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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