Well, the DS does it again. Upon first glance, I doubted that this handheld would be home to much more than a bunch of gimmick-specific titles that took advantage of the various hardware features. I've been proven wrong, and I eat this crow gladly. The fact is, solid game after solid game keeps getting released, and although very few of them really exploit the unique nature of the DS, there's no denying that they are worthwhile efforts. Case in point—Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time.
Although I never played its GBA predecessor Superstar Saga, Partners in Time has a lot in common with its Paper Mario GameCube brethren. Structurally it resembles a role-playing game (RPG) with hit points and turn-based battles, but the heart of the game depends on manual dexterity and good timing. Talking to townsfolk and searching for items plays out as usual, but the combat is unique to this series.
Each of the game's four stars (Mario, Luigi, and their two baby incarnations) is assigned one button each on the DS. By hitting the correct button at the right time, extra damage is dealt to foes. When on the defensive, fast fingers will let our heroes avoid incoming damage or even deal a sharp counterattack.
It's a great system that's worked well the last few times it's been used, and does a lot to keep the energy level high where most RPG's reduce combat to simply clicking through a series of menus as quickly as possible. It's impossible to sleep through these battles and emerge victorious, and this is a very good thing. The downside in the case of Partners in Time is that it requires a lot of precision pressing, almost too much.
The complexity of pulling off in-battle maneuvers is surprising because the rest of the game is so straightforward and perfectly designed for beginners and younger players. Level designs are simple and the game gives lots of hints and assistance towards solving puzzles. But, the battles will crush anyone who doesn't already have a high degree of eye-hand coordination. They can be especially demanding later in the game when the telegraphing cues given off by enemies are fast and subtle. Combine that with a chunk of hit points lost after taking one in the gut, and things can get a little bit frustrating.
Still, Partners in Time does an admirable job of including plentiful in-game tutorials and it's not too hard to accumulate a small mountain of items which can make up for fingers that aren't nimble enough.
Outside of the entertaining battle mechanics, the game suffers a bit by telling a dull story that never takes advantage of the concept of time travel. Besides the fact that I got to play with adult and infant versions of our plumbing heroes simultaneously, this could have been any other adventure in the Mushroom Kingdom. I was disappointed that Partners in Time never attempted chronological complexity like that in the seminal Chrono Trigger or others that jump back and forth through the time stream. Although it's certainly a Mario game, I don't think this necessarily means that the plot has to be so toothless and underachieving.
My complaints about the storytelling and button-pressing aside, it's impossible to deny that Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time is engaging from a tactile perspective—taking out evil toadstools by kicking a red shell back and forth between the mustache brothers just never gets old. The game capitalizes richly on the Mario canon and delivers an above-average portable experience at the same time. Truth be told, it even stacks up nicely against anything found on the GameCube. It could have used a little tweaking here and there, but the bottom line is that Partners in Time is one more reason DS owners have to be happy.