Nintendo stewards a menagerie of highly recognizable characters, most of whom are beloved by the old and the young alike. Bowser Jr. is not one of those characters. People are generally apathetic towards the turtle prince at best. At worst, they want to see him fall into a pit of lava and boil away until nothing remains but a singed tuft of red topknot.
Bowser Jr. isn't a character Nintendo fans love to hate, like Waluigi. He's just not well-liked, especially by older fans who view the spiky boy as an usurper of Bowser's "original" children, The Koopalings. Nintendo's since retconned the Koopalings' role, and they now merely serve under Bowser and Bowser Jr.
As someone who was introduced to the Koopalings through Super Mario Bros. 3, I was initially a little resentful myself. I gradually warmed up to the little kidney stone, though. There's a warmth between him and Papa Bowser (driven home by the Parental Controls video for the Switch) that makes me smile despite everything.
Admittedly, Bowser Jr.'s reputation, his fan reception (or lack thereof) and his contested role in the Koopa dynasty are big reasons why I decided to pick up Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story + Bowser Jr.'s Journey for the still-breathing Nintendo 3DS. When I first saw the trailer for the new content Nintendo added to the remake of its classic 2009 RPG, I got the feeling that Nintendo is aware nobody likes Bowser Jr., and Bowser Jr.'s Journey builds itself around that factoid. "The Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario games are some of Nintendo's best-written stories," I told my cat, "so I bet Bowser Jr.'s Journey is a hoot."
My correctness is the delicious meal warming up my heart, as Mario & Luigi villain Fawful would say (I guess). Though the gameplay driving Bowser Jr.'s Journey is largely automated and therefore might not scratch your RPG itch, I'm having a great time following the immensely spoiled Jr. and his entourage of reluctant minders.
Since Bowser is MIA thanks to the events of Bowser's Inside Story (which is easily the best of the Mario & Luigi games, FYI), Jr. lands in the care of the Koopalings and Bowser's magician, Kamek, who's driven to his wits' end trying to take care of "the young master." When Jr. gets a big idea that he hopes will impress his absentee father, the Koopalings initially try to keep him happy. They dish out battle advice that goes ignored. They suffer insults and jabs. They advise Jr. on what he should do and where he should go, but every effort bounces off Jr.'s thick shell.
Unsurprisingly, the Koopalings gradually ditch Bowser Jr. and opt to track down their "real" boss. While most of them try to remain diplomatic about the departure, the temperamental Roy Koopa explodes and tells Bowser Jr. exactly what he thinks of the little tyrant. Most of what Roy says is engineered to land with the player, too. There's no sympathy for Bowser Jr., no opportunity for likability—not at first.
Bowser Jr.'s Journey gradually introduces opportunities to soften up towards its star. Bowser Jr.'s defiant "See if I care!" response to each Koopaling departure becomes less self-assured as time goes on. He acts tough when he has the luxury of security, but his facade peels away when serious challenges start to mount up. It's a bit like watching one of those movies where the bully character sits forlorn amidst empty chairs and unused noisemakers at his birthday party. Yeah, he spent the entire movie making his bed, but you can't help but feel sorry for him when he lies in it and quietly weeps.
Bowser Jr. isn't granted redemption as easily as the movie bully, however (who invariably finds himself surrounded by forgiving new friends after suffering for five minutes). He needs to learn how to grow on his own without a Koopaling crutch to lean on. This also means you lose the Koopalings' battle prowess as the game goes on and must learn to fight with the aid of regular troops.
There's one exception. Morton, the hefty grey-faced Koopaling who tries to avoid words that exceed two syllables, is curiously protective of Bowser Jr. (or as he calls him, "SMALL BOWSER") for his own reasons. Morton's strange drive to make sure Small Bowser comes to no harm mixed with Jr.'s partial emergence from his spoiled shell combine with witty writing to make Nintendo's best-known troupe of bad guys a lovable, if thoroughly dysfunctional, bunch.
It's not easy to write "good" bad guys, but the Mario RPGs do it effortlessly. It makes me wish Nintendo would loosen up a bit with its mainstream games. There's a lot of fun potential in a title like Super Mario Odyssey, in which, might I remind you, has evil wedding planners who are also rabbits. Nintendo has writers who can make Bowser Jr. a likeable character in his own RPG side-story, but it just lets beautiful ideas like "angry rabbit wedding planners" sit fallow. I sigh.