SPOILER ALERT! THAR BE MINOR SPOILERS HERE!!!
Nintendo loves Mario. Nintendo knows that YOU love Mario. So what does Nintendo do? They release a lot of games that feature Mario. From RPGS (Paper Mario) to basketball (Mario Hoops) to racing (Mario Kart) to party games (Mario Party) and puzzle games (Mario Vs Donkey Kong), there is always a new game starring or featuring Mario on its way. While none of these games are bad, and some, like the Mario Kart series are great, they do not feature Mario doing what Mario does best; plumbing.
Ok, not true, Mario is a platforming star. Plumbing is just a convenient cover story. He runs, jumps, stomps and flies around mushroom laden lands filled with turtles and monsters trying to save the princess. That is the Mario we love best. Nintendo knows this. They proved that they know that with The New Super Mario Bros. on the DS last year. But just releasing new levels using the same old mechanics doesn't work like it did back in the cartridge days, so Nintendo has again made a Mario cocktail. A dash of platforming, an ounce of RPG, a dollop of Wii. That is what goes into the delicious drink that is Super Paper Mario.
We have seen Mario in RPGs before, from the SNES Super Mario RPG, to the GBA/DS Mario & Luigi games, to 2004's Thousand Year Door on the GameCube. They all mixed RPG standards (turn based battles, leveling up, items and weapons) with the Mario platforming formula. They were all RPGs first, and Mario games second. Super Paper Mario is different. Super Paper Mario is a platforming game, with some RPG features added in. It may be better to describe Super Paper Mario as a platform/adventure game more than a platformer, but the heart of this game is all about the platforming.
Super Paper Mario looks great. Bright, vibrant colors cover every surface on the screen. The core gameplay mechanic in Super Paper Mario is flipping from the traditional, side scrolling, 2D view, over to a 3D view of the same scene (see pix above). All of the sprites look alive and colorful, but some of the 3D falls flat. I realize there is a specific artistic theme to the game, but some of the 3D just looks out of place. The draw distance acts funny sometimes, drawing only hollow squares instead of solid shapes, and in some cases, the majority of the screen is just a big black or blue background. It would have been nice if when switching to 3D, the foreground had some more character to it, or showed distant lands or other scenery, but instead there is just a big blue blank sky.
My complaint about the visuals ends there. Every character is drawn beautifully and is well animated. Lines are thick and black, and stand out well, creating a very nice cartoon environment. One great effect is when you first enter a level, the background is drawn in as black lines, and the other shapes and colors then fill in. The level design is the best part though. Extremely clever level design can be found on every screen. The first world of the game even pays tribute to the original NES Mario game by replicating many of the scenes, brick by brick, goomba by goomba. This game will not win any awards for graphics, but it has the perfect visuals to compliment the style of gameplay.
4 Stars (out of 5)
Sound in a Mario game can be both a big deal, and a non-event. While I may not remember a single tune from 99% of the Mario games released, the original themes from the NES games (and SNES Super Mario World) are permanently embedded into my memory and always great to listen to. Nintendo pays homage to these original themes in all of the new music in Super Paper Mario. The music samples and recycles almost all of the original themes from the NES Mario games. But other than those moments when you recognize that familiar tune, you will hardly notice that any music is playing at all. This can be seen as a good thing, as the music never distracts from the gameplay, but it would be nice to here something other than MIDI tunes coming out of my TVs speakers.
The same can be said in the rest of the sound department. The classic jump, bonk, bump, and bang noises from every other Mario game are here (the good) but the sounds of the characters talking (not voice acting) and the sound of text scrolling are either forgettable or just annoying (the bad). While there is nothing inherently bad to say about the sound, almost everything here is a throw-away. Not bad, just not great.
3.5 Stars (out of 5)
Gameplay is where the game shines the most, but also brings up my three biggest disappointments in the game. The positive first. This is one fun game. I often found myself thinking "just one more level" before saving and turning the Wii off. For the most part, Mario controls like he always has. He runs and can jump on enemies to damage them, or uses his head/fist to bust open bricks and ? blocks. By pressing the A button on the Wiimote (held horizontally in both hands, like a classic controller) you flip from 2D to 3D (see above) and can avoid hazards blocking your way, get past enemies, or walk into the background to get past a previously unjumpable gap. Its a great gameplay mechanic that I would love to see in a sequel.
The other great new feature in the game are the Pixls you collect/meet along the way. Pixls are.... things.... that have special abilities to help Mario prevent Count Bleck from ending the world (there is SOME story to the game, but barely worth mentioning). Tippi lets you point the Wiimote at the screen to find hidden items or get info on a monster, Thoreau lets you pick up and throw enemies and items, and Boomer who is a small bomb that can damage enemies and the enviroment. For the most part, you will be using Thoreau, Boomer, and one or two others, but there are others like Carrie, who lets you float over dangerous spikes that are needed very rarely, if only once or twice.
Speaking of useless, you can play as characters other than Mario! There are 4 characters total, and Peach and Bowser join you early on before leaving for their honeymoon (not joking, play the game) and you can freely switch between the two at any time. This brings up 2 of my 3 complaints. The other characters you can switch to are practically useless 99% of the time. Except for rare occasions when you need Peach to float over a large chasm, or Bowser to set something on fire, you will always want to use Mario. Not only does Mario control better, but you can't flip from 2D to 3D with any other character. Its more annoying having to switch than if I could just play as Mario.
Which brings me to my second, and biggest complaint: the controls. For the most part, the game controls beautifully. It takes SOME getting used to pressing A next to the d-pad for the 2d/3d flip, but it becomes second nature after some time (but more time than it should). The 1 button jumps, and 2 uses your currently selected Pixl. The problem comes in when you want to switch Pixls or characters, or use an item. You can press the + button to gain access to the main menu, but its very unnatural to reach to the middle of the Wiimote. To get access to the Pixl/character/item quick select menu, you have to press 1 and 2 together. At first, this was very frustrating. And even after almost 30 hours, it never felt right and could become a distraction. The B button on the Wiimote's bottom went totally unused, and the - button was used to show the control scheme. 2 wasted buttons. This game would have controlled perfectly if you could have used the Wii Classic Controller, but then you would lose the pointer functionality, and the occasional need to shake the Wiimote. The shaking function was stupid (get a little extra experience if you shake the Wiimote after jumping on an enemy) and it would have been just as easy to pick up the Wiimote to use the pointer. When a game gets distracting, I stop having as much fun.
My third and last complaint is less of a complaint, but more of a disappointment in a lack of feature. Every time I got a new Pixl, I wanted to go back to each level and use it to unlock secrets, but there are very very few secrets of this nature. Other than a character card here or there (you can collect character cards to deal extra damage to enemies) and a miniature bakery supply store (again, not joking) there was no need to revisit levels. There are only 2 side quests in the entire game, a fetch quest and a 100 level dungeon, and both are tedious and boring.
But none of that really matters, because this game is fun. Gaining points to level up and using items to heal and damage enemies are the biggest RPG elements, and both are a welcome addition. Control annoyances aside, I wish this game was longer and had larger worlds so I could keep playing. Forgiving the clearly rushed control scheme, the game is the most fun I have had with Mario in a long time, with the exception of the DS game. Fun conquers all, so the little gripes don't add up to that much.
4 Stars (out of 5)
Nintendo knows what they are doing when they go back to their roots. This is a fun game that can last a good 20-30 hours. The Wii functionality was more forced than a neccessary addition (this was originally for GameCube, not Wii) and I think the game would have played better on the GameCube when all is said and done. Some of the other complaints about too much dialogue is true for the first few hours, but gets better as the game progresses, but the script for the game is extremely well done as well, with the exception of too many mustache jokes. There are a lot of in-jokes (I AM ERROR) and plenty of fan service too.
Fans of platformers should definitely pick this one up. There are some annoying quirks that get in the way of making this a perfect game (does one exist?) but the amount of fun you'll have when playing will making you forget about the little stumbles along the way. Highly recommended, go out and play!
Overall score: 4 Stars (out of 5)
(images courtesy Nintendo)