tiistai 16. elokuuta 2011

REVIEW - Paper Mario (2000)

RELEASED: August 2000
AVAILABLE ON: N64, Wii Virtual Console
DEVELOPER(S): Intelligent Systems
PUBLISHER(S): Nintendo

In the late 90's, the role-playing genre was at the peak of its popularity, thanks to Final Fantasy's long-anticipated mainstream breakout. In 1996, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was released on the dying SNES to great acclaim. The next year, a 64-bit sequel to the game was unveiled at Nintendo's Space World trade show, and it was initially simply called Super Mario RPG 2. The game had a distinctive graphical style, and it was told to have such simple core gameplay, that it could be easily accessed by even the youngest players. For numerous reasons, most of them widely unknown, the game suffered a delay after delay, but in the summer of 2000, this game - now called Paper Mario to accommodate its very unique graphics - was finally released in Japan, and it was one of the most successful games to emerge during the final days of the Nintendo 64. All amateur role-players and fans of Super Mario RPG, listen up: Paper Mario is the perfect game for you.

One of the best Mario games your dad never played

Bowser figures out the reason why he hasn't been able to beat Mario in the last 15 years - the seven Star Spirits of Star Haven haven't granted his selfish wishes. Bowser invades Star Haven, kidnaps the Star Spirits and steals their omnipotent Star Rod. Meanwhile, Mario and Luigi are invited to a party at Peach's castle. Bowser eventually crashes the party, lifts the whole castle high up into the sky with the leverage of his flying fortress, and finally manages to defeat Mario. The Star Spirits help the injured Mario back to his feet and summon him to embark on an epic quest to find them, for only they have the power to defeat Bowser in his current state.

Kids, remember that "sexual innuendo" thing
I talked about?
I won't lie to you: just a few years ago, I had no stinking clue what Paper Mario was. I missed out on a lot of games when I was somewhat boycotting Nintendo, and as it's turned out on a lot of occasions during the last year or so, I missed out on many truly great Mario games above all. At some point, I grew very intrigued with Paper Mario, seeing the interesting graphical style and finding out that the game was actually an RPG, more or less a sequel to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, which I liked very much back in the day. I still like it, but like I said when I finally reviewed the game, I've grown out of it. Perhaps I've grown out of a game like Paper Mario as well, in many senses; it's not just typically childish when it comes to dialogue and the audiovisual presentation, but it's also the simplest role-playing game I've ever seen. There is no learning curve to it at all, which separates it from the highly difficult Mario & Luigi series of RPG's on the Game Boy Advance. Still, it's captivating, addictive and just plain COOL. In some sense, it's simply an amazing game. Paper Mario is better than Super Mario RPG, and I dare say, the best Mario game I've left to hang thus far.

The graphical style of the game has been already mentioned so many times that it's probably clear by now that not only is it unique, but the game looks superb. In the last few weeks, I've went through a lot of Nintendo 64 games that I never had the chance to try during the platform's short cycle, that have turned out very pretty - surprisingly pretty compared to most games I did play during the cycle, and actually most of those games were either done by Nintendo's own R & D or Rare. Paper Mario's non-dimensional, smooth sprite cutouts in a 3D environment with an automatic camera, and even some impressive cinematics to boot, is a perfect mix, and I don't like to suck back on my own words, but taking all the games I've lately played into consideration, I think Paper Mario is the single best-looking game on the Nintendo 64.

The music is great, and it's not too repetitive either, which came to me as a surprise. As tradition goes, there are many remixed Mario tunes here, as both background music and easter eggs (man, I love those easter eggs, glad they carried them over from Super Mario RPG), but a lot of it is new stuff written by Yuka Tsujiyoko, very known in Japan for his work on the Fire Emblem series - the only previous Mario-related title in his resume at the time was Tetris Attack, which, of course, was not recognized as a Mario-related game at all in Japan. It should be noted that Paper Mario was the first Mario game since Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, that didn't have voice acting or voice samples of any kind, which means no Charles Martinet with his evergreen "mamma mias" or those dastardly "OH NOOOOES". Kind of refreshing, actually.

This game is not meant for those dull, stuck-up RPG fans, who always demand for certain type of deep, precise customization or all the fanciest elements of the genre. Take a moment to think what the first RPG you ever played was. Mine was Chrono Trigger, or actually, to be absolutely precise, the first RPG's I played were Black Crypt on the Amiga and Swords and Serpents on the NES. Damn straight, they were hard to comprehend, all of them. Nowadays I play complex, yet relatively standard role-playing games like Fallout, Dragon Age and the earlier Elder Scrolls games to great effect, but back in the early- to mid-90's, I had no stinking clue of how to play an RPG. If only I had a game like Paper Mario to show me the ropes. You could call it role-playing for dummies, which it is, but once you get to play it, I have a feeling "dummy" is the last word on your mind. Sure, I laughed at the game at first. The moment I got in control, I curiously started liking the game. Venturing around the very small world map was fun, there ultimately were many sidequests and secrets although the game seemed very empty at first, the game had cool dungeons and puzzles, and the extremely simple battle system got me by the balls. Sure, there were a lot of ugly spots on the way, but I find it very hard to say something concretely nasty about Paper Mario.

Hammer time.
A good thing to say right off the bat is that even if Paper Mario isn't the most fulfilling (or fulfilled) RPG out there, most of the most required elements of an RPG are in place... they just take some time to emerge. One good example is a fast travel hub. Since there's not an actual world map for you to advance on, for many hours it might seem like you're forced to backtrack your way to the intersection of Toad Town each time you finish a chapter in the quest, or backtrack to several locations during one of the most prominent sidequests, which requires you to deliver letters all around the world. There is a fast travel hub, but to my knowledge, you're not bluntly directed there by any of the characters - you'll have to find it yourself. It makes everything a whole lot easier, and less tedious. Especially less tedious, because every time you finish a chapter, most of the enemies you've encountered up until that point do not yield ANY Star Points - which are equivalent to EXP. If you don't use the fast travel hub, you'll be fighting hordes of these useless bastards only for coins. As you might've figured out, it took me a lengthy while to find the hub and I was far into the letter sidequest at that point. My personal stupidity is not a reason to bash the game, but since everything else in this game is so obvious, they could've made the fast travel hub stand out a bit more as well.

You play as Mario - what a damn surprise. There's a short prologue that ends in quite a shock for Mario fans, after which Mario is left for dead - or he would be, if this was not a Nintendo game. He's merely badly injured. Anyway, the quest begins with the spiritual forms of the Star Spirits (well, that made no sense) appearing before Mario in a dreamlike sequence and setting him off on another journey through Mushroom Kingdom, to find their true beings, locked up all around the kingdom by faithful servants of King Bowser. Once united, they can help Mario to counter the effects of the Star Rod currently held by his arch nemesis. Soon after this narrative, a tutorial sequence begins to show you all the preliminary basics, which don't even LOOK or SOUND difficult to comprehend. I've seen so many tutorials that explain things much more complicated than they really are, and I must give praise to Paper Mario for explaining things as simple as they really are. There are many brief tutorials to come, but you're definitely going to survive for a couple of hours with these basics.

Metal Gear Peach.
The long pathways and dungeons in this game combine elements from a traditional Mario platformer and a multi-dimensional RPG. So, it's quite like Super Mario RPG, but this game very rarely demands any annoying jump tricks from you, unlike the previous role-playing game in which Mario's unparalleled skill to jump was one of the most important elements of the gameplay. Initially, Mario can't even jump too high in this game! Anyway, there are blocks, springboards, pipes and whatnot on the field. There are also some obstacles which Mario can't deal with alone - for example, gaps he cannot jump over, cracked walls which obviously hold secrets, and water. This is why Mario has a cavalcade of multi-talented party members at his side.

One party member is on Mario's side at all times. You can switch between party members at any time, even during battles. Before Paper Mario came along, it was not common knowledge that all classic enemy characters from Mario games were actually from more or less decent communities; the party members represent the more decent side of Koopas, Goombas, Boos, Bob-Ombs, etc. Each party member has a special field talent, for example the Bob-Omb Bombette can be thrown against a cracked wall and ignited to explode to reveal a secret pathway, over and over again. Also, they all have a unique, basic attack method in battle, as well as as one special skill. By upgrading your party members to a higher rank (Super and later, Ultra) at rare Power Blocks, you gain one more, immensely powerful (but expensive) special skill to their list of commands, and increase their attack power in general. The party members can hurt themselves in battle by attacking the wrong kind of enemy with a wrong kind of attack - for example, if you use Goombario's headbutt to attack a Pokey - but they are rarely directly attacked by enemies, and they don't have HP. Instead, they get injured, and miss one or more turns in the case of a bad move, depending on how bad it is. Most enemies are after Mario, not his allies.

Ah. A haunted mansion. Should've seen that
The battle system bears some similarities to that of Super Mario RPG, but it's way more simple. In the very beginning, you need only one button for combat, and you don't even have access to timed attacks at that point. When you do, the battle becomes a little more interesting. Each attack you make has a different button or stick sequence for you to take note of and master to increase the power of these attacks. For example, "repeatedly tap A until the meter hits 100%", "repeatedly tilt the analog stick to the left", or "press A just before you land". This works the other way around, too. You can block (or dodge) most attacks by pressing A at the exact right moment when your enemy attacks. The exact moment of course depends on the enemy. For winning a battle, you sometimes gain coins, hearts (which replenish your health), and flowers, which replenish your mana, just like in Super Mario RPG. Sometimes, you even gain regular items. The most important rewards are, of course, Star Points.

As I already said, once you've cleared a chapter, there's no point in fighting most enemies that have stood in your way up 'til that point, if you don't happen to be in a very dire need for coins. You gain absolutely no experience from them. Leveling up is very slow in this game, it takes much patience and perhaps a little bit of back-and-forth action in single locations. In the vintage coin-collecting style, you gain a level from each 100th Star Point. In the vein of Super Mario RPG, you can choose from three different level bonuses - Max HP, Max FP and Max BP (Badge Points, tell you about 'em soon). The "funny" thing is, that only the attribute you choose increases. It's the only perk you gain from leveling up, while in most RPG's all attributes increase a little when you level up. This can be extremely frustrating, just as frustrating as it probably sounds. You can't really play any favourites, but there's little sense in trying to keep a perfect balance, too, at least when the going gets tough and you'd probably do with a high number of maximum HP. The worst part of the game in this sense, as well as many other senses, is that there's an inventory limit. In Super Mario RPG it was 29, but since you don't have to care for your partners' wellbeing in addition to your own, in this game it's 10.

Life in a toy box ain't easy.
In addition to special skills that are used with "flower power", each saved Star Spirit grants Mario a Star Spirit Power used with a Star Energy Unit. The Star Energy cannot be replenished with items; instead, it replenishes over time and you can speed up the process by using a free Power called Focus, however it wastes one precious turn. These Powers range from cure spells to direct attacks, and are quite useful from time to time, especially the later ones. 

Mario's strength and defense cannot be modified by natural means. However, you gain more attack power as well as field talents from different boots and hammers. Also, Badges will help you in just about every way imaginable. Your total Badge Points and the amount each Badge needs to be equipped determine how many of these trinkets you can wear at once. There are some traditionals such as HP Plus, FP Plus and whatnot, also Badges that slowly replenish your HP and FP during battle, some that allow you to use special attacks, and one very essential Badge that allows you to jump on spiked enemies. All kinds... equivalents of Badges have been seen in many games, but at least Super Mario RPG didn't have anything like them, so this a step forward for the Mario series. On a darker note, the game is a damn scrooge with them Badge Points. It constantly provokes you to increase your BP at level ups, which, again, you do not want to do. Badges are found everywhere, but the rarest of them are sold at special shops. One's near the center of Toad Town (your "HQ"). The other one's on the outskirts at Shooting Star Summit, and they don't accept coins as currency, only rare Star Pieces will do.

This place overflows with pastel.
In the very same shop, another character bluntly tells you secret locations of both these Star Pieces and Badges for a relatively small fee. As empty and tube-like as the game might seem at first, there are many sidequests and secrets in this game, as well as a few minigames to boot. They might not be from the most interesting end, especially once you figure out that they're mostly related to some really non-essential Badges and some even more non-essential items - I guess that once again, I must concur that the chase is usually better than the catch. Some of the most non-essential Badges simply change the sound effects of Mario's attacks - well, at least those types of Badges don't take up any BP.

There's one more minor yay and also, one minor boo to the battles I feel obligated to note. In most games, when an enemy character causes his own loss (such as by means of self-destruction), you get no experience points from 'em. In this game, you do. That's the yay, because such enemies have always annoyed the hell out of me. You still don't get any SP from escapees, though. That's not the boo. The boo is that whenever you use an indirect skill to win the battle, such as Parakarry's Air Lift (he carries a single enemy out of the battlefield), or Bow's Spook (she scares the enemies, potentially making them all run away), you get no SP from the enemies you manage to inflict those "attacks" on. Tallied up with everything else I've said about SP farming thus far, it's safe to say that it's downright hard to level up in this game, way too hard. That's its most outrageous flaw in my opinion.

Another moderately weak point in my opinion is a recurring "sidequest", in which you control Peach inside the recently invaded Mushroom Castle. She has a recently born star on her side, who can't really do anything about her wishes, but can and will work as a messenger between her and Mario. So, your mission in these segments is to uncover Bowser's plans and strategies, the locations of the Star Spirits, and information on the bosses, in a very poor man's stealth game. It's kind of cool, especially once some real tasks set in - such as baking a cake for a hungry turncoat Shy Guy to squeeze some valuable information out of him - but it has a negative effect on the game's consistency, since you can't really do anything but examine stuff and move around in annoyingly precise stealth. Luckily these sequences don't last more than a few minutes, but there are too many of them.

Sure you would. Too bad no one asked for
your input.
Apart from a few extremely annoying boss fights which will probably take a few tries and precise planning due to the strictly turn-based system - and handicaps, which settle in as quite standard near the end of the game - Paper Mario is an easy game. It was made to be just as easy, as it is to comprehend even if you've not touched a role-playing game in your life. The many puzzles hardly need a semi-brainiac to be cracked in under a minute, and the dungeons are surprisingly linear even if they don't seem that way at first. Either way, the game is entertaining most of the way, and I believe younger folk (ages 9-12) will find the game at least somewhat replayable. Additional props to the considerable length of the game; it takes about 25 hours to beat Paper Mario to the hilt.

Paper Mario is a bonafide - yet a bit overlooked - Nintendo classic, and alongside Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64, it's probably one game I will always remember Nintendo 64 for. It's probably not the best RPG curiosity out there, but it is a good one, and the best Mario RPG I've played thus far. It's a good thing I finally opened my mind to it, better late than never.

SOUND : 9.2


a.k.a. Super Mario RPG 2 (working title), Paper Mario Story (working title), Mario Story (JAP)

GameRankings: 88.74%

Nintendo Power ranks Paper Mario #63 on their list of the Top 200 Nintendo Games of All Time.

A game of the same name is slated to be released on the Nintendo 3DS in 2012. Apparently, it's rather a sequel than a remake.

The Koopa Bros. are obviously based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Luigi's diary says something like: "I wish I had my own game, with my name in the title.", and "I'm terrified of ghosts!" These entries are allusions to the then-upcoming Nintendo GameCube game Luigi's Mansion.

Luigi also mourns his relationship with his brother in his diary. He says that once upon a time, they used to play golf and tennis, and have parties together. This entry is an allusion to Mario Golf, Mario Tennis and Mario Party.

Upon recovering from his stomach ache, the whale calls Mario "Dr. Mario", which of course is an allusion to the game Dr. Mario.

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