Although it’s difficult to choose, I would have to say that Intelligent Systems is one of my favorite development groups. It seems as though nearly everything that comes out of them is either pleasantly unique or highly polished (or both). Their diverse selection of franchises includes Metroid, Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, WarioWare, and, of course, the Paper Mario series.
Super Paper Mario is the third installment in the previously quasi-traditional RPG series starring Mario and friends in their flattened “2.5-D” form. It’s considerably different than its predecessors in terms of basic gameplay, but despite the shift toward the traditional platforming style, it’s still more of a Paper Mario RPG than a conventional Mario platformer. That means that you’ll still get a healthy dose of that trademark Intelligent Systems humor (which is generally excellent), even though you may occasionally find yourself yearning for less role-playing and more action.
Super Paper Mario starts out on a familiar note. Princess Peach has been captured for the umpteenth time, and naturally, the choice heroes for her rescue are none other than the Mario Bros. However, this time, Bowser is not to blame for the kidnapping… instead, we come face to face with the enigmatic Count Bleck, a strange fellow who at first appears to be a single-handed validation of the idea of pure evil. Predictably, Bleck announces his prideful guilt in kidnapping the princess, whom he needs to realize his dream as executer of the Dark Prognosticus, a terrible prediction of world’s end. He also takes Bowser and Luigi with him, as they, too, play a role in the fulfillment of the prophecy.
Then, as luck would have it, Mario meets his first companion: a small butterfly-like creature named Tippi. Tippi is what’s known as a Pixl—and one of several, in fact. Each of them grants Mario a new skill that will be necessary for his quest. Tippi’s contribution, for instance, allows you to point the Wii-mote at the screen to produce a sort of spotlight cursor. This cursor can be used to identify objects and enemies, as well as uncover secrets (such as hidden doors and switches) and seek advice. The other pixls grant abilities ranging from swinging a mallet to shrinking to a fraction of Mario’s size.
Flat Out Unique
The pixls add a touch of greater variety to the gameplay, but the truly fascinating gameplay gimmick around which Super Paper Mario is built is the one-of-a-kind 2-D/3-D hybrid environment. This means that although the gameplay normally takes place along a 2-D plane (as in the Mario of old), the player has a unique ability to “flip” the screen to produce a 3-D rendition of the area by simply pressing the A button. (To clarify, in case you haven’t seen the videos, this means that every 2-D location also has a three-dimensional component, so what you’re seeing in 2-D is only part of the story. By flipping into the third dimension, intricacies are revealed that often result in a new path through the level or a hidden switch, for instance.) This remarkable idea allows for a completely fresh approach to platforming—as well as some really wacky puzzles.
The developers have masterfully implemented this idea. Here are a couple of quick examples of how it’s used throughout the game (small spoilers follow):
· In one level, there is an unusually wide pit blocking the path forward. In order to proceed, the player must flip the screen and convert the view to 3-D to reveal that the hills in the background are actually a navigable part of the foreground; from there, Mario can simply walk along them to the other side of the pit.
· Another level presents the player with a series of seemingly innocent blocks. Only by flipping to 3-D, however, can you view the numbers written on the sides of them, indicating the order in which they must be hit!
There are many, many other examples, but you get the idea. This gameplay element is an exciting addition to the usual array of platforming ingredients—leave it to the minds at Intelligent Systems to come up with it.
In addition to dimension-shifting and the pixls, you’ll also gain three other playable characters as the game progresses (I won’t spoil their identities here, as the game tries to surprise you by their introductions). Each character has their own special abilities and attributes, but I found it disappointing that only Mario is able to “flip” the screen from 2-D to 3-D. Perhaps this would not be such an issue, though, if changing characters and pixls was a quicker process. The easiest way to do so is to enter the “quick menu” by pressing 1 + 2 simultaneously and then selecting the character from a menu. The few precious seconds that the process takes actually seem to drag after you’ve been doing so for a while. Perhaps a “last” button that quickly switches back to the most recently used character or pixl would have been a nice addition.
“Surely I don’t actually have to do this.”
Either way, one thing the game is definitely not short on is variety. Throughout the game’s eight worlds (each with four levels, a la Super Mario Bros., which are tied together by a hub world), you’ll run across vastly different gameplay ideas and some really distinctive, while perhaps somewhat primitive, subplots. At least at the beginning, the game really starts off strong and is a blast to play. There are a few hang-ups thanks to a couple of overly tricky puzzles, and sometimes you feel like you’re drowning in text, but for the most part, it’s really enjoyable (and funny). After about the fourth world, though, things begin to slow down, and the creativity fades more into conventionality (though it’s never predictable). The final boss battle and ending sequence are also disappointingly bland.
Another area where the game suffers is in its balancing. While the difficultly is never really notable until the final world, there are several segments in the game where you’re forced to perform some repetitive task for an excessively long time in order to proceed. One example from early on is a level where you are in a dungeon, forced to earn currency to bail yourself out. Although it always is made to seem worse than it actually is, in this example, you still have to spend at least ten minutes simply holding to the right, running, in order to generate the currency necessary to “purchase” a secret code allowing you to open a safe and acquire the rest of what you need. There are other parts of the game that are similarly irritating and tedious, and the strange thing is, it’s almost as if the designers think it’s funny—as though revealing that it’s all simply a hoax after you’ve been through enough is something of a joke. I can personally say that, as a game that is generally quite humorous, this is definitely the least humorous aspect of Super Paper Mario. It’s unfortunate that such segments weren’t simply cut from the game altogether, as they hurt the game’s overall appeal.
Style and Humor
Here’s where the Paper Mario series has always excelled. Although the visuals in Super Paper Mario aren’t exactly gorgeous by today’s standards, the art style is commonly endearing, and the way the game tends to make fun of itself is amusing. Super Paper Mario’s personality is what makes it different, and the designers have done a good job of infusing humor into an otherwise ordinary storyline, taking care to ensure that even the villains, with their vastly different traits, are flawed and clumsy at times. This keeps the mood light and sets the stage for the unpredictable events throughout that make the game worth playing.
The soundtrack, while nothing as creative and infectious as the fantastic Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (2004, GameCube), is generally fitting. As usual, it consists of clever blends of older Mario tunes mixed with new themes, and (nearly) every other level has its own background music. It’s average, but disappointing after The Thousand-Year Door raised the bar.
In fact, while the game retains the overall creativity that makes the Paper Mario series unique, it does seem to lack the degree of ingenuity that made The Thousand-Year Door so special. One thing that I do hope to see again in the future, though, is the 2-D/3-D dimensional “flip” mechanic.
When you’re tired of the main storyline, you can always take a trip down to the hidden arcade, where you’ll find four different mini-games that are actually quite fun. While each of them is of finite length, trying to earn high scores can be addictive.
Or, if you’re looking for a challenge, you can always head to the Flipside Pit of 100 Trials, which is cooler than any of the other 100-floor Nintendo challenges I’ve seen to date. In it, each floor is a different (yet small) 2-D brick maze, with a single locked door leading to the next floor. There are progressively harder enemies on each floor, and one random enemy on every floor holds the key you need to progress. If you’re worried it’ll be too easy, don’t; the Flipside Pit of 100 Trials might be only moderately difficult, but the challenge that follows is much tougher…
Super Paper Mario is a fun game, but it’s marred by occasional dry spells of tedious or unremarkable gameplay. Because of this, you have to push yourself to complete it. However, if you persevere, you’ll run across some truly unique puzzle ideas and quite a few laughs. The game never really manages to achieve the larger-than-life sensation that made The Thousand-Year Door so enticing, but it’s still a great title overall if you can overlook its problems. Pick it up if you’re in the market for something different.