A fresh new game wearing its father's clothes.
Super Paper Mario had a lot to prove to me, it was on the one hand a continuation of the RPG style Mario games. On the other it was borrowing very heavily from honest-to-goodness Mario platformers. What kind of mixture would these two titans of game design combine to create, and does its borrowing from titans make it a titan, as well? Super Paper Mario is that mixture, but whether or not its a titan is a question that will give this review a reason to be written.
Super Paper Mario starts out with Bowser and Peach getting married. That's not a spoiler either, before any gameplay is introduced you see Peach's day go down with Bowser as her groom instead of Mario. They're being married by Count Bleck, the game's antagonist. He wants to destroy the world, actually he wants to destroy ALL worlds. He plans to accomplish this by using the "Chaos Heart" of which it was foretold by the "Dark Prognosticus" that it would destroy all worlds. However, there was an opposing prophecy, the "Light Prognosticus", that foretold of eight pure hearts and four heroes. Mario naturally is coaxed into working towards this goal by the keepers of the "Light Prognosticus", and he is sent off on a quest of epic proportions which will take anywhere from fifteen to twenty hours to finish. It's a journey written by M.C. Escher and Shigeru Miyamoto in equal measure that will take you to places where you can take part in a prehistoric reality television series, fight in a (short-lived) tournament of one-hundred samurai, give a self-referential nerd with an affinity for dating sims a wedgie, and even take part in a dragon quest style boss fight. And while it's a very funny story when it comes to the characters we already know and know that they haven't been classicaly trained (i.e. Mario, Bowser, Peach, Luigi). However, when it comes to the central characters (i.e. Count Bleck and the Pixl Tippi) the story is one of adolescent angst and love ala Death Cab for Cutie's "I Will Follow You into the Dark". There are a few plot holes here and there concerning the nature of the pure hearts and it relates to getting to the final boss, but otherwise I found the story to be gripping and engaging enough to continue playing through some frustration.
Remember when I said this game was made by M.C. Escher and Shigeru Miyamoto in equal measure? Well, I wasn't lying, the game combines traditional two-dimensional platforming with traditional RPG level design. The level design is the facet of this game that makes Super Paper Mario frustrating to play. Don't get me wrong, the level design in Super Paper Mario would've worked great in a traditional Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest style romp. However, it feels like a hindrance in Super Paper Mario. Super Mario Bros. (a game that Super Paper Mario borrows its game design from) is a much faster game than Super Paper Mario's level design want's to accept. Arbitrary (but fun) quests, uninteresting (but amusing) detours, boss fights that have a false beginning (i.e. having to "fight" a boss that is invincible, but then fighting him for real after a cutscene that refills your health), and back-to-back boss fights are as present here as they would be in The Thousand Year Door. However, due to the faster pace of the combat in this game these design decisions seem very lazy and cobbled together. It's as if the designers decided halfway through designing the game that it shouldn't be a turn-based RPG anymore, but a platforming game in the vein of the Super Mario Bros. series. Regardless of the problems I have with the level design, the gameplay is great and reminiscent enough of Super Mario Bros., but with enough new ways to stomp goombas to be fresh. The entire package taken as a whole is easier to swallow, but not being able to fight the person who kidnapped you and forced you to work until you've completed her mundane task is a little depressing.
Remember when I said this game was made by M.C. Escher and Shigeru Miyamoto in equal measure? Well the M.C. Escher part comes in with the "flipping" mechanic. Like a great perspective painting Mario can flip between a two-dimensional and a three-dimensional perspective. While the second dimension looks alright, the three-dimensional perspective looks a little janky. The lines that make up the floor and background elements become jagged when flipping to the third-dimension. And while the visual style still holds up as well as the Thousand Year Door's did, it doesn't look as good in the third dimension. Still if you played The Thousand Year Door, you knew that moving between planes looked awful. However, you saw them less in that game so it is a more egregious error this time around. The sound effects are what you'd expect from the Paper Mario series, and are almost copy pasted from Thousand Year Door. The music, however, has not been copy/pasted. Yes, there is an obligatory 1-1 theme and the starman theme, but they're remixed in a spectacular way. There's also amazing new stuff like, Castle Bleck's Theme, the Brobot Battle theme, and even the base camp that is Flipside (and its sinister sounding cousin, Flopside) has a theme that never wear's out its welcome. It's a great package.
Super Paper Mario is titan, but a confused one. It has a tit-for-tat relationship with all of its facets. Did you like the party members in the Thousand Year Door? Their abilities and characterizations are here, but spread out among the Pixls and other characters. Did you think that Thousand Year Door wasn't fast enough? Super Paper Mario has faster combat, but the whole game seems slower thanks to its level design. The only thing left unchanged is the game's visual style and brilliant music. The whole package ends up looking like (metaphorically) a young boy wearing his father's clothes. The clothes are ill fitting, but he wears them anyway knowing why his father wears them, wanting to imitate him. Super Paper Mario likewise knows what his daddy did and does it well but is too fast for his own good.