Super Paper Mario is one of the most important games of my childhood, but it wasn’t love at first sight. When I watched the first trailer and saw the clear lack of turn based battle and the replacement of partners with weird floating objects seemingly devoid of personality, I was concerned. I was a big fan of the first two games and this game looked radically different. But as soon as I got my hands on it I fell in love with the witty writing, memorable characters, unique art direction, and ambitious story (for a Mario game). I got so obsessed with the game I even played it all the way through about 10 times in the course of a few months.
But upon replaying it for the first time in at least half a decade, I was able to see more clearly some of Super Paper Mario’s flaws that I may have turned a blind eye to when I was younger. I still think this is a great game; if I was awarding it a score here, I would give it an 8/10. Where this game excels it does so at an elite level, and will always have a special place in the Mario canon as a result. But there are also enough misfires and undercooked elements that make SPM easily the worst of the three Paper Mario games (wait… what is this chill that just ran down my spine… I feel like there’s something my brain is trying to repress… something it wants to protect me from… something involving stickers… and maybe also… paint?… no… best to leave that alone…). As such I don’t just want to talk about this game’s strong points; I also want to look at what it could have done better, and what holds it back from truly being one of the greats.
Vague spoilers below.
If you remember SPM fondly, chances are it’s chiefly because of the story. While not incredibly complex, it tells a powerful tale full of memorable characters that seriously escalates in the last few chapters. The game opens with an event sure to grab anyone’s attention: Bowser and Peach are getting married! (10 years before Super Mario Odyssey no less.) Shortly after Peach is forced to say her vows a menacing hole called “The Void” opens in the sky, which will grow and eventually destroy all worlds. Pressure mounts throughout the game as you watch it grow steadily larger, akin to the moon in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and like that game you get to see the effects that imminent death has on the characters throughout the world (though with the exception of one particular event, it rarely goes very dark). The plot is full of twists and turns, and it all amounts to maybe the most thrilling and satisfying conclusion in the entire Mario series.
One thing SPM makes apparent from the beginning is that it is breaking with a number of Mario tropes. One obvious example of this is Peach’s role. As per usual Peach is kidnapped at the beginning of the game, but this time she escapes early on and joins you as one of the game’s main protagonists. This version of Peach is headstrong and intelligent, and doesn’t hesitate to attempt to escape and join the cause to save the world. Mario, Luigi, and Toad comically express shock when Peach is kidnapped, clearly poking fun at the typical Mario story structure. You can tell the writers were itching to do something new.
Another area where SPM shakes up the Mario formula is by involving Luigi as an active participant in the story. In the first two Paper Mario games Luigi is present, but only as some optional comic relief, never being allowed to accompany Mario on his journey. In this game, like Peach, Luigi doesn’t hesitate to spring into action, setting off with Mario at the beginning to find Peach, and shortly after attempting to crash Bowser and Peach’s sham wedding. This is the bravest Luigi has ever been portrayed, and much of his humor actually comes from overconfidence rather than his usual lack of courage. His itch to prove himself is a refreshing take on the character, and he remains vitally important throughout the game. I can’t overstate how much this meant to me as a 13-year-old diehard Luigi fan.
The most impressive aspect of the writing may be the distinct flair that each character is written with. The villains in particular are given unique vocal quirks that accentuate their colorful personalities. O’Chunks has an abrasive Scottish accent, Mimi is all sass, Dimentio uses metaphors of increasing absurdity every time you fight him, and everything Mr. L says is gold. Count Bleck, in my opinion the best villain in any Mario RPG, benefits enormously from the extra care put into the writing. For most of the game Bleck speaks in a cartoon villain style, speaking in third person and constantly ending his speech boxes with some variation of “Count Bleck!” as pictured above, as he brags about his villainy. You steadily learn throughout the game however that there is more to Bleck than meets the eye. Any moment where he drops the Bleck persona and speaks frankly is given extra weight because of the stark contrast that has with his usual over-the-top way of speaking. His dialogue is very interesting to parse on repeat playthroughs.
The art direction takes an interesting minimalistic approach unique to the series. Most character models are made up of a collection of simplistic floating shapes, making them feel appropriately alien to the characters we’re used to seeing in the Mario universe. This feeling of otherworldliness is also conveyed through the distinct design choices implemented in each world. In Lineland you see math equations floating in the sky, Bitlands is made up of bit-art, and Count Black has a desolate monochromatic style. Each chapter begins with a gorgeous cutscene where the world is constructed line-by-line and then filled in with color. SPM has Mario traveling to lands quite different from the Mushroom Kingdom and that is conveyed effectively through the art.
It’s the gameplay, however, where the execution is quite rocky. In a sharp departure from the first two games SPM forgoes the turn-based battle system for a 2.5D platforming-RPG hybrid. Chapters are broken into four sections where the goal generally is to go right and find either the flagpole end-of-chapter box or a Pure Heart, this game’s main collectible. This time you control not just Mario, but a team of four heroes made up of Mario, Peach, Bowser, and later Luigi, all of whom come with unique abilities. You can switch between the four of them freely. You also collect partners called Pixls that allow you to perform an additional ability, such as pick up objects, use a hammer, shrink, and more. Battle is performed on the field, in real time, rather than on a separate screen.
The core gimmick of the game is that, while controlling Mario, you can flip the world 90 degrees from 2D into three dimensions. It’s a great hook and a neat take on the Paper Mario aesthetic. It’s always fun when you enter a new area to see how it translates to 3D. The mechanic is used in a variety of clever ways, such as allowing you to skirt around traps that are impassable in 2D but harmless in 3D, implementing puzzles that require you to use both dimensions to progress, and of course, hiding secrets.
The gameplay mechanics come together pretty well, and all the abilities give you plenty of freedom to find your preferred style of play. Because of this, and the way it carries on the spirit of Paper Mario through the writing and characters, I’m perfectly fine with Intelligent Systems experimenting and taking the gameplay in such a drastically different direction for this entry. It’s a fun game. But it’s far from perfect.
One of the chief issues with this game is the complete lack of difficulty. Mario games aren’t supposed to be hard; they are made with kids in mind, after all. But SPM may be the easiest game I have ever played. It makes Yoshi’s Story look like Celeste (that may be a slight exaggeration). Moving through the levels rarely requires much puzzle-solving, platforming, or combat ability. There aren’t many bosses in the main adventure that can’t be beaten in 15 seconds or less given the power of your attacks and the speed at which you can dish them out. The first two Paper Mario games aren’t exactly hard either, but they were at least tough enough to make you think.
The other major area where the gameplay suffers is the slightly problematic implementation of the flipping mechanic. Being able to flip into 3D is fun and the game is better for it. But it doesn’t quite work the way the developers intended. In order to prevent the player from just staying in 3D all the time a meter was added that ticks down while you are flipped, and slowly recharges after you return to 2D. When it runs out, you take one HP of damage, and the meter starts to count down again. This penalty is inconvenient at the beginning of the game when you have 10 HP, but it becomes more and more trivial as your max HP increases, as the penalty doesn’t scale with your level. The meter also resets every time you get hit. Once you gain about 6 levels there is little stopping you from just ignoring the meter completely and spending all the time you want in 3D.
Really though, the awkwardness of controlling Mario within the 3D perspective is penalty enough. The locked, forward-facing camera makes depth perception difficult, resulting in platforming being a little annoying. This is made worse by the fact that the Wiimote, SPM’s only control scheme, lacks a control stick, forcing you to use the D-pad. You can tell this game was originally made for GameCube. Jumping is quite floaty which helps you with the platforming, but it’s never particularly comfortable.
The flipping mechanic also unfortunately creates a system where completionists will be flipping ALL. THE. TIME. in order to find all of the secrets hidden throughout the game. You never know when there’s going to be a hidden pipe or an opening behind a wall only visible in 3D that leads to a collectible. These secrets are cleverly hidden, but the only way to find them all is to flip constantly, which gets old fast.
The shift to 2D platforming also came with great cost to the world’s depth (no pun intended). Perhaps most disappointingly coming from the first two games, there isn’t a single town in SPM that leaves any kind of impact. In fact, outside of the hub town of Flipside there are only about three towns in the game, depending on what you count, and they are so small, and you move through them so quickly, you’re bound to forget they even exist. Even Flipside doesn’t have a whole lot going for it; there are plenty of shops and houses to enter, but every area looks the same, and compared to Rogueport or Toad Town, there’s zero sense of community.
A common point of criticism leveled at this game from fans of the series is the lack of traditional partners. In the first two Paper Mario games you would gain party members called “partners” throughout your adventure, each of whom would have a storyline in the particular chapter you find them, and then stick with you for the rest of the game. They never contributed to the story beyond their initial chapter, but they had personalities you would grow attached to and unique abilities in battle. SPM eschews this partner system for the team of four heroes, a Navi-type character in Tippi, and a host of Pixls who never speak beyond the moment you find them.
I’m going to defend SPM on this point though. I think that people who say that they replaced partners with the Pixls are off the mark. It’s not the Pixls, but rather Peach, Bowser, Luigi, and Tippi, that should be looked to as this game’s partners. Peach, Bowser, and Luigi are all the best versions of themselves, and all have excellent dialogue throughout. The Bowser-Peach “newlywed” dynamic is used to great comedic effect, and Luigi’s arc is a lot of fun. Tippi in particular is a great character who sees real change over the course of the story, and unlike any partners from the first two games, is vitally important to the plot. The partner system was exchanged for a tighter cast, which fits this game better than the old partner system would have.
Despite my gripes with the gameplay, SPM has so much heart that it’s difficult to be too upset with any of its shortcomings. One of the most impressive areas where this heart manifests is in the extensive offering of side content. There’s a secret arcade in Flipside with four actually fun minigames in which you can try to set high scores and win prizes. There’s an extensive card collection system that comes with the bonus of dealing double damage to enemies if you have their card. Four optional Pixls can be found and added to your party, one of which increases your run speed. You’re never at a loss for fun things to do in this game.
Following in The Thousand Year Door’s footsteps, the postgame is also meaty. There are two Pit of 100 Trials to tackle, and thankfully given the difficulty of the rest of the game, they are actually pretty challenging. In addition to the trials there is a certain chapter you can return to and finish a 100-fight gauntlet. All of these challenges are great fun and should satisfy players looking for some level of difficulty in this game. Also similar to TTYD, all NPC dialogue changes postgame, and you can find and talk to most of the characters who were involved in the story.
Super Paper Mario may be a flawed game, but it’s a game with a lot of heart, and the Paper Mario series is made better for its existence. No matter how many times I replay it I love re-experiencing the story, and laughing at the jokes again. SPM has plenty of detractors, but it should be considered an essential entry that showcases how special the writing and characters in this series can be. One can only hope that someday another Paper Mario game with the same ambition will be made.