For more than 25 years, a little Italian plumber in blue coveralls has been the official mascot of gamemaker Nintendo. Mario hopped into public view when Donkey Kong debuted in 1981. He soon started showing up in his own titles and has mamma mia-ed his way to become star of the best-known and most successful video game series of all time. So it's no wonder that he's still game to strut his stuff on Nintendo's new Wii console.
Super Paper Mario takes all the various versions of past Mario games and blends them into a creative hybrid that has a very familiar feel but tons of funny and melodramatic spring in its step. Once again, Princess Peach is threatened by the fire-breathing king of the Koopas, Bowser. But before Bowser can throw his evil plan into action, the magical Count Bleck ("Bleh, heh, heh, heh! Bleck!") appears from another dimension and kidnaps them both. The Count's dastardly scheme to destroy everything involves a 1,500-year-old book called the Dark Prognosticus and, of all things, forcing the pretty princess to marry the horrible Bowser.
Only Mario can save the day.
To stop the colorful carnage, the pipe fitter must roam multiple dimensions and find eight objects called pure hearts. They combine into an artifact of purity and great power that, alone, can thwart Bleck's evil.
Two Dimensions of Fun
The game has a slow start, courtesy of a long-winded expositional preamble, but eventually jumps into action and carries us along with its clever, lighthearted banter. Nintendo fans will smile over lots of inside jokes, but family members who've never even heard of Donkey Kong and Co. will find plenty of chuckles, too. One possible drawback, however, is that none of the dialogue is spoken; it's all written in cartoon-style word bubbles. And there's a lot of it.
Mario and his pals live in a two-dimensional place where everyone resembles a cutout paper doll. Each of the "areas" in this universe has its own theme (outer space, a game show, the underworld, etc.) and is creatively animated with sparkling colors and an Etch-A-Sketch style of graphic. Within these environments Mario scrolls left and right, forward and back, bopping bad guys and power-ups just like the old classic platform games. But Super Paper Mario also adds RPG (role-playing game) elements such as experience points for health and power level-ups, and the ability to "talk" to people to help find clues.
No, Make That Three
Two other bits of gameplay are great additions as well. Mario has the ability to turn his 2-D world into a 3-D one for short periods of time—a creative way for him to search for special items, puzzle solutions and hidden escape paths. It also helps him dodge such dangers as huge boulders by transforming them into skinny pinwheels. Gamers can also switch between different characters to help themselves out of tight spots. For example, Princess Peach uses her pink parasol to float over deadly chasms and Bowser shoots his fire breath to battle foes.
Another plus is that just about anybody can pick up a controller and jump right in. Although Super Paper Mario was originally slated for the GameCube, it functions well with the Wii (even if the motion-sensitive moves feel tacked on). The mechanics are simple, and there are only a few buttons to worry about.
Of Monkeys and Plumbers
In Donkey Kong, that mean ol' monkey kidnapped the girl and took her to the top of the construction site, raining down barrels. Here the story revolves around a magician's ability to grab the girl, take her to another dimension in space, brainwash her into marrying a (cutely cartoonish) monster and using the resulting chaos to destroy the world. Other magical goings on include our hero teaming up with little fairy-like critters called Pixls who give him special abilities. And that Dark Prognosticus book seems to cast an evil spell on Bleck and one of his sidekicks.
But believe me, all that sounds worse when I write it than it felt while I played it. There's nothing's really scary here. Mario's actions trigger the undoing of the nefarious prophesies and the game bounces lightly on what might be considered sinister areas while presenting a strong good vs. evil story objective.
Many gamers are sure to pony up the cash for Super Paper Mario just because of the popular name in the title. Others may well cast a curious eye to the mustachioed little plumber to see if the years have been kind.
The short answer is that they have.