Friday, September 23, 2016

Super Paper Mario Part 2: RPG Mechanics

Welcome back, spambots and tumbleweeds that make up my recurring viewers! Last time on our thrilling adventures of hobbyist armchair game blogging, we cracked open Super Paper Mario. We took a break for the more literal minded among you to tape your game discs back together, but now you’re all back, for some reason. Today I’ll be talking about the gameplay unrelated to the old run-and-jump. Specifically RPG elements. So enough intro! As a famous man* once said: “Let’s-a go!”

*Though for the life of me I can’t remember who. I think it might’ve been a wrestler. The Great Gorgonzola or something.

Numbers That Go Up

Super Paper Mario handles RPG elements poorly.

There. We’ve got it out in the open, and now we’re gonna break it down, piece by piece. We’ll start with one of the most basic elements of an RPG: leveling up.

Just don’t level up Resistance, you casual.

When you level up in the first two Paper Mario games, you’ve given a simple choice: HP, FP or BP. HP is health and if you don’t understand that concept we’re gonna have a tough time performing detailed dissections of game mechanics. FP (Flower Power) acts similar to MP/Mana in other games, as a resource to be spent on special moves. Beyond the basic actions like attacking and blocking, everything costs FP. BP (Badge Points) reflects how many badges your character can equip, granting a varied array of passive benefits and new special moves.

This was a wonderful system. Stats increase by a big, useful amount each level. You’ll always feel the difference when you upgrade something, and every choice is completely valid. Never upgrading HP can be a bit tougher than other options, but even no-HP runs are a specific category of self-imposed challenge that people enjoy. Meanwhile FP lets you tear through enemies with ease, and BP benefits from some fantastic equipment design.

The badges in Paper Mario are my favorite kind of equipment. There are a few standard stat upgrade badges like increased damage and defense, more notable now that damage rarely leaves single digits. But for the most part, badges offer dozens upon dozens of unique special moves and passive benefits. Things like boosting attack when you’re low health, damaging enemies when they touch you, or allowing you to switch party members as a free action. There are lots of big, significant effects that change the way you approach combat and strategy.

So let’s bring this back to the game at hand. In Super Paper Mario, leveling up offers no choices whatsoever. When you level up, you’ll increase HP by 5. Next level, you’ll increase Attack by 1. You’ll continue to alternate these two stats forever. There is no way to upgrade defense. There is no way to upgrade FP, because it doesn’t exist. There is no way to upgrade BP because Super Paper Mario throws out equipment entirely. This all leads me to one simple follow-up question:


This is not sarcasm. This is not a hypothetical question. This is not meant to be some scathing remark. I mean don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a terrible idea. But I don’t get it. I am genuinely bewildered at this decision. I don’t understand why Intelligent Systems did this. The best I can do is break things down one at a time and make some educated guesses.

For example, we can make the educated guess that the enemy that sends you back to level start when you touch it exists because INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS HATES FUN.

The increased focus on Attack I understand. Since this is an action game, more emphasis is made on quicker yet more lethal encounters. Even if you were excellent at timing and planning in the previous games, you’re still likely to take some damage. But the combat was turn-based, so you took that into account and built strategies around it. In Super Paper Mario, you can dodge every single attack with skillful maneuvering. So to keep stakes high, enemies deal increased damage. You want things to keep moving at a brisk pace, so you increase player damage as well to ensure “fights” don’t last too long. I’ll come back to how this approach to balance and difficulty works (or doesn’t) later, but the point is I see this as an intentional design choice.

The removal of FP I…sort of understand. Again, it comes down to the friction of this being an action game. We want to keep moving, to keep gameplay immediate and satisfying to control. Bogging down combat with special moves would slow things down. This problem is compounded by the controls. Super Paper Mario was on the Wii, and like many Wii games I think it was limited by its controller. With a very limited amount of buttons and a bunch of different character abilities and menus, additional special moves would’ve likely been added to a submenu or button combinations, both of which slow down play. Granted, this isn’t an ironclad defense. For example, Castlevania games have long mapped special moves to Up+B and that’s worked fine for them. But I understand that additional moves would be difficult to implement, not to mention take extra development time.

All the same, I’m unsure why FP couldn’t have been used for the many existing abilities. Between the four separate player characters and 11 different Pixls over the course of the game, you have access to all sorts of maneuvers. I’m all for getting rid of unnecessary mechanics and resources, but here’s a key point: These abilities vary wildly in usefulness. I mentioned last time that Pixl abilities are often completely useless apart from the two or three spots they’re required to progress. But on the flipside of things we have abilities like Peach’s parasol, which allows her to crouch and be completely invincible to all damage for as long as she likes.

No I’m not angry, stop calling me angry that’s so ridiculous that you would call me angry I AM DEFINITELY NOT ANGRY.

Adding a finite resource could help balance things. Of course, tying abilities you need to progress to a resource is a recipe for frustration, not to mention the earlier concerns about slowing down gameplay. Off the top of my head, there are a couple ways to deal with this. One way would be to have FP slowly recover over time. It’ll add some depth in choosing when to burn it, but it’d never be gone long enough to slow things down (except in boss fights, where that’s frankly a benefit). Another option would be to have charged versions of each special move. You could use the regular version of, say, ground pound for free. But if you hold down the button, you’ll activate a special version that creates a shockwave, does more damage, or some similar effect at the cost of FP. This would allow you to use the abilities for puzzle solving but give you extra options in battle and a resource to manage.

You could even combine both of these methods, adding charged specials and regenerating FP. Though there is one benefit to non-regenerating FP: Making items less worthless. Speaking of…

Itemized Complaints

Single-use items are a standby in every RPG, Paper Mario included. They’re especially important in Super Paper Mario, because the lack of other RPG elements means they need to pick up the slack. They’re one of the only rewards to shoot for and one of the only choices you can make that affects gameplay. So it’s a shame that yes, they suck too.

“Goooooood day! Would ya like to buy some useless garbage?!”

The majority of items in Super Paper Mario do nothing but restore HP. Some of them damage all enemies onscreen, and several boost attack or defense for a short time. And…that’s about it. Super Paper Mario has no secondary resource to manage beyond HP. It has no status ailments to inflict upon enemies or remove from the user. (A grand total of like two enemies in the game can poison you, but every single healing item cures poison). There are no creative buffs that you can bestow upon yourself, debuffs to hinder your enemies, or any type of variance, creativity or choice here. And even though the design of these items is completely humdrum and ordinary, they still manage to screw it up.

One of the main ways to acquire new items is cooking. A mainstay of the Paper Mario series, cooking allows you to take certain combinations of items to a chef for new ones. The problem Super Paper Mario encountered was that it had unceremoniously dumped FP and a bunch of other mechanics like status ailments, so plenty of their old item standbys didn’t translate. To combat this, Intelligent Systems devised a truly ingenious plan. A transcript of said plan being made is as follows:

IS Employee #1: “Hey, so it looks like a lotta these items do stuff that won’t work in the new game, now that we’ve gutted the previous game’s mechanics for a soulless, hollow shell of thoughtless and routine game design.”

IS Employee #2: “Listen buddy, turns out that soulless, hollow shells of thoughtless design are WAY easier to make. Just ask the Assassin’s Creed guys!”

IS Employee #1: “Okay, I’m going to go ahead and ignore the tastelessness of that joke, the fact that Assassin’s Creed doesn’t exist yet, and that we’re both speaking perfect English despite being Japanese.”

IS Employee #2: “Fair enough. What’s your point?”

IS Employee #1: “My point is we have all these items that need to do something different now. We’ll have to devise a truly ingenious plan for all sorts of new item effects and-”

IS Employee #2: “Nah. Just make em all restore HP.”

IS Employee #1: “Just HP? But it wouldn’t be too difficult to make new effects. Plenty could just be altering stats and-”

IS Employee #2: “Nope. Just HP.”

IS Employee #1: “We already have a plenty of special effects that are only used once or twice. Perhaps we could start combining those, or mixing positive and negative effects? We have that healing-over-time effect that’s only used a few times. Why not make some more items-”

IS Employee #2: “Negatory. No over-time HP. Just HP. Also, take off the part of the description that says how much that item heals over time, because I hate giving the player useful information.”

IS Employee #1: “Okay fine! You win, we’ll just make all the items heal HP. I suppose we can at least squeeze a little variety out of different values…”

IS Employee #2: “Nadarino. Not only will they just heal HP, we’ll choose what they heal basically at random. Don’t bother accounting for how hard they are to make, it’s faster this way. And make sure none of them heal anything between 30 and 60.


IS Employee #1: “I feel like making all these items only restore HP is really limiting how interesting our game is.”

IS Employee #2: “Buddy, I don’t think you understand what we do here. We’re Systems Designers. Do ya know what that means?”

IS Employee #1: “Is…is this a trick question?”

IS Employee #2: “It means we design systems to avoid work.

IS Employee #1: “Pretty sure that’s not what that means.”

IS Employee #2: “Well then you can shove off and go join the Writers. Or the Artists. Or the Level Designers. Or the Composers. Basically anyone else here, actually. As for me, ya know what I’m doing?”

IS Employee #1: Sigh. “Just HP?”

IS Employee #2: “Just HP.”

Badge of Dishonor

The lack of interesting items wouldn’t be so frustrating if we were given other RPG mechanics to work with. Unlike the changed leveling system or removal of FP, I don’t understand the lack of equipment at all. Passive effects like these are very easy to make, comparatively speaking. I know it would be reductionist to say it’s just moving numbers around, but not by as much as you’d think. Compared to extra stages, enemies, combat mechanics, puzzle mechanics, and so on, they’re a cakewalk. Things get even easier when you have two prequels loaded with dozens of pieces of equipment waiting to be transferred over. Not all of them would translate to an action game, but I would’ve expected something.

Though traditional turn-based RPGs have grown rarer in recent years, light RPG elements have infested basically everything. Take any genre you care to name, from shooters to puzzle games, multi-player or single-player, hardcore or casual, independent or triple-A. Wherever you look, there will be plenty of games with little bars to fill or options to choose between. This is because the industry has had a collective realization: Light RPG elements are the salt of game mechanics. You can sprinkle them anywhere for a quick and cost-effective boost to the flavor that already exists. Specific long term goals and choices give you something to work towards and keep you invested. Super Paper Mario has the barest concession in that you level up and numbers increase, but the fact that there are absolutely zero choices to make building your character makes that progression fairly unsatisfying.

And I still don’t understand why. Did they feel it wouldn’t gel with the new gameplay? As recent trends show, these mechanics gel with essentially anything. Did they feel it was too complicated for their target demographic? Well I disagree with that assumption on multiple levels. Kids are smarter than we think, especially when it comes to understanding games. One of the most popular franchises known to attract child audiences is Pokemon, and those games are notably more complex to follow than Paper Mario. And since RPGs allow you to over-level or stockpile resources, you don’t even have to fully understand if you’re willing to win through brute force.

Child-me and most of my friends ignored all the complex moveset balancing and type advantages in Pokemon and triumphed through leveling the shit out of our starter.

I think the first two games are wonderfully minimalist RPG systems that take out everything difficult or confusing and leave all the interesting choices. But fine, let’s concede to this hypothetical. We’ll claim they’re actually far too complex for those simple-minded kids and casuals to follow. Why not simplify things instead of cutting them entirely? Here, I thought of an alternative system as soon as I started writing this: You can pick a loadout of badges as the start of each stage. You’ll have a set number of slots so no one has to see a level up screen or deal with scary permanent choices. This number could be constant (say three), or based on how many chapters you clear, or perhaps you could equip one badge to each character. We can keep the effects nice and simple, there don’t even have to be any numbers involved! Basic examples from past badges are things like Spike Shield (allows you to jump on spikes) or Refund (you get some coins back when you use an item).

The strange thing about this is that Super Paper Mario has a ton of RPG…esque additions. It has a large body of optional content in spite of its mechanics being so shallow. This seems entirely backwards to me. It’s like building a dozen-story skyscraper on a foundation of wet mulch and quicksand. There are side quests, easter eggs and not one but two optional hundred-floor dungeons. Coins are your only resource, and you can spend them on: Tons of items and ingredients which you can cook and combine into others; Collectible enemy cards or catch cards to capture these enemies manually; Arcade minigames with their own currency and purchasable rewards; A series of shortcuts and side passages throughout town; Several tiers of fortune telling charms of varying duration; Dozens of treasure maps which you can trace throughout the rest of the game world for additional rewards; and various odds, ends and bribes.

The shortcuts are dug by a bearded sponge miner who transforms into a giant drill. Dangit Super Paper Mario, I’m trying to critique you, stop being charming.

Wow, that sure is a lot of things to do! So what’s the reward for all that? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Nothing except items, which we’ve previously established are poorly implemented. You can only hold 10 of the damn things at once. By the end of the game my inventory was full of the best healing items in the game and my storage stuffed with more. Do you know how many times I needed healing in the main story? Never. Not one god damn time. There were a few during the optional 100-floor dungeons, but that’s it. I wouldn’t have even been able to sink money into those top tier healing items had I not looked up cooking recipes. This game is in crippling, desperate need of more rewards to incentivize the player and more choices for them to make. Without choices from leveling up we need equipment or some type of long-term benefit. Super Paper Mario has none of that, and I have no idea why.

…well then. Ahem. That went on a little longer than I anticipated. I should’ve expected this, given how much I love the mechanics of the first two games. It looks like this three-part series just earned an extra entry! Join me next time when we’ll examine the mixed bag of remaining game mechanics. After that we can finally get to the writing and see this game off on a positive note.

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