DAVID J. SUSHIL, AWARD-WINNING GAME DEVELOPER
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REVIEW: Super Paper Mario (Wii)
If I stare long enough at a video game, eventually Kim will let me buy it.  Such was the case last week when we were shopping for padlocks at Target.  A house on our street had been burglarized the night before, and we decided to beef up our security by going low tech.  It had been a stressful, nerve-wracking afternoon, so perhaps as a means of lightening the mood, I had my eye on the Wii games cabinet.  Kim was savvy enough to recognize my longing gaze for what it really was, and so we decided dropping fifty bucks on a title was a worthwhile emotional investment.

As a dormant gamer, I'm often picky about buying games, but despite a lack of knowledge on the title, we decided on Super Paper Mario.  After all, most everything Mario is a sure bet (with a handful of exceptions).  Following only a few hours of play, I was very pleased with the purchase.  The game mechanics are well-balanced and fun.  The pacing is perfect for those with busy schedules and short attention spans.  The social factor is also high, despite lacking a multi-player mode.  On the other hand, the story detracts heavily from the experience, and the attempts at humor often fall flat.

It's the latter assessment that may turn people off to this game.  First of all, I'm not convinced that Mario's adventures need a half hour introduction.  The basic premise of just about every game in the series is the same - Princess Peach is in trouble, and it's Mario's job to bail her out.  That took, what, five seconds to explain?  If I told you that the mysterious Count Bleck arranged the marriage of the princess and Bowser as a prelude to his plans for world domination, and that a handful of Pure Hearts is all that Mario needs to set things straight, that would take another, oh, I don't know, ten seconds, maybe?  So in fifteens seconds' time, you know all there is to know about the "why's" of Super Paper Mario.

When it comes to new takes on old platformers, I don't want Final Fantasy length cut scenes, I just want to stomp on mushrooms.  I've often said that a good game is still good even without a story, and this is the case for Super Paper Mario.  When the yarn spinning ends, the fun begins.

First, I'd like to address the solid work Nintendo has done in incorporating the features of the Wii Remote into the game.  While Super Paper Mario is meant for play with the Remote in the sideways position (what I like to call "oldschool"), there are plenty of opportunities to mix it up.  For example, the player may point the Remote at the screen, which triggers a spotlight that reveals hidden items.  Also, some enemies have the ability to stun Mario, an effect which can only be overcome by shaking the Remote vigorously.  These kinds of interactions exist as well-formed mechanics, carefully crafted.  This stands in stark contrast to a game like Marvel Ultimate Alliance, which is an orgy of slashes, lifts, waves, and thrusts - unintuitive and so common as to lose all the charm of the Wii Remote's novelty.

Of course, the primary draw of this title is the ability to "flip" our two-dimensional hero into the third dimension.  Now, the cynics among us might point out how a 3D Mario is nothing new, so why drop fifty bucks on a feature that made its debut over ten years ago?  Like a fine meal from a four-star restaurant, it's all about the presentation.

The switch from 2D to 3D is often startling.  In Super Paper Mario, every vertical column of blocks could become a jungle gym to scale and conquer.  This mechanic essentially makes two worlds out of the same playing space, doubling (perhaps squaring) the potential for player choices in any given situation.  If flipping has any weakness, it's in the way it tends to trivialize most enemy encounters.  Since the majority of goombas, koopas, and boos are 2D, flipping into 3D removes them from play, allowing Mario to walk past them unchallenged.  Perhaps as a remedy for this, the designers rely heavily on puzzles, which to their credit, are varied and engaging.

The remaining majority of the mechanics, for example, dropping bombs, or picking up and throwing items, are rehashed from other games, but are implemented in puzzles with great restraint.  The designers tend not to repeat a solution to a problem very often, and as a result, the flow in Super Paper Mario is fantastic.  Every challenge feels new and exciting.  And to the designers' credit, there are very few find-the-key challenges, which have become as overused in action games as the car-won't-start plot device has in horror films.

The game is divided into chapters, with each chapter containing a handful of levels.  On the whole, each level can take maybe ten to fifteen minutes to compete (sans cut scenes), so for those of us on the casual side of gaming, Super Paper Mario is easy to pick up, play, and put down.  It's partly these frequent nested victories which make the game a surprisingly social title, as well.  With a group, it's fun to pass a controller around and watch your friends play.

In terms of difficulty, Super Paper Mario is a cinch.  The focus is mainly puzzles, with combat and conflict taking a secondary role.  Boss battles are fairly frequent, and gamers who enjoy clashing with enormous foes will find plenty to get excited about.

The graphics are adequate - on par with a professional Flash title on the PC.  The Wii, of course, wasn't designed to set the world on fire with its graphical processing power.  It was designed more as a lifestyle device with inclusiveness and the novelty of human-computer interaction in mind.  To this end, Super Paper Mario fits nicely into the increasing pantheon of games for this system, and will probably be a staple title of the Wii from here on out.

Overall, Super Paper Mario is worth picking up.  Just be prepared to skip through Quentin-Tarantino-length dialogue.  (Seriously, Nintendo, a curt "Thank you Mario, but the princess is in another castle," is all the incentive a hero needs.)
 
 
© 2011 David J. Sushil.  All Rights Reserved.  For more information, e-mail davidjsushil@gmail.com.