Even if in the end it is just its script and characters that will truly leave a mark and be remembered by those who go through the adventure, the title is worth playing thanks to its uniqueness and its powerful heart
If the 16-bit classic Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is included into the package, then Super Paper Mario – released for the Nintendo Wii in 2007 – is the fourth installment of a series of console games that came to be when the titular plumber took an unexpected leap from the world of platforming to the realm of role-playing games. As such, the fact its gameplay represents an unexpected detour is perfectly understandable. After all, where the original Paper Mario greatly revamped the battle system, visual presentation, and mechanics of the Super Nintendo effort to great effects, its sequel – the brilliant The Thousand-Year Door – elevated that formula to a nearly unsurmountable apex.
With that in mind, the production of Super Paper Mario must have certainly had to deal with the difficult choice of either using the same old and successful mold in an attempt to fill it up with content that would not seem redundant, or striving to – while operating within the general scope of the series – create a product whose unique traits would absolutely guarantee it would stand out from its incredibly well-regarded predecessors.
As Super Paper Mario makes it clear from the get go, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems opted for the latter path. In graphics, in format, and in some of its mechanics, the game is undoubtedly a Paper Mario adventure. The universe in which its quest takes place, as well as the characters that inhabit it, are still constructed by using animated sheets of paper, whose thin nature is amusingly used in funny visual gags.
Its quest is, once more, organized around a central hub world that holds the gates to varied chapters where Mario and his peers are put in absolutely ridiculous situations they must overcome in order to acquire one of many mystical trinkets. And its gameplay still merges concepts native to role-playing games, such as experience points, stats, and items, with staples of the Super Mario canon, like jumping, pipes, and blocks. The difference lies in how Super Paper Mario completely toys with the balance between those two central veins.
Both Paper Mario and The Thousand-Year Door had, arguably, equal dosages of RPG tropes and platforming traits. For as much as Mario would engage in turn-based battles and dive deep into plots filled with dialogues, twists, and funny developments; he would also find plenty of pits to jump over, obstacles to surpass, and even some exploration and puzzle solving to do.
Super Paper Mario, meanwhile, lets its focus rest on the action-centered part of that equation, and out of its RPG component it opts to maintain a strong emphasis on plot while taking away the prominent position the remaining elements once held and relegating them to the shadows. It is a choice that certainly makes Super Paper Mario be unique and interesting, for it plays like a puzzle-platformer that carries an unforeseen amount of plot; at the same time, though, it streamlines the quest to a point that may cause it to feel somewhat empty on occasion.
The game begins with an intriguing scene: the marriage between Princess Peach and Bowser. As it turns out, the two of them were captured by a sinister figure, called Count Bleck, and forcefully taken to the altar. His goal is the fulfilling of a prophecy that says the union of tyrant and damsel will lead to the summoning of the Chaos Heart, an artifact that has the power to create a dark void that will slowly consume all dimensions of the universe. With her mind being controlled by the count’s assistant, Nastasia, Peach accepts the marriage and the clock soon begins ticking down on the world’s existence.
As that event unfolds and an ominous black hole appears in the sky, Mario, also hit by the attack that led to the kidnapping of Peach and Bowser, wakes up in the town of Flipside, a gateway between parallel worlds. There, he learns from a colorful butterfly named Tippi and a wizard named Merlon that the only way to counter the Chaos Heart is by finding eight Pure Hearts, which are being guarded inside different dimensions as they wait for the true hero to emerge.
Despite punctual clichés, the plot of Super Paper Mario is actually excellent, easily ranking as the game’s strongest feature and surpassing the main stories sported by its prequels. What seems to be a hollow quest for universe-wide destruction by Count Bleck carries far more depth and emotional weight than expected, and it gains life through very good dialogues and remarkable instances of character development, be it on the side of good or on the side of evil. Additionally, and following on the footsteps of the first two Paper Mario titles, every chapter of Super Paper Mario holds an individual plot of its own, turning them into standalone jewels of setting and writing.
Players will have an absolute blast as they watch the hero walk onto terrains he would never touch on his standard platforming adventures, including a trip to the world of the dead, a duel against an obsessed geek, a shocking prehistoric conspiracy, and more. When it comes to the chapters themselves, the scripts – though indeed entertaining – fall somewhere below those of the segments that made up the two previous entries in the series; nevertheless, they are engaging threads that serve as pretty good motivators to keep players going, for the events they portray are wild, funny, and creative.
All in all, it comes as a huge benefit to Super Paper Mario that both its overreaching plot and the individual developments of the chapters are so strong, because on the gameplay front the title is faced with some problems that would have made the quest run the risk of deteriorating into dullness if the writing that accompanied it was not so strong. For the most part, the adventure happens on a sidescrolling perspective that has players traversing the world from left to right. Given it is a Paper Mario game, though, that traditional progression is underscored by RPG notes.
These, however, are extremely light here. Turn-based battles are effectively thrown out the window; still, elements like HP, attack power, and items that can be used for healing or attacking still exist. They come into play because although gamers mostly take care of the many enemies that appear in their path via the signature platforming move of jumping on foes’ heads, every landed offensive move deals a certain amount of damage to the bad guys, meaning that often – especially as the game advances – more than one hit is necessary to take enemies down.
Surely, there some foes that – via defensive tools such as spikes or poison-inducing skin – require different methods to be defeated. Moreover, shaking the Wiimote following an attack triggers stylish moves that increase the number of points gotten from downing a foe. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that the once intuitive, strategic, and fun battles of the two prequels are replaced with combat mechanics that are as thin as those of a sidescrolling platformer.
In a way, it works towards making the game be more accessible to a wider audience, a move that makes sense considering the Nintendo Wii was a console that thrived in the way it embraced new players. Negatively, though, that approach puts Super Paper Mario in the difficult position of being, during a solid chunk of its length, a platforming title that has the physics and pace of a Paper Mario game. It is an odd combination that, after a few hours of gameplay, makes foes and obstacles more of a bureaucratic barrier that must be dealt with than the sources of amusement they should have originally been. And to a point, the same applies to at least half of the bosses the game contains, for even if there are some fun and creative encounters along the way, many duels against these mightier rivals also suffer from being too basic.
Fortunately, the fabric of the Super Paper Mario mechanics does not consist solely of platforming and moving from the left to the right. Walking hand in hand with that thread, albeit moving in a far brighter direction, is a strong requirement for puzzle-solving and exploration that makes the title’s gameplay worth it. And Super Paper Mario achieves that through three different steps.
Firstly, the main hero has the power of moving seamlessly between 2-D and 3-D, as with the touch of the A button players will be taken to the latter dimension and be able to see the world from a different perspective for a limited amount of time. By all means, that twist is the element that defines Super Paper Mario, as it causes the game to stand far apart from all of the plumber’s adventures that preceded it, whether they are platformers or RPGs. And level designers certainly make good use of it.
Doors to new places, pipes to secret rooms, passages to parallel areas, characters, and even enemies sometimes only come into view when Mario steps into the 3-D realm. More importantly, obstacles that seem too large to overcome or foes that are apparently impossible to avoid when approached from a sidescrolling perspective can become rather negotiable when the camera shifts. Due to that, gamers are constantly tasked with switching between 2-D and 3-D in order to fully see the scenario and look for ways to advance, giving Super Paper Mario not only a very strong exploration vein, but also plenty of instances where smart level design pops up.
Truth be told, going into the 3-D realm does hold a few issues. Namely, the bar that limits the time one can stay in that dimension feels unnecessary and forced, as many times players will have to sit back and wait for it to refill so they can move on; moreover, the game’s depth perception when in 3-D is slightly off, causing jumping over simple gaps or landing on the head of enemies to be somewhat problematic. Nevertheless, these are punctual shortcomings that hardly dent the overall experience.
The second move Super Paper Mario makes towards sprinkling nice puzzle solving into its bland mixture of platforming and action RPG traits comes in the form of the Pixls: magic creatures that will follow players in their quest. Effectively, they work as a replacement for the partners of the first two Paper Mario games, as the skills they bring to the table can be used for exploration purposes and, in some cases, aid the character in battle too. Slowly acquired as the game goes along, there are twelve Pixls in total, with three of them being optional, and they grant gamers various abilities, including hammering down blocks of stone, picking up objects or enemies and throwing them, bombing fragile walls, diminishing in size, creating an artificial platform, and pounding the ground.
None of the tricks they offer are truly unique, and it can be argued that the Pixls lack the spark of personality that was found in the partners of Super Paper Mario’s predecessors, as they are closer to being tools than being full-fledged characters. Still, even if the puzzles in which they are used are pretty obvious as a whole, they considerably increase the palette of moves gamers have at their disposal.
Finally, much like Super Mario RPG did back in 1996, Super Paper Mario is notable for how it features more than one hero fighting for a good cause. In fact, through a good slice of the game, Mario will be accompanied by Peach, Bowser, and Luigi, with players being able to switch between them by quickly accessing a menu. Naturally, the different characters are not there just for show, since each one of them has a unique ability that comes into play in the clearing of puzzles, in the winning of battles, and in the surpassing of platforming obstacles.
Mario is the only one that can flip into the 3-D realm; Bowser breathes fire and effectively turns most enemies into dust with the press of a button, making combats even sillier than they inherently are; Peach uses her umbrella to float in the air for a while or defend herself; and Luigi executes a super high jump. Differently from the Pixls, the quartet does not suffer from the problem of lack of personality, as the trio of Peach, Luigi, and Bowser speak their minds and play big roles in the development of the plot; still, their powers, like those of the Pixls, do come with the caveat that in spite of the variety they add to the game, they are used in puzzles and situations whose solutions are a bit too obvious.
A gameplay that is overall competent but never truly bright, as it often feels too simple or occasionally stumbles upon instances of padding or unnecessary backtracking, is not the sole area that holds Super Paper Mario back, even if it is certainly the main one. Although the title’s graphics are as charming and sharp as a ever, thanks to their artistic style, the soundtrack falters in the retro simplicity of its tracks, which are neither catchy nor memorable.
Furthermore, despite boasting a length that is quite pleasing, with an adventure that should clock somewhere between twelve and fifteen hours, the extra content the game presents, in the form of collectible recipes and cards, is not that appealing. Much of that is related to the way in which chapters are organized, as all of them are divided into four segments, and if players are to search for an item in the final piece of the chapter, they are forced to clear all previous sessions just to get to that place, a process that is rather dull and makes the goal of looking for all collectibles seem rather unappealing.
Through those various problems, however, Super Paper Mario still stands relatively well. The decision to dilute the RPG elements of its predecessors and bet on the action and puzzle-solving components of the saga does make sense when the context in which the game was inserted is taken into account. Nevertheless, its quest, the general dullness of its combat, and the varied but ultimately overly straightforward nature of its puzzles reveal the process of simplification may have gone too far.
Super Paper Mario, therefore, is able to find a way to work as a game not thanks to the excellence of its gameplay, but because the charm of its world and the competence of its mechanics are accompanied by a very well-written plot and individual chapters that shine quite brightly. As such, even if in the end it is just its script and characters that will truly leave a mark and be remembered by those who go through the adventure, the title is worth playing thanks to its uniqueness and its powerful heart.