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Preview: Paper Mario

Posted Aug-12-2007 by ron
Originally for N64, available on Wii via Virtual Console (10€)

Judging by how it tracks in Nintendo's most-popular listing, Paper Mario looks like it already has a great run, but even so we feel like it deserves all the exposure it can get. It's a rightful masterpiece, making the often dry and formulaic console RPG experience much more accessible and, picture this, engaging with just a few small gameplay twists. We recommend it to everyone, and today we'd like to go a little more in-depth as to why.

Mario lying *flat* on the floor

Paper Mario combines flat character sprites with 3D backgrounds, and fully embraces and plays this limitation of flatness. As with anything that takes place in the Mushroom Kingdom lately, the game doesn't take itself too serious anyway.

(we're making it a standard convention now that images in articles can be clicked to get into the corresponding image gallery, where many more images of the same game will be found; so yeah, you can try that right now with the above image, or any of the following)

The story is standard fare: just when Mario and Princess Peach hope to spend some quality time together Bowser gets in the way, kidnaps the Princess, wreaks a little havoc and reinforced by these initial successes, revs up his planning on how to become a bigger and more fearsome ruler. It is of course your job then to control Mario, rescue the princess and put Bowser back in his place. At this highest level of story, it seems that almost all Mario games are the exact same thing.

Bowser breaks into the castle, assaults Peach

Bowser is at it again. And he is so well prepared that Mario can at this (very early) point do nothing about it.

We like to think that this is the first common RPG pretension Paper Mario just throws out of the window. Instead of inventing, for every game, another looming ancient threat to the world itself, and in the process taking the very real risks of that story becoming intimidating, absurd, "too emo" or whatever, Paper Mario just reuses a known villain that is known to work. Bowser in a Mario game is just about the least surprising major enemy you could imagine, but, especially as portrayed in Paper Mario, he is a pretty likeable, straight-forward, if a bit disorganized villain. He provides for some great cut-scene moments, and that's really all that matters. If you look at how much time is spent where, console RPGs really aren't about the inevitable showdown at the end anyway, but rather about the progress to that point.

Goombario's mom dishes out some typical mom's traveling advice.

As you might expect, you will recruit more and more party members on your journey, but their characterization is rather unusual for a "serious", "epic" RPG.

Paper Mario does not at all abandon the traditional console RPG outline of finding the means and strength to defeat The Big Foozle and save the world in the process, but it doesn't pretend that gamers don't already know how that works. It embraces its genre clich├ęs and instead of trying to make them somehow appear ingenious yet again, it constantly reminds you that you're playing a video-game, one that implements a very traditional high-level formula.
That being said, the writing in Paper Mario is just amazingly witty. It's full of hilarity, great slapstick moments and creative thinking-outside-the-box. Its Gamecube sequel (The Thousand-Year Door) and its spiritual successors on the GBA and DS (Superstar Saga, Partners In Time) really are the only things that even come close. If you're unfamiliar with these, there is a very high probability that you have never played an RPG that is as genuinely funny as Paper Mario.

One of Bowser's underlings instructing a group of young, multi-colored turtles

As the progression towards the story resolution of course involves many sub-goals, each to be topped off with (mini-)boss fights, Bowser must have underlings, too. Now who do these guys resemble …?

But that's still talking about presentation, which provides mere opportunities and motivation, but cannot stand in for the gameplay itself. Good thing we'll have that covered on the next page.

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