If Paper Mario 2 could speak, it might tell you that turn-based RPG combat is almost uniformly boring and rubbish. You wait a bit, you hit a button, you inflict some damage, you withdraw, you rinse, you repeat, you grow old, you die lonely. And even as you roll around in your grave, the worms and microbes feasting on your decaying innards are all waiting, hitting a button, inflicting some damage, withdrawing, rinsing and repeating. And they hate it too. If anybody could bear the spectacle for long enough, they might well hurl mouldy vegetables at the screen and boo incessantly.
At least, that's clearly Intelligent Systems' view of it, because while Paper Mario 2, the developer's latest side-on Mario-flavoured role-player, does include turn-based combat, it expects you to do much more than simply pick a menu option and then whack the A button. It plants you and your enemies on the stage of an auditorium, complete with set designs appropriate to the area you were just exploring. Fail to impress the sea of heads in the foreground with your actions, and they will jeer and pelt you with rubbish, knock the set over on top of you, and even drop buckets on your head. Catch their attention with your mastery of the combat system, on the other hand, and they will applaud and lump the opposition with similar disadvantages. Apart from throwing power-ups to you, they will pound enemies with items and occasionally render them dizzy with fright - or at the very least distracted.
The paper trail
Clever little ideas like this are exactly why, with every generation of Nintendo hardware, we find ourselves celebrating the latest RPG-style Mario adventure for defying the conventions of the turn-based RPG genre with humour and ingenuity. Super Mario RPG took the first steps, letting us bop enemies repeatedly on the head with well-timed button presses (although it certainly fell down in other areas). Paper Mario refined and built the idea up on the N64, and raised the humour quotient several-fold, before Mario & Luigi: SuperStar Saga on the Game Boy Advance topped the lot. It had a platform-and-puzzling two-character dynamic, a combat system that required tactical thought and sharp reactions, and a sense of humour that planted almost immovable grins on our faces. It was probably the best Game Boy Advance title of 2003.
Judging by our experiences with Paper Mario 2 so far, this could be one of the best Cube titles of 2004. Rather like the others, the traditional Mario dynamic of speechless plumber versus dinosauric kidnapper has been chucked out of the window - replaced with a scenario that sees the hapless Princess Peach stolen away by a new adversary, Hooktail. Knowing the series well, we'd expect that Bowser will be chomping at the bit to get her back just as readily as Mario. After all, he's failed so many times to capture her, he can't help but feel a little embarrassed when some newcomer waltzes in and manages it first time. For the moment though, we're limited to Mario in command, with support from Goombella (a pink, female Goomba), Koops (a mashed up Koopa Troopa) and Flurrie (a gusty gal, and no relation to a popular fast food dessert dish). Luigi may be in there somewhere, but he'll probably be difficult to find - after all, as Mario & Luigi veterans remember, nobody in the Mushroom Kingdom or any of its neighbours has the faintest idea who he is, though they recognise Mario the second he leaps more than two feet off the ground.
Veterans and disenfranchised RPG fans alike will be pleased to hear that the combat system is shaping up to be something quite different, too. You can avoid battles entirely, as before, by just dodging round enemies (although you may find yourself ambushed unavoidably from time to time), and you can gain a first strike advantage by whacking incoming adversaries with Mario's hammer or a well aimed head-bop, but once you're plunged into the auditorium battle screen, it's no cause for irritation. The crowd's antics are one thing, but the actual combat is just as enjoyable and genuinely involved - if you decide to bop and enemy on the head, for example, you'll be able to increase the hit rate by whacking the A button in time to Mario's bopping, and if you opt for the hammer, you have to hold the left analogue stick back until a little star meter fills up. You can even limit the damage enemies do to you and yours by hitting A at the critical point of their attack animations - and they will even disguise their attacks a little to try and throw you off.
There are also team attacks, the option to appeal to the crowd for support (often answered with items like health mushrooms), and various more powerful attacks that can't be used willy nilly. Lightning bolts, for example, do much heavier damage, a POW box knocks all your enemies down, and a shooting star rains stars from the heavens, while flower power chucks fireballs - as just about anybody with any Mario experience would rightly expect. In fact, the average gamer's general knowledge of the Mario series is fundamentally important - guaranteeing that nine times out of ten, the item you've just collected or the attack you're planning will be suitably intuitive. After all, you know what everything does already, so there's relatively little hunting through menus to find out what your latest tinker toy actually does.
Outside the battle screen, it's a combination of challenge and puzzle-based exploration, Nintendo in-jokes and general throwaway humour (like Goombella's reluctance to tell you about her special ability in the demo version because it might spoil the surprise), and spellbinding visuals that keep you interested. And we do mean spellbinding - if we had spells, they would be thoroughly bound by now; wrapped up in their admiration for the beautifully animated 2D character cutouts, the way environmental changes like a bridge being built are rendered with the turning of a page, the way Mario spirals down warp pipes like water down a plughole, and just the general quality of the background graphics.
The three environments we've seen - Star Crystal Fields, Boggly Woods and Hooktail Castle - draw upon existing Mario locations, or stand tall as tall as a dragon on their own merits. Star Crystal Fields is the traditional green background with rolling hills in the distance, Boggly Woods is a dark journey to rescue a tribe of critters (who need to be blown across a chasm at one point to operate a switch), while Hooktail Castle plays host to some of the prettiest visuals in the entire demo - including that much-admired screenshot of countless skeletons stacked in a room, which Mario has to use his hammer to smash a way through to reach a door. We're already getting a feel for some of the gameplay outside combat too - like transformations, which occur whenever the crew reach distinctive points in some sections, and see Mario, for example, fold himself up into a paper aeroplane to bridge large gaps.
There are also ingenious little quirks that serve no real purpose other than to keep you entertained - like bonus stages that see you racing Bowser or Peach through 2D Mario levels as quickly as possible, collecting from coin blocks, killing enemies, dodging holes whilst jumping around and, thrust into the clawed shoes of Bowser, breathing fire to make progress. It's a far cry from scouring villages for clues and visiting various identikit inns - and every time your eyes do wander, there's something for them to rest upon, like the sight of a Piranha Plant in the audience on the combat screen, the seats around him mysteriously empty...
It's obviously too early to tell whether Paper Mario 2 will be able to sustain itself over a decent length adventure, but Mario & Luigi certainly did, and this latest adventure has all the hallmarks of that game and more. The combat system is a step up (and we have a feeling we've barely seen any of it), and Intelligent Systems is paying just as much attention to events elsewhere. Indeed, as long as the developer continues to work along the same lines, we're confident that Paper Mario 2 will be as celebrated as previous titles in the oft-ignored but genuinely brilliant series. Quite frankly, on this evidence, it would take a cock-up of monumental proportions for it to be anything but.