Friday, August 3, 2007

Wii Virtual Console Game of the Month: JULY 2007

Do you remember how great May was for the Virtual Console? Act Raiser, Ninja Gaiden, Final Fight, Kid Chameleon, Donkey Kong Country 2, all terrific games. June and July weren't so lucky. A few decent games showed up, like F-Zero X and Dynamite Heady on the last day, but overall, both June and July were rather disappointing. There was a bright spot though. The sparkling diamond amid the rest of the faded gems was Paper Mario for the N64.

Paper Mario was originally released on February 5th, 2001 in North America on the Nintendo64. Developed by Intelligent Systems Co, an internal Nintendo development team, the game is the spiritual sequel to Super Mario RPG on the SNES. Intelligent Systems Co had previously made most of the Fire Emblem games {Japan only :( } and most famously, Super Metroid on the SNES. It was released at the very end of the N64's lifespan, as the GameCube would be released at the end of 2001. Two sequels have been released; Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door for the GameCube and just earlier this year, Super Paper Mario for the Wii. You can find my review of Super Paper Mario by CLICKING HERE.

While both Thousand Year Door and Super Paper Mario used Mario's paper body for many great mechanics, the paper idea behind Paper Mario is almost entirely a visual aspect, and nothing more. The fact that Mario and friends are made of paper is only used as a graphical effect, and only once or twice used in gameplay or story telling. The world Mario lives in is mainly constructed of 3D polygons, but the characters and some items, like bushes and mushrooms, are 2D sprites, which when surrounded by the 3D items, give everything that "paper" appearance.

Paper Mario is titled such because of it's graphic style. Overall, the graphics hold up for a game made on a console 2 generations old. There are some clipping issues between the larger polygons, and many of the 2D sprites stand out more than the designers intended them to stand out. The biggest graphics issue is the text. The game is programmed in the N64's native 240i format, so when the Wii spits it out at 480p, the text is blocky, and sometimes hard to read.

Gameplay is very similar to most RPGs, but with an action twist. Yes there are turn-based battles and leveling up and items to collect, but instead of random battles or just picking attack or magic, Paper Mario gives you some additional control. You can see most enemies before a battle, even even jump on them or hit them with your hammer to get the first hit in. And once in battle, if you time your button presses right, you get extra hits on the enemies and can avoid or decrease the damage of their attacks. It's a mechanic that has been recycled in the newer Paper Mario games, and the GBA's Mario & Luigi games. It prevents the battles from getting too boring, but there are some issues where battle mechanics are concerned.

There are some balance issues in the game, specifically with the way you level up, and the strength of the enemies. When you level up (gain 100xp) you can raise your HP (hearts), MP (flowers) or Badge Points, or your accessory points. All of your special abilities are made active by equipping badges, which require badge points. You start with 3 points, and at level up, can raise your BP by 3, or your HP or FP by 5. Here is where the balance issues come into play. All of the cool abilities and powers require you equip more badges, which means you need more BP. However, without also increasing your HP and FP, the enemies will kick your butt. The logical approach, and in most RPGs, is to level up MORE to become more powerful, but in Paper Mario, once you gain a level, enemies give less XP, so after 2 levels, instead of 6XP a piece you get 1XP or NO XP at all from defeated enemies. This makes it impossible to get as strong as you would probably like to be. Instead you find yourself avoiding 99% of enemies instead of fighting, and when you do fight, you lose 25-50% of your HP. And that is nearly every battle. To compensate for your constant HP draining, healing items are CHEAP and coins come easily, but you can only carry 10 items, and you often would need to wade through and avoid lots of enemies on your way back to a store. This all could have been easily avoided if players were allowed to level up freely, and it would make sense even more, because you don't deliver more damage after leveling up, only get more HP/FP/BP. It seems very sloppy.

Despite my big gripe, the game is fun. The battles are fun, the story is simple, the game controls well, everything works very well together overall. If you can get used to the wacky balance issues and garbled text, then there is little else to detract you from enjoying the game. Although only 6 years old, this game feels older than it is, but not any less fun. I won't give a score to this review because I can't pick one. It's a 4, it's a 2, it's a 3, it changes depending on what aspects of the game I look at. Balance issues vs fun vs graphics vs timelessness, it isn't fair to give this game a number. It is the best game released in the past 2 months, so that should be more than enough of a clue as to how good the game is. And for only $10, how can you go wrong? When we look back, what matters most is that this is the game that lead the way for the greats like Super Paper Mario and the Mario & Luigi GBA games, so I will gladly tip my hat to what ends up being a fun and enjoyable game.

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