This week, Zero Punctuation unwraps Super Paper Mario.
Japanese RPGs and me have this little understanding: I don't play them and they can suck as much as they like somewhere far away from me. I've always felt that if I wanted the kind of experience most JRPGs offer, I'd just watch a random anime series boxset while pausing it every five minutes to fiddle around with the remote control. And eat some shit.
Over the years, there have been two exceptions to this rule. Firstly EarthBound, a quirky cartoon SNES RPG that plays like a cross between the Cthulhu mythos and The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show; and secondly, the Paper Mario series. It feels weird that a character like Mario, who is about as big a sellout as a character can get without turning tricks for pennies off the New Jersey turnpike, can lend his visage to a series of games with a surprisingly anarchic sense of humour.
Before I continue, let me add that I know full well that Super Paper Mario has been out in America for yonks and in Japan for like three yonks, but in Australia, it's only just been released, and I want to review it, so I'm going to, and if you have a problem with that then feel free to close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears for the next three or four minutes and pretend I'm reviewing Clive Barker's Jericho or something.
So Paper Mario, then. There are three games in the series now, and storywise there hasn't been much variation between them. You play as Mario in some bizarre, Keanu Reeves-themed universe where everyone is a cardboard cut-out, and the main plot involves A) some big villain's devious plot to destroy the world, B) a lengthy quest to acquire seven or eight colour-coordinated magical MacGuffins that have been scattered to various themed lands for some utterly contrived reason, and C) the princess getting kidnapped at some point, because kidnap ordeals are the sole moments of interest in her otherwise miserable, parasitic existence.
Super Paper Mario mixes it up by introducing the concept of an evil dark world parallel to the normal light one. Which may sound familiar to players of Twilight Princess or the Metroid Prime series, which have already worn that particular idea down to a bloody stump. Nintendo seem really into the whole "light vs. dark" thing right now - maybe they've been drinking a lot of Guinness.
I played the last Paper Mario, Thousand Year-Door, on the Gamecube, and I thought it was a sparkling diamond in a dark, depressing sea of vomit. It was imaginative, witty, and charming enough to totally bypass my usual male instinct to steer clear of brightly coloured cartoony graphics for fear of catching the gay. But after all that it was by no means perfect. It had turn-based combat, something I find about as exciting as using the toolbar in Microsoft Word, and it also had this creepy obsession with getting Princess Peach to take all her clothes off, which probably came from sexually repressed story writers working too many late nights. Thankfully for Super Paper Mario, both of these issues have been removed, if only to make room for new ones.
The gist of the game is that it's like a cross between Paper Mario and the old Super Mario platformers hence the title, I suppose, so all the Paper Mario talky talky puzzle solvey is broken up by platforming segments. And the stupid, effeminate, blouse-wearing turn-based combat is replaced with wholesome, traditional, masculine head-stomping. Now, while I applaud every step a game takes away from JRPG territory, and advise it not to stop there, the platforming is kind of bland and samey, which is weird for a Mario game. But I forgive that, because they earn so many points by removing turn-based combat that Super Paper Mario would have to release flesh-eating beetles into my house before I started seriously marking it down.
Having said that, I definitely feel that this game is the weakest of the series so far. At places it seems like the dev team were phoning it in somewhat. Most of the graphics seem to be copy-pasted from previous Paper Mario games, while virtually all the new art is made with collections of disjointed geometric polygons like it was thrown together with the Photoshop shape tool five minutes before lunch break.
Also, let me illustrate my next point with a slice of action from the game. During the second chapter, Mario is required to work and earn money to pay for some of the mindless vandalism that comes naturally to action RPG players. And the best way to do this is to press right to run around in a giant hamster wheel for - no joke - somewhere around a quarter of an hour. That's if you're thick. If you're smart, like me, you weigh down the d-pad with one of your roommate's figurines and go off to amuse yourself. That's right - you have to amuse yourself while playing a game, a game being something ostensibly designed to amuse. And if the player is doing this, then something has clearly gone wrong. It's an extreme, but by no means the only example of Super Paper Mario's attempts to lengthen gameplay with all the subtlety and self-respect of a retarded mammoth in a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt.
Don't get me wrong. I recommend Super Paper Mario, if only to get some fucking use out of your Wii, but I recommend the other Paper Marios over it. The wit, the charm, the spark, they're still present, and there are moments of true brilliance, like the nerd chapter which might hit a bit close to home for some viewers, but the good bits are bookended by the usual JRPG bugbears of dullness and slog. It's an enjoyable installment, but the developers don't seem into it anymore, so perhaps it's time to put this particular franchise to bed. Then smother it to death.
- Narrator, writer, lover: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I don't really think that America is populated entirely by assholes and cowboys; I know that some Canadians live there too
- Tell me that "Dullness and Slog" would be a good name for a band: firstname.lastname@example.org