The final honorable mention goes to Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (M&L), one of the greatest RPGs I've ever played.
This time I'll start with the good. The best feature of M&L is the dynamic and engaging battle system.
THE BATTLE SYSTEM
- All enemy attacks can be countered by well timed defensive moves. To make enemies challenging, their attacks are designed as mixups. If you learn the tells, tricks, variations, and combinations, you'll greatly increase your chances of survival. Because the game features a wide variety of enemies, you'll be engaged in combat fighting for every advantage.
- Enemies are designed in layers to create different challenges (based on mixups and timing) and facilitate different strategies when pitted against the Mario Bros. or Bowser.
- Some smaller enemies are designed to take advantage of their numbers and attack as group. This design not only varies the mixups/attacks while increasing the strength of such enemies, but it also ends the enemy's phase of the battle more quickly so the player doesn't have to wait through 5-7 of the same attack. (Scutlet enemy)
- When battling with Mario and Luigi, if one brother falls the other brother literally feels the weight of the downed Bro. When defending against enemy attacks, one brother picks up the fallen Bro., which changes the timing of the defensive JUMPs and hammer attacks. Because these moves take longer to pull off, there's an added difficulty to surviving with one Bro.
- The action-counter based design of the battle system allowed me to play M&L3 as an action game. By doing so I essentially substituted the time I would have needed to grind enemies to level up with skills that I transferred from other games (like the 2D Mario games). Playing through the entire game under leveled increased the challenge of the game and pushed some of my adaptation skills to their limit. It was either adapt to the mixups or die.
- The giant Bowser battles are a nice change of pace, and each featured a new scenario and challenge.
- There's a lot of strategy involved in each battle. Instead of the underwhelming and overplayed tactic of attack-attack-heal, with enough skill players can simply attack-attack-attack. Every enemy attack in the game can be dodged or defended against so that you take 0 damage. Some defensive maneuvers turn into offensive opportunities as you JUMP on or strike enemies. Sometimes you can even hurt more than 1 enemy with a defensive move. To play the most effectively, you must know each enemy's mixups and execute the counter perfectly. The more you're exposed to an enemy, the more you learn its tricks. So, with every battle you're leveling up your mind and fingers exercising real skill (knowledge, dexterity, timing, reflex, adaptation) instead of simply gaining experience points to make the same attacks/tactics stronger over time.
- So for any given battle, the best way to dispense with all the enemies isn't always focusing on one enemy at a time. Some enemy attacks can be countered giving them damage. For these enemies, as long as they keep attacking and you keep countering, they'll die "on their own." If you have the skills and you learn the mixups for these enemies, you can focus on enemies that stand a greater chance of giving you damage even if they're technically a much weaker enemy. Of course these flexible strategies depend on learning enemy mixups and being able to defend effectively. If you're still learning the enemy attacks/mixups, then focus attacking (attacking one target at a time until destroyed) may be your best bet. Be careful. Even though small/weak enemies don't do a lot of damage, they can knock over or stun you so that you're susceptible to further attack. With this design, strong and weak enemies can be more effective when paired together.
- In the same way that the enemies are designed to create different challenges for Bowser, Bowser and the Bros., and the Mario Bros., the overworld (top down perspective) is designed in layers for Bowser vs the Bros. To put it simply, Bowser can destroy large level obstructions and walk around while the Bros. can walk and JUMP onto higher platforms. So even when traveling through an area that you've already been through with Bowser, there are new secrets and paths to explore as the Bros. Also, in Zelda fashion, players gain new abilities to move through and manipulate the environment.
- M&L features beautiful 2D graphics with colorful, well animation sprites. The art style is a wonderful mix of cannon Mario elements and new elements/themes. For example, the insides of Bowser has a biological, organic theme while the Plank Beach tooth theme are a nice departure from the norm.
- The tone of the story and writing is light hearted and slightly tongue in cheek. I laughed out loud at about half of the jokes in the game. This makes M&L one of the funnies games I've ever played.
Mario & Luigi's battle system makes the game a great action game. What kept the it out of my GOTY list was shortcoming with the RPG elements, 2D side scrolling elements, and puzzles. To be clear, all of these elements are decent to good compared to other RPGs. But compared to the quality of the battle system, these elements are lackluster. Or when you compare these disappointing elements to other great games (like the Super Mario Bros. 2D platforming games), these elements are quite sub-mar.
- The stats and items are what you expect from a typical RPG. There are items that restore HP, SP (MP), or a fallen ally in addition to equipable items that boost various stats with various special effects. All of these items are typical for an RPG. But for M&L, because the battle system is so dynamic and action based, small changes to stats don't make that much of a difference to the challenges/gameplay.
- All of the environments inside of Bowser's body are 2D side scrolling, platforming areas. While navigating through these areas is much more interesting than most RPGs, the platform design is very cramped. Compared to my least favorite 2D Mario platformer Super Mario Bros. 2, the platforming in M&L is far worse. Without room to move, a good JUMP mechanic, a RUN mechanic, environmental decay/interplay, the platforming design really had nothing to work with.
- The puzzle design of M&L is a mix between traditional RPG puzzles and Zelda like puzzles. The most simple, straightforward puzzles are the typical RPG ones consisting of hitting switches to open doors and pathways. The most interesting and dynamic puzzles involve manipulating Bowser's internal state by swallowing water or inhaling cold air. Doing so floods or freezes the environment respectively for Mario and Luigi.
Ultimately, Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is a great game that's carried on its top quality battle system and a fairly solid everything else. However, I wonder what kind of amazing game it could have been if the 2D side scrolling Bowser insides were designed like a traditional 2D Mario platformer. Just thinking about how the different areas could have been linked together Metroid style, how the areas could be transformed with the water and ice for folded level design, and how enemies could populate the insides after Bowser sucks them up makes me regret RPGs like M&L somewhat for settling for anything less that Mario's standard.