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.
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