen being a map and one screen being the gameplay area, and it worked really well whenever the babies were separated because their gameplay area took over the top screen and… it was good. There’s a bigger focus on items that can be used in battle, and the majority of them are really useful, but also difficult to master, which means that if you work on your skill you can be rewarded, but you can’t just use them to breeze through the game either.
Also, whenever you level up, you get to pick an attribute of your character (HP, Attack, Defense, Speed, Moustache – no really, Moustache) and you have to time it pretty well but you can assign that attribute some bonus-improvement-number-level-it’s really late and my vocabulary has completely diminished but it’s a nice touch that helps you personalise your characters, adding a little more depth to the way you play the game as an individual.
In summary, I feel like a 7/10 would be too harsh but an 8/10 would be too good so I’m going to award this game 10/13. There’s still plenty to enjoy and it was definitely worth playing, but there were notable flaws that kept it from being as good as it could’ve been. All in all, it’s a big thumbs-up that comes with a footnote of criticism, and I think I’ve just about talked it to death and back. So anyway…
Thanks for reading!