Super Paper Mario
Super Paper Mario, originally designed for the GameCube, makes it's way to the Wii, featuring a blend of classic sidescrolling, RPG elements, and the ability to flip into 3D to see things from a new perspective. The end result is that despite enormous potential, an endless string of blunders keeps this from being a classic.
To start off with the good, much of SPM showcases impressive 2D visuals with excellent use of color, along with a good variety of well animated foes to stomp. On top of that, the levels are rather creatively designed so that switching from 2D to 3D will reveal hidden passageways and items but also feel seemless and not contradict anything you see in the 2D view. The 3D areas maintain the straight line progression as a traditional sidescroller, so it's not like you're switching to a 3D platformer. You essentially view the 2D stage as a 3D corridor. While the third dimension view isn't ugly in any sense, the novelty of seeing what classic sidescrolling stages might look like from Mario's point of view quickly wears off and the change becomes just a hassle.
Unfortunately, there are times when laziness and/or questionable decisions take away from even the 2D experience. During one stage, you simply move left to right through approximately 20 small areas that are completely identical and connected by doorwars. Would adding in a little variation on the scenery or background have been that much of a hassle? This stage is followed by something that makes a kind of sense based on the storyline, but feels like a real misstep. You must spend several minutes running through a completely barren level. White background, solid black line for the ground. Except for the occasional piece of debris, NOTHING else to look at. And you'll be spending more time that you'll want to walking through it. The double whammy of these two incidents back to back really disappointed me. Were these choices made to suit the storyline or because there wasn't going to be a world 6 until they decided the game should be longer? There are countless times when I've felt the game's length was padded by meaningless tasks, but more on that later.
After this barren white level nonsense, we eventually reach an area where the designers decided to use all white lines on a black background. This didn't bother me at first, I mean you've gotta experiment with some different things occasionally. Then I realized that I was going to have to look at this visual irritation for at least an hour, with your character and the enemies being about the only source of color. Remember the Bowser stages in the original SMB, NES verson? Pretty basic stuff, the white walls, red lava, and some fiery obstacles. And yet it looks so much better than this garbage.
I've never played a Paper Mario game before, so I won't be able to make any comparisons to those titles. Much of your time here will be spent with classic SMB style platforming, stomping on ememies and jumping over gaps. The RPG aspect is that instead of getting shrunk or losing a life when you get hit or fall, you'll simply lose HP. As the game progresses and you get more abilities for manipulating the world around you, it starts to feel less like an actiony platformer and more like a simple puzzle based game. These skills, thanks to the help of creatures called Pixls, include the ability to set bombs, glide over spikes, pick up and throw objects, shrink down to a tiny size, and several others. You can also control other favorite characters like Bowser, and each adds a unique skill.
I was very happy with the controls. You simply turn the Wii remote sideways and it feels just like using an NES controller. You can point at the screen to target enemies or objects and get tips, but this is only occasionally necessary to proceed. The d-pad on the remote is superior to what was offered on the GameCube and with so much of your time spent in sidescrolling areas, this is definitely preferable to using analog controls. The 3D areas are slightly more difficult to get around in this way, but I think it's a necessary evil. My only complaint is that rarely, such as when an enemy used a freeze attack, you'll have to shake the remote to return to normal. This was done just to make it seem less like a direct port from the GameCube adds nothing of substance.
At no point in the experience did I ever feel really challenged. With so much HP and the threat of bottomless pits nullified by the measly damage they cause, you'll rarely ever be in danger of a Game Over. In fact, to the best of my recollection, I never did get one. Actually figuring out how to advance can get a little tricky in later stages, but the solution is usually to go back and make sure you didn't miss any doors, and to switch to 3D to see if there are any secrets you overlooked. So it ends up being more about backtracking and being really observant to see where you can use a tool or find a door than about actually figuring a series of things out.
That's not to say there aren't some cool parts. One stage has you not only changing dimensions, but also lets you hit special blocks to change gravity. Trying to manage walking on the walls and ceiling while also looking for clues in 3D and not getting totally lost was quite the experience. Another stage pokes fun at computer and video game geeks with some rather funny material culminating in a parody of a dating sim game. The game's core is enjoyable despite being easy. With the pleasant controls, enjoyable story, and often nice visuals, I was really hooked for a time.
But that backtracking I mentioned. The game's biggest flaw, it's necessary for almost all stages. I actually felt insulted by some of the things I was forced to do to progress and I fail to understand how people who enjoy videogames could have implemented some of this. In one case, after a few minutes of platforming, I reached a dead end with some blocks and no clue about how to proceed. So I marched back to town and was given the solution. Okay, not much harm done. After getting back to where I left off, and teveral minutes of enemy crushing and gap jumping after that, another dead end. Wait, you mean I have to walk all the way back to town AGAIN? Well, here we go. And not only did I get another clue, but I had to get out a piece of paper and write out a stupidly long sequence telling me what blocks to hit in what order. Am I supposed to be having fun now?
But wait, there's more. Having to run in a hamster wheel for 5 or 6 minutes of real time? There's no interaction, just holding down right on the d-pad for that absurd length of time. When I have to hold down a button and start watching TV so I don't get mad and turn the game off, it's a real problem. How about that time when I had to search a nonlinear, confusing area for different colored apples to find just the right one, and the only way to know was to take each one back and try it. And then after reaching a new area in this same world, I was forced to go back to the same spot to look for a second type of fruit. Again, trial and error. Can't forget the witches that keep teleporting me to earlier points in a stage to do some meaningless task, but instead of teleporting me back, they make me play large sections over again to get back to where I started from. Have I mentioned the most uneventful videogame minecart ride ever? Oh, and the joy of having to run from the end of a stage back to the beginning again to make a toilet paper delivery. Starting to see the problem?
But the ultimate time waster has to be the game's towns. After each world you clear, you have to go back to town to look for a heart piller that will unlock the following world. You don't really get any significant clues for finding the pillars, it's a matter of wandering around, taking to everybody, flipping to 3D, looking for anything that might be unusual. This is just plain boring and thank God somebody decided to implement a fortunte teller you can pay to get the specifics on where to go. It may feel like cheating, but you're better off getting back to the game proper instead of wasting your time in the crusty old city.
The storyline is rather enjoyable thanks to good writing and a decent sense of humor. Faced with the destruction of all worlds, all dimensions, four heroes need to find a Pure Heart hidden in each world to stop the imminent distaster. SPM's citizens are mostly aware that they're videogame characters and that's played off of a lot. You'll enjoy the dialogue from your favorite characters (well, except for Mario, who's a silent hero) while some fun new villains and plot twists keep you going. You'll find a way to pay off Mario's massive debt, save a butterfly from a geek, deliever much needed toilet paper, and fight your way through the afterlife itself. There are some serious aspects to the tale and I definitely had an interest in seeing how it would conclude. The soundtrack on the other hand didn't do much for me. A blend of remixes and original content, I was disappointed that there weren't any standout songs. On the plus side, the music is at least somewhat memorable as opposed to being bland background noise.
It's really tough for me to recommend a purchase based on a full $50 price tag. I had some fun, especially in the early going, but the game's flaws weigh heavily, and the second half was equal parts enjoyment and frustration. With a finishing time of 17 hours, it should be possible to complete the main game in a couple of rentals. If you're like me, you won't find all the optional content compelling enough to be worth spending more time than that. If you're a huge fan of the classic sidescrollers and the recent Mario themed RPG's and are prepared for a lot of filler, you might want to go for ownership.