The first two Paper Mario games are some of my favorites of all time. The first game was a light-hearted storybook adventure with a colorful cast of characters and locations. It created combat that was fairly simple, but in doing so actually drilled down to the essentials for refreshingly minimalistic gameplay. It offered the strategy of turn-based RPGs with none of the unneeded complexity, and an added boost of tactile/timing based challenge.
The second game, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door was an improvement on the already excellent original in several ways. The combat received a plethora of small but notable tune-ups, the dialogue was funnier, the plots were more varied, and the soundtrack was phenomenal. The series was an amazing one, and eventually I’ll have to do them justice with their own write-ups here on the blog. Especially since…well, it’d help to keep things positive. You’ll note I said the series was an amazing one.
The only game in said series that’s appeared here so far is Paper Mario: Sticker Star. I wasn’t quite as eloquent back then, but it gets the point across. It was disappointing. Fine, by the standards of a normal game. But it was notably flawed and had little in common with the treasured titles I spent the last two paragraphs putting on a pedestal. Sadly, footage of the upcoming entry in the series, Paper Mario: Color Splash, indicates it’s repeating all the mistakes of its predecessor and doubling down on its bad decisions. It’s been 15 years since that first beloved entry hit shelves, and I’d bet that most of the original development team has moved elsewhere by now. As sad as it is to admit, it’s probably for the best to mentally compartmentalize “New Paper Mario” as a different beast, and assume the series of yore is gone altogether until proven otherwise.
The above introduction is much like online discussions of this series in that it completely skips a game. That game is called Super Paper Mario, and there’s a good reason discussions skip it. That reason is as follows:
Super Paper Mario is really weird.
Weird? What are you talking about, everything looks completely normal here.
Weird is the best word I can think of for it. In some ways, Super Paper Mario is a bridge between the old Paper Mario and the Sticker Star sensibilities the series has today. In some ways, Super Paper Mario is a strange evolutionary offshoot with elements completely divorced from anything else in the series. In some ways it’s good. In some ways it’s bad. But in all ways it’s unusual, and that makes it fascinating. That’s why I recently pushed myself to finish this game I’d left hanging years ago. And that’s why today, piece by piece, we’re going to start picking apart this extremely bizarre video game.
The Paper Mario series subverts the main series platforming gameplay for RPG conventions like turn-based combat, dialogue-heavy exploration and puzzle-based dungeons. Both series are excellent at what they do, but they’re fundamentally different experiences. Exciting versus engrossing, tactile versus tactical. That isn’t to say these two types of game design are incompatible, there are plenty of good action-RPGs out there. But the fusion creates a genre all its own, which requires careful balance and execution. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened here. Super Paper Mario subverted the subversion and went back to platforming gameplay. The result is…messy.
The basic formula is as follows: You run and jump through linear stages until you reach the goal, every four of these ends with a boss fight, then takes you back to a hub world. Beyond your typical Mario shenanigans, you unlock several other characters over the course of the game whom you can freely swap between. Each character moves a bit differently and has an ability unique to them. For example, one character can float for a short time after a jump. There are also extra abilities through use of geometric companions called Pixls, things like sprinting and smashing the ground with a hammer.
Fortunately, there’s something that adds a bit of DEPTH to the game…
The game has one appreciably unique gimmick. Most of the time, Super Paper Mario plays as your standard 2D platformer. But at the press of a button, you have the ability to turn the world 90 degrees and tack on an extra dimension, free of charge. This allows you to weave around impassable obstacles, locate hidden areas, and cleverly manipulate the environment in a number of ways. It’s a well implemented feature, and that’s good, because other parts of the game don’t fare as well. I’m going to put the RPG elements of the game aside for now, because there’s enough there to fill an article all on its own. For now, let’s return to that classic, run-and-jump gameplay. This is the core of the experience, the stuff that will really make it or break it for a platformer. Super Paper Mario…breaks it.
Jumping Falls Flat
Attaining the perfect movement and jump arc for a given game is deceptively challenging. Most of us have played games where moving around and navigating space is a chore, and the reasons why vary wildly. Sometimes jumps are too short or gravity too strong and play feels like navigating a sack of bricks through a trapeze act. Other times leaps take too long or gravity is too low and the game feels floaty, sluggish and less punchy. Sometimes your character accelerates like massive steel boulder, alternating between molasses-shoed momentum and stupendous speed. Other times your character simulates physics as well as punching in XY coordinates on a graphing calculator. The tricky part of the equation isn’t finding The One True Jumping Formula. No, the tricky part is this: None of these are necessarily wrong.
In Mega Man games, you maneuver with a complete lack of physics. Your character moves at a steady, consistent pace at all times, even in midair. These levels are designed around careful navigation of hazards. Each room is a puzzle to be precisely piloted past, from unravelling enemy attack patterns down to pixel-perfect falls through instant death spikes.
In (2D) Sonic the Hedgehog games, physics have an incredible effect on your movement. A stationary jump can barely move you a few feet, but jumping full speed off a ramp can send you barreling through the air like a blue, spikey artillery strike. You can roll downhill to pick up crazy momentum, and the angle of your jumps depends on the slope you’re standing on. These levels are built around manipulating physics and finding the perfect sequence to navigate through while slowing down as little as possible. Speed is not consistent or expected, it’s an adrenaline-soaked reward for discovering the best path through obstacles.
Imagine navigating something slow and precise like Mega Man’s disappearing block sequences with the heavy physics of Sonic. It would be hell on earth! Or, y’know, half of Sonic 1.
The physics of Mega Man would be atrocious in Sonic, and vice versa. Every popular platformer out there fits a specific movement niche. What matters is that the way the character controls fits with the level design and overall goals of the game. How the game rewards a player, the type of obstacles in their path, even the mood, visuals and sound all tie into how the character controls. The famous platformers of the ages all had fairly specific design goals. We can haggle over how well each game met them, but that’s a separate conversation (looking at you, person about to write an angry Sonic comment). The point is these games were designed with clear intent, and controlled a certain way to evoke certain feelings or reactions in the player.
Time to bring things back to Super Paper Mario before this turns into a giant rambling thesis on jumping physics. The controls in Super Paper Mario feel…okay. They’re fine. I’ve definitely played worse, and the less said about the awful platformers I made myself in high school the better. But here’s how those controls came about: They took the basic movement in the Paper Mario RPGs, and then they made the jump taller. Far as I can tell, that’s it. Movement is very steady, with near complete absence of physics and not a lot of speed. This works fine for wandering around town or non-combat areas. That was the main purpose of the previous games, after all. But slapping the same thing onto a linear action RPG doesn’t work, especially when the RPG elements don’t pick up the slack.
The enemy design doesn’t help either. There’s some effort at variety being made here, but when the vast majority of foes boil down to “wait until an enemy is done attacking and then jump on them”, it’s hard to get much tactical mileage. This is especially true early in the game before you have access to faster movement. That extra second to close the gap between you and the enemy feels cumbersome, especially when every enemy stops moving towards you to attack. And then there’s combat in 3D mode…
Y’know those old arcade beat-em-ups where everything was handled with 2D sprites? Remember how frustrating it was to line up your character on the same plane as your enemy lest you pump your fist an inch past their face? Well imagine that scenario, but now every enemy is smaller. Now imagine your foes’ primary offense is touching you. Last but not least, imagine that instead of swiping at them from a safe distance, your only method of attack is throwing yourself on top of them. The result? Exactly as bad as it sounds. Fortunately none of the enemies in 3D are required fights, far as I can tell. But that begs the question why they bothered putting enemies there in the first place.
I mean who imagined jumping on literally paper-thin hitboxes would go well?
To Super Paper Mario’s credit, there’s more to do than run and jump. For example, the four player characters switch up the gameplay here and there. Unfortunately, their differences are disappointingly minor. Each of them has only one or two changes in their abilities, and you need to use certain characters at certain points, so there’s not a huge range of interesting choices on display here. None of the other characters abilities feel particularly satisfying to use either, often requiring you slow down the pace or stop moving altogether.
In the previous Paper Mario games, you discovered partners who would lend their abilities and color commentary to your adventures. Super Paper Mario attempts to replicate this with Pixls. These fall flat in just about every way. I’ll discuss their place in the story another time, but even mechanically they’re passable at best. Without the engaging RPG battles of old most of their gimmicks are far less combat efficient than just hopping on heads. Even for puzzle solving they have far less utility than before, each limited to just a couple required uses in the entire game.
Here’s a good example: Midway through the game you get a ground pound ability. In previous games this was a standard jump upgrade. It increased damage, unlocked a special move in combat, broke floor panels, broke boxes, knocked things off of shelves, and revealed objects hidden underground. I still wouldn’t call it an amazing ability. It was fairly standard and didn’t feel all that exciting to use. However, here is the equivalent in Super Paper Mario: You pound some specific pillars in the level you acquire it to open a door. Then later, back in the hub town, you pound some specific pillars to open one other door. That’s it. No other puzzles or secondary uses. You could use the pound to deal some extra damage to enemies. But most enemies already die in one hit, and you already have an alternate character whose jumps do double damage by default.
Behold, one half of every ground pound puzzle in the game.
I didn’t even pick some extreme outlier there. The abilities all have a few specific uses and are otherwise neglected. They have niche utility in combat but are less efficient than just jumping the day away, which is also more inherently satisfying. The one exception to this is a Pixl that’s completely optional, which allows your characters to dash. This speeds up travel and adds some physics to your movement. It’s harder to successfully land on enemies and platforms when dashing, but doing so is faster and more engaging. You may recognize this as how platforming should work in the first place. Though there would still be plenty of issues, I think merely having dashing be a default ability would’ve made this game feel a lot better to play.
A final note of…note is that this platforming doesn’t gel well with RPG elements. I’ll get into the RPG elements themselves next post, but they aren’t used well here. Even if they were, the gameplay isn’t altered enough to fit. Other action RPGs tend to have larger movepools, extra movement options and forward striking attacks that extend beyond your characters hurtbox (the area where enemy touch harms them). There’s a good reason for this. When you go head hopping, the impact should be immediate and the consequences quick. If enemies have heaping helpings of health then throwing yourself on top of them leaves you awkwardly vulnerable or poorly positioned after landing. Super Paper Mario tries to compensate for this in how it handles difficulty, but…that’s a failure for another time.
So before we start the next leg of this negativity train to Whingeville, let’s take a break, eh? I’d like to cap off this article with something positive and completely unexpected…
I absolutely loved the music from the first two Paper Mario games. Like, a lot. Listening to Super’s soundtrack didn’t elicit quite the same response, and a quick google search revealed why. The first two games share a common composer in Yuka Tsujiyoko, mostly known for a crap ton of Fire Emblem gamed I haven’t played. But Super was composed by Naoko Mitome and Chika Sekigawa, who between them worked on Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, Warioware: Smooth Moves and absolutely nothing else.
So no, the relative unknowns who stepped into the third game in an established series with no experience did not usurp the music I love to death. But given their miniscule discography, it’s quite surprising how good things turned out. Super Paper Mario may not be one of my all-time favorite soundtracks, but there’s a ton of good stuff in here. And what better way to show that then by digging in and jamming out? Is that a thing the kids say these days? Am I hip to you rapscallions and your lingo? Do you “jam out” when you play the groovy new vinyl on the local soda parlor’s jukebox? Whatever, here’s some music.
Flipside is the best place to start, really. The theme for this hub world is one you’ll hear more than any other song in the game. Fortunately, it’s the perfect tune for that. It’s got a catchy central beat but the song as a whole gives off a laidback groove that amicably fades into the background. Not too intrusive, not too ambient or unmemorable. When the years pass onward and much of this game fades from my memory, this is one of the tunes I’ll remember the most.
Gloam Valley is a good example of the game’s many stage themes. This quick-paced, bouncy jingle is perfect for the old jump-and-jog. Nothing about it is too remarkable, but it’ll stick in your noggin and make a pleasantly head-bobbin background to an otherwise standard stage of goomba stomping.
With no random battles, there’s no standard combat theme in the game. The boss battles are also disappointingly hit-and-miss in the audio department. Some of them are quite nice, but I know every one of the 16-and-change boss themes from Paper Mario and Thousand-Year Door by heart, and Super doesn’t quite hit that mark. But it’s not completely without good songs to smash heads to. A Powerful Enemy Emerges is the song for mini-bosses without their own theme, and I rather like it. It’s got a nice, meaty underlying beat and the first part of the song has some real punch to it.
Floro Sapiens Caverns is another stage theme, and one of my favorite songs in the game. There’s something about every individual segment I enjoy. We’ve got solid percussion running throughout and a lot of smooth background slides supporting the sharper strings that strike out the main melody. That melody itself is quite catchy, and I found myself humming it in my head days after I crept out of the caverns themselves.
There are a lot of other quality songs I could show you. But if I had to choose one, I would choose the unofficial main theme of the game: Memory. The song is played throughout the course of the game in brief segments that build and add pieces the further you get. It’s not the catchiest song, and it strikes a sharp contrast to the bouncier, upbeat melodies that make up most of the score. But it does well what any game soundtrack should: Support the game it’s in. I love it when songs build over time, and I love having a musical through-line take me along a story. I also really like the sound of some of these more subdued loops. That brief, distorted main theme backed by slowly rising synths and the echoing ticking of a clock are a calm and peaceful feast for the ears. Much like the theme of Flipside, it’s a song that will long live on in my…
…well, you get the idea.
There’s plenty more Super Paper Mario where this comes from! Join me next week when we take a dive into the game’s RPG mechanics. Fair warning: I really loved the RPG elements in the first two games. Always darkest before the dawn and all that.
See ya next time!
…Memory. I meant the song will live on in my Memory. Because the name of the song is Memory. That was the connection I was making there. Just so we’re absolutely clear on the OKAY YOU DON’T HAVE TO ROLL YOUR EYES AT ME SHEESH.