Ever since Super Paper Mario was first unveiled in video form at the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo, there's been some haziness as to what, exactly, it is. Today we got our first hands-on time with the game at the Nintendo booth at the 2007 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and now we have a very good idea of what Super Paper Mario is: awesome.
The past two Paper Mario games have largely been role-playing games infused with a lot of the trappings of a traditional Mario platformer. You'd have a party of characters, you'd walk around an overworld and chat with non-player characters, and when it came time for combat, you'd switch over to a separate, quasi-turn-based battle screen. Super Paper Mario essentially reverses the ratio, and will play like a platformer infused with RPG elements. From the short demo we were able to play, the basic action felt much like a traditional Mario game.
Holding the Wii Remote sideways, as you would when playing a NES game on the Virtual Console, we ran to the right and left, bopped goombas and koopa troopas (and some new, boxy, multilegged enemies), avoided Bullet Bills and Hammer Bros., smashed blocks, and collected coins. However, whenever we offed an enemy, we gained experience points, and any time we got hit by an enemy, we lost hit points. At one point we gained enough experience points to level up, which automatically replenished any lost hit points and boosted our other stats. Typical Mario power-ups had slightly different effects than you might expect, with fire flowers causing coins to rain down from the sky for a short period of time, and there was even a pill you could snag that would surround Mario with five or six tiny 8-bit Marios. They would autonomously attack any enemy that you encountered, but would die one by one after each attack. One of our favorite moments from our demo was when we collected a mega star, which caused us to transform in a screen-filling, 8-bit Mario sprite that would smash through anything and everything in his path. It was definitely reminiscent of New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, but it was done with more style here.
The name Paper Mario comes from the fact that all of the characters, and much of the world itself, appear to be crafted from paper cutouts, giving it all a very distinct 2D-cum-3D look and feel. The games generally play with the perspective of 2D sprites in a 3D environment, hiding paths in what appear to be flat backgrounds. Based on what we've seen, these kinds of ideas will play an even more prominent role in Super Paper Mario. Early on in our demo, we found ourselves standing next to a giant green warp pipe that was too tall for us to jump over, effectively blocking any further progress in the level. However, when we pressed the A button, the area of the screen immediately around Mario flipped, and we were essentially given a 3D view of the 2D environment we had been running through. In this altered perspective, the previously impassable warp pipe could just be sidestepped entirely. You can't stay in this perspective forever, though, as your hit points decrease every few seconds you're in the 3D realm. As soon as you return to the 2D view your HP begins to fill back up. The perspective change is pretty jarring the first time you do it, and we found that it wasn't ideal for attacking enemies, as it could be rough to gauge your distance from enemies. It's also totally mind-blowing, and we saw it used in a few clever ways, such as when we reached a massive crevasse that we couldn't jump across. Flipping to the 3D view, though, we found that the rolling hills that appeared as part of the background provided us with a comfortable walking path.
Fans of past Paper Mario games will recall that you could do more damage if you executed an attack with some extra panache, and this remains true in Super Paper Mario. We found that if we shook the Wii Remote in midair during an attack, we could dish out extra damage, which was accompanied by a little fanfare. For the duration of our demo, a small, prismatic butterfly hovered over Mario's shoulder, and when we pointed the Wii Remote at the screen, it transformed into a spotlight. At the time we could just use it to spotlight enemies and learn about their strengths and weaknesses, though we were told that this feature would also be used to solve puzzles and suss out hidden doors later on.
The game promises a brand-new story as well, one that won't require prior Paper Mario experience. Though the Nintendo rep we talked to would neither confirm nor deny, we got the feeling that some favorite characters from the previous Paper Mario games might make an appearance. While we played only as Mario, we were told that Peach and Bowser would both be playable over the course of the game's eight chapters as well.
The game will sport a similarly endearing art style that has become synonymous with the Paper Mario name, though on the Wii it looks cleaner, smoother, and more detailed. Our time with Super Paper Mario left us with an overwhelmingly positive impression, and there seem to be few upcoming Wii titles that hold as much promise. Super Paper Mario is currently set to hit the US April 9.