Nintendo threw everything they had at the third Paper Mario game, an ambitious and creative Wii showpiece with an enormous scope and story. But after that, where else could they go?
As a kid, I didn’t really play video games. My family had a Nintendo when I was too young, and we had an original Playstation but no games I really liked. I chipped away at Crash Bandicoot and slept over as much as I could with the friend whose family had a Super Nintendo. In college, I played a Mario Kart game for the first time: the “nerdy frat” had a basement lined with recliners and squashy couches where we played Double Dash for hours. What’s surprising and nice in hindsight is that no one minded how terrible I was at it, and they also weren’t patronizing about it. I just slowly got better while the other seven people in the round raced ahead of me.
Super Paper Mario came out in April of our senior year, a moment when I did not need much help to wander away from my real work. I watched my friend play for a while, but I’d never seen a Paper Mario game and fell in love with the art at first sight. The secret of life, it turns out, is to find a friend who makes a copy of their save file for you so you don’t have to sit through the game’s introduction again. The other best friend you can have is one who takes the controller to beat a difficult boss for you. After we both beat SPM, my friend lent me Paper Mario and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. After that, I was ready for Super Mario RPG and then Final Fantasy VII.
It’s not an understatement to say this all changed my life, and SPM was the perfect gateway game. It was the first Mario title for the Wii and the second major Nintendo property after Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Like the Zelda game, SPM was developed with the GameCube in mind and adapted. Unlike Zelda, where the Wii mechanics feel a bit tacked on, SPM has integral gameplay that used the Wiimote. You explore items of interest by pointing the Wiimote like a flashlight. Combat items have you point at the screen to draw circles or squiggles, branching from mechanics introduced in the first two games. Where TYD had button cues for “stylish moves,” SPM lets you shake the Wiimote (this is also how it works in Mario Kart Wii). And less integral but just as fun, SPM’s best minigame is a platform you balance on but gently tip the Wiimote to tilt left or right.
The game got good reviews, but critics largely considered it a failure of imagination after the scope and depth of TYD. SPM had platformer action instead of the charming turn-based combat of Paper Mario and TYD. The art was more futuristic and less homey, placing Mario in a world of incongruous neon gradients. TYD’s Big Bad was literally an alien from another world, but he was drawn in the same style as the rest of Mario’s surroundings. Even in Super Mario RPG, Mario and his friends fight, like, anthropomorphic hammers and other new enemies that all visually jive with the three-dimensionalized main character art. (I’ve never liked the SMRPG art, but Nintendo did at least fully commit to the bit.)
At the same time, critics also called the story too wordy. The Paper Mario franchise is constitutionally nonverbal, but by 2007, reviewers started to comment on the lack of voice acting. I’ve never understood this, because even an average-speed reader finishes a dialogue box long before the voiceover. All I want is to press a button to move to the next bit, and voice acting is a series of cut-off sentence parts that I want to turn off. But voice acting has just never been part of Mario games, let alone Mario’s RPG-flavored games: a genre where fans are still used to playing pretty major games that don’t have voicework beyond incidental sounds.
I remember playing the game the first time and talking with my friend about his reactions. In 2007, there wasn’t the prevalence of polished media websites that there is now. I would have looked at IGN and maybe GameStop if I’d thought to check reviews of any game, you know, from my eMachines PC in my dorm room. Although we’re the same age, my friend had a lifelong headstart on forming thoughtful and thorough opinions about the games he played. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but he’s one of the most charitable reviewers I’ve ever met. We talked about pros and cons that fit nicely into the context of each game without stripping any of the nuance.
When I talked with folks now about SPM or mentioned that I wanted to write about it, most of them said something like, “Oh, I liked that game. I know it got bad reviews though.” This was also my impression, even though I love the game and love it more with each new playthrough, three or four by now. In that time, I played the first two Paper Mario games and their ancestor Super Mario RPG, of course, so that gave me new context for when my friend told me SPM felt like a departure. I expected to like SPM less the second time because of this, but I had downtime after replaying the first two and figured, why not? Each time I go back to this world or talk about it with friends, I find something new to consider.
Paper Mario took place in the town around Princess Peach’s castle, first seen in Super Mario 64. In TYD, Mario is handwaved onto a faraway island called Rogueport. As the name suggests, it’s like the colonial Australia to Toad Town’s England. In SPM, Peach has been kidnapped from a kidnapping by someone from another dimension. Mario ends up in Flipside, a town filled with trapezoid-headed folks living under a disintegrating sky. The town’s “next steps” unlock as Mario increases his skills, just like in previous games. And the town’s secrets unlock as Mario progresses and finds new helper characters called Pixls.
But that’s just mechanics. The game’s underlying story, where interdimensional nihilist Count Bleck seeks to end the entire set of worlds, unfolds into a touching and troubling story of frustrated love and hopelessness. Mario’s ability to examine the screen using the Wiimote is sponsored, in game, by a Pixl named Tippi. The town wizard has rescued Tippi’s spirit from some dark happenstance and restored her using the tiny virtual body of a Pixl as a host. As the game progresses, Count Bleck eats up more and more of the visible sky, creating urgency that the characters talk about in the game. One world is evaporated as you’re attempting to play through it.
It’s hard to quantify how much the art of SPM goes off-brand compared to Paper Mario and TYD. The latter made storytelling choices that expanded its world, and one section, the Boggly Wood, introduced beautiful, stark black-and-white art in a totally new style for the Paper Mario franchise. But 100% of SPM has wild art. Sometimes the styles clash within just one character’s design, because parts are outlined in black like a traditional Paper Mario character and parts are shaded or gradient or rendered into 3D for no reason. Some worlds have dense, lush scenery and level design, but others have a sparse, “empty apartment” feel.
The chapters all have distinctive and pretty cohesive styles, though. The first has a classic Mario look that you immediately shatter by turning sideways into another dimension. I’m getting viscerally uncomfortable thinking about how upset I am that this mechanic was never used again. Detractors called this “2 1/2-D,” implying it was a compromise between a straight 2D platformer and the 3D worlds of Paper Mario and TYD. But it’s a horse of a different color. Turning the flat world sideways to reveal secrets is like looking at a Mad Fold-In or that series of behind-the-scenes photographs from I SPY book shoots. I’ve read so many valid complaints about how the Paper Mario franchise changed directions after SPM, but this specific consequence disappoints me deep in my guts.
All Paper Mario games are quirky and usually self aware, but SPM cranked the absurdity to perhaps unsustainable levels. The town of Flipside is huge and later gives way to the literally reversed town of Flopside. Shops do slightly different services or sell slightly different items, and navigating between the two is tedious. There is a lot of cutesy dialogue that could be cut. At one point, you play as Peach to save Mario’s life using tomato soup; maybe that Zooey Deschanel commercial was a long-lost deleted scene. And the cutesy parts of the game can dampen how emotionally effective both the overall story and individual chapter stories can be.
But other quirky choices make this game sing: moments when the pure weirdness, and imagining the folks who wrote these scenes or plotted the narrative arcs, is just such a joy. There’s a physical barrier item called Block, so when you cook it, you get a Block Meal, which is a cartoon ice cube on a bed of lettuce. The chef in Flopside is severe and German, creating an “impatient lunch lady” feeling in the shop. You fight a mechanical dragon boss who is mind controlled mid-scene by a hacker. The enemies in one chapter are able to body snatch other creatures by leaving a telltale Pikmin sprout growing out of their heads. You travel to space using a fishbowl as a helmet, and when you arrive, the character you need to speak with is in the bathroom. You also, naturally, must snatch wayward Luigi from the jaws of death.
SPM’s platforming isn’t that challenging on its own, and I’ve always thought calling this game a platformer is not really right. In other Paper Mario games, is it platforming when you navigate in the world using your helper characters to cross ravines or fly over spikes? Speaking of Pikmin: in the Wobbly Woods of TYD, you must herd and gather groups of tiny creatures to open doors and solve puzzles. Was that platforming? In SPM, you use your Pixl helpers and, eventually, your playable allies Peach, Bowser, and Luigi. You flip sideways to find secret paths and exits. The only difference is that you also fight enemies in realtime and in situ, and even this is made easier with the game’s card collecting subplot. The game’s choice to be 2D+ rather than 3D is a much more impactful design and genre choice than its platforming.
That said, there are physics changes like lower gravity, and there are items that change the flow of time. Your play style may mean some enemies are still very tough for a long time. You can buy points in the form of items, but there are no badges to boost your stats. By the final boss in TYD, I usually put on a Bump Strike badge and rolled through like the end of The Matrix because my level was so much higher than the enemies. But SPM expands on TYD’s Pit of 100 Trials. Flipside’s Pit of 100 Trials is hard, but Flopside’s Pit of 100 Trials is at least twice as hard, including silhouetted art that hides what variety of a particular enemy you’re fighting (and, of course, you must go through it twice). There are other optional bosses and after-game content that all make me wish this game had been made in the era of neverending DLC.
People complain that SPM isn’t RPG enough compared with the first two games in the series, and they may be right. But the huge, ambitious world of SPM, unconstrained by the Paper Mario “look” and with a sprawling and overwordy story, may just be the point at which the world had stretched until its parts no longer hold. Where could Nintendo and Intelligent Systems have taken the series next? They sucked all the particles of Paper Mario canon into one dense and microscopic heart, and what exploded out were both the Mario & Luigi and subsequent Paper Mario games. I haven’t played Paper Mario Color Splash, but Sticker Star is nearly indistinguishable from it in terms of reputation. Both are shallow, cute games. They have neither the consistent excellence of the first two games nor the colorful and mixed-success ambition of the third. Sticker Star is fine but it’s just a way to pass time.
Paper Mario nerds like me will never, never stop hoping for a great white whale of a new Paper Mario game that deserves the name. Every time Nintendo makes any quirky or unpredictable decision, we get excited again. But there’s no real indication that we’ll ever get this imagined new game, and the context in which classic Paper Mario games existed is gone. The Wii allowed you to play TYD with a GameCube disk and Paper Mario through Virtual Console, but the Switch hasn’t ported these games or made any kind of announcement about even plans for a Virtual Console. As my 10-year-old Wii loses its ability to read disks, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to these games. Eventually someone will emulate Paper Mario and TYD, but what about the motion controls of SPM?
Super Mario Odyssey marked a turning point for Nintendo’s flagship series, but Nintendo has always invested in making huge creative steps forward with those games. Mario Kart has been more of the same for the 15 years since Double Dash shook up the formula, and half of every subsequent game has been reappearances of old (“classic”) levels. I like both of those franchises, but where’s the drama? It’s hard to go back to gathering coins and power moons after saving the universe from disintegrating in front of your eyes. It’s hard to come back from solving the mystery of a failed love story from another world. I hope there’s something just as good waiting around some faraway corner, even if that hope is foolish.