The Paper Mario franchise is quite the oddity, even as far as Mario games go. Rather than a classic platformer or one of the many sports or party spin-off titles, the Paper Mario titles are role-playing games. However, that is not their defining feature. Instead, as can be guessed from the title, it is the fact that Mario and friends are all made of paper that really sets these games apart. Being paper means more than being 2-D to the Mario crew. It means they can alter their shapes, slide through gaps and function in ways their more solid versions never could. Super Paper Mario is the franchise's first attempt to branch out from the RPG genre, and while it is a clever and witty game, it isn't a complete success.
Unlike the previous Paper Mario titles, Super Paper Mario takes Mario back to his roots. Combat is no longer done via RPG combat, but instead everything is real-time. Leaping on an enemy's head does damage, as does hitting it with a hammer, kicking a turtle shell into it, or blowing him up with a bomb, all without changing screens. Furthermore, while Mario still levels up, he no longer gains experience points in the classic way; they are tied directly to his score, and reaching a certain score causes him to level up. While this may not sound really different from experience points (and in all honesty, it's not), there are a few interesting implications.
You earn scores not just from defeating enemies, but in all the same ways you do in Mario games as well. Jumping on a Koopa Trooper, for example, and then kicking his shell into a number of enemies causes you to gain a number of rapidly increasing points, just like in the older Mario titles. Furthermore, you can also improve your score by performing Stylish Moves. After hopping on an enemy, if you shake the Wiimote, the character you are controlling will strike a pose, causing the "crowd" to cheer for you. Performing multiple Stylish Moves in a row grants you rapidly increasing points and even more of a crowd.
Even items have made a bit of a return to their old school flair. While a number of the game's items go directly into your character's inventory, to be accessed at the press of a button, not all of them do. Instead, many of these items are now used as soon as you touch them, to power up Mario and friends. Most of these items are references to older Mario games, but with a new twist on them. A mushroom from a "?" block no longer makes Mario grow, but instead heals him. The classic Invincible Star has gotten a complete makeover. As soon as a character picks it up, the game pauses for a moment before transforming him or her into a giant 8-bit version of themselves. This giant version can then rampage through the level, smashing any blocks, pipes or enemies in their way, rather similar to the Mega Mushroom item found in New Super Mario Brothers or the Giant Bowser from the previous Paper Mario title. Pix Pals are my personal favorite addition. Collecting a Pix Pal summons eight tiny 8-bit versions of the character which follow him around, allowing him to do extra damage when hopping on enemies and absorbing hits meant for him.
However, at heart, not much has changed from the previous titles. Despite the elements of classic gameplay, Super Paper Mario is still more of an RPG than a platformer. Much of your game clock will be taken up by various storyline elements, exploring and mini-games, rather than straight platforming. If you're expecting something like New Super Mario Brothers, you may be disappointed. Despite the changes toward the classic, Super Paper Mario is still very much an RPG, just one focused more towards the action elements. Mario and friends gain levels, have HP, use items, sleep at the inn to regain HP and all the other staples of RPG gameplay.
The plot, as it is, of Super Paper Mario is quite simplistic. The evil Count Bleck has kidnapped Princess Peach and Bowser, using them to fulfill an age-old prophecy that will bring about the end of all life in the universe. Naturally, it is up to Mario to prevent this by collecting the eight Pure Hearts and using them to counteract the Chaos Heart created by Count Bleck. For the most part, the game is relentlessly cheerful, offering a number of goofy worlds populated with eccentric characters to explore, ranging from the Bitlands — a giant world made of giant pixels full of references to older Mario games — to the Underwear, the Mario World's version of Hell. However, the plot takes some oddly dark turns toward the end, something that feels rather out of tone with the rest of the game. Hearing characters talking about "ending their own game" (which most characters say instead of "die" or "death") when talking about committing suicide is bizarre, to say the least. (This translation slips a few times in this regard, so occasionally things like "I won't let you die!" will slip through.)
However, the real charm of the Paper Mario games isn't in their plots but their quirky characters, and Super Paper Mario is full of them. Ranging from a group of Cro-Magnons who talk like California surfer boys to a stereotypical fanboy lizard name Francis who collects Nintendo memorabilia and talks nonstop about posting on Internet message boards, these characters are amusing and likeable. A few of the jokes fall flat, such as the 100-Man Army filled with in-jokes that feel more tedious than amusing, but for the most part, you can't help but smile while playing the game. As mentioned above, however, some of these goofy characters meet oddly dark fates for such a cheerful offering.
When you first begin playing Super Paper Mario, one element that really shines is the level design. Thanks to Mario's ability to "flip" between dimensions, every level of the game is made up of two different versions, 2-D and 3-D. Since everything except for the level itself is paper-thin, switching between the two is crucial to advancing. If a giant pipe is blocking your way, you can simple switch to 3-D and walk past it. Hints may be written on the "side" of things that can't be seen in the normal side-scrolling mode, blocks may change positions, and Mario and friends can even just walk by many kinds of enemies. A lot of the puzzles are built around this unique ability, and most are very clever. Rarely do the puzzles feel illogical or poorly designed, so flipping feels less like a chore and more like something that is just common sense. Be warned that Mario can't remain flipped forever. When he flips into the 3-D world, a sort of "health bar" appears on the screen below your normal HP icon. When this reaches 0, Mario takes damage. However, by flipping back into the 2-D world, this bar quickly regenerates, so don't hesitate to flip if you want to check things out ... just don't stay flipped too long.
Unfortunately, Super Paper Mario doesn't maintain this momentum throughout the entire game. There are a number of levels that fall flat on their face in both design and storyline. Level 2-3, for example, involves you earning thousands of rubies through "mini-games" by running on wheels or jumping up and down repeatedly. It would be an amusing idea if it didn't go on far too long, turning the level into the platforming equivalent of a grindfest. A number of the game's late-level chapters just feel lazy and poorly implemented, with uncreative puzzles and lackluster humor. The most notable example here is the entirety of Chapter 6, which ignores the clever puzzles and witty humor of the previous levels for tedious boss fights against 20 identical foes followed by holding right for 10 or so screens without any foes to finish the chapter. For the most part, the game is enjoyable, but one can't help but feel that the programmers ran out of ideas midway through.
Like the previous Paper Mario games, Mario won't be doing everything alone. Although only Mario can flip between dimensions, he has a number of allies, each with their own unique skills and abilities. Princess Peach has the power to float using her umbrella, allowing her to cross large gaps. She can also use her umbrella to block enemy attacks, rendering her almost invincible to damage. Bowser is almost Peach's opposite. A bit slower and larger than the other characters, Bowser is made almost of pure brute strength. All his attack damage is doubled compared to the other characters, and he can breathe fire to burn enemies and light torches. Finally, Luigi has the ability to perform a super leap, sending him many times higher than even Mario can reach, and also allowing him to strike enemies above him for massive damage.
However, while all these friends are nice, none of them can quite match up to Mario. Peach and Luigi are useful for some platforming segments, and Bowser is great for boss fights, but that is about the extent of their usefulness. Since flipping between dimensions is such a crucial part of gameplay, Mario is almost always going to be in the lead of your party. Most enemies are too weak to justify changing to another character, and Mario himself can handle 80% of any of the platforming in the game. It's not a huge problem, as the game is indeed called Super Paper Mario, not Super Paper Luigi, but it would have been nice to use the other characters a bit more.
The Mario team also has access to Pixils. Basically magical faeries, Pixils each have their own unique abilities that allow Mario and friends to progress, similar to the Partners from the older Mario games. Boomer, for example, is a bomb, and can be planted to blow open doors or destroy tough enemies. Dottie lets Mario and friends shrink to the size of a dot (get it?), allowing them to sneak past enemies and go through holes in the wall. There are even a few hidden Pixils that grant Mario unique abilities that make his life easier, but are not required to progress in the game. (One makes a later boss fight a lot easier.)
As mentioned above, the Pixils grant Mario and pals a number of unique abilities to explore the game's levels. Unfortunately, a number of these Pixils just fall by the wayside almost as soon as you get them. From time to time, a minor puzzle may show up that involves switching to one of those underused allies, but they are few and far between, and always very obvious. Flippe, for example, can be used to dizzy enemies or to open gaps in space. Few enemies are worth the time and trouble to dizzy, and the gaps in space are rare, so he sits almost forgotten in your inventory most of the time. Likewise, Dottie allows you to shrink to miniscule size, but this interesting abilities can be used only a handful of times throughout the entire game. Considering the already lackluster level design in the later stages, the under-use of the Pixils is almost criminal. Building the levels to take advantage of your rather large stable of Pixils would have done wonders to alleviate the tedium that quickly became part of the later levels.
Super Paper Mario doesn't look very different from its predecessors. The sprites are large, detailed and expressive, and the "paper" quality is as charming as ever. The stage design is rather good as well. The 2-D stages are memorable and full of detail, but the 3-D segments are a bit bland, with a lot of open space between areas, causing the flips to seem a bit empty unless you're near a puzzle area. However, considering that you'll be spending most of your time in the 2-D world, this isn't a huge complaint at all.
Super Paper Mario is quite nice on the ears as well. The music is made up of a number of well-remixed Mario tunes and a number of new songs designed just for the game. The two mix well together, and rarely does the music get annoying or tedious, although if you're stuck on a level for a while, the relentlessly cheerful music may drive you batty while you flip everywhere. The characters retain the same voice clips that have appeared in every Mario game since Mario 64, but they're used effectively, mixed with normal sound effects rather than Mario shouting "yahooooie!" with every leap.
Is Super Paper Mario the perfect game for those who are on the fence about purchasing a Wii? I regret to say, "No." The overall ease of the game, combined with the rather lackluster level design in some of the later segments, brings it down just a bit much. Is it a fun game for those who already have a Wii? Undoubtedly. Full of quirky characters and solid gameplay, there is nothing that I can think of that would really prevent one from wanting to play this fun game. Be warned, however, that it lacks replay value and, as I've stressed repeatedly, has a few levels that just bomb. If you can get past these issues however, you're in for a fun ride, and one well worth playing.
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