Super Paper Mario
Mario hadn't long been popped out from his two-dimensional world when Nintendo announced the original puzzling concept of Paper Mario on the N64. It seemed like something of a retrograde step to return their star plumber to his two dimensional roots. However, this being Nintendo, all was not what it seemed. Mario would exist in two dimensions, but the world about him retained the depth of its three axis of reality.
The Big N are not the first to plunder the play possibilities of removing and adding dimensions to reality. The 18th Century satirical treatise Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland), used the same concept to play with the idea of a limited perspective on the world. Whilst this may seem like an obscure reference, a quick read soon shows how closely Nintendo seem to have drawn on the imaginative interaction problems it invented. Like the old prose, Nintendo waste no time before hamming up the mind bending fun that can be had by switching back and forth between the dimensions.
As the third in a series of games that have their spiritual roots in the excellent Super Mario RPG on the SNES, Paper Mario on Wii holds true to its role play game (RPG) inheritance. This time around though, there is a dollop more action dropped into the mix; something that tops a wink to the fact that many Wii owners would struggle with another rendition of a previous installment, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door on the GameCube. The Wii game continues the aesthetics of its forebears. This includes rites of passage such as an imaginative and well written story, eclectic charming characters and classical action gameplay.
To give you a little head start on the story, without spilling too many beans, things focus on Mario's attempt to thwart Count Bleck from destroying all worlds. To achieve this Mario must (surprise surprise) collect heart pieces to form a pure heart that will counteract the chaos heart: the illegitimate offspring from a forced marriage between Peach and Bowser. As so often happens (ahem) these hearts have resulted in a fracturing of time and space that captures Mario in an inter-dimensional land full of locked doorways. Each door must be opened and the dimension conquered before Mario can escape and counteract the dastardly chaos heart.
In addition to Mario, you can also play as Princess Peach, Bowser and Luigi. Each of them has their own special ability. Mario of course gets the lion share of the fun with his trick of flipping between two and three dimensions. Peach floats around on her brolly, Bowser toasts all and sundry with his jalapeno breath whilst Luigi brings his twinkling long-jumping ballet-like feet to the party. The main four protagonists are then backed up by the pixls (no 'e'? Must be another Web 2.0 thing - Ed). These little guys and gals get collected along the way and have their own special abilities that will help you progress through a particular section later on. Boomer can blow things up, Dottie shrinks you to miniscule proportions, whilst Tippi provides some direction and is generally useful to have around when you have a question, Midna style.
The game is structured around your task of collecting pure hearts which are found in each of the different dimensional worlds. Between times you inhabit a central town-space in which you can recharge your batteries, meet the locals and get to grips with a variety of fetching and carrying duties. Whilst the worlds themselves have a largely 'platform'-like feel, the town is decidedly more RPG, and the action slows down considerably. These boundaries do blur as you progress through the game, but the basic pacing of each area retains its original feel. The town is always a bit more RPGesque while the worlds more Platformer influenced.
You make your way through each of the levels much like a traditional Mario platformer, although here you can slowly power-up your hero, and build your party. As you level-up your characters, you can inflict an increasing amount of damage on the various enemies. Being a Mario game, you main attack is still your stomp, but alongside this are the various pixl characters and the special moves of the other characters in your party. Each of the worlds has its own distinct feel, and sense of location. This is well executed and retains its paper-craft feel throughout. Each world exhibits familiar Mario platform design elements, although with the added twist of flipping to 3D on occasion. This feature could easily have ended up being something of a novelty, but its level of integration with the game physics and level design mean that it feels genuinely part of the rest of the game.
This switching dynamic is a real boon and literally adds a whole other dimension to the game. It feels on a par to the moment when you realised you could bash through the ceiling and run across the top of the screen in Super Mario Brothers. What beforehand was a reasonably complex platformer opens up with all sorts of possibilities, now in Paper Mario you can truly explore behind the scenes.
The controls are well executed, and employ a sideways Wiimote style, as utilised on NES games in the Virtual Console. This fits the style of the game perfectly and at no point did it seem inappropriate to be using such a classic control scheme. This being a Wii game, there are a couple of extra control tricks up Mario's sleeves. Firstly, you can shake the Wiimote as you attack enemies to obtain bonus points and receive applause from the watching characters. Secondly, you can turn the Wiimote towards the screen and pause the action to search out hidden doors and items, flash-light style. This all adds up to a nice update to a classic scheme that doesn't go overboard with motion sensing novelties.
So far so good. However, with all this good gaming material in front of me I was surprise not to take more kindly to the game as a whole. For some reason there was something that never quite clicked into place. The different elements are all well executed and represent good examples of their genres. The RPG aspect is well written, if a little verbose, and really does feel like you are progressing your hero as well as your world count as you worked through the game. The platforming was as slick and Nintendo-esque as you could hope. However, as a whole Paper Mario didn't quite stack up for me. I was waiting for it to coalesce into a coherent whole and it never quite happened.
My biggest problem was with the pacing. The introduction of the RPG elements means that the game forces you to return to the central town between each world. At this point the game slows to a crawl as you have plenty of fetching, carrying and inhabitant-meeting to get through. Whilst some will relish these RPG elements, I found they got in the way of the more direct platforming experience of the main worlds. I knew beforehand that there was a lot of text, but I hadn't appreciated just how much there was to read. At first I could enjoy its self aware style and go with the flow, but as time went on and the visits back to the home town stacked up I became impatient and wanted to get on with what I saw as the meat of the game: the platforming. This probably says as much about me as it does about the game itself. I have limited time to play, and therefore found the slow pace of the RPG elements something of a problem. Someone with more time on their hands, and more of an inclination for the RPG pacing would enjoy the experience a whole lot more, I suspect.
When push leads inexorably to shove, there are probably two good games here. The problem is that you have to play them both at the same time. Those of us that would have preferred a pure platformer, or indeed a pure RPG experience, will suffer the most. Those that are happy to live with the combination will find a compelling experience, with well written dialogue, innovative play dynamics and bucket loads of Nintendo charm. For me it just turned out to be a slightly bad fit.