Review: Super Paper Mario – Not A Reinvention, But A Hilarious Affair

Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform
: Nintendo Wii
Release: September 14, 2007

Super Paper Mario was initially planned as a swan song for the Nintendo GameCube – just as the original Paper Mario was on the Nintendo 64. Unfortunately for the little purple box however, the GameCube saw a lack of consumer interest in its autumn years, and evidently holding the game for greener pastures became a more favourable prospect. And so we find ourselves on the Nintendo Wii, where the game has taken advantage of a new and unique control scheme – or has it? Does Super Paper Mario really show off what the Wii can do? And furthermore, does it feel like next-generation software, or just a sloppy would-be GameCube port? Let’s investigate.

Right off the bat, Super Paper Mario harkens back to Super Mario Bros. in how it asks players to hold the controller. Super Paper Mario flips the Wii Remote on its side, NES style, with the left thumb controlling movement via the D-pad and the right thumb taking care of jumping with the 1 and 2 buttons. It’s certainly minimalistic compared to say, an Xbox 360 game, but there’s indisputable charm in that simplicity.

Perhaps inevitably though, this retro-inspired setup is prone to certain inconveniences. While moving left and right with the D-pad are a breeze, context sensitive actions such as opening a door or talking to a character are mapped to the up direction on the D-pad. The Wii remote’s compact size becomes somewhat of an issue here, as I would occasionally input directions I didn’t intend to. I found myself accepting a long elevator ride simply because I accidentally slipped my thumb.

Super Paper Mario has adopted a particularly unique blend of genres, playing as part platform game and part role-playing game. Like previous Paper Mario entries, the game is structured with a series of chapters, although this time chapters are each divided into four separate worlds – once again drawing from the original Super Mario Bros. Where some of these worlds are designed around platforming challenges however, others involve objectives typical of an RPG like exploring a town or completing a quest for a character. On the surface, the game handles this unity of disparate genres pretty seamlessly.

Dig a little deeper however, and it’s obvious that Super Paper Mario is more comfortable being a platform game than an RPG. The RPG mechanics players have come to know from previous Paper Mario games are mostly absent, including turn-based battles, magic points and equipable badge perks. What remains are experience points, healing and attack items, as well as a series of supportive characters with unique abilities. Admittedly, it was disappointing to see how the series’ role-playing mechanics had been dialled down. This sour feeling didn’t last long however, as Super Paper Mario proves that the series’ charms run deeper than calculating damage and stacking up perks.

At the heart of Super Paper Mario is an explosive and evolving story, sown together with clever and actually funny writing, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is where the game truly shines. With a rather questionable lack of consent, the story commences with Princess Peach marrying Bowser against her will. The marriage celebrant is a mysterious, monocled villain known as Count Bleck, who carries a book titled the Dark Prognosticus. What’s more, this tome foretells of a union that will summon a “Chaos Heart” that will consume and destroy all worlds.

The story is unlike any other Paper Mario, or Mario game to date, as it delves into two themes the franchise – and indeed, many video games – seldom touch on: love and death. Without spoiling too much, how Super Paper Mario weaves its tale of love is fantastic. Death, through the lens of a “game over”, is explored with appropriate measure for a Mario game, but players might be caught off guard by how deep it goes. Rest assured that the game’s plot holds nothing back, with a sense of impending doom and a curious love story that unfolds throughout. It’s surprisingly well executed.

The salient mechanic behind Super Paper Mario is the ability to flip between the two-dimensional viewpoint of typical Mario games, and a 3D world loaded up with an extra axis of movement – “depth”. The 3D world orbits the camera 90 degrees around Mario, revealing previously concealed objects and platforms, and opening the floodgates to plenty of perspective-based puzzles. It’s an interesting and innovative mechanic at first, although it quickly becomes the obvious solution to all of the game’s puzzles. Flipping the world in and out of 3D takes less than a second, but I found myself flipping every five or so seconds when traveling through new areas, in fear of missing any hidden items. Eventually the novelty wears off and it can start to feel like busywork.

On the difficulty spectrum, Paper Mario veterans will find that they can solve most puzzles with ease. Barring the flip mechanic, Mario can also solve environmental puzzles using a set of “Pixl” abilities, belonging to a cast of fairy companions who stand in as the game’s party members. Though they don’t provide much dialogue or exhibit a whole lot of character, they provide useful skills like being able to detect invisible objects, blow up walls, or even open up rifts in space. Puzzles increase in difficulty as the player discovers more Pixls, but not dramatically so.

Enemies and bosses are also fairly easy to overcome. Having removed the traditional turn-based battles from the game’s formula, players won’t make too many heavy decisions during combat. Mario can take a timeout and call in Peach, Bowser or Luigi to use their unique abilities if need be, but usually the best solution is to charge in as Mario and stomp some faces while avoiding attacks, or switch to Bowser and spew some fire. I found myself slaughtering bosses very quickly, unlike the other Paper Mario games, where bosses felt like a monumental encounter to cap off a chapter.

It shouldn’t be understated that Super Paper Mario was originally a GameCube game, and so Intelligent Systems has reused a significant amount of character art from The Thousand-Year Door, including for Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Princess Peach, and a list of enemies. That said, Super Paper Mario sets itself apart with a fantastical new art style, this time exploring the concept of different dimensions with their own mathematical laws. Some stages feature algebraic formulas floating in the backdrop, involving mushrooms multiplied by stars as a fraction of warp pipes. Other worlds are made of big, chunky pixels and some will throw you off with bizarre, inverted colour palettes. It can be considered a bold direction, but the series’ traditional charm still shines through. And despite the occasional frame drop, it looks fantastic in 480p widescreen.

The stark visual difference between worlds really drives home the theme of traveling between dimensions, and it looks great as an entire package. When I booted up Super Paper Mario initially, I was admittedly a little thrown off by its experimental art style as I feared that it would rob the game of its sense of character that the Paper Mario franchise is known for. But that concern was quickly dispelled as I followed Mario’s journey all over, including into space, a prehistoric age and even something resembling hell (the place where you go when your game is over). One hilarious chapter sees the party enter the castle of an outspoken, all-too-familiar internet nerd, and the writing is uncannily representative of a GameFAQs message board – great stuff. The game’s localisation team really deserves its props with this translation.

Super Paper Mario has a few noticeable flaws here and there. This might be a result of its GameCube origins, and how the game doesn’t take full advantage of the Wii’s capabilities. That said, it is a delightful game; a love letter to diehard Nintendo fans and anyone who has ever enjoyed a Super Mario game. It’s not a perfect blend of gameplay and story, but it is mighty entertaining, with plenty of thrills, twists, turns and visits to hell. Oh, and Luigi fans won’t want to skip this, either.

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