You’ll have to excuse that disgusting, potentially puke-inducing pun, it was just too tempting. Truly so tempting, because it is also so apt. Super Paper Mario is such a grossly contrived hybrid of action/adventure and RPG that the result is these sometimes very clever and fun platforming segments made entirely too short-lived and completely unenjoyable by these huge boring chunks of Arr Pee Gee crap. The catch of Super Paper Mario is that instead of the traditional turn-based-formula-except-with-a-Mario-flavor, the battles now take place on even more traditional sidescrolling “levels.” Instead of being taken to a battle screen after jumping on an enemy (as it was in the previous two Paper Mario games), now the enemies just die like in any other Mario game. But what would otherwise be an obviously shallow if still rudimentarily fun platformer where you just happen to “level up” every now and then must be disguised by world-class production values and excess (Nintendo is really good at this sort of thing). Oh, and there’s this gameplay gimmick (or was it the cornerstone of the entire game’s design? I couldn’t tell) where the player can (by pressing “A” on the Wii Remote) “convert” the 2D plane of the level to a 3D version. At first this was admittedly kind of brilliant, because there are portions of the game where it is either impossible or needlessly deadly to attempt to traverse in the traditional Mario sense. For example, a section where a particularly aggressive group of spike-studded thwomps blocks the way forward, and they’re thwomping so fast and so often that to even entertain the notion of running underneath them is totally ridiculous. The solution? Flip the level into 3D and simply bypass all of the thwomps to the left of the screen. Since the thwomps are no more than thin two-dimensional sprites, they can’t physically exist along a z-axis, after all. Unfortunately, this kind of ingenuity is rare, and most of the game is designed around the player coming up against some sort of road block in 2D mode, and then pressing the “A” button to shift perspective and immediately reveal the transparent and tailored solution.
Actually, now that I think about it, enemies in fact don’t just die after jumping on them. Some do, but only if Mario’s jump attack deals more damage than they have hit points, of course. Isn’t that bizarre? Think back to Super Mario Bros.: each enemy was essentially broken down into whether you could or could not jump on them. Goombas, yes. Spinies, no. Koopa Troopas took two jumps because of their shells, and Para Troopas three because of their wings, and then their shells. They were all part of a coherent system. In Super Paper Mario everything is such a mess. I think there actually does exist some kind of classical progression with the Koopas, where simply jumping on their shelled- or winged-forms doesn’t immediately kill them. So then, does that mean they don’t apply to the hit points rule? What if I’ve leveled up so much that my jump attack does, like, 20 damage? Shouldn’t my infinitely superior stats immediately and irrevocably obliterate them in a tiny nuclear explosion of Fireflower fireballs? (That would actually be awesome.) I don’t know, but I think the option to buy elemental attack items in shops that magically murder all on-screen enemies defeats the purpose of platforming combat at all.
I realize that random and turned-based battles have been sort of taboo for a while now. Ever since technology allowed for systems far more fluid, the notion of a “battle screen” has been chastised as an archaic trope of the Japanese role playing game. Why then, do random battles continue to persist? Sure, they’re nonsensical, uninvolving, and jarring, but, perhaps entirely by accident, their development over the years I think has given rise to a specific kind of game that undoubtedly has its place. I enjoy turned-based games because they aren’t very taxing and I can often do other things while playing them. Such as, read a book, prepare a meal, or even have on a movie in the background while I level grind. So, the recent trend in gaming to eradicate or reinvent the turn based-battle system altogether (at least in high profile releases) strikes me as silly. At least, recent attempts at this hybridization of the real-time and the turn-based I have consistently found to, well… suck. Valkyria Chronicles (a gridless turn-based strategy game makes no sense!), Final Fantasy XIII (just let Final Fantasy turn into an action game already, Square Enix), and now Super Paper Mario.
I think it feels especially awkward when sidescrolling Mario is one half of the chimera, one half of the engineered abomination that abrasively goes against the natural order. It’s like wearing plaid platform shoes with a tuxedo. There’s such quintessence in the simple act of jumping on things’ heads in a Mario game that a player doesn’t want to (maybe even can’t) stop, and Super Paper Mario subverts one counter-intuitive text box or puzzle piece after another to hamper what we’ve all been taught as gamers since the beginning: run to the right to win. There was one instance in the game where after several hazy minutes of the storybook schlock that the game calls its plot in which I awakened from this a coma to realize that I, apparently, was now in control of Luigi. I say apparently because I couldn’t actually control him, for this was a “cut-scene.” As the text box above bore away with the finer points of the quest, I noticed that the speech bubble was sprouting forth from none other than a goomba. For the rest of the cut-scene I couldn’t help but stare longingly at this little cronie, the way Oliver must have stared at that gruel before asking for more. Finally, the chatting ceased, and — completely instinctively, my conscious surely played no part in this — I proceeded to jump on said goomba-turned-NPC’s head. Luigi fell right through him, in the way that attacks upon NPCs always do. I soon recovered from the utter confusion that such a cruel subversion could only result in (“Oh, right, this is Paper Mario”), but for one horrifying moment, up was down.
Super Paper Mario isn’t just full of this kind of basic wrongness — it seems to have been built upon it from the ground up. I haven’t even mentioned the worst part. Super Paper Mario does the unthinkable and takes away Mario’s most quintessential action after the jump — it takes away the “B button dash.” This is just unforgivable, especially when its function is replaced by a context-sensitive action button with interchangeable abilities that must be assigned via menu. I can’t think of a better example for why such genre-mixing shouldn’t occur, why something so dextrous and as physically charged as platforming should be mixed with the pronounced methodology of menu-driving. Get this, one of those selectable abilities that can be assigned to the 1 (B) button grants Paper Mario the gift of picking up and throwing things. I guess RPGs were only ever meant to go so fast, because this crippling of the glorious and revered B button means no dashing and no picking up koopa shells. I mean, you can pick them up when that ability is equipped, but then and only then, and they don’t even slide after being thrown! That’s probably more indicative of what kind of game this is than anything else I could write.