Virtual Console Roundup

Paper Mario and Zonk.

Oh my giddy goodness. While the gaming world's eyes may be fixated on the undulating rump of E3, at least the Virtual Console has set aside a little bit of attention for those of us in Europeland. It's only bloomin' Paper Mario, the N64 RPG that's hovered around the VC release list for several tantalising months. We're even getting it before the Americans, although they have, of course, been playing the all-new Super Paper Mario on the Wii since April...sassen rassen frassen. But let's not get led down that angry road. Nintendo has finally done something very nice for us. Smile and say thank you. Now wash your hands.

Paper Mario

  • Platform: N64
  • Wii Points: 1000

I may very well use up the world's allotted stockpile of the word "charming" on this one. Just giving you fair warning. Paper Mario is a charming game. Actually, scratch that. I'm going to go with "beguiling". It's just so darned...lovely.

For those unfamiliar with the Paper Mario concept it evolved from Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, an isometric adventure produced by Square. Not that we'd know anything about it - the selfish sods never released a PAL version. With development duties handed over to Intelligent Systems, Paper Mario retained the role-playing trimmings but reverted to a more accessible side-on style of gameplay. The result is an almost seamless fusion of 3D platformer and epic RPG, painstakingly designed and paced, and full of nooks and crannies to seek out and explore.

And it's in this sort of game that the VC is really making a name for itself. Unless Sony surprise us and start offering Final Fantasy games on PSN, between Paper Mario and the Zelda series, there's no console download service that offers this sort of longform, meaty gaming experience. There's weeks of gameplay in here. Months, probably. And it's great gameplay as well, served up with that impeccable Nintendo polish.

1

Paper Mario has, more or less, the same level of depth as Final Fantasy VII. It's just served up in a way that makes all those statistics and inventory options seem completely simple. Combat is triggered by approaching an enemy (no invisible chance encounters here) and then unfolds in turn-based style, with each member of your party attacking, using items or one of their abilities. Things become more involved, as item modifiers are incrementally introduced, expanding your choices, but it never gets complicated. And that's crucial. This is an RPG that kids can be drawn into, so seamless and well structured is the learning curve.

Magic points are replaced with flower points. Equipped items are replaced with badges. Levelling up is simple and transparent - each enemy defeated drops Star Points. Get 100 of those and you level up. New abilities are wisely introduced, and carefully explained. Each new development comes with a little breathing space to allow you to get used to it. Hardcore RPG nuts will probably claw their eyes out at the rather slower pace this creates, but when you're in a world so charming (sorry, beguiling) it's no real hardship.

The story's a predictable load of old gubbins, of course. Bowser's back, and he's kidnapped Princess Peach. Again. The great big galoot has swiped the Star Rod from Star Haven, so he's now super powerful, and this provides the framework needed for Mario's epic quest, as he battles to become strong enough to take down his nemesis. It's enormous, yet intimate. Challenging, yet compellingly simple. And it looks wonderful, the 2D paper cut-out effect adding to the innocent charm and providing just enough visual disconnect from the expected Mario world to help sell the RPG changes.

We've been waiting almost a year for Super Paper Mario, and for that stern fingers must continue to be wagged in the direction of Nintendo Europe, but this little (big) masterpiece should make the last few months pass a lot easier.

9/10

Air Zonk

  • Platform: TurboGrafx16
  • Wii Points: 600

So...er...yeah. Air Zonk's available as well. Anyone? Don't be shy. Ah, poor Zonk. Having yet another TG16 shooter trailing behind a behemoth like Paper Mario is like trying to entice punters into a tiny pub concert right next door to a stadium where the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Elvis Presley are performing as a one-time only supernatural supergroup.

And that's a shame, since Air Zonk is a lot of fun. Admittedly that fun comes more from sheer strangeness than from any revolutionary gameplay ideas, but it's a novelty worth investigating.

2

A sort of semi-official spin-off from the Bonk series - it features the same villain, and Zonk is clearly a cyberkid version of Bonk - the gameplay is side-scrolling shooter rather than platformer. As expected, defeated enemies drop power-ups (smiley faces) and should you collect enough of those, a super power-up (enormous smiley face with sunglasses) appears. Collect this and an utterly bizarre "friend" pops up to help you out. Like a flying space cow. Or a creature that's half dog, half building. Collect another giant power-up and Zonk merges with whatever unholy assistant he's spawned (you can choose at the start of the level, or work through them automatically). But, really, you haven't lived until you've seen a bulb-headed space boy turn into a bovine half-breed, shooting explosive milk churns from his teats.

It's pretty good. Very good, some people claim. They may well be right.

7/10

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