Preview - Mario is back in RPG form, and it looks like it could be a stunner
One of the last RPGs Squaresoft developed for the Super Nintendo was Super Mario RPG. Nintendo rarely trust their characters to outsiders, but on this occasion it paid dividends. The isometric adventures of Mario and co. were rudely dismissed as 'my first RPG' by the diehards, but there was an unmistakeable charm about the whole experience, and over time it endeared people to the Mario franchise in ways they'd never expected.
Mario's new groove
It had everything; a decent battle system, amusing dialogue, a virtual treasure trove of Mario in-jokes, and above all else it was a Squaresoft RPG, so it felt great. Perhaps one of its most juvenile moments, it was also Square's last major RPG for the Super Nintendo which was released in the west, and ever since we've been waiting for the follow up. In the absence of Squaresoft, Nintendo have had to enlist first party favourite Intelligent Systems, but you needn't be too concerned. Amongst Intelligent's work are such gems as Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, Duck Hunt, Metroid and Super Mario Land. They are also the team responsible for the infinitely popular Japanese RPG series Fire Emblem. They have the credentials.
Once upon a time...
Paper Mario was always going to be stylised somehow. It could never be fully 3D - people would simply mistake it for a slower version of Super Mario 64, and Nintendo need that particular genre left open for them to explore on the GameCube. No, it was either going to be a complete mimic of the original Super Mario RPG, or it would try something new. As it happens it's combined the best of two worlds; the cute three dimensional land of Princess Peach ripped from its isometric axis in SMRPG, and the two dimensional paper cut-outs used to illustrate Yoshi's Story. It's a novel approach which is genuinely innovative, and although it takes a little while to get used to, like every Mario game I've ever seen it grows on you something silly. The story begins in Mario and Luigi's home. Luigi rushes out to collect the mail and discovers a letter from Princess Peach, an invitation no less for the pair of them to attend a party in her honour at the castle. No sooner have the two gotten themselves together than they leap into the nearest green pipe and emerge next to the Princess' castle. Milling around with the guests, our little red hero splits off and tries to find the Princess to say hello. When he eventually does, the two of them stand in her chamber and chat as friends, when suddenly a great quake rocks the fortifications. Before long the sky around them is starry, and Bowser appears with the nefarious Kappa. As usual Bowser is up to his old tricks. He's stolen a magic starwand which gives him powers beyond Mario's reach. In a brave fight in the Princess' rooms, Bowser defeats Mario and tosses him to earth where he lies unconscious. It's a dramatic opening as with all good RPGs, and it sets you up with a serious goal. From here Mario is found and recovers in the home of the generous Goombas, who see him on his way. Goombarrio even joins your party.
And it gets better and better. There is an incredible sense of scale I'm not accustomed to in a Mario game, despite the two dimensional plane. Yet in spite of the unwieldy quest ahead of our heroes, Mario's adventure remains cute and stylised. Text bubbles appear above the characters' heads and text bounces and bobs along the lines, weaving a tale of interest for our chaps to follow. The battle system is turn-based, but when you chance upon an enemy you can try and thwack them with your mallet beforehand to get first strike. You can use your mallet in the game world itself as well, smacking trees to reveal hidden coins and blocks to reach new areas. You can rustle in bushes for extra coins and other items, and if you find any they are whisked out and bob along the ground for you to collect. When you stop rustling and have everything you need from an area, you can save the game by finding an S block and bopping it with your head. This brings up the save screen. Although the world on the whole is fairly large, your saving is restricted, so you do have to keep an eye out. Saving often is hardly an issue though, because like the controls, the saving is nigh on instantaneous. I've gotten used to playing CD-based RPGs - what a breath of fresh air this turned out to be!
More, more, more!
Exploiting the other members of your party is essential to success. They often aid you in battle, but they also help you reach new areas and uncover hidden items such as badges, which allow you to enhance your characters' abilities by providing new attacks and such. Using a badge is temporary - you're limited by the number of Badge Points you have. The capacity for these can be improved over time, as can the capacity for Heart Points and Flower Points. However, you'll have to make a decision every time you level up as to which area you want to focus on. Upping the Heart Points can be useful if you want to withstand stronger enemies, but without sufficient Badge and Flower Points you'll have a harder time putting them down anyway. Battle mode is the real gem here though. Unlike a lot of RPGs, you have a sensible number of Heart Points and attacks gradually improve too. As you grow more accustomed to applying badges to different situations you'll learn how to jump attack several characters in a turn (kind of like playing draughts) or use some of your other weaponry in a more crippling manner. You won't run out of things to attack with very quickly, and you have to perform a visual inspection of your aggressors to make sure their armour doesn't prohibit jump attacks and the like. It wouldn't be much fun to stub your feet, after all! Paper Mario is an exemplary RPG. I've been playing the American version for about a fortnight now, and hopefully I'll finish it soon. The game progresses in a delightfully childish manner, and although the characters are nowhere near as deep as those found in Squaresoft's RPGs, the rest of the game more than makes up for it. Paper Mario is scheduled for an October 2001 release in this country, and we dare say it will give Nintendo fans frustrated by the lack of a GameCube reason to cheer up on Christmas morn. I'm looking forward to it, and the opportunity it will give me to bunk off proper work and play it for weeks again. Wheeeeee!