Mario & Luigi is a remarkably hands-on RPG, the antidote to JRPGs and their cold, unflinching stats. Numbers underpin the experience, but the game is built primarily on what you do with your fingers. Hammer attacks are amplified if you tap at the apex of the swing. A single jump becomes two if you press as foot touches head. Even incoming attacks can be dodged or countered, as long as your timings are sound. It's a system of forced engagement and very engaging it is, too.
It extends beyond battle. Where most JRPGs use the overworld as a crude pen for deep combat systems, developer AlphaDream honours its heroes' roots by packing the field full of platforming. It has none of the grace of a standalone Mario platformer, though, choosing instead a Metroid-y approach that sees the areas opening up as the brothers amass fancier moves. Returning to rinse old stomping grounds with a new hover jump or digging technique gives the world a density of play few RPGs can match.
These ideas are a given in a Mario & Luigi game. The fun part is finding out what extra ingredient AlphaDream has thrown into the pot. Following the four-man (well, two men/two babies) twist of Partners In Time and the last game's Bowser threesome, it may initially seem like a step back that Dream Team Bros. only focuses on Mario and Luigi. Dive into the story, however, and it totally wins you over using the limitless potential of dreams to amplify this winning formula into something else entirely.
Following a precedent set by SNES's Mario RPG (a Wii Virtual Console must-buy), Mario & Luigi is where the Mushroom Kingdom lets its hair down. Our heroic duo have less in common with the stars of NSMB and the like than Laurel and Hardy, buffeted between comic mishaps as they meander towards an epic conclusion. This time they amble across Pi'illo Island, a holiday resort once home to a race of sentient cushions, now petrified by some Big Bad Plot Device.
Putting aside the terrifying notion of pillows being frozen corpses - we swear we heard a ghostly quack from our eiderdown last night - the story has tremendous momentum and laugh-out-loud twists. More importantly, it respects its portable home with an overarching narrative backbone built from smaller comic vertebrae. Whether it's winning over beefcake mountaineers or thwarting a bandit's heist, every step of the journey is a mini-yarn in itself.
Having brilliantly explored the link between the outside world and Bowser's lower intestine in "Bowser's Inside Story, it's no surprise that AlphaDream has some real fun mining more psychological depths. Luigi opens dream portals by napping on Pi'illos and, in a brilliant twist, the resulting visions reflect what's on his mind. Dreams are decked in visual motifs yanked from reality, complete with exaggerated enemies and remixes of the spiffing 'outside' soundtrack (the dream battle theme is a serious earworm).
Key story-specific dreams (the majority of the Pi'illos are side-quests) borrow from stretches of the outside adventure for inspiration. So once you've climbed an actual mountain, you get to climb a dream one, too. Sounds like hard work, but it's fun seeing how Luigi interprets recent history into surreal visions, particularly in boss designs that pilfer from random objects - and entire locations - to great effect.