Paper Mario / Super Paper Mario

So – I was in the midst of my Space Giraffe frenzy when I felt a bit of a lull – I wanted to try something a bit different (that’s not to say the the Giraffe isn’t different; in some ways, it’s the very definition of the word. But you know what I mean). Something drew me down to the Wii, sadly neglected in the last few months; I turn it on and start browsing the Virtual Console for ideas. Super Metroid? Nah – too intense. A Link to the Past? Mmmmmaybe. But then I saw the answer to my gaming blues – Paper Mario.

A brief aside – when I clicked the “Buy” button in the Virtual Console shop, I was an RPG virgin. The nearest I had got to anything RPG-like was Deus Ex and, though there are certain tactical advantages to be had in that game, it’s hardly the poster child for the Role-Players. So hearing that Paper Mario was a soft-RPG had me both eager and excited: I was entering the outskirts of a new genre.

And bugger me if I didn’t start smiling the moment I started playing Paper Mario. And kept smiling for the next forty hours. From the simple charm of the eponymous graphics – flat, 2D graphics, sliding and flipping their way through a cheeringly colourful 3D world – to the gigglingly twee storyline, even the N64-era jolly chip tunes… Paper Mario was a wonderfully addictive experience, one of those games that you almost don’t want to end.

I loved the turn-based combat. I loved the side quests. I loved the level-up mechanisms… I loved levelling up. I loved the level interludes that had you guiding the imprisoned Princess Peach around. I loved that shady chap who you could pay to switch your levels around. I loved the small puzzle elements. I loved kicking the shit out of that massive Koopa bastard, and I loved serving the whims of the cranky Koopa. I loved all the characters, both incidental and sidekick. I loved just wandering around talking to people. I loved weighing up the pros and cons of each of the three abilities: Health Points, Flower Points, and Badge Points. I loved letting my OCD kick in and collecting Badges. I love the trek through the final level. And I’m going to love going back and trying out all the recipes.

And most of all, I loved the way this game makes me feel. Cute and perky, tongue-in-cheek, never taking itself seriously, never letting a joke run too long – you’ve always got a smile on your face, and the Game Over screen is never glowered at. It’s perfectly pitched, wonderfully weighted, and I can’t wait for my memory to fade so I can play it again.

And so, after 40 gorgeous hours of Paper Mario (including the fantastic end sequence with a glorious, if largely inconsequential, side-battle that actually made me jump and yell “take THAT Kammy Koopa, you fat fucking shithead!”) I thought that the new Wii chapter of the series – Super Paper Mario – would be a sure bet. I was expecting sharper graphics (the N64 incarnation, bless it, suffered a little from Fuzzy Chunk-O-Vision), a bit more depth (after all, the original was a mere 40 megabytes!), but basically more of the same.

I would’ve been happy with that.

Woulda, shoulda, coulda.

How terribly wrong I was. Almost as soon as the game started up for the first time. Yep, the sharp graphics were there, but what’s with the overly sentimental opening every time I start the game? And the jarring jaunty tune that follows it?

And where’s my bloody turn-based combat?

Harrumph.

Super Paper Mario is indebted to the previous Paper Marios in terms of graphic style, and to earlier traditional platform-based Mario games for play mechanics. Unfortunately, the RPG elements that so entranced me have been simplified to such an extent that they’re no longer challenging, nor enjoyable. Levelling up is score-based, automatic, completely out of the player’s hands. There’s no decisions to be made, few side quests to pursue. The much-vaunted flip into the third-dimension feels gimmicky, and its use is either bluntly telegraphed or horribly forced.

The ancillary characters, so wonderfully realised in the first Paper Mario, were gone – replaced by a bunch of non-dimensional, characterless, half-witted SQUARES that jiggle around pretending to be the inhabitants of Flip/Flopside. Geez, they shit me to tears – so utterly, utterly un-engaging, their presence actually made me feel more lonely… even whilst traipsing around this paper world in a party of four that includes Mario’s brother, lover, and nemesis (another jarring decision). Boss battles are mildly interesting, but more often than not are either a battle of persistence or (once you cycle through the characters to determine the most effective offensive option) a walkover.

To be honest, by the time I entered Chapter 5 I was almost praying for this game to end. Yes, I finished it; yes, I succumbed to OCD and performed all the post-game snippets – recipe collecting (spent aaaaages trying to find one more dribble of Inky Sauce), card collecting (ggggnnnnnnnnn), the Flipside Pit Of 100 Trials, the Sammer Guy Showdown (another 100 battles), the Flopside Pit Of 100 Trials – twice. And now, it’s over – and I couldn’t be happier.

Now, I’ve never played the original Super Mario RPG, nor have I played the Gamecube iteration of the series (The Thousand-Year Door, which apparently merges the turn-based combat system with cleared graphics); so any criticism of the series as a whole would be suspect at best, and more likely completely misguided. But I get scared when an earlier game plays so incredibly well, but later games rub me entirely the wrong way (see also Metroid Prime and its direct sequel). Here’s hoping the 3D Mario series doesn’t turn out the same way – even though I’ve barely scratched the surface of Super Mario 64, I can tell it’s a stone-cold classic; and I want Super Mario Galaxy to have the same impact.

Super Paper Mario is a mild curiosity, entertaining at best, dull action-grinding at worst; the original Paper Mario is a life-changer. There’s your capsule review.

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