Videogames -

A hobby. A way of life.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, but rather than concoct a lengthy Welcome Back post, I figure I’ll just dive right in and start posting again.

TotalBiscuit, perennial StarCraft II commentator, has some thoughts on why used game sales might be a bad thing for the industry, and his argument has merit that I hadn’t considered. You should watch the video and hear his points for yourself, but the basic gist is this:

  • Used game sales only benefit the used game peddler (i.e., GameStop), not the developer or publisher that really deserves the money
  • Unlike a lot of other industries where used sales are common (DVDs, music CDs), game makers not don’t have much alternative sources of revenue than new sales. DVD movies have box office sales, rental revenue via Blockbuster, Amazon and iTunes, and even television syndication rights. Music artists have concerts, radio licensing and other royalties.
  • While books are more similar in their lack of alternative revenue streams, games require patches, customer service, and other live game costs associated. That money has to come from somewhere.
  • We already have a distribution system sans used games on the PC with Steam, as well as on Android and iOS.
  • On the aforementioned PC and mobile platforms, we generally see lower prices and deeper discounts. Is this because even that deeply discounted sale price is going largely to the developer/publisher?
  • Digital distribution is the future, which will ultimately kill off used game sales for good. It’s just a matter of time.

His final point, which he concedes he doesn’t have a good answer to, to ask why Microsoft feels the need to cause themselves pain and force the point right now, when digital distribution will eventually be the norm. Given that console cycles happen so infrequently (and some suggest that this generation might be the last!), and that midstream changes away from used game sales would be difficult, I would guess that Microsoft and Sony are both under significant pressure from large publishers, who with rising development costs are probably looking for any means necessary to raise the needed cash.

So I find myself perhaps a convert – maybe used games are a bad thing!

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A friend of mine once told me, “When you find a game you really love, you don’t even think twice about buying downloadable content for it.” Just the possibility of returning to the fantasy that once held you so tightly is enough. I myself have actually never purchased any DLC short of the occasional Rock Band track; no game in the current, network-friendly generation has made me care enough to invest any more for couple new bite sized nuggets. At least, that was until I played Valkyria Chronicles.

As did the vast majority of gamers out there, it seems, I passed over Valkyria Chronicles when it was released on the PS3 last November. It was another Japanese RPG whose name bore too close a resemblance to another, lackluster JRPG and was forgotten before it was even given a chance. What a huge mistake, because without a doubt, Valkyria Chronicles features some damn unique and nostalgic gameplay, and perhaps one of the most well-written, truly mature stories I have ever experienced in the guise of a “game.”

Nuts and bolts time. Did you ever play X-COM: UFO Defense released on the PC in the early ’90s? It was a squad focused, turn-based tactics game that inserted your customized band of soldiers into a variety of combat scenarios, while in between missions you’d collect alien technology, research upgrades, and further refine your troops. For me, my lasting memories of X-COM were the infinite and personal stories I inadvertently created along the way — three men are down and only Stark’s left alive in the building. Her rifle is empty and she has a pistol and a few grenades, yet she somehow flanks the enemy tank and saves the day all by herself! But here’s the best part: that was actually a Valkyria Chronicles anecdote, not X-COM. Although not randomly generated like Mythos’ alien war game, Sega’s 2008 version gives you the same adrenaline high of success, with a few new wrinkles thrown into the mix (an overhead tactical viewpoint, the ability to issue status-changing orders and to call for reinforcements, to name just a few). This Japanese take on a Western classic is not quite perfect, I won’t lie to you. The AI can be as dumb as a box of rocks and their snipers sometimes seem to find their marks waaay too frequently, but this similarity of gameplay just scratches the surface.

Each new hardware cycle, game developers have increasingly powerful hardware at their disposals, most of which is then used to create what appears on the screen. However, as Western developers seem use new hardware to pursue ever more graphic violence and realistic graphics, many Japanese developers (with some notable exceptions) for better or worse are using it to become more stylized, more like fantasy and storybook. Such is the visual design of Valkyria Chronicles, which looks like the gorgeous lovechild of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime and recent games like Eternal Sonata. It succeeds in being both subtle and expressive in its watercolor pastiche, though its style may have erroneously contributed to many an American gamer passing it by. Unlike many games these days, which leave me declaring that Wow, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen graphics this good before!, Valkyria Chronicles’ just work. It’s not that they are unimpressive, they are a purely integrated element of the whole piece, and not once did I find myself either disappointed or disconnecting the visual elements from the rest of the game to say aloud, “Now that’s awesome.” And in some ways, that is in itself pretty impressive in my mind.

Most significantly in Valkyria Chronicles, however, is the story it tells. Now, I’ll admit, I am a sucker for emotion, and enjoy letting my own feelings ride with the tale, so perhaps I am more susceptible than others to investing myself in a good saga. But it’s a negative as well, because of how jarringly I am pulled back to reality when the plotlines reveal their shortcomings. Villains exist with no purpose besides destroying the world; protagonists start out small, then begin charging headlong into danger and emerging without a scratch (because, you know, they’re the heroes). And as is often the case with Japanese anime RPGs detested by many, those heroes are fourteen years old with a couple other plucky teenage sidekicks, lots of giggles, and way more smiles than their situations should allow. These things absolutely kill a game for me; usually I lay them aside one day and never touch them again.

I didn’t do that with Valkyria Chronicles. It tells a serious story of war designed with more than a few striking parallels to World War II. There was a sense of brow-raising irony for me through much of the game that it would include concentration camps and extermination, analogues of good and evil to the Axis and Allied Powers and even nuclear weapons, given that just two generations ago such a story written in Japan would have likely had a very different perspective. The historical scope and thematic sobriety alone, while tinged with slight elements of fantasy, would make this an impressive narrative for a game, but it would not have left any real impact without the quality of its delivery. Every character is voiced realistically and with sincerity. When Lt. Welkin Gunther, the protagonist, cries out and leads a desperate charge, you feel his resolve, and you know there’s more behind the moment than “another battle for Squad 7,” because you’ve seen his uncertainty as a young commander and the people he cares for that his mistakes, your mistakes, stand to lose. See, like the old X-COM, characters in Valkyria Chronicles can die permanently if they fall on the battlefield, and those infinite and personal stories don’t always have happy endings. Good people die in war, X-COM got that part right, but without the emotions and personal struggles behind the characters — a contextual narrative of the kind found in Valkyria Chronicles — a fallen comrade becomes just another empty slot in your roster to be filled.

The mere fact that a videogame can have me saying those kinds of things should convince you somewhat of its maturity. I can’t promise the experience would be the same for you, nor is it the best in any one category that the medium has to offer. The “videogames as art” debate is a silly one, but at its heart is a question about a game’s ability to be more than a plaything. Can it make you stop and think about the horrors of war, or have fun and be entertained in ways beyond a psychologically conditioned dopamine rush to the brain?

I know one game that did for me, and it’s DLC comes out later today.

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I’ve been studying to take the Oklahoma Bar Exam recently (test next Tuesday, wish me luck!), reviewing the generally accepted standards of agency law, and I now have a newfound respect for the instructions that the organizers of the Game Developers Conference volunteer worker program (otherwise known as Conference Associates, or CAs) give every year about not doing anything untoward either while on or off duty with your organization-issued t-shirt on.

As one of the organizers, Ian, made clear recently in an e-mail discussion, “CAs are perceived to represent GDC but are not affiliated with UBM which as we can imagine, makes UBM nervous.” Damn, I’d be nervous too! Under general agency principles, anyone (even minors) held out as acting with the apparent authority of a principle (UBM in this case) can create both contract and tort liability for things that they do within the scope of the employment. If what you’re doing is in furtherance of a principle’s business (such as, say, denying someone with the wrong badge access to a session), the principle can even be liable for an agent’s INTENTIONAL TORTS. (For those that don’t know, intentional torts are the civil law version of things like assault, battery, and false imprisonment)

Not that anyone volunteering should need reminding of all this, but I was just amazed at the universe of legal consequences that UBM is embracing when they authorize Tim and Ian to hand you a brightly colored shirt. So when they tell us, “do NOT touch an attendee, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES,” keep in mind just how seriously they mean it. Even if something questionable we do is ultimately held by a court to be okay, people these days love to sue and even borderline cases could cause a world of hurt (and $$$) for the people that make the conference possible.

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I’m glad Sony’s finally catching up to where Microsoft was years ago (no, I’m not an Xbox fanboy, though I own both systems), but between the need for every game maker to patch Trophies into their games and the decidedly mixed bag I’m reading about things like in-game music functionality, I can’t say I’m eager to run off and load up Sony’s servers.

As a general thing, I’m not one to prefer a corporate mandated system for my gaming (i.e., MS requires in-game music functionailty, Achievements, etc., for developers to make a game for them), and I don’t play any console game online enough to make an Xbox Live Gold account worth my money, but there is something to be said for the Xbox approach — it works. There’s no wondering if your new game will support Achievements, or whether I can choose to listen to my own music (God help me if Eye of Judgment doesn’t support it!). I love free multiplayer when the urge strikes, and overall I think the PS3 has more potential and power as a system, but I can’t say this massive (but still not quite there) catch-up attempt by Sony has me rushing to the Power button…

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While I’d love as many as possible to read my little rant, I cannot emphasize more strongly to anyone that has not yet completed Metal Gear Solid 4 in its entirety, or who do not otherwise wish to hear discussion of the game’s ending and plot details, that this editorial contains serious spoilers on all aspects of the game. Please refrain from reading any further if there is anything you would be upset about having revealed about MGS4. If you choose to keep reading anyway, consider yourself warned!

“I initially decided to write this rant (and it began as a rant) during the final hours of the game. My critical thoughts on the title reached a frustrated climax…

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While I wouldn’t engage in the activity myself, I feel the need to relay the experiences of a friend who dove headfirst into the world of Real Money Trading (RMT). For the inexperienced, RMT refers to gold trading in the world of MMORPGs, a controversial practice wherein people trade their real dollars for virtual ones. Many people, including the game makers, object to this since it provides a deus ex machina way of gaining a substantial advantage in the game world. I have my objections as well, but I also have sympathy for the plight of my friend, whose negative experience with the vendors reflects a deceptive business practice that ought to be noted for anyone out there, regardless of your opinions on RMT.

So for either the prospective currency buyer or someone just interested in not screwing people over, I’d like to present my friend’s experience purchasing (or attempting to purchase) from several of the more “reputable” establishments:

IGXE ( – My friend had purchased successfully from them in the past, so he was not expecting much trouble. They also had a few novel tricks to attempt to circumvent the game makers’ attempts to intercept the transaction, which seemed interesting. However, the experience was absolutely unacceptable. They did have live chat with customer service representatives (where a real person answered!), but the person obviously spoke little English. Delivery of the currency was never done, and eventually the order was cancelled.

MMORPG-SHOP ( – Thinking this place might offer a better alternative than IGXE, he tried to take advantage of their equally novel methods of delivery, as well as some positive comments found online. Unfortunately this situation was even worse. Getting delivery from them was like pulling teeth, and didn’t occur for more than three days despite their “instant delivery.” However, they did deliver, so they deserve props for at least that.

IGE ( – The largest and most established of the RMT vendors, surely this experience had to be better? Well, yes and no. Their live chat seemed only to be available to people placing orders or selling entire accounts (order inquiries and other questions are not deemed worthy), but unlike the others, they were actually relatively prompt about returning emails. Their delivery was a fair sight short of the “instant delivery” that was promised, but the increased communication made it feel only slightly less like he was getting the run around. Unlike the other two, however, delivery was actually accomplished, so on this fact alone, it should be the only place you should consider if you wish to engage in this practice.

Overall, the impression I got from my friend was that the entire industry has a lot of snake oil, which is only possible because it is a bit of a grey market due to its proscription by the game makers. All vendors offer huge amounts of currency available for “instant delivery” to whatever game or server you like, but this hardly seems the case. Is this due to a poor “just-in-time” delivery system gone horribly wrong? Are they hoping customers will pay and not expect anything close to what was offered? With these questions alone, I would steer clear of the whole industry. Grinding for hours in the game is certainly preferrable to the hours of grinding with the RMT vendors, as my friend sadly has done.

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I was tempted to let the post title say it all, but I suppose I should write something as well. Bioshock, for both PC and Xbox 360, closes out my Summer of Adventure with a high explosive shotgun blast to the head, and after quite a mixed bag of games lately, reminds me of just how lofty the bar can go.

In some ways, it’s hard to review a game like Bioshock. The story revolves around an underwater city named Rapture and is based loosely on the concepts of objectivism and pure meritocracy of Ayn Rand (who even receives an in-game homage as the city’s creator, Andrew Ryan). Things begin as an airplane your character is flying in crash lands right in front of a Bathysphere — a Myst-esque transporter that whisks you into the depths. To say much more than that is to risk touching on plot points I’m certain some readers would prefer to discover for themselves. All I will safely say about the story is: it does not disappoint, right up until the end.

Virtually everything else in the game is nearly without peer. The visuals are beautifully varied and logically laid out (unlike so many games), yet for its relatively high PC system specs, runs rather well if you machine is in range. Aurally, Rapture is on par with other PC shooters’ extremely realistic sound effects, but features some harder-to-get-right, excellent voice acting, as well as haunting, period appropriate (if rare) music. As far as gameplay itself, it plays as a standard shooter with above average weapon choices — mostly the usual shooter staples fleshed out with several types of ammunition each and performance upgrades — and an equally realized “magic” system based on genetic modifications called Plasmids.

I could seriously go on for quite a bit longer singing Bioshock’s praises, but sadly the most compelling part, from the way everything from the first moment of dialogue to the Plasmids to the Big Daddies and Little Sisters, the game’s imaginitive and most recognizable inhabitants, ties into that most powerful element of the game: the story. A few fetch quests aside, the plot stays remarkably on track, and what kept me moving forward wasn’t the environments or the freedom to solve problems however I chose (though freezing enemies solid and letting the aerial machine gun sentries I had hacked blow them to bits became my favorite), it was a genuine interest in the outcome. It’s a personal feeling I haven’t felt in a game in a long time.

Maybe it was the first-person perspective. Maybe it was the feeling I got every time I rescued one of the Little Sisters, with Garry Schyman’s score stirring in the background. Whatever it was, it was a deeper level of enjoyment than I have been used to in my videogame hobby, and it comes highly recommended to anyone that reads this.

Score: 9.5 / 10

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I’m a pretty ordinary gamer, not dissimilar from most anyone who might read this site. I’m in graduate school, I have a job in IT, and like many twenty-something Gen X-ers out there, find my precious time to actually enjoy games fast dwindling in the midst of real world obligations. So I was delighted when I was offered a job at a major gaming blog (or, to be honest, a satellite of a major gaming blog). It sounded great – the chance to write about videogames, as I frequently do in my own blog, but now to get paid for it! Sure, it would be a lot of work, but I’m so immersed in their content already, making the jump from blog reader to blog writer couldn’t be that bad, could it?

Actually, it felt a little like a bait and switch… when I was hired, they did tell me that they wanted 50-60 posts per month, so I could say I had been warned. But they failed to mention how little help they would give me in learning where to get news, or how little they would be willing to work with other, real world priorities. I cautioned them I was only accustomed to getting my gaming news from big sites like Joystiq and Kotaku – I didn’t have any resources to bring in news by myself. They assured me it would be no problem. Yet when I finally came on, finding news consisted just of crawling message boards and RSS feeds for anything related to the console we covered, and trying to decide if anyone actually cared about it enough to post.

The pay was a set amount per post, which at first sounded nice. I’m sure I’d have gotten better at the process, but the final post I did took over two hours, from finding the news to writing it up, gleaning game details from Japanese magazine scans, editing the images, and getting a slew of technical corrections from the lead blogger. Ultimately, by my math, it means I worked for less than minimum wage today.

Another problem I had was understanding their method of “You must have x many posts or else!” They were paying a set amount per post, so if I post their “minimum” I get that amount; if I post ten posts in a month, I’d get the post amount times ten. Any deficiency doesn’t actually cost them money. But the corporate blogging world doesn’t work like that, it seems. The whole enterprise suckles off a massive corporation’s largesse – and for the full time people for whom that’s their only job, good for them. However, forcing people to post artificially large quantities, even when there’s no real news, just serves to dilute the quality of what they’re covering.

Why not bring on as many bloggers as you need to get the number of posts you want in a day, and let them post as they see fit? You’ll get perspective out the wazoo, and all the stories will be things someone cares about, and you don’t pay any more for the trouble since you pay by the post. Of course, increasing the number of bloggers will by necessity increase the turnover rate, and unless you’re very careful you risk diluting the writing quality, but it can be done, unless your goal is creating quantity of content, not quality.

In the blog’s chat room prior to resigning, I approached the topic by asking what they do on slow news days, since your post requirements remain the same. Almost predictably, the lead blogger went off on how she hates this “myth” of the slow news day – there’s always news. Alright, I’ll bite… there’s always news items out there that fall within the scope of the site that can be put written about, but how many people care about them? Is it really worth the dough to the corporate overlord to post about obscure Japanese games when maybe only a tiny handful of people give a flip?? The same goes for site-created features, which pay more per feature. By focusing on post quantity rather than asking whether what they are making means anything to anyone, you get a lot of well-written, filler sludge.

I like to write about videogames, but this was something different. It was writing about the topic of games, but with complete disregard to what made any of us play them in the first place: love of the games themselves. In the world of corporate blogging, it doesn’t matter whether you care for what you’re writing about – it’s whether someone who’ll read it and generate ad revenue might care for it.

My life’s not getting any less filled with obligations, and soiling the pasttime I cherish by keeping my nose to an artificial, quantity-driven grindstone is not what I want to spend my only bits of free time doing. At the end of the day, that was the final straw. A really telling warning that I should have picked up on was that a friend and fellow blogger mentioned at one point how infrequently he got the opportunity to actually play games anymore… he just writes about them now.

By the end, the lead blogger had lost all pretense of friendliness, and it felt like she was just being critical of me for its own sake. The seeming powertrip applied to every question and minor mistake was on top of the hard time given for not posting often enough, despite my real world moving from one city to another, preparing for a graduate level law exam, and applying for a job post-graduation. It made me wonder if this was the reality of paid blogging shining through – quotas and deadlines and a façade of professionalism.

For my part, I’m content to be back on the other side of the fence, able to focus on more career-oriented (and hopefully higher paying) priorities, and grinding my nose on videogames because I actually enjoy them.

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Eventually, I just had to put Odin Sphere down.  I’ve played so many games over the summer, some excellent and others just decent, I felt like I could give even a slightly flawed game the benefit of the doubt.  So it’s with a sad heart that I present my first review in my Summer of Adventure of a game I did not finish.  Hopefully, you will understand why. 

You know when the most immediate connection between a game’s title and its meaning is a gameplay mechanic largely invisible to the characters, you have a problem.  While it is certainly possible that some all-powerful “Odin Sphere” becomes a pivotal element of the plot, as far as I could tell from my playing, it just refers to the layout of the game’s every stage.  You see, each area is broken up into smaller stages, each a flat 2D plane, seamlessly connected end-to-end, circular-like.  (And well-drawn as the backdrops may subjectively be, it also makes for some pretty repetitive and generic locales.  –“Ooh, a snowy mountaintop.”  Next stage: “Hey, isn’t this the exact same snowy mountaintop?”– )  It would be like renaming The Legend of Zelda “The Nine Levels Each With A Triforce Piece of Zelda.”

And for the near-universal praise given to the game’s story, I found myself disconnected and bored with the whole thing.  I realize the Valkyrie girl has some severe family issues, her dad is a philandering scumbag (who oddly gets the other half of the game’s title…), and there’s certainly a major war going on.  But in this day of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion‘s endlessly explorable game world and Final Fantasy’s cinematic effulgence, a couple short and disjointed cut scenes peppered with generic dialogue from a few random NPCs just doesn’t cut it for plot development, no matter how well voiced.  Not that the also lauded voice acting is really all that great either.  The actors do well enough, but it doesn’t help the story much, and I haven’t heard that much needless echo effect used in dialogue since Symphony of the Night.

The criticisms aimed by reviewers at Odin Sphere, on the other hand, are absolutely spot on, and probably a little forgiving.  Item management is atrocious — what was the last RPG you played that doesn’t even have a menu screen??  Everything from consumables to cooking to which single accessory you choose to equip is done via a few item rings (think Secret of Mana from 1993, and that game had a menu system as well!), and the 10-12 slots you have in those is all you get until you can afford to stop buying health items and drop insane amounts on extra bags.  Before that point, however, you’ll find yourself in a painful dance of item management from as early as the first full area, having to decide which items to keep and which to abandon.

All this might be excusable if the rest of the game was just a ton of fun, but that’s hardly the case.  When you’re not talking to lifeless NPCs or running in circles jumping up and down, the combat is an entirely single-button affair.  You can jump of course, and glide by double-jumping (one actually interesting innovation), but you have just one attack button, which you can chain into combos by — you guessed it — pressing repeatedly.  Okay, so it’s generic, but what takes the game out of the realm of fun is how they then ruin that combat system:

  • Enemies who just tear holes in you at Normal difficulty (forcing you to fill that limited inventory with whatever health items you can afford to buy or grow);
  • The POW system that forces you not to attack too continuously or Valkyrie-get-woozy and faints;
  • The utterly nonsensical system of levels and stat progression: experience is gained entirely through eating (oh, were that true!), enemies release glowing orbs upon death that can be either absorbed into your weapon (which also gains levels, obviating the need for an actual inventory) or into plants to help them grow into more food (which then gives you experience).  Oh, and you can create items as well through yet another system, alchemy, whose overly complex system of mixtures and the inability to create anything until you acquire its recipe (even if you have the components) just serves to further clutter your small backpack.

In the end, I just found myself sitting back and thinking, “I’m not having any fun with this!”  And to me, that’s the point where you put the game away.  Perhaps some will find it fun, and I’m sure the ability to replay the same plot over and over with different characters from other perspectives just makes the story nigh Shakespearean, but frankly at this point I don’t give a damn.  I didn’t make it that far.

Score: 5.5 / 10

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As I look back on some of the other games I’ve recently played, I leave with this recurring negativity that sometimes game makers miss the forest for the trees.  They try so hard to create drama, play it safe with what works, or do so much with a plot that players cease to understand or care.  And their single-minded focus on crafting something that looks deep ends up in something hollow: fun in its own way, but ultimately unfulfilling.  So imagine my surprise when Nintendo’s quaint and clichéd platformer turns up to beat them all.

Unlike RPGs like Final Fantasy XII, which hold out all the trappings of a traditional dramatic RPG — war and royal scandal and cruel, power-hungry dictators — yet fail to really grab the player, Super Paper Mario is the polar opposite.  Behind its deceptively simplistic visual guise hides genuinely fun gameplay, a storyline with more real human emotion than its high falutin’ cousin, and some of the most clever, humorous dialogue I have ever witnessed.

For all it does right, the real credit for Super Paper Mario‘s quality goes to Nate Bihldorff’s witty, tongue-in-cheek localization, to which I can hardly imagine the Japanese original can hold a candle.  From the game’s silliest moments, like responding to an computer nerd iguana’s questions poking fun at sci-fi collectors and message board trolls, to its most dramatic, like the tragic reuniting of two lovers long ago parted, the sheer joy of reading the dialogue is the feather in SPM’s cap.  It’s apparent how much care went into breathing piquant life into the cast — Count Bleck speaks in the third-person, with his trademark entry and exit of “BLEEEECK!!!”; his minion, O’Chunks, is a dim-witted Scotsman; his all-business assistant Nastasia is a perfect embodiment of Bill Lumbergh of Office Space.  In Super Paper Mario, characters never die, their game ends.  And when it does, they go to The Underwhere (as opposed to its heavenly counterpart, The Overthere).  It may seem like a kid’s game by sight alone, but any jaded gamer can tell for whom this dialogue was written.

For all that, SPM’s plot itself is probably its biggest weakness.  It knows it’s a game, and the story is mostly there to give Mario and his unlikely companions a reason to visit eight unique worlds of four levels each (you remember, 4-1, 4-2, 4-3, 4-4…).  While the characters may take the story deadly seriously, the saccharine visual style and copious deus ex machina keep you at a safe distance.  Not that it makes the ride any less enjoyable.  By the end of the game, I honestly found myself looking past much of that distraction and genuinely enjoying the character drama — something I found myself entirely unable to do in either of Square-Enix’s recent titles that purport to traffic in emotional storylines.

So what’s there to say about gameplay?  It’s a platforming Mario game, right?  Well, not so much.  Okay, so it’s part of the old Mario RPG / Paper Mario franchise, so it’s Mario with hit points and level ups, right?  Yes, but…
Super Paper Mario sheds much of the RPG elements of its predecessors, keeping only hit/attack points and the experience levels that bring (predefined) upgrades to each.  Entirely gone is the awkward and childlike turn-based combat the series inherited from Squaresoft, replaced with Mario’s tried-and-true platforming… but with a twist.  Mario can flip the 2D plane of the game 90 degrees for limited stretches and move in and out on the world’s z-axis (see screenshot).  That means you can actually go around obstacles and enemies, which generally remain in their 2D form, as well as discover items and nooks that would otherwise be invisible when viewed from the side.  Add to this the small army of helpers Mario acquires on the way — the multi-talented Pixls, which empower Mario with everything from hammers to bombs to the ability to make seen the unseen by pointing the Wii-mote — and by the end you have quite a repertoire at your disposal.  Oh, and did I mention that each of the party’s four interchangeable characters (think SMB2) have unique abilities as well?  It makes me weep for games like Kingdom Hearts II; Sora can attack; Sora can jump and attack; Sora can do a combo of attacks; Sora can do magic and summons and drive forms… all of which are completely unnecessary to advancing the plot or beating the game.

I never expected Nintendo’s cartoony averagely ranked game to be potentially the entertainment highlight of my summer.  Whether my enjoyment will remain intact as the game fades into memory is a valid question, but this is the first game I’ve played in a while where I haven’t emerged from the credit roll with a laundry list of criticisms (as I think my other reviews may reflect).  Super Paper Mario is a deceptively simple game that hides beneath the surface a new twist on platforming, a well done, if ancillary story, and more satirical wit than I’ve been treated to in a long time.

Score: 9 / 10

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