Even if it didn’t feature the main characters of gaming’s storied franchise, Mario & Luigi – Partners in Time would still obviously be a game from Nintendo. Its charm, style, innovation, and family-friendly humor work to create a unique RPG experience spun off from Super Mario RPG (1996). The result is a work of an ingenious game design, giving fans the greatest battle system ever devised for a turn-based RPG.
The hook here is the control of four characters at once. Given the title’s time travel storyline (which is sadly not used as a major gameplay mechanic), it brings two generations of Mario and Luigi together. The difference here is that each one is given their own face button to perform basic tasks.
This is where the game earns its guaranteed classic status. Every world the characters end up on is a puzzle. You’re not traversing the wildly varied locales to hunt familiar and new creatures to level up. You’re solving complex yet logical puzzles.
Each of these challenges involves plenty of work, but with a game system this wonderfully designed, it never feels like it through the 15-20 hours of adventure. Multiple sequences involve splitting up the baby and adult brothers to tackle their own tasks, tailored to their own abilities. Switching from one set to another is as simple as pressing their corresponding button.
Avoiding random combat, every enemy is seen in plain view so the player makes the choice to enter the fray. Compared to every other RPG you’ll find, Partners lets the user have an effect on every facet of combat. Even a simple jump requires a quick button press at the moment of impact for the full effect (like Mario RPG). Special moves, like red shells or other various nods to previous games (not only the RPG series, but the entire Mario universe) require precision timing that keeps the players’ attention in even the most rudimentary encounter.
In theory, a player who knows the enemy attacks could, in a long shot, play the entire game without taking a single hit. That’s how open this combat engine is to the players’ needs, by offering multiple means of defense and counter-attacks. It does make this one lean towards the easy side, with rapid leveling-up, plenty of money, and few deaths. This is not a game directed at the die-hard fanatic of the RPG genre; it’s aimed at everyone who wants to sit and relax to kill a few hours, while still entranced by every game play mechanism used to add to the addiction factor.
The trick here is to have what button controls each character in the back of your mind. While you’ll be spending the majority of the time with the adult versions of the brothers, if one (or both) is defeated, you’ll take control of the respective babies. This changes the entire battle, as the convenience of having Luigi controlled with B and Mario with A is gone, and dodging attacks requires Y for Baby Mario instead in addition to Luigi. The same goes for keeping many special attacks going. It’s never frustrating since mistakes always come back to the player’s error, and it’s perfectly within reason that the attack could have been avoided.
The clock ticks as you’re witness to an amazing amount of pleasant animations, all using the same sprite engine to tell the story. The way the developers were able to showcase a wide variety of emotion, comedy, and struggle with only a few basic animation routines is stunning. Dialogue brings with it a few nods to the Mario tradition (“We promise the princess is in this castle!”). A slightly twisted sense of humor stays within the family-friendly range, and also ends up creating Partner’s best moments. Certain maneuvers rely on the humor to work.
A few ever-so-minor complaints creep up, especially the final-yet-not-so-final encounters at the end. Multiple versions of the same villain make you wonder if the game is ever going to be completed (even worse given the extended length of these battles). Also, aside from a single three-second moment, you won’t use the touch screen, or any of the other features that make the console stand out.
None of that should take away from the intelligent design of this DS classic. Partners in Time is a reason to own the console (amongst the many others), and a reason to give the genre a go even if you’re not a fan. This is as close to perfect as video games can get.