Looks like paper, tastes like super.
The Paper Mario games are reminders that as far as we come with graphics and technology, the value of simple gameplay and a little heart has never changed. Even though it’s shed most of its predecessors’ RPG elements, Super Paper Mario really shines as an end-all 2D platforming game - it breaks every kind of dimension, it’s a classic world you can prod and spin and reshape.
Mario saving the universe is just one storyline; there are star-crossed lovers, backstabbers and best friends. Intelligent Systems has created a wonderful Mario world where our mute hero struggles with more self-absorbed morons than Goombas or Koopas. Merlon, Merlee and some of the other second-string characters from Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
return to guide you from 2D to 3D, from cretaceous worlds to outer space and back.
Mario is just one of four main characters and a dozen allies who let you bend and stretch every rule of 2D platforming games. Sure, Peach can glide with her umbrella and the hammer fairy lets you swing a hammer (aha), but Mario literally flips the world 90 degrees in to 3D. Deadly Thwomps and Piranha Plants are made harmless as you run behind
them. Or you spin your character
90 degrees, and stand completely still to take an untouchable hairline shape. Move while you’re ‘slimmed’ and you can see your character flapping like a piece of paper from the side.
These sections translate into dozens of mind-bending puzzles, until you reach the end-of-chapter block. Point-and-click anywhere on the screen for info about an enemy or object; a few minigames make you shake the remote to charge up, and that’s about it for motion control. Harmless dialogue minigames drop you into simple riddles and funny Japanese dating sims, though if you get sassy and refuse to help people you might miss items and even lose the game (all in good humor).
The platforming is truly astounding, but the puzzles are a pain in the butt. Super Paper Mario is all about solving puzzles in a precise order of rooms and keys. Sometimes you have to go out of your way just to get a clue for the next key. There’s a lot of backtracking, and it’s the kind of puzzle-solving where you search every room every which-way five times, and then you go to the Internet. Not so fun.
I also wonder why Super Paper Mario strays so far from its turn-based predecessors. The only RPG features are the hundreds of collectible cards and item recipes, found between an endless march of dialogue boxes. Signature features like the bonus minigames for mundane attacks and the badge upgrade system really set the first Paper Mario games apart, but they’re on life support here. If it wasn’t broke, why fix it?
At least Super Paper Mario
maintains the excellent writing seen in Partners in Time
and Thousand Year Door
. Intelligent Systems keeps riffing on games while touching on friendship, love and even marriage. When early bosses challenge you to duel “like two banjos gleaming in the moonlight,” you know you’re in business.
There may even be too much writing, if possible - Super Paper Mario plays like a disjointed collection of dramas. Each zone features a whole new subplot with new principal characters. Each of the four ‘chapters’ of a world and the chapter slipped between worlds feels like a lengthy episode. I’m happy to see so much content, but there’s a weird heaviness to each segment that keeps you from jumping into the gameplay; you constantly feel like you’re starting over. The experience is served best in short bursts, rather than lengthy sessions.
The art style is right on the mark with the humor. The 2D and 3D elements fit together seamlessly, differing enough to show changes, plus creeping lines and camera tricks add a lot of eye candy. Dozens of cameos and visual in-jokes keep the screen lively; I love one shield which is made of the original 8-bit art for your character. Peppy music drives each level
You really have to love the world Intelligent Systems has crafted - Mario is a mute but big-hearted hero in a land of self-absorbed friends and foes. The tone is sweet but cynical, a refreshing departure from the usually saccharine Muschroom Kingdom. Lots of humor, lots of character, and lots to do. I miss my badges and minigames, but I’m glad I didn’t miss Super Paper Mario.