Is Super Paper Mario the second coming of platforming? Well, no, but it is still a very funny, enjoyable game.
Note: the white spaces in this review are spoilers. Highlight the text with your mouse to read them.
From Super Paper Mario's crazy art style to its clever 2-D / 3-D mechanics, Nintendo fans were drooling at the first details for the GameCube. With its hype machine turned up to 11 (at least over at Radio Free Nintendo), it’s clear gamers have expected great things from Intelligent Systems's game. Super Paper Mario isn't the perfect platforming package some expected, but it is an adventure game chock-full of humor and craziness.
Super Paper Mario conveys the story of the ancient Dark Prognosticus, a forbidden book that foretells the end of the universe, and a second prophecy, the Light Prognosticus, written in hopes of counteracting this grim fate. Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Peach are drawn into the prophetic fray when the Dark Prognosticus's executor, Count Bleck, storms Peach and Bowser's castle as part of his nefarious plans. As the hero described in the Light Prognosticus, Mario must venture through eight worlds from different dimensions with his friends to accumulate the Pure Hearts of love needed to stop Bleck's chaotic intentions.
Mario's adventure begins in Flipside, which serves as the game's hub. There he meets Tippi, a butterfly pixl who joins him on his quest. The game is generally played with the controller held sideways; using the Wiimote as a pointer freezes the action so that Tippi can provide strategy on baddies and spot invisible objects. Mario recruits more of these mysterious pixls created by the Ancients during his quest, of which he can use one at a time in addition to Tippi. The pixls' powers are used to solve puzzles, but those also providing offensive abilities (such as the bomb) tend to get more face time. Mario is also eventually united with his companions from the Mushroom Kingdom, whom the player can switch among for their various abilities.
Let's get one thing straight: Super Paper Mario is not a Super Mario Bros. game with Paper Mario visuals. In fact, this game is more accurately described as Paper Mario without turn-based battles. While some levels consist almost entirely of run-and-jump action, Super Paper Mario focuses on more leisurely exploration, character development, and emotions. The dungeons and Bowser mini-stages from The Thousand-Year Door are analogous to Super Paper Mario's gameplay and pacing. Mario must venture through the worlds by solving puzzles, stomping baddies and jumping true. Mario and his foes have life meters (heart points) as well as attack and defense statistics. An experience point meter cleverly disguised as your score yields level-ups. Just as in the RPGs, Mario can buy, sell, and use power-ups to attack foes or regain health. However, unlike earlier Paper Mario games, the action takes place on a true 2-D plane…at least, until Mario flips into three-dimensional space.
When Mario "flips" the camera rotates 90 degrees, transforming the flat world into a 3-D environment for a limited period of time. Up and down become forward and backward along the X-axis; left and right become left and right along the Z-axis. With the introduction of a Z-axis, vertically aligned platforms in 2-D space are suddenly disjoint, one coin reveals itself to be many, the foreground no longer obscures secrets, and so on. Some rooms (or portions of rooms) are even connected through Z-axis passageways and doorways completely invisible and inaccessible in the default perspective. Not everything gains a dimension in the flipped perspective, though: characters and some objects retain their two-dimensional existence in the X-Y or Z-Y plane, rendering them as though they were nonexistent when Mario is in the opposite perspective. Einstein would be proud!
As mind-bending as the 2-D / 3-D mechanic is, the worlds' varying styles, ranging from relatively sane to the utterly abstract, are what really brings the environments to life. Etch-a-sketch lines, huge-ass pixels, and Game & Watch backdrops are just some of the wacky flavors in this cacophony of madness. The more conceivable locales' aesthetics are still very interesting with their different inhabitants and coloring styles.
As funky as the environments are, though, it is the game's other aspects that make Super Paper Mario Nintendo's most emotional game yet. Unexpected situations are the norm, and the designers weren't afraid to toy with their customers. The game throws you seemingly impossible tasks to demoralize, non sequitur comments to surprise, and intentionally annoying conversations to infuriate. For example, at one point you must type out "please" five times to gain a NPC's assistance. But most of all, SPM is incredibly funny. Nothing is off-limits in this dimensionally-charged escapade. Discussion of the player? Yup! Greek mythology? Fine. Indentured servantry? Why not?! Heck, Super Paper Mario goes as far as to bemuse and mock video game fans with game and gaming culture references. What's more, the characters are believable and endearing—burly and vaguely Scottish henchman O'Chunks charms with his bumbling incompetence, and Count Bleck's managerial-type second-in-command, Nastasia, may as well have been named Lumbergh. The villains, including the Count himself, have their reasons, which become apparent as Mario's adventure and the universe's destruction proceeds. Even the heroes are funny, from Peach's polite but stern responses to Bowser's sass. Players will likely replay boss battles and similar moments of banter with a different character just for the clever adjustments to the script. Of course, Mario remains mostly silent, so the spunky Tippi usually retorts on Mario's behalf.
Unfortunately, the level design itself isn't always so lively. The platforming is amusing, though it’s only challenging at choice times and can sometimes be circumvented by flipping. However, many of the adventure-heavy levels rely on tedious puzzles involving backtracking and scouring. No, I do not want to comb the same five rooms over and over to spot that Z-axis passageway I stupidly overlooked. I'd also rather not have to keep a pen and paper ready for inane passwords I must later remember. If you thought you were being clever, Intelligent Systems, you weren't. Of course, the state of mind that thinks passwords are awesome also invents gigantic 8-bit Mexican-hat-dancer Toadstool, so perhaps this is the price we pay. Anyway, players can return to Flipside and usually get relevant guidance from the fortune-teller if they become genuinely stumped, so Super Paper Mario's less dazzling moments are not deal-breakers.
Super Paper Mario is easily the NOA Treehouse's funniest localization yet—perhaps because the game doesn't outstay its welcome. While it may be more RPG than platformer, and it has some design flaws, if you own a Wii, Super Paper Mario is an experience not to be missed. Personality drips from the television screen—personality you do not want to miss.