Sinister Reviews #05: Super Paper Mario

#05: Super Paper Mario (Nintendo Wii)
Genre: Platformer, RPG
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Release Date: September 2007
Developer:  Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Super Paper Mario was one of the first games I purchased for my Wii back in early 2008. Having never played any release from the Paper Mario franchise (which at present includes the self-titled N64 release, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door on the GameCube and a forthcoming adventure on 3DS) but having been an avid onlooker from the confines of my Mario-free PlayStation 2,  I jumped at the chance to join in with the Plumber’s current-gen incarnation. Where the previous two releases were more straightforward Mushroom Kingdom RPGs with comedic overtones, Super Paper Mario takes the ‘Super’ from Super Mario Bros. and transplants RPG elements onto the traditional 2-D platformer; melding some nifty side-scrolling action across eight, stylised worlds. The relatively servicable storyline sees Mario, Luigi, Peach and Bowser joining forces (and all becoming playable) to defeat a new antagonist and save the worlds of both dark and light. All too often, games relying to heavily on mash-ups of contrasting genres fall flat or become a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none: Super Paper Mario manages to juggle genres with aplomb, and ignoring a few mere fumbles, manages to keep things in the air until the curtains close.
Where Super Mario Bros. and its subsequent incarnations have (largely) kept a straight face and kept to the usual ‘Bowser kidnaps Peach, Mario has to save the World’ tack, offshoots like the Mario & Luigi series on GBA/DS and Paper Mario have always shuffled things up and tipped the Mushroom Kingdom on its head. Super Paper Mario  is no exception, and the first hint that things are amiss is the total world-spanning cataclysm and the appearance of the game’s villain, Count Bleck, to gatecrash Peach’s inevitable forced-marriage to Bowser. Some evil wizardry later, Bleck rips a Void into the universe, sending (unwlling) bride and groom, along with wedding-crashers Mario & Luigi, through to inter-dimensional reality and the universe beyond. Waking up in the dimensional world of Flipside, Mario must then collect a total of eight pure hearts in order to open the door back to reality, each one hidden at the end of a four-level World. All four main characters (yup, even Bowser) are playable at some point or other; with the ability to swap out between them to access each character’s special abilities, including Mario’s dimension-flip (more on that later), Luigi’s super-jump, Bowser’s fire-breathing and Peach’s umbrella glide. In addition to the character-specific abilities, Mario is joined by a wide array of flunkies, known as Pixls, which provide Mario with further powers: Cudge, who can turn into a wieldable hammer; Boomer, who can turn into a bomb to destroy scenery or enemies; or Fleep, who can flip enemies and confuse them for a short time. Efficient use of  a mixture of Pixl powers, character abilities and deft platforming skills are required to navigate the thirty-odd levels on offer; clever switching between both characters and Pixls to navigate levels keeps it interesting and exciting, and Nintendo’s superlative level design is out in force to form a learning curve that’s almost perfect in pitch.
The main meat  of Super Paper Mario takes place in the two-dimensional platforming plane much like its Super Mario Bros. brethren, with enemies dispatched with a deft leap and a thump on the bonce, and everything controlled with just the Wii Remote alone; tilted to form a familiar replica of the NES controller of old. What differentiates the action this time, though, is the matter of Hit Points (HP); with both the playable character and monsters having attributes of health, strength, defence and the other usual statistics mainly reserved for stat-heavy RPG grinds. This all works rather well, with weak enemies (e.g. Goombas) being taken out in one hit, whilst stronger baddies (e.g. Hammer Bros.) taking two or three head-stamps to dispatch. A simple levelling system upgrades your attack strength and HP, with Mario losing HP (varying according to both the player’s and enemy’s stats) for walking into a monster or landing on spikes. You never really need to think about all of the statistics at all during play; simply focus on bashing heads in and kicking Koopa shells toward your foes. Plucking more from RPG titles, there’s also an array of items that Mario can collect/pick up/buy and carry; restoring HP in the form of a Shroom Shake, or dealing damage with attack items. It all works rather well, and it’s never much of a distraction from the main flow of the game. At the end of each World there’s the obligatory boss-battle, with these nasties being able to absorb considerably more damage before keeling over, but they usually require merely repeated performance of a particular move or ability at a weak spot and so never put up much of a fight. Where there’s little to challenge the player in the main game, the bosses will mark the only major hurdles; and even then, it unlikely you’ll ever see be completely KO’d and be directed to a disheartening ‘Game Over’ screen.
While we’ve discussed the special abilities of those around him, we’ve not yet touched on the talents of Mario himself. The Paper Mario series has always seen everything being flattened to two dimensions – like a paper puppet show with characters, places and items all formed from 2-D prints;  while that’s still the case here, the magic verb here is: ‘Flip’. Mario’s status as ‘The Hero’ comes with the added bonus of being able to ‘flip’ into the third dimension: While everything in the 2-D plane looks like an updated, cartoony version of Super Mario Bros., flipping to 3-D shows the world and characters as the cut-out characters they are, and there’s nimble application of the ‘Flip’ to solve puzzles, navigate past blockages in the 2-D world or find treasures hidden behind cut-out scenery. The curse of flipping, alas, is a limited time Mario can spend out of the 2-D plane; with a timer at the top of the screen counting down until Mario receives damage when it is consumed – it’s an ingenious touch, and there’s some excellent level design across the whole of Super Paper Mario to ensure that it doesn’t go to waste. To boot, everything looks fantastic; whether you’re navigating through the vast and varied worlds, the hub towns of Flipside/Flopside or whizzing through pipes to bonus areas – the cartoon style is to die for, and the character models for the multitude of nasties are wonderfully unique and varied: It’s as much a treat for the eyes as the thumbs, and each world and level is painted to a different theme or scenery that all remain distinct, ranging from the familiar rolling hills and mushrooms of the first levels (which bring to mind Mario’s first NES outing); to the 8-bit world where everything is pixels and beeps; to the coldness of outer-space, where Mario dons a fish-bowl space helmet and rides a baby squid in a side-scrolling space shooter. All of it is a delight.
The main plot, and context of all these inter-dimensional shenanigans, is not itself a yarn-ripper, but a perfectly serviceable means to an end of dumping Mario into a brand new world that isn’t the familiar Mushroom Kingdom, and giving him the cause to bounce around eight new worlds to locate eight new shiny treasures. Those shiny treasures are Pure Hearts, with one obtained for successfully completing a world, and unlocking the next world available from the level hub in Flipside. Given Super Paper Mario‘s RPG leanings, it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of exposition detailed by cutscenes and in-game dialogue: While the story is adequate and fairly light-hearted, there’s a slight over-emphasis on dishing out unnecessary plotpoints and handling superfluous chit-chat with various NPCs; gloriously witty though it may be. Marriage of the immediacy of Super Mario Bros. with typically plot-driven RPG mechanics serve only to slow down the rapid, platforming action and offer unnecessary barriers to the otherwise cracking pace offered by the main action. It’s not something that irks immediately, but by the end, you’ll be left feeling as though you just want to get on and beat that next boss rather than having to wade through  several minutes of chatter (with said boss, no less) before you regain control and stomp its head in. Gratefully, the dialogue is well-written, humourous and light-hearted, but that doesn’t stop it from spinning out the game experience longer than anticipated.
It’s not the only example of that, either – some concepts are relied upon too much to forcibly mix things up and attempting to pad out the game from a short platform experience to a more healthy 20-25 hours to suit the ‘RPG’ aspect more. Super Paper Mario is the ideal concept for a short, sweet platform game; one that doesn’t begin to run out of tricks near the end, one that tries to do something a little different, and one that doesn’t outstay its welcome. As it is though, you can almost see the edges of the game bulging at the seams where the experience has been forcedly extended, and it reduces the impact of the sweet, simple mechanics that it should have been. A fine example is  the ‘sweat shop’ level, where Mario must physically run a treadmill in order to earn enough coins to hand in his P45; completely unnecessary to the storyline and shoe-horned in to blatantly wring out the game experience. Still, if you plough through the main game and are still left wanting more, then there’s an array of collectables (which also improve battle abilities) to hunt down; including monster cards (representing the bestiary of the adventure), treasures hidden on a series of ‘X marks the spot’ maps and a couple of Pixls which are not fundamental to completing the game but whom can be unlocked with some side-questing malarkey. If you’re the impatient type, then Super Paper Mario can be finished in a good 12-15 hours; spend more time exploring and hoarding EXP, then you can easily double that. The game never provides much of a challenge, and this can be amplified even further if you’re efficient at levelling and trounce as many nasties as possible along the way.
That’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable, or that ‘hardcore’ gamers won’t find much to like here – There’s some fantastic action here, coupled with a relatively enjoyable story, and some of the character interactions will have you laughing out loud or cackling as it pulls in both comedy and references/parodies with gay abandon.  Ignoring the main team of Mario, Luigi, Bowser and Peach, the new characters introduced are interesting and talkative, and the rather bland main antagonist of Count Bleck aside, his henchmen possess oodles of personality and charm. The bright, breezy levels combined with the gameplay seem to propel Super Paper Mario along relatively swiftly, even if the experience is held together by a rather weak plot and some game-extending mechanics duct-taped on.  There’s also the feeling that more could have been made of the hub towns of Flipside/Flopside, but there’s really little to entertain there aside from locating the next Heart Pillar into which Mario must insert the most recent Pure Heart to unlock the next world. Sure, there’s the usual range of RPG shops and taverns, but instead of bustling cities which are full of excitement for the next available world, they’re just drab interludes to the main action, and which regularly become a chore to navigate. Which, in fact, rather sums up Super Paper Mario: As a concept, it works staggeringly well, but it would’ve worked so much better if it was a short, bouncy adventure rather than a protracted experience that attempts to deviate too far from the regular platformer tack but wants to retain such punchiness. It comes highly recommended, but with the warning that, once the initial charm wears off and you start to see the same themes recurring and same puzzles being recycled, that excitement will drop off near the end. That said, if punching coin blocks and pouncing  on monster’s heads  to earn EXP sounds like your kind of bag and you’re in possession of a funny bone, then you should fit right in. [7]
Next Time: Epic Mickey (Wii)
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One thought on “Sinister Reviews #05: Super Paper Mario

  1. […] long ago, I used to write a bunch of video game reviews (e.g. Prince of Persia: the Fallen King, Super Paper Mario and No More Heroes) as a method of expressing myself creatively. Even longer ago, I used to play […]

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