Fantastic Voyage is a science fiction film from 1966 based on a short story from underrated science fiction writer Jerome Bixby. The film was met with mixed reception as it's more a piece of spacey, psychedelic 1960s camp than a groundbreaking, awe-striking pillar for the genre like 2001: A Space Odyssey. As lukewarm as the film’s impact was on the genre of science fiction, one resonating facet of Fantastic Voyage that managed to be impactful was the novel and brilliant premise of using the insides of someone's body as a setting, shrinking the valiant adventurers down to the size of gnat larvae to enact their perilous mission of great biological importance. I could bet that you’ve seen this concept depicted in some sort of media even before you knew this movie existed and if you have, you now know that Fantastic Voyage is where it stems from. Using the premise of Fantastic Voyage seems to be ideal for animated media as numerous cartoon series have ripped it off to fill in an easy episode block or to either tribute or parody the once unique science fiction story. Rick and Morty tactfully utilized a Jurassic Park theme park inside the body of a drunk homeless man to tackle the premise with freshness, while seemingly every conceivable Nickelodeon cartoon I grew up with simply rehashed the plot with its characters. In the realm of gaming, the king of the medium, the one and only Mario, decided to dip his toes in the ostensibly public Fantastic Voyage domain pool with Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story.
Which of the iconic Mario character’s bodies have been chosen as the vehicle to enact Fantastic Voyage’s premise? Well, it sure as hell couldn’t have been either Mario or Luigi. If you’re unfamiliar with the mechanics of Mario’s offshoot, handheld RPG series, he and his green brother are tied at the hip, hence why they finally share equal billing in the title, unlike the mainline platformer series where Mario himself is sufficient enough for the both of them. Mario diving into the insides of his taller, lankier brother to extract some maliferous presence making him sick and unsightly or vice versa would present an imbalance of narrative and gameplay weight for one character, even if Luigi is the optimal candidate to be the subject of bodily humiliation via excavating throughout his vulnerable interior. Peach would be perfect from a narrative standpoint, but Nintendo was wise to their perverse older players who would become inadvertently erotically stimulated by the prospect of venturing inside a woman and the eventual, genuine complaints that the developers boarded off all of the anatomical areas unique to the female body as prospective places to wander. No one would care about the livelihood of any of the Toads in this situation, and that apathy goes double for Peach’s butler/assistant Toadsworth. Donkey Kong is relatively canon to the Mario & Luigi series, but perhaps he vetoed the invitation to be put in a compromising position. What many might fail to consider is that there are Mario characters outside the realm of its heroes that could satisfy the role, and he’s a big boy just like Donkey Kong. The title of this Mario & Luigi game couldn’t be more on the nose with its allusion: Bowser is the subject in question for a “fantastic voyage.” Bowser is a true delight when he’s situated in a JRPG vehicle, and the fact that he’s a central character here should make everyone giddy with excitement.
I doubt Mario and Luigi would willingly help Bowser if he were struck by a cataclysmic illness under normal circumstances. In fact, Bowser succumbing to some sort of fatal disease would be a fortuitous coincidence for Mario and Luigi, letting Bowser’s health atrophy away so Mario can finally experience some well-deserved R&R with Princess Peach without Bowser swooping down and swiping her on what seems like a weekly basis. The developers also realized this fallacy that contradicted normal character relationships and conjured up a fittingly whacky catalyst for how Mario and Luigi ended up ensnared inside Bowser’s body. Rescuing Peach from Bowser’s clutches hasn’t earned Mario the privilege of exploring Peach’s insides if you catch my drift, but at least she has granted him a prestigious position in the Mushroom Kingdom government. With Luigi as his plus one, the brothers are fashionably late to an executive meeting taking place in an administrative room in Peach’s castle. The issue of utmost importance is the “blorbs” outbreak running (or should I say, rolling) rampant throughout the Mushroom Kingdom. By consuming a special mushroom sold by a seedy merchant, the toads of the kingdom have inflated to such a spherically large mass that they cannot use their legs for mobility. Upset that he’s not considered to be an essential figure in the Mushroom Kingdom, Bowser angrily crashes the meeting and is duly discarded by Mario and Luigi as always. Bowser approaches the merchant selling the shrooms and consumes one that grants him the ability to inhale with the ferocious power of a Mach Five tornado (didn’t he already possess this ability in Luigi’s Mansion?). Bowser returns to Peach’s castle and just sucks up everything indiscriminately, and both Mario and Luigi are unfortunately in the crossfire, sending them to the dingy and disgusting bowels of Bowser. The introduction is definitely on par with the previous kooky setups that ignite a Mario & Luigi adventure.
I don’t believe I efficiently conveyed the extent of Bowser’s role in Bowser’s Inside Story, even in stating that he is indeed a central character in the game. In Bowser’s Inside Story, he is THE central character, the sun which all other planetary characters, even Mario and Luigi, orbit around. The DS system’s top screen is entirely dedicated to giving us Bowser’s interactive point-of-view as he attempts to reclaim the Mushroom Kingdom from this new threat responsible for the blorbs pandemic. Yes, the developers are testing out this dual-screen gimmick again but this time, the dynamic between Bowser and the two brothers is far more engaging. Playing as the baby versions of Mario and Luigi in Partners in Time was Mario and Luigi squared, a doubling of the Mario and Luigi gameplay that would be completely redundant if not for their bite-sized physicalities allowing them to squeeze through tight crevices. As one would expect from Bowser’s hulking, non-mammalian biological genotype that differs from two Italian guys, controlling him is a radically alternative procedure. Bowser stomps around the various districts of the Mushroom Kingdom leaving a trail of foot-print craters in his wake. His two primary methods of offense are a wound-up sucker punch and breathing fire, both of which are obviously beyond the capabilities of the two shrimpy plumbers. He’s certainly a strong physical force of nature and the enemies he encounters on the field attempt to match him at least in physical mass. Instead of evading enemy fire by jumping or batting objects away with a hammer, Bowser’s opposition tends to strike almost exclusively in either directional plane. To block enemies from vertically falling on him, Bowser will use his spiky damage-proof shell, while he counters any on-coming horizontal hostility by punching it away from him. Saving his loyal minions trapped in cramped and demeaning black cages on the field unlocks a special move that incorporates their aid in some fashion for a deadly attack. These moves also manage to utilize the DS stylus, a system-exclusive apparatus that I forgot existed while playing Partners in Time. Bowser even has his own separate inventory from Mario and Luigi, mixing and matching barbed neck bands like a goth girl's great dane and shells, of which I wasn’t aware could be accessorized. He also has his own food health items in the form of hot wings, for the carnivorous Bowser would probably ralph at the taste of a mushroom. Bowser is not only a blast to play on the field and in battle, but his contrasting gameplay and environment actually display a solid dichotomy between him and the two main characters, unlike the babies in Partners in Time.
Bowser’s portion of the gameplay also includes practically the entire realm of traveling around getting from point A to B, considering that Mario and Luigi can’t tread too much ground from inside Bowser’s gut. Bowser’s Inside Story decides not to go on holiday to a neighboring kingdom like in Superstar Saga and sticks to the homeland of Mushroom Kingdom as Partners in Time did. Still, the map here doesn’t resemble the one from the previous game in the slightest, with all of the notable landmarks that comprised the significant areas of the last game totally erased from existence. My theory, beyond the logical fact that the developers had to conjure up some fresh sites for a new game, is that perhaps the Mushroom Kingdom was so devastated by the Shroob invaders that the topography completely shifted upon reconstruction. What came as a result of the kingdom’s hard work is a fine conglomerate of districts that still fit the eclectic and lighthearted atmosphere of gaming’s most famous setting. Toad Town exudes a returning sense of quaint coziness that it once did in Paper Mario, with an additional air of prosperity-enhanced ritziness because of the shopping mall and cascading fountain. Just ignore the bloated Toad dumplings scattered about. Bubble Lake in the south is a wide basin filled with crisp, clear water, and Plack Beach directly to the east features boulder-sized teeth sticking out of the washing waves. It’s less gnarly than it sounds. Ultimately, the map of Mushroom Kingdom in Bowser’s Inside Story shows that the series carries over familiar area tropes that still persist three entries in. However, the game at least recalls Superstar Saga’s erratic pacing that was lost during Partners in Time, blasting Bowser all over creation mostly whenever he makes a rash decision that leads him to violently deviate from his trajectory. Not allowing the progression to flop around with the hilariously bumbling and oafish RPG Bowser would be a disservice to us all.
The map of the overworld in Bowser’s Inside Story can be excused for not offering any revolutionary settings because it shares the workload of propping up the narrative with Bowser’s insides. On the bottom half of the DS screens are Mario and Luigi attempting to survive the belly of the beast as microscopically-sized versions of themselves. One can naturally assume that the cavernous abyss of Bowser’s anatomy would be a cesspit of nightmarish imagery that only the sick and deranged would be able to imagine. Because all Mario media should ideally refrain from disturbing people, the tender, inner world of Bowser’s physical machinations takes a more fantastical approach in rendering its aesthetic. The backgrounds of Bowser’s insides are as lurid as a lava lamp, floating cellular matter streaming with a bevy of eye-catching colors. The flesh platforms in the foreground are pleasing shades of pink, inoffensive tints that will ideally not gross out the player. It’s difficult to say whether or not the psychedelic backdrop of Bowser’s insides is directly inspired by the acid-laced presentation of Fantastic Voyage, or if the Mario brand naturally verges towards the lightly surreal. Either or, Bowser’s insides are a marvel to look at. Unlike the sprawling Mushroom Kingdom map without solid borders, Bowser’s insides are constructed like a directed graph. Whenever Bowser is irritated by an ailment or a Macguffin has scurried across the confines of one internal body part, a noodle branch will sprout from the current area, represented by a translucent Bowser model with two icons of Mario and Luigi. By the end of the game, the map will resemble an X-rayed tree. Besides the RPG battles against a myriad of microbes and defensive cells trying their best to exterminate the invading Mario and Luigi, their gameplay on the “field” is entirely situated on the X-axis. At times, platforming as both the brothers is more of a chore than it was previously from a top-down perspective because Luigi drags ass behind Mario like an anchor. Eventually, the brothers return to their normal sizes and explore the surface world, but the pipe transit system they use as a passageway between it and Bowser’s body that he somehow doesn’t feel or notice requires a serious suspension of disbelief. It’s probably cleaner and less graphic than the anatomically-sound exit hole, however. Yeesh.
While Mario and Luigi’s gameplay hasn’t really shifted since the previous game, the few quality-of-life enhancements are still worthy of discussion. One of my many complaints regarding the gameplay of Partners in Time is that the player could rely too heavily on the potent “bros items'' to carry them through the game, something that I’m admittedly guilty of taking advantage of. The “bros items” still persevere into Bowser’s Inside Story, but are now streamlined as “special items.” Using the green shell or the fire flower coincides with an SP meter and is given appropriately assigned numerical amounts that keep the player from buying them in bulk and obliterating everything in sight with them. The same goes for all of Bower’s special moves as well. It’s more traditional to the standard RPG “magic meter” but hey, it’s been proven to work throughout the evolution of the genre. Beans buried in the ground are to be consumed in their rawest forms as opposed to mixing them in a hearty, caffeinated blend, and their nutritional benefits raise Mario and Luigi’s base stats. A new item called a “retry clock” will restart the battle that either Mario/Luigi or Bowser has tragically fallen on instead of having to retread ground from the last save point. All this item’s inclusion does is make me wish that it was available at times during the last two games at points when the difficulty ratcheted up the skies and beyond, and at no point does Bowser’s Inside Story match those enraging instances. However, the difficulty curve of Bowser’s Inside Story offers a consistent challenge, with enemies attacking in less predictable patterns.
The realms of Bowser in the overworld and Mario and Luigi mucking through the guts of the giant turtle are obviously as different as night and day, a contrast of reality and surreality. Even though their division seems concretely defined, the gameplay is at its most interesting in the instances when the two worlds coalesce in perfect harmony. The scenario of Bowser’s Inside Story is so ruinous for both dueling parties that they must set aside their age-old squabbles and work together for the sake of their mutual interests (Bowser regaining his castle and Mario and Luigi not suffocating in the noxious fumes of Bowser’s colon). At least, Mario and Luigi are the men behind the proverbial curtain assuring that Bowser survives the trek to his eventual upturn because if Bowser knew that his mortal nemesis was trapped inside him, he’d gleefully drown him out by chugging a gallon of Drano. Fueling the dramatic irony of the dire state of affairs comes in the form of tweaking and manipulating Bowser’s various anatomical “buttons” in the form of minigames. When Bowser is straining himself trying to lift something that weighs a ton, Mario and Luigi travel to his arm center and stimulate his muscles to give him that extra boost. When faced with a challenge to consume a Guinness record-worthy-sized carrot, Mario and Luigi act as enzymes to help him digest the orange chunks before he either vomits or explodes. Mario and Luigi help Bowser remember a code from his memory banks that are cluttered by images of Peach, and resurrecting a crushed Bowser by floating down the canal of Bowser’s rump (barf) somehow enlarges the Koopa King into a skyscraper for a short period, dueling the oversized foe that stomped on him before in epic kaiju fashion. Bowser also inadvertently aids Mario and Luigi by illuminating platforms via an X-ray machine and freezing his lungs to solidify some gooey platforms. In combat, Bowser can use his suck ability to vacuum up smaller enemies so Mario and Luigi can share the workload. This is the atypical collaboration between the Mushroom Kingdom’s most seasoned rivals we’ve always wanted because the relationship here is as fluid as a glimmering waterfall.
Naturally, several other of the Mushroom Kingdom’s denizens have gotten sucked up into this mess (no pun intended) and are integral to the narrative. Besides the legion of cookie-cutter Toads and their posh patriarch Toadsworth with whom we are familiar, the new characters that Bowser’s Inside Story adds to the roster of NPCs are a marvelous bunch. The game introduces a new species of creature to the Mario canon called “brocks,” sentient, yellow block constructions that resemble pieces of mechanical cheese. The central “brock” in Bowser’s Story is Broque Monsieur, a character so French that it’s a wonder how he’s not actually made of cheese. This mustachioed immigrant from Western Europe curates Bowser’s one-stop digital shop cube accessed by punching it. He also beseeches Bowser to find his pet “blitties' (cat-like brocks) that roam all over the map in enemy captivity. If Bowser finds all of them, Broque grants Bowser access to his mangy, cuboid dog Broggy, who functions as a special attack. This optional reward does so much damage during battle that it should be illegal. On the opposite spectrum with Mario and Luigi is Starlow, the ambassador representative of the Star Spirits introduced during the meeting who is the big Oz head taking the credit for Mario and Luigi’s deeds. At first glance, Starlow’s role as a guide character disparagingly proves that the developers did not learn from the godawful mistake that was Stuffwell, and the player should anticipate several hours of quickly clicking through dialogue boxes of condescension. While Starlow functions the same as the thing that fulfilled the same job, she succeeds whereas Stuffwell doesn’t because she has a clear, confident personality. She’s not afraid to banter with a fussy Bowser, who refers to her as “Chippy” in a begrudging, contemptful manner, nor is she stoic in times when Bowser’s insides seem like they are on the verge of collapsing. Who knew that actually adding characteristics to a character was all this role needed to transcend being insufferable?
But the strongest inclusion to the cast list of Bowser’s Inside Story is a returning character, and I’ve been having trouble maintaining my poker face for this long so I could dedicate an entire paragraph to his return. From that characteristic cackle to the abstract twisting of the English language, anyone who has played Superstar Saga will recognize this silhouetted merchant as Fawful. I was absolutely delighted that he’s back to being a central character as opposed to an easter egg relegated to the cramped corners of the Mushroom Kingdom sewer system. After regaining enough moxy to leave his squandered place off the grid, Fawful’s overtaking of Bowser’s Castle is step one in his revenge mission against the Mushroom Kingdom for conquering him and Cackletta in the first game, even though he’s completely unaware of Mario and Luigi’s presence here as Bowser is. His screen time is mostly dedicated to grieving Bowser on the field with the help of his thuggish armadillo-boar hybrid minion Midbus, resulting in comedic chemistry between the two that is as rich as one would expect. Fawful is as fun and fiendish as ever with fury and chortles galore, but the second act of his diabolical plan to seize the Mushroom Kingdom is where the game loses my attention. Fawful has discovered yet another mythical star Macguffin, the calamitous “dark star,” and is going to use its diabolically evil power to destroy all living things and reshape the world in his image. And yes, Peach is a necessary tool in awakening it once again because everyone else in the Mushroom Kingdom is apparently an amoral deviant. I am absolutely exhausted by this plot device trope in its third consecutive outing. Perhaps I expected more from this irreverent series, but it is inherently tied down to the safe and familiar Mario brand nevertheless. I would’ve been satisfied with Bowser reclaiming his castle one humorous step with Fawful at a time as the primary overarching plot, seeing the extent of how Fawful has refashioned Bowser’s estate and jurisdiction of the kingdom to the Koopa King’s chagrin. Having a theater erected in your castle that only shows films that celebrate the success of your enemy and also having to wait forever in the lobby just to get crappy seating arrangements has got to be an assault on one’s ego.
Alas, the “dark star” urgency encompasses all of the second half of the game. To combat the dark star’s potential, Mario and Luigi must first find a cure to the blorb problem whose relevance has been relatively dormant up until this task is assigned. They fight (and break the monk-like concentration of) four sages housing the materials of the cure and extract their essence, culminating in a star whose shine burns the colossal amounts of fat from the Toads and reduces them to their normal size. Everything seems wrapped up neatly once Bowser storms Peach’s Castle and confronts both Fawful and Midbus until the impudent dumbass decides it would be a grand idea to swallow the dark star to harness its power like a toddler eating something off the floor. As expected, this was not a wise decision, as the eldritch monster extracts pieces of Bowser’s DNA to shape itself into a shadowy, ghastly version of Bowser. Its new physical form is the final boss of Bowser’s Inside Story and even though it was crafted from a plot device that I am sick to death of, it offers the best final boss in the series so far. Why do I say this? Unlike Cackletta’s Ghost and the Shroob Queen, the arduous two phases that prolong the final fight to a grueling extent are divided almost simultaneously between Bowser fighting his uncanny shadow and Mario and Luigi facing its Fawful-faced essence in Bowser’s stomach. The retry clocks also help a bit as well, I suppose. The whole ordeal is far anxiety-inducing. After the final fight, Bowser is irate upon finding out that Mario and Luigi were gallivanting in his innards this whole time, but the two brothers give him a rightful ass whoopin’ for being so ungrateful. At least Peach then sends him a cake for all his troubles. Bowser should count himself lucky since this is as far as Mario’s ever gone with the princess!
By aping the premise of Fantastic Voyage as many media has done, the Mario & Luigi series has revitalized itself after its second entry somewhat faltered. Partners in Time was not an indelible stain on the series that couldn’t have been rubbed off no matter how hard the developers attempted to ebb away its middling impact. However, Bowser’s Inside Story is a far more exemplary successor to Superstar Saga because it took risks where Partners in Time didn’t. Implementing Bowser as a heroic figure, albeit as a bratty nincompoop, through the perspective of Mario and Luigi manipulating his inner sanctum was a brilliant way to rationally integrate any Mario RPG’s best and brightest (in a charismatic sense) character in the spotlight. Adding Fawful again was also a nice bit of fan service that I will gladly eat up like it's the Sunday gravy. Partners in Time didn’t realize that succeeding Superstar Saga wasn’t a matter of streamlining and smoothing over its rough patches: following up the cheekiest of Mario outings requires letting loose and paving your own trail of kookiness and unpredictability. Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story took this direction with full force and STILL added many technical improvements. It’s a strong contender not only for the best in the series but as the quintessential Mario RPG period. Paper Mario be damned.