Greetings yet again, weary web travelers! Sit and gather round the fireside for toasty tales of amateur game analysis. Don’t actually do that though. What, did you bring your laptop on a camping trip? Knock that off, there’s friends to tolerate or s’mores to be swiped! Only reason to bring a laptop while camping is to look up how to avoid a deadly bear mauling. I’ll give you a hint: It’s not by sitting out in the open with a laptop, you doofus. By the time your browser loads “Buzzfeed’s 11 Most Shocking Bear Accidents” the animal will be enjoying it alongside a midnight snack of your succulent flesh.
And what’s the alternative? That you’re started an indoor campfire next to your desktop? I appreciate your dedication to verisimilitude, but this blog isn’t worth a case of fatal arson! At best, it’s worth a few felony misdemeanors and some light insurance fraud. Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yes. Super Paper Mario. We gon’ talk ‘bout it mo’.
Super Paper Mario went from being a standard RPG to a two-dimensional platformer. Yes there’s a 3rd dimension available on demand, but that’s not the same as having it enabled by default. Levels took a turn for the linear. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part it’s a straight shot forward, and flipping to 3D is like determining line width.
The 3D mode is cleverly implemented for puzzles, but still doesn’t save SPM from linearity.
On top of this, the world also became more segmented. Instead of having a somewhat connected space Intelligent Systems simply threw up their hands and plopped some doors down in a hub town. They also chopped up each chapter into four individual stages. To some, this may seem trivial. Yeah, there’s some extra screen transitions and title slides, so what? But there are reasons most RPGs or adventure games don’t split things into bite-sized pieces.
The first is purely gameplay related. When the world is so segmented, it becomes more frustrating to do any side questing or backtracking. No one likes to pass things by and start a stage over. Paper Mario was never the king of optional content to begin with. They usually have a lot of fetch quests and retreading old ground, with one optional dungeon and some bonus bosses sprinkled around. Super Paper Mario features similar fetch quests with the added frustration of linear stages. It has three optional gauntlets of 100 fights each, but the lackluster combat makes them more tedious than difficult and they force you do one of these gauntlets twice in a row for no good reason, which I’m still bitter about.
This is already the second 100-floor dungeon, filled with silhouette palette swaps. Now you want me to run that same dungeon TWICE? Go hug a bob-omb, you poopa troopas.
There’s a second issue with segmenting your game into little “fun-sized” sections: Stages make an experience feel very game-y. Well, what’s wrong with that, you cry! Video games are video games, stop the god damn presses. But when someone claims something is too game-y, that’s not exactly what they mean. They’re saying that the game is taking them out of it in a narrative sense, that their feelings of immersion are compromised.
Walking from place to place evokes a different feeling than arbitrary warping. It gives your travels context. Experiencing how a space fits together makes it feel more real and deepens your investment. Even if you still have screen transitions, walking through a cave or taking a train is a much gentler break in immersion than picking a level from stage select. The previous Paper Mario games weren’t the best at this, admittedly. But they still had a world map where everything fit together, you needed to acquire transport to faraway places, and the hard area transitions were limited to between chapters, rather than four times a chapter. This brings us to the final problem with stage-based gameplay: The flow of the game suffers.
One of the best chapters in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door takes place on a very small floating island. You run a gauntlet through a succession of arena challenges, with more varied enemies and conditions than your token RPG arena typically provides. But it also breaks things up with new dialogue between NPCs each match, characters coming and going, and an ongoing mystery of the arena which slowly peels away between fights to keep things interesting. I’m not cherry-picking, either. There are other chapters that spend a lot of time in small areas, like one almost entirely restrained to a few train cars.
Somehow a chapter with a limited play area and a crap ton of backtracking is one of the most memorable. Who’da thunk?
Even when they have more space to throw around, chapters in previous games had tons of towns, multi-room puzzles and non-combat moments. Super Paper Mario cuts way down on these and focuses more on action, and as established in the first post, that action is distinctly average. Though it puts in even less effort elsewhere, at least Sticker Star has its handheld status as an excuse for level-based gameplay. It’s hard to say why Super Paper Mario segments its world like it does, but I think the game suffers as a result.
There are some things Super Paper Mario does to keep things fresh and make up for its linear design and boilerplate platforming. But before we can reach that light at the end of the tunnel, there’s one more bugbear looming over this game we have to get through…
I bet fans of the game were waiting for this one. Might as well come straight out with it: The difficulty balancing in Super Paper Mario is awful. I’d say it’s tied with mangled RPG elements for the worst part of the game, and at least the RPG stuff was an intentional choice. A poor choice, but a choice nonetheless. The one saving grace of the difficulty in Super is the direction in which it’s terrible. Whereas most games with challenge issues are too hard, Super Paper Mario is absolutely too easy. Allow me to elaborate.
The amount of health you have in Super Paper Mario is roughly equivalent to the first two games. The amount of health your enemies have is also on par with those games. The first two Paper Mario games had a slower turn-based battle system and your damage wouldn’t leave single digits in all but the most extraordinary of circumstances. Super Paper Mario has real time jumping that takes half a second and your base attack goes up by one every other level (with about level 30 being endgame). There’s also a character that deals double damage, a move that deals double damage, and a couple items that double your damage. They stack.
Are you beginning to see a problem?!
Enemies are pretty easy, but their increased damage means that gangs of them are the only thing even vaguely approaching a threat. The real loser here is boss battles. Almost every boss in the game dies in a single-digit number of jumps. Many bosses don’t have periods of invulnerability, so you can pump those jumps out quick. I defeated most in under a minute, some in less than 30 seconds. They have just a smidge more health than you, but frequently deal less damage, meaning that you can take as many hits from the boss as they can from you! And you have access to an inventory full of healing items! And aren’t moving in predictable patterns! And possess a move that grants you infinite invincibility.
Not that I’m angry about that! Still definitely…not angry…about…that…
Look, I understand that balancing difficulty is, aha, challenging. But this isn’t an oversight on some unexpected combination of equipment or skills. This is balancing key encounters at set points in a very linear game. You can balance a fight based on easily predicted level ranges, set abilities and no outside factors to worry about with the lack of RPG elements. Given that groups of enemies are just as tough as bosses and each boss gets about 5+ minutes of dialogue build up before their anticlimactic minute of beat down, I don’t think this is intentional.
The lack of difficulty in Super compounds its other major problems. There’s no magnificent flow or satisfying feel to the controls, the game has been completely stripped of RPG progression and choices, and now the game is so easy there’s no point to what little side activities there are. All this makes it very difficult to, well, care about playing Super Paper Mario. The game ends up being carried entirely on the back of its puzzles and writing, mostly the latter. It’s impressive that they alone could motivate me to continue playing. But it’s disappointing that it came to that.
Especially because it seems so easy to fix. I know, I know, much easier to criticize than to do. Larger changes, like implementing a resource system, equipment or extra special moves, would take time. But lesser changes, like putting a cooldown on that friggin invincible parasol, shouldn’t take too long. And the challenge is so out of whack that I think it’d be a noticeable improvement to do nothing more than double the health of bosses. I don’t care how complex your development tools are, that’s trivial to do and there’s no reason not to if you see a problem. So the only plausible explanation is they didn’t see a problem, and playtesting either saw the problem and was ignored or didn’t see it either.
“Uh sir, about that boss of the second-to-last chapter that dies in under 30 seconds…” “Just HP.” “Erm, not sure that applies he-” “OUT OF MY OFFICE!”
So that’s all a terrible shame and needed to be mentioned. But I think I’ve kept you readers in a drought of positivity long enough, so let’s get back to the things that kept me playing through all this wonky balance and shallow gameplay.
I think Super Paper Mario is at least partially aware that its base gameplay isn’t up to snuff. As a result, it does its damndest to keep your interest in other ways. One method of reeling in player eyeballs is puzzles. Most of these center around your world-flipping ability, and some of them are quite clever. You’ll flip to see objects from a different perspective, find hidden passages, manipulate the environment and more. They could use more puzzle mechanics to work with, but they squeeze about as much mental mileage as you can from a 90 degree rotation, and for that I salute them.
The other way they keep their audience from dozing off is with what I’d simply call…variety. Super Paper Mario is a very quirky game, and a major motivator for progression is simply to see what pops up next. Not all in a narrative sense, either. The game throws all types of curveballs like surprise quiz shows, zero-gravity space shooting, and even a brief dating sim segment. No I am not god damn kidding.
Does this look the face of someone who’s kidding?
It’s not all perfect. Sometimes the gameplay-gimmick-of-the-day doesn’t handle too well, a puzzle is too obtuse, or a quirky mechanic is more annoying that amusing. But for all that can be said of its implementation, Super Paper Mario is clearly trying to keep you on your toes, and does so for basically its entire runtime. It’s a clever experience made by people who clearly care. If it seems like this segment is brief, or a copout, it’s only because the very existence of these moments is a spoiler. Half the fun is figuring out what weird nonsense the game is going to throw at you next. And speaking of weird nonsense…I think it’s time.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve beaten about the bush long enough. When speaking about Super Paper Mario, it always comes back to one thing. It’s time…we talk about the writing.
And by “it’s time”, I mean it will be NEXT time! See ya next week for the final installment!