Our appetites were whetted a few weeks ago when Nintendo showed off a playable version of Super Paper Mario at its booth at the Game Developers Conference. The upcoming platformer role-playing game hybrid is the latest entry in the unique branch of the Mario family tree that began on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System with the classic Super Mario RPG. In the ensuing years, Nintendo has gotten an impressive amount of mileage out of the notion of a Mario RPG and has created awesome games, such as Mario & Luigi on the Game Boy Advance and DS and Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64 and GameCube, that have evolved the concept in new and interesting ways. Super Paper Mario, a GameCube game that has now slid over to the Wii, takes the formula in a funky new direction that blends key elements from the famed Italian plumber's platforming roots with some RPG touches. Since our GDC experience we've gotten hold of a near-final version of the game and have been able to sink our teeth into the promising title. Now, given the thin nature of information on the game up until now, we'll be offering a look at the first four chapters of the game, starting with today's look at chapter one and continuing into next week.
The game begins with a lengthy cinematic that introduces some key events and characters. You'll be introduced to the Dark Prognosticus, an ancient book of prophecies that contains information on future events. While this may seem like a total free ride to success, the ominous introductory text notes that anyone who has possessed the book has never found happiness. Super Paper Mario is apparently the tale of its last owner. The game then drops you into Peach's point of view as she regains consciousness at her wedding...to Bowser. To make things weirder, the ceremony is being conducted by the mysterious Count Bleck, who has his crony, the Daria-like Nastasia, along.
The scene gets really crazy as Luigi, displaying more gumption than we've ever seen him show before, steps up to save Peach as she's being forced to agree to the marriage. If you've ever thought that a union between everyone's favorite princess and Bowser might lead to some kind of natural disaster, Super Paper Mario proves you right. Once the unlikely pair exchanges vows, weird mystical energies form a heart-shaped disturbance. In a stunning turn of events, Luigi appears to save the day (who knew he had it in him?) and disrupts the heart, which results in a flash of white. When the world normalizes, Bleck and Nastasia are chatting together, referring to the prophecies in the Dark Prognosticus, and then they disappear and the game fades to its title screen.
Starting a new game opens up more mysteries for you to ponder, as the opening scene finds Mario and Luigi hanging out and drinking coffee at Mario's pad. It's apparently a low-key day for the mostly heroic duo, and Luigi (of all people) is wishing for some action. They get exactly that after a frenzied Toad asks them for help. It seems Peach has been kidnapped. Given Peach's kidnapping history, the kidnapper's identity should be a no-brainer; however, when the duo assaults Bowser's castle, they find that the surly villain is only just about to launch a kidnapping attempt. So what happened? If you guessed Count Bleck, you're right. It seems the villain is going to use the mysterious Dark Prognosticus to destroy all worlds, and Peach and Bowser are the key. In the ensuing fracas, pandemonium breaks loose as Bleck kidnaps everyone except the unconscious Mario and heads out.
The dense story thins out to something manageable when Mario is roused by Tippi, a butterfly-type "pixl" who has been sent to find him. The fairylike creature takes the dazed plumber to meet Merlon in the town of Flipside. The elder believes that Mario is the hero described in the Light Prognosticus (you just knew there had to be one, right?). This is a good thing, because said hero is going to save creation from being destroyed by collecting mystical relics called "pure hearts." With that, the elder tosses Mario his first pure heart, a warp pipe that will return him to Flipside once he's left the town, and he sends the hero off to save the day, with Tippi in tow, which kicks off the game's first official chapter.
As we mentioned before, Super Paper Mario is a hybrid of RPG and platforming elements. The RPG influences can be seen in the framework for the adventure and in some of the gameplay mechanics. You'll have to collect the pure hearts, return to Flipside, and place them in a tower, which opens up more worlds to explore, which lets you collect more hearts. Along the way you'll go through towns with shops where you can purchase items. Towns will also include residents to interact with, some of which will be important to your progress.
From a mechanical standpoint, you'll get the RPG influence off of Mario's progression. You'll go up in levels by earning a high-enough score, the counter of which doubles as your experience meter, and you'll be able to "equip" new pixls, which yield new abilities. So far we've got Tippi and Thoreau along. Tippi offers tips as you play and also serves as an encyclopedia of the world around you, courtesy of the Wii Remote. If you turn your remote and point at enemies and objects onscreen, you'll get a flashlight effect that will highlight what you're pointing at. If your target flashes red, you can get information from Tippi on it. In some cases Tippi can also reveal hidden doors and platforms. Thoreau has a more active set of abilities and lets you pick up and throw enemies and objects. From the look of it you'll eventually collect enough pixls that you'll have to swap in those whose abilities you need. More subtle RPG touches include 256 collectible "catch cards" that have information on specific enemies and 96 recipe cards that let you have certain types of food made. Besides offering information on whatever critter is on it, the catch cards increase the amount of damage you do against the creatures once you find them. Finally, you'll have an inventory that lets you bring along assorted performance-enhancing items and important knickknacks you'll need on your trip, such as keys or spicy soup.
On the platforming side of things, Super Paper Mario gets back to Mario's hopping roots with its simple 2D levels for you to race through. Most enemies we've encountered so far have been dispatched with a simple boot to the head, though we crossed paths with a spiky-hat-wearing goomba who refused to be head-stomped or grabbed by Thoreau. That simple base is expanded on in smart ways with Mario's "flipping" ability, which lets him turn the world from 2D to 3D to offer some fresh ways of dealing with enemies and obstacles. Besides that, the game includes a fun mix of items to collect through the time-honored tradition of breaking blocks. So far we've seen a pal pill, which surrounds Mario with 8-bit versions of himself to take out enemies. A mega-star turns him into a giant, à la New Super Mario Bros., and lets him smash through enemies and obstacles alike. Certain flowers cause coins to rain down from the sky for your collecting pleasure. A zombie shroom is a ghostly mushroom that runs around taking out both friend and foe. Finally, a new type of mushroom will bump up Mario's speed in the game and triple the value of coins he collects for a limited time. Considering that this is just the first chapter, we reckon there's still plenty to be discovered.
The enemies we've encountered so far follow the same approach that the items we've seen do, in that you'll find a neat mix of old and new. Besides perennial favorites like goombas and koopas, you'll have to contend with squigs and squiglets, which are blocky multilegged foes. Sproing-oings are Slinky-like critters who jump about and split into multiple smaller versions of themselves when hit. Boomboxers are clunky creatures who go around and shoot you with sound waves. Jawbus are benign-looking creatures who change into chompy dinosaurs with an appetite for you. Tromps are rolling thwomps. Bald clefts are rocklike creatures who rush you. Cherbils and ice cherbils are cloudlike creatures who blow puffs of gas at Mario (presumably from their mouths, but Tippi's not entirely sure), which can either put him to sleep or freeze him. Megabites are flying skulls that are best avoided. We even came across goombas with the ability to flip dimensions like Mario, making them impossible to avoid the way you can avoid other enemies.
Besides the run-of-the-mill enemies, we've already encountered two bosses--one of Bleck's minions who served as a midboss in the chapter and a large serpentine boss who dwarfed Mario. As in the previous Paper Mario games, the battles require a little strategy but are relatively simple once you get the hang of what to do, and they're very fun.
In between the enemies and bosses, the puzzles we've seen so far are clever and have been making smart use of the flipping mechanic. There are a lot of traditional puzzles, such as locating a specific item or finding a way to hit a switch. Super Paper Mario is offering a nicely paced experience so far. Exploration is rewarded in the form of extra coins, which you can use to buy items.
While there's a lot to the game, the control and mechanics are good and simple. The bulk of your time is spent holding the Wii Remote sideways like an NES controller. You'll move Mario with the D pad, jump with the 2 button, and trigger your equipped pixl's ability with the 1 button. Pressing 1 and 2 together will bring up a quick menu that lets you swap between characters, pixls, and use items. You can call up a more in-depth menu by hitting the plus-sign (+) button. The menu lets you swap characters and choose items to use, and it also lets you keep track of important things, check out the chapters you've cleared, and look at your catch cards and the recipes you've collected. More importantly, it lets you have a peek at Mario's level, heart points (his health), attack power, score (experience), the score you need to level up, how many coins you've collected, and your time played. Whenever you rely on Tippi, you'll find yourself holding the remote in a normal manner when highlighting things for the knowledgeable pixl to cough up info on. Though we're still early in the game, we've already seen some interesting active uses for the controller, such as shaking it while you're in the middle of a jump attack to appeal to the audience and shaking it to wake yourself up or unfreeze yourself from cherbil gases.
The visuals are stellar and showcase a striking mix of style and tech. The game's look is imaginative and fun, with pleasant surprises popping up left and right. You'll see homages to previous Mario games and subtle surprises if you scrutinize the environment or room décor. The game's art style is a cool mix of retro and modern elements that fit together smoothly. Better still, the color palette takes some neat detours. Besides the very Mario-esque lively primary colors, the game has a lot of fun with darker tones and stylized highlighting. On the tech side, the game runs smoothly and looks great on both normal and high-definition TVs.
The audio seems like it's in line with the previous Paper Mario games. You'll hear sound samples for emphasis, à la Zelda, but no full voice monologues. The stylistic choice fits the adventure so far. As for the music, the game has a low-key soundtrack that complements the action, but there aren't any standout tracks yet.
Based on the first chapter we've played, Super Paper Mario is looking like an outstanding entry in the series. The game makes a great first impression with its visuals and gameplay. Almost more importantly, it has a cracking sense of humor that harks back to some of the finest moments from its predecessors. Better still, it seems like the lengthy quest will offer a meaty experience to players who have worked their way through their current library of Wii games. Super Paper Mario is slated to ship early next month for the Wii. Check back next week for our impressions of chapters two through four.