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.
There are all the in-references you'd hope for. Francis' level looks as though it were created in Picross, and at one point the conversation with him becomes a pastiche of those freaky Japanese dating games. (I can't be sure, but I think there might have been a Phoenix Wright reference too). Such brilliantly daft moments are pleasantly frequent. One early dragon-like boss appears to crash like a PC, bellowing, "CTRL ALT DEL!" after many other similar gags. The game even manages to turn into a text-based RPG at one point. And it's for this, and the vast amounts of dialogue, that you keep playing. It isn't, however, for the platforming.
Unlike The Thousand Year Door, where platform moments were included as a quick in-joke reference to Mario's other life, Super Paper Mario has platforming at its core. Gone are the turn-based fights, replaced with old-fashioned jumping on heads, or lobbing turtle shells. While it's complicated by the 2D/3D switcheroos, and enlivened by an inventory of power-ups, either found or bought from shops, the main game seems to have more in common with the recent DS's New Super Mario Bros. than the Paper series. But sadly isn't nearly as perfectly constructed. At first the device of revealing the 3D is adorable. But you quickly find yourself cynically thinking, "So there will be a pipe behind that rock then." It seems like the notion could have done so very much, but never gets further than the first few ideas. And some chapters, particularly Chapter 4's side-scrolling space shooting levels, are dreadfully uninspired.
Completely different are the between-level sections in Flipside, and later, Flopside. And again, it's here that the writing lets the game shine and be so adorable. With minimal jumping to perform, here you're finding secrets (which is at this point a huge amount of fun when manipulating the dimensions), chatting with townsfolk, visiting shops, and attempting to locate the hidden towers for your Pure Hearts. The dialogue is all wonderful, and you'll stop and talk to everyone you meet, and visit every nook and cranny seeking out bonus gags.
I have pages of notes of wonderful lines in front of me. ("Who are you really, you incontinent little imp?") I don't want how entertaining this game really is to get lost in the concerns over the somewhat lacklustre design of some later levels. ("Thou art toast!") But it's impossible not to be really very surprised by how scrappy levels start to feel in the second half. ("Ack! I drip with moisture. But... does it make mine hair look... hot?") Rather than presenting any sense of increasing challenge, instead the layout of the areas just becomes more poorly chosen, leaving you feeling lost, rather than stuck. ("Your blows are like miniature jackhammers wielded by tiny angry road workers.")
But as I've said already, you make your way through these sections because of everything else the game gets so right. It's all fairly elementary, with even the boss fights possible to bluff your way through using favourite attacks, rather than more appropriately matching skills to weaknesses. The only way you'll get stuck is if you've missed a hidden pathway, because you forgot to check an area in 3D. And in the end, this seems to make things simply more relaxed. And perhaps that's how it should be.
This is a game where the local underground pub is called The Underwhere. Where people get married "until your game is over". Where a furious Bowser declares, "No more sequels!" And it contains more moustache jokes than both Mario & Luigi handheld games put together. That's a lot of moustache jokes.
Perhaps there will soon come a time when Nintendo will run out of grace for gently mocking their own catalogue of games. But with every "serious" Mario game, something like this coming along to poke them in the ribs and snicker self-referentially is a pleasure. Super Paper Mario will not satisfy those looking for platforming to match Nintendo's normally stellar standards. And you eventually realise it never intended to. If anything, the game's central dimension-shifting gimmick seems to have been created as an opportunity for writing more jokes, only accidentally pushing the gameplay in a platform direction. This does of course significantly leave you wishing for a game that saw the potential for such a lovely idea seen all the way through.
But Super Paper Mario is about deconstruction, rather than building. (It literally deconstructs platforming down to a single black line on a white background at one point - a bold, if astonishingly boring in practise, idea.) Over-punishing it for being a slightly weaker platformer than Mario's dedicated outings would be to miss its purpose. Knocking a mark off to make it an 8 is an appropriate response. Every level might not be the greatest jumping experience of your life, but you'd be hard-pushed to want for a more vivid and cunningly beautiful side-scrolling game. It's bursting with ideas and jokes, and visually is constantly gorgeous. So much kudos must go to the translation and localisation team at Nintendo, who have outdone themselves all over again in creating unceasingly funny dialogue.
So an admittedly muddled review. Is it a new Wii must-have? I'm going with, perhaps. It uses the Wii tech so cleverly, remembering that simple is best, but letting it play in a way impossible on any other console. It's non-stop hilarious, and utterly adorable. If only it had been more inventive with the 3D potential, it would have been a stand-out classic. As it is, subdued by this shortfall, it's a gorgeous, confusing little buddy, that's lovely to hang out with.
8 / 10