Over the last two decades Super Mario has been more than a mascot, an icon, or even a legend in the gaming industry; he is its ambassador. And not surprising, no other franchise in the history of video games has had the far reaching impact on how games are played or viewed. With the possible exception of Pac-Man, Mario is by far the most recognizable figure in the history of games, be it to the most casual or hardcore of gamers. What Elvis was to Rock and Roll, Mario is to video games.
Unfortunately, for the last couple of years, Mario had declined into a fat, mid-70's Elvis-style stupor. Ever since Mario 64, Nintendo has slapped Mario into every possible genre imaginable. Some with excellent results (Mario Kart), others that were less than stellar (Mario Party, Mario Vs. Donkey Kong), and a bunch of so-so sports games that are so numerous I'm not even going to attempt to name them all. The RPG Paper Mario series has typically been one of the stronger Mario spin offs since its inception on the N64 nearly a decade ago, even if it has never achieved the sheer brilliance of Squaresoft's Super Mario RPG on the SNES.
While Mario has been well represented in the RPG genre for the better part of 3 console generations, his roots in the platformer genre have gone largely neglected. Save for a pair of overrated 3-D adventures on the N64 and Gamecube and Game Boy Advance ports of his classic adventures, we've been waiting since the days of the Super NES for a new 2-D Mario game. Prayers were finally answered last year with the release of New Super Mario Bros. on the DS. Nintendo finally listened to all the fans' clamoring for a return to Mario's roots, and Nintendo was rewarded for coming to their senses with a flagship title for their now ridiculously popular DS.
Now onto Nintendo's latest system, our patience is further rewarded with another superb 2-D Mario game. However, this one is unlike anything you've ever played before. Post-modern film theory states that anything truly original is impossible, because everything has already been done before. Therefore, the only way to come up with something original is to combine things that have already been done before in new ways. If we applied post-modern theory to video games, it would culminate into Super Paper Mario. SPM is one of the ultimate examples of mixing together classical conventions in order to create something refreshingly new.
The story begins with Mario and Luigi sitting at a table eating breakfast. No sooner than Luigi complains about nothing exciting ever happening do the brothers receive word of a tragedy. Apparently the princess has been kidnapped! As soon as Luigi exclaims: "Who could be responsible for such a thing?" it becomes obvious that this game has its tongue firmly inserted in cheek. Of course, as any Mario fan knows, it is none other than Bowser who is responsible, and the Brothers spring into action. Just as the Bros. interrupt Bowser's attempted wedding to the princess, a floating apparition named Count Bleck appears. Bleck has in his possession an ancient tome called the Dark Prognosticus, which foretells the end of all worlds. Through the knowledge he's gained he is able to banish Mario, Bowser, Luigi, the Princess, and Bowser's entire army of minions to an alternate dimension. Mario ends up in a town called Flipside in which he meets a companion named Tippi. Tippi is essentially a fairy that follows Mario around and gives him clues, similar to Navi in the Zelda series. While in Flipside Mario encounters a sage named Merlon who informs him that he is likely the hero foretold in the Light Prognosticus; The hero who will save all worlds from destruction. In order to succeed, Mario will have to find 3 other heroes and collect the 7 pure hearts in order to battle Bleck for the fate of all worlds. Of course, Bleck and his minions will try to interfere every step of the way.
Super Paper Mario's story succeeds because it doesn't attempt to take itself seriously. The game constantly pokes fun at many video game conventions, and the characters constantly find themselves in quirky and unique situations. Dare I say that this is the funniest RPG that I have ever played? Yes I do. Furthermore, SPM eschews many of the disposable characters that pollute most Mario games these days such as Waluigi. In their place, we get a plethora of new and interesting characters. Bleck is a deep villain with mysterious motivations and remarkable secrets. His minions are all very memorable and have distinct personalities, and they play off each other well in the game's humorous cut-scenes. The chemistry between all the characters result in a hilarious and satisfying story that will keep you interested until the credits roll.
The majority of Super Paper Mario plays just like an old school Mario platformer. Throughout the 20-hour adventure you'll transverse 32 2-dimensional chapters, numbered from 1-1 to 8-4 just like the original 1985 title. Even the way you hold the Wii remote sideways is reminiscent of an old NES controller. You're still stomping Goombas, separating Koopas from their shells, and acquiring coins and power ups from question mark blocks. However, there are crucial differences between Super Paper Mario and classic Mario platformers that give this game a unique feel all its own. There is no run button; no Yoshi to ride; no mushrooms to make you bigger; and you can't grab turtle shells to kick at your leisure. Oh yeah, but now you can also flip into 3-D at almost any time.
The 3-D flipping mechanic is so brilliant you'll be asking how someone didn't think of it sooner. With a push of the A button, Mario will go from being constrained in one dimensional plane to being free to roam in 3 dimensions. This mechanic allows you to find secrets, solve puzzles, and avoid enemies. The game is meant to be split between the two states equally, which explains the meter that causes Mario to lose health if he stays in 3-D for too long. Still, the game keeps things fairly straight forward by maintaining a strict left to right policy for the most part. There's no rotation of the camera, and many elements in the game stay flat. Still, something that looks like a stair case in 2-dimensions will reveal itself to be a field of pillars in 3-dimensions. Pathways and pipes that were hidden by items in the flat world will be revealed in the 3-D world. If you play an older Mario title after playing this, you'll definitely wonder what certain sections would look like in 3-D.
Flipping between dimensions isn't the only new ability Mario has. Throughout the game, Mario will acquire various familiars known as pixls. Pixls give Mario a variety of different abilities such as hovering over obstacles, using a hammer or bombs, shrinking down to insect proportions, and more. Some pixls are more useful than others, but all are fun to mess around with.
In addition to Mario's pixl abilities, you'll eventually be joined by Princess Peach, Bowser and Luigi, each of whom have their own abilities. Princess Peach can protect herself and float across chasms with her umbrella, Bowser does double damage with his jump and can breathe fire, and Luigi has the ability to jump higher than any other character. Despite having four characters you'll easily spend the vast majority of the game playing as Mario, since he's the only one who can flip into 3-dimensions.
Of course, given the series' roots you can expect several RPG elements. Throughout Mario's quest you'll find several different items and level up your character. Gone are the turn based battles of previous Paper Marios, replaced in favor of classic hop and bop action. Still, when Mario stomps an enemy, a number will appear showing how many hit points of damage you've caused, giving the game another undeniable RPG element. In the end though, the game is a platformer first and foremost, and the RPG elements are rather rudimentary. Equipment is never upgraded and stats are limited to basic categories of attack, defense, and Hit Points. Also given the game's chaptered structure, it is very limited and linear. There is little to explore beyond the actual levels, and side quests are limited to collecting ingredients to cook new items and a card collecting mini-game, both of which are completely ignorable. Don't expect to roam the countryside outside of Flipside like you would the countryside of a fully fledged RPG like Oblivion. Still, the RPG elements of the game add a layer of depth that is missing from most platformers.
The town of Flipside serves as a hub in which Mario can rest at inns, purchase items and talk to townsfolk. Truth be told, the Flipside segments of the game are by far the weakest the game has to offer. Wandering the town and backtracking back and forth occasionally bring the pacing of the game to a grinding halt. The outskirts of Flipside in particular are the blandest looking (and playing) sections of the game. Luckily, these sections never drag on to the point of frustration. The desire to see what crazy ideas are in store in the following chapter will be more than enough to keep you gaming during these slow spots.
Like most linear RPGs, the game has little to offer beyond the ending credits. After watching the ending one can go back and revisit past levels to get secrets, but can't replay boss battles or relive some of the hilarious dialogue. The game will be just as fun and hilarious on a second play through but there's very little new to see once one beats the game. As phenomenal as the game is while it lasts, it probably won't hold your attention beyond the initial 20 hour investment.
Even though you're being led along by the nose to the game's conclusion for the most part, the levels are an absolute joy to explore. Every chapter has a distinctly different theme, and throughout the adventure Mario and friends will find themselves enslaved in a sweatshop, infiltrating a mega-nerd's fortress, playing in dating games and game shows, floating through space with a fishbowl as a helmet, and even condemned to hell when their "games are over". The first four chapters are simply brilliant in their designs. The space level in particular stands out, as Mario must flip not only dimensions, but gravity. With 6 full planes of movement, things get quite mind-blowing very quickly. Some of the later chapters seem a little weak but that's mostly due to the outstanding design of the earlier levels. The game ends with a satisfying bang however, and even the weakest levels are entertaining to play through.
Since the game was originally designed as a Gamecube game, the Wii-mote functions are underdeveloped and feel tacked on. If you point the Wii-mote at the screen, Tippi will explain the significance of whatever you're pointing to. Her explanations of enemies and their weak points are incredibly useful, as is her advice on what to do next if you get stuck. Other motion controls include contorting and shaking the remote to get maximum effect out of attack items. If you shake the Wii-mote when you jump on an enemy, an audience will cheer and give you extra experience. Also, shaking the remote will help speed up certain character ailments such as getting frozen. And... that's about it. A cynic may suggest that the reason that Super Paper Mario is one of the best Wii games to date is that it essentially ignores motion control for the most part. The controls are simple, effective, and minimalist. Only three buttons are essentially used throughout the game. Unfortunately, since there are so few buttons to work with, switching between characters and pixls involves going into a menu and selecting your desired option. It's not a huge issue, but the constant menu surfing does take you out of the moment every now and then.
Super Paper Mario has a very similar look to the Gamecube's Thousand Year Door. This is hardly surprising given both the Wii hardware's and the game's Gamecube DNA. The characters are all very well drawn and animate quite well. The environments look simple, but are very effective within the overall art style of the game. The designers seem to be going for a sort of modern interpretation of old school graphics, and in that regard, they have succeeded wildly. While SPM won't make any special use of that fancy HDTV you have, the game is a joy to look at and is more than easy on the eyes.
The most significant audio achievement of the game is that Mario is actually silent. None of this stereotypical Italian accented "It's-a-me" crap to be found here. Mario is the silent protagonist that he used to be, and always should have remained. That annoying accent has cheapened many a Mario adventure in this reviewer's opinion and it's a wonderful thing that the designers have decided to allow Mario's actions to speak for themselves. The music is always catchy, especially in the remixes of classic level music. On the downside, the sound effect that accompanies every letter appearing in the text-boxes will likely grate before long. The lack of voice acting may be an issue for some, but like a good novel this is an example of a story being better read than heard. The sound effects are cute and bouncy but not unlike what you've heard in countless other platformers.
After the release of Super Paper Mario, we can declare Mario's Fat-Elvis years to be over. Super Paper Mario is a superlative effort that will finally justify that Wii purchase beyond Twilight Princess. The game is simply unadulterated fun. Through its fantastic storytelling, charming visuals, catchy music, and brilliant melding of classic conventions with new ideas, Super Paper Mario is a game that plays like a dream. By going back to Mario's roots, Nintendo has created yet another masterpiece and returned Mario to his former glory. Welcome back Mario, we've missed you