Super Paper Mario is a mixed bag. On one hand, it is considered by fans as the start of a franchise downfall in its abandonment of the traditional Paper Mario style established in the first two games, but on the other hand, diehard Paper Mario fans are infatuated with the story (undoubtedly Nintendo’s most mature narrative to be present in a Mario game yet) and characters at the cost of admitting it has less than subpar gameplay. And while I do have a fondness for the story, I would have to admit that — as the saying goes — gameplay is king.
It’s hard to deny Super Paper Mario has a very awkward mix of adventuring and platforming. The adventuring isn’t anything great but also nothing unbearable (with one exception: an excruciating level containing nothing but verticality and stultifying backtracking), but the platforming aspects don’t reward the same satisfaction of completing a level in a normal platformer. Intelligent Systems tries to throw in the fun elements of a Nintendo platformer and mixes it with their adventuring puzzle style, but the result is a frankly weird and clumsy game. There’s no denying the gameplay is distinct, but distinct doesn’t always equal fun.
One aspect that evidently suffered from this shift is the combat, which is now whittled down to its most rudimentary. Gone is the FP, badge system, strategic preparation, and even Mario’s perennial hammer. Combat is also no longer turn-based, ridding of the tedium but also ridding of most of the fun in the process. All enemies are now stomped on like everyday goombas.
That isn’t completely true, however. Controllable main characters now include Peach, Bowser, and Luigi, rather than just Mario alone. Partners act as the main resource in battle but exist in the form of pixls — although they are stripped of their personality. They also act as the primary puzzle-solving tools. The additional protagonists and pixls are about all the strategic preparation you’ll find in this game.
And as it turns out, bosses are far too easy to beat, including the joke of a final boss (despite how awesome it looks design-wise and narratively transpires). Most of the battles aren’t even ideally set up. Barely is the space within the battle area ever used in the first place — which is something they should have considered considering the new platforming change — but the bosses should have been given more HP or made less vulnerable or something, because a few broken tactics later and I was able to beat most bosses in under a minute. Strategy is practically unneeded in boss battles as well.
Now that I’ve covered all the bad, what is actually good about Super Paper Mario? For one, it still has the nuanced personality and occasionally unconventional gameplay of its predecessors (the latter being pretty much devoid in the successors). I also think this entry in the franchise has the most creative aesthetic, containing many neat animations and stylistic worlds.
And if this commendation is worth anything, Super Paper Mario contains one of my favorite characters to exist in anything ever — Dimentio. Minion of main antagonist, Count Bleck, Dimentio is a deceptively charming jester figure who uses magic and overly verbose similes (and not to mention he has the most fascinating arc) to win over the player and stand out against every other character in the game.
Since I’m done gushing over surface level qualities, is there anything complimentary about the gameplay? Turns out there actually is. By far one of the most inventive functions in video games is present in Super Paper Mario, and that is 3D flipping. So the game is 2D right? But Mario acquires a special ability in the first level of the game that allows him to flip into the third dimension. Its a function with explosive potential and I would say the devs certainly delivered. Although I admit the ability doesn’t feel as though it should exist in this particular game, it’s hard to deny how mind-blowing and inventive it is and how it manages to work so well.
Intelligent Systems has previously shown their competence in puzzle-making and Super Paper Mario is no exception. They of course use the 3D flipping to its maximum in this regard but they generally created plenty of difficult but fair labyrinthine dungeons. It’s also no surprise there are some well-hidden secrets to be had in this game as well. Intelligent still shows they have a knack for implanting RPG-esque discoveries, which is relieving for such a game.
And if there’s one more thing they nailed again, it is a magnetic open world. With the help of another expansive hub world(s), Flipside (and Flopside), Intelligent created a game that is just simply pleasant to wander in. Plentiful are the collectibles and hidden goodies that await the player in the depths (and lengths) of Flipside and previously explored worlds.
In some ways, Super Paper Mario makes it feel like the franchise is on its last breath, and in others, it still feels alive. It has a staggering storyline with appealing RPG elements but its base adventuring is a weird and mostly bad glorified platformer. But I think I speak for most people when I say this was at least still a good Paper Mario, if not the last great Paper Mario.