Recently, we were lucky enough to get the chance to try out the next entry in the Paper Mario series on the GameCube. The game is being developed by Intelligent Systems, who handled the chores on the last game for the Nintendo 64 and who is also well known for its Advance Wars games on the Game Boy Advance. The new game expands on its predecessor in some inventive ways that make it feel like the console successor to the impressive lunacy of Mario & Luigi for the Game Boy Advance in terms of playability and humor.
The game's story takes a bold step and has perennial hostage Princess Peach kidnapped by someone other than Bowser. This time out, the villainous dragon Hooktail has snatched Peach for some presumably villainous reasons. Fortunately, at some point during the abduction, the good princess was able to leave behind a map--at least she's thinking ahead. Despite the new setup, Mario is once again off to save the day by rescuing Peach and collecting star crystals.
The gameplay in Paper Mario 2 stays true to many of the same mechanics used in its predecessor. However, Intelligent Systems has opted to try some new things that seem pretty promising. When you're going around and exploring your surroundings, you'll find that Mario's 2D nature comes into play--you'll now be able to transform him into different shapes by folding him. The mechanic is pretty simple. You'll simply stand on specific pads that will let you trigger the transformation, at which point you'll control your new form to reach new areas. You'll be able to shape yourself into a paper airplane (and then use the analog stick to try to stay aloft for as long as possible), turn sideways to slip through cracks, and roll yourself into a tube to roll down stairs.
Another dramatic new element has been introduced: Combat now gives you an audience. You'll see an audience as you start the fight, but the crowd is for more than just show, since you'll be able to appeal to them--through a bit of shameless mugging--which will let you build up your special meter and perform your character's special abilities. Alternatively, if you fail to properly time your attacks, the crowd will boo, and may even start chucking things at you for a little damage. It's a tough crowd, that one.
If you manage to put on a good show, the size of your audience grows, which opens the way for some pretty funny cameos from a ton of characters from the Mario universe, thus letting you charge your super meter faster and perform stronger attacks. Some of the special attacks will be minigames in and of themselves that require you to nail specific timed button presses much like the Bros. Attacks in Mario & Luigi. As before you'll collect playing cards during battle that will yield some impressive rewards if you can get a set. It's also possible to earn "breaks," which are minigames that offer up instant bonuses if you time your button press correctly. The game will also feature a robust item system, with a broad variety of badges--which you can equip to enhance a character's abilities--and other items to collect.
One of the many cool features of the gameplay system is the side story system that will let you play as Peach and Bowser in between levels to fill you in on what they're up to. The Bowser sequence we saw was a hilarious parody of the original Super Mario Bros., with Bowser in the role of Mario. As the shelled one progresses through the simple level, he'll collect meat that will cause him to grow to massive, screen-filling proportions.
We had the chance to play a few levels that gave us a sense of what to expect from the game's various systems, and we liked what we saw. As before, you'll have one member of your party trail behind you as you play, and each member will have his or her own unique abilities that will come in handy on your quest. Mario will be able to use a hammer in and out of battle, which is useful when facing off against tons of foes. The portion of the game shown in the screenshot that has made the rounds since the game was first shown--featuring tons of skeletons onscreen--actually requires you to use your hammer to knock them away in droves and clear yourself a path to a door.We got to meet several of Mario's friends in the three different gameplay sequences we tried out. There's Goombella, a mining-hat-wearing female little goomba with a determined look on her face. There's Koops, a koopa troopa who looks like he got beat the heck up something fierce. And there's Flurrie, a plus-sized wispy-looking lady who can literally blow things away. We got to speak with these characters and some of the other non-player characters in the game, and the dialogue here looks to be as sharp as ever.
The graphics are an assortment of cartoony visuals and impressive feats of technology. While we haven't seen anything that pushes the limits of the GameCube to the stunning heights that Metroid or Zelda have, what paper Mario does do is offer a cohesive visual style that, much like Viewtiful Joe before it, is extremely cool. One great example is the repairing of a bridge in the game, which unfolded like the image you get from rapidly flipping through the pages of a picture book.
The audio in the game is still coming together. The voice work was sparse, but the music and sound effects were coming along quite well.
From what we've seen so far, Paper Mario 2 is shaping up to be a worthy succcessor to both the original Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi. The game's apparently polished and deep gameplay coupled with strong visuals and a good sense of humor should make for an experience you won't want to miss when it ships later this year. Stay tuned for much more on the game.