Version tested: Wii
The question has to be: Is there finally another must-have game for the Wii? But then of course it could be: Have Nintendo lived up to the reputation of the Paper Mario series? Or perhaps it's: Is it as funny as the GBA's Superstar Saga? Worry not, we'll address them all.
Let's begin by trying to explain exactly what Super Paper Mario is. Which is no mean feat. It's not quite an RPG. It's not quite a platform game. It's not quite an adventure. Draw the three points on a piece of paper, creating a genre triangle. Then plot a mark for SPM... somewhere on the wall behind you. Glance at it, and you'd think it was a standard platform game. Look at the menus and you'd think it an RPG with as many fiddly options as Paper Mario: Thousand Year Door. Play it for a few moments, and you'll discover how the 2D levels can be "flipped" into 3D, completely changing all the rules for how to approach a level. Let's accept it doesn't really fit into any category, and be rather delighted by that.
So guess what? Princess Peach has been kidnapped. Mario and Luigi charge off to Bowser's castle to give him what-for, only to barge in on a meeting with his minions as they prepared to launch their latest kidnapping attempt. And then, floating in the air, the real culprit appears - Count Bleck. He proceeds to capture everyone but Mario, leaving the plumber with a lot of work to do. Meanwhile, well, Princess Peach and Bowser have unwittingly gotten married. So yeah - awkward.
(Having spent so long with the game's manipulation of 2D and 3D, as I stare at the screen to write this I see it as a flat background, and one that when flipped, would reveal hidden treasures between the words I'm typing, and display secret passages behind the save button. Mario, you see, has to travel to a town between dimensions, Flipside, from which many other dimensions can be accessed. And of course this is all essentially a pun on the visual dimension changes.)
There's a prophecy - well, two rival prophecies. The Dark Prognosticus, and its Light counterpart. Bleck is fulfilling the Dark prophecies, bringing about the end of the worlds in an act of mysterious vengeance. So Mario has to... You already guessed, didn't you? Collect eight parts of something and unite them in some way. This time out it's Pure Hearts, scattered about the worlds for the last 1500 years, waiting for the hero of the Light Prognosticus to claim them.
But Mario doesn't do this alone. Along the way he picks up the three other main Paper Mario characters, whom you can switch between at will to use their special skills. Peach can float with her umbrella, Bowser can breathe fire, and Luigi has a super-jump. But you're going to be Mario the vast majority of the time, as he's the only one able to flip to 3D. There are other companions, playing the role of an RPG's expanding skill set. These are Pixls - small sprite-like creatures each with a specific talent to aid your crew. And all with a horribly (brilliantly) punning name. Carrie is a little hoverboard for you to ride on. Fleep can reverse background details to reveal hidden items. Thoreau can pick items up and, yes, throw them.
Once again, Nintendo's brand demonstrate the correct use of the Wii Remote. Here it's held sideways, like a SNES controller, which is perfect for play. But if you want more info about something, point it at the screen and highlight the object. Suspicious that there's a hidden platform? Scan the screen with the remote to reveal hidden items. It's comfortable, modest and instinctive - an eminently sensible use of the tech.
It's really rather surprising quite how little Super Paper Mario has in common with the previous Paper games. The one thing that stands true is everything that happens being predicated upon it being a paper world. Turn sideways, and things disappear. Rotate the level into 3D, and large background details like trees, rocks, etc, become flattened against the back wall of a diorama. Mario, of course, doesn't become 3D, but merely vertically flips 90 degrees, so he can be seen at this new angle. So say you're stood in front of a large pillar blocking your path. Flip to 3D and it might well be a background detail to simply walk past; it could be a large three dimensional structure in the middle of the path, with room to walk around either side; or perhaps it's an optical illusion, revealed at this angle to in fact be a series of steps, reaching backward in the scene. And so on. It's with this freedom of design, and brain-hurting logic, that the entire game is constructed.
Which makes it a partial shame that Super Paper Mario's great strength is the writing, and not the majority of the level design. (More of that later.) It is consistently hilarious, and toward the end, even impressively touching, offering genuine pathos. Each of the eight chapters is a uniquely designed world, some playing off Mario traditions (desert world, cloud levels, spooky castles), and others completely original, and each with a pretty funny premise to go with it.
Let's take Chapter 3 as an example, with its story about rescuing your otherwise constant companion Pixl, Tippi (she gives hints, see?) from an uber-nerd gecko. Perhaps coming dangerously close to upsetting a significant core of their fanbase, Francis is a freakish geek, obsessed with Anime and videogames. His rules include, "Roleplaying games should be no less than 180 hours long, not counting side quests," and, "I love going on message boards and complaining about games I've never played." Touchy, eh, Nintendo? (Although it's impossible to disagree with, "If it's got fierce giant robot on giant robot combat, it's an instant buy.") It's in his lair that you spend a lot of time exploring, chatting with his hilarious robot cats.