Monday, July 28, 2008

Super Paper Mario

Sometimes a game can try so hard and still be so very tedious.

Super Paper Mario for the Nintendo Wii has a long and complex family tree. It's the distant descendant of the 1996 Squaresoft-developed Super Mario RPG, which combined traditional Mario jumping action with gameplay elements like equipping items and levelling up.

Super Mario RPG spun out into Paper Mario on the Nintendo, which was an absolutely amazing game that everyone should play. Paper Mario continued the RPG elements, while introducing the conceit that Mario and most of his world were actually constructed out of paper in a wierd scrapbooky kind of way. Paper Mario in turn birthed the Mario & Luigi games, which scaled back much of the RPG in favour of more jumping and platforming.

So that's where Super Paper Mario comes in. Almost all of the RPG content is gone; the two-dimensional star of the game is challenged to a whole bunch of easy, easy platforming action with some unique twists based on the fact that he's wafer-thin.

As far as the roleplaying elements go, you can collect items, which are mostly one-shot deals which heal your characters or hurt the enemy. Also, you get experience and level up, which gives you more health and lets you do more damage. But all of that will happen more or less regardless of your input and there's no meaningful choices for you to make about how your characters grow.

Mario's part of a four-person team this time around. As well as everyone's favourite plumber you'll also control Luigi, Princess Peach and Bowser. You can only use one at a time, though, and swapping characters requires a trip to the menu. In addition, you'll be accompanied at all times by a "Pixl", who are anthopomorphised geometric designs which float along behind you. Each Pixl provides you with one unique ability (such as being able to lay bombs, or to reveal invisible aspects of the level). Again, changing Pixls requires a trip to the menu.

The most innovative part of the game is also its fatal flaw. Early in the game, Mario gains the ability to rotate the world into 3D. The traditional 2D Mario plane becomes a wide pathway, which allows new options of movement. For example, if you come to a giant pillar blocking your progress, you can move into 3D and walk behind or in front of the pillar. The 3D version of the level also holds additional secrets, like coins hidden behind platforms or pipes to secret areas behind stairways.

On its face it's a very clever conceit. However, it absolutely ruins the game's pacing. Only Mario can flip into 3D, and he can only stay there a few seconds without losing health. You'll feel compelled to check every area of every level in 3D (in fact, on occasion you need to do this to proceed) which slows down play as you walk forward a screen, flip into 3D, flip back, walk forward another screen and repeat. It gets even worse when you take into account the Pixl who can reveal invisible objects. Using that Pixl requires pointing your Wiimote at the screen and waving it slowly back and forth to see if anything shows up.

The game uses the Wiimote exclusively, which is good from the point of view of simplicity, but terrible when you consider how desperately it needs a button to let you change characters and Pixls on the fly. A single level can require the abilities of all four characters and many of your Pixls; each time you want to switch you'll need to pause the game and select the change out of a menu.

There's plenty of charm in Super Paper Mario, but being a Mario game the plot's not exactly a work of art. You won't be hooked on the story, and the gameplay is just shallow enough to make it hard to drag yourself back to the game for another session.

Super Paper Mario doesn't live up to its potential or to the standard set by its predecessors. It's not awful, and there's some fun to be had, but it's not a must-buy title and the vastly superior original Paper Mario is still available on the Virtual Console for a quarter of the cost.


Duncan said...

I didn't find using the Quick Menu to select character/pixl/item too cumbersome. It comes up quickly and you don't have to do much other than a couple quick taps to select the things you need.

Most of the time I found I played as Mario, ready to go 3D. If I came to an obstacle that needed another character, I'd haul them out. Otherwise Mario was the go-to guy. And either Bomb Pixl, or Travel Fast Pixl.

Greg Tannahill said...

Super Paper Mario's interesting, in that it should be a game people would love, but all I can say is that despite really wanting to like it, it just didn't grab me.

It's the eternal problem of reviews that all the reviewer can offer is their own experience.

Xantar said...

I liked the game quite well enough, despite agreeing with all your criticisms. Every character should have had the ability to turn the world into 3-D. Mario has enough of an advantage merely by being the most agile and effective fighter out of the four characters. When he is also the only one who can access all the most interesting sections of the game, things just get a little silly.

I also think that the game designers somehow ran out of creativity halfway through the game. By far the best world in the game is the pixelated one ruled over by an uber-geek chameleon. The scene when he attempts to woo Princess Peach is almost worth the price of admission all by itself. Unfortunately, once that part is all over there's still more than half of the game left to go, and none of it is nearly as fun and creative.