Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Paper Mario

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Released on February 5, 2001 by Nintendo, and developed by Intelligent Systems, Paper Mario is an RPG featuring the adventures of the titular plumber, as he once again attempts to rescue Princess Peach from the clutches of the evil Bowser.
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The Personal Story:
Despite spending most of my childhood in the 1980's, Super Mario RPG for the Super Nintendo is the first RPG I ever played. I asked for the then new release as a Christmas gift because I saw it in a Nintendo Power and thought the top-down graphics looked incredible. However, I received a great shock during that Christmas of 1996 morning, as I attempted to jump on Super Mario RPG's first bad guy, and was taken to another screen and tossed into a turn-based battle. After my initial confusion, I was hooked, beat Super Mario RPG, and immediately played any Role Playing Game I could lay my hands on, peaking at Chrono Trigger, my favorite game to this day...then I picked up a NIntendo 64. Unfortunately, the 64 is not known as an RPG wonderland. Long after the Nintendo 64 had left store shelves, I went back and realized that a small handful of very special RPG's were indeed released for the system, but during my initial Nintendo 64 run, I had played none of them. In fact, by the time 2001 had rolled around, and the Nintendo 64, on its absolute last legs, was finally ready to offer up the 64-bit sequel to Super Mario RPG, I had moved on to my Sega Dreamcast, and when Dreamcast went defunct (RIP Dreamcast), jumped to the Gamecube. That sequel, Paper Mario, stayed far off my radar, until the day I pulled out my Nintendo 64 from storage and realized that it is the greatest video game system of all time, and that it features a massive ocean of games whose surface I had barely rippled. Paper Mario's chance had finally come.  

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Graphics: Instead of simply doing a more graphically-advanced version of Super Mario RPG's isometric perspective (3-D graphics from a 3/4 top-down perspective), Paper Mario tries its hand at something a bit different. The "paper" in the title is literal, and Mario, along with the rest of the game's characters and much of its world, are designed to look made of it. The effect is convincing and beautiful, like an old television cartoon. Paper Mario spins much humor from Mario's papery properties--send Mario off for a nap to recharge, and he wafts down into bed exactly like a flat sheet of paper in the wind. The game is full of clever visual moments, but they aren't the only feather in Paper Mario's graphical cap. Colors are so pleasingly bright and varied, one may wish that the developers of today's grey and blue-toned games would take some notes. Boss design is extremely fun, with many of the game's major villains reminiscent of something from a 1970's General Mills cereal box. The animations are all top-notch, as well, and the game is only is spared visual perfection by a few ugly drawn and over-pixelated background objects.

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Sound: During the late 90's...and to this day, Nintendo has faced accusations that their games are too cute. They have often subverted these accusations by making the best games of all time, with incredibly high production values. With that said, several aspects of Paper Mario's audio design are too cute. The sound effects are varied and well done, but they tip-toe that cutesy line between perfect and unbearable, and just barely manage not to fall into the latter. Paper Mario features no recorded speech, and all conversations and dialogue are conveyed via text. While text-only isn't out of the ordinary for an RPG of this era, the Nintendo 64 could have easily handled some speech. The lack of even a simple "It's a me, Mario," in the game's opening menu, especially coming nearly five years after Super Mario 64, is particularly strange.  In regard to music, Paper Mario's can be quite good, and in the latter portions, great, but it at points suffers from a few moments of...tossed in dog barking noises and low-quality midi-samples. These missteps seem out of place on such a high profile game, released during the Nintendo 64's final year as Nintendo's flagship console. Thankfully, these lousy moments in the soundtrack are the exception, not the rule. Most musical pieces for villages are suitably relaxing, the game's battle music is fun and energetic, and most of the score late in the game, as Mario ventures into icy, and then starry terrain is legitimately excellent. The theme for the Crystal Palace, Paper Mario's pen-ultimate dungeon, is a particular standout, and a Nintendo 64 highlight. 

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Gameplay: Super Mario RPG and most 90's RPG games allowed the player the control the protagonist, in this case Mario, and two other party members in combat against foes. Paper Mario only allows Mario to take one friend into battle. This at first seems like a detriment and an over-simplification, yet it leads to surprisingly deep strategizing in both character selection, and which fighting commands the player selects. Over the course of the game, Mario takes on eight different party members, all who stick around to the end, but as mentioned, only one at a time can join him in the fray. The eight characters are incredibly diverse and well-designed, each bringing something legitimately different to the table. Bombette the Bom-omb, for instance, features the strongest attacks, but if Mario goes into battle against a group of foes, not bound by the rule of two, by the way, and several of those foes float or fly, the ground-bound Bombette can do little against them. Thankfully, the player can switch members mid-fight, but they must spend a turn doing so. In this case, the player could switch to the winged Paratroopa, Parakarry, who can make short work of airborne foes. The choice of character also effects Paper Mario's non-flight gameplay. Mario may come to a damaged wall, and need Bombette to blow it out of the way, or he may come to a ledge and need Parakarry to take him across to the other side. All eight party members have their own unique properties in this way, and the game is designed so that all eight are indispensable. Thankfully, in non-combat gameplay, the party member can be changed with the touch of the button. 

Speaking of non-combat gameplay, the more adventure and platform-based sections of the game are a joy to play. As in most RPG's, Mario goes to a town, that town has problems, the problems are centered around a dungeon-like area, and Mario must enter the dungeon and defeat the bad guys to solve them. Once the bad guys are beaten, Mario moves on to the next town. Thankfully, Intelligent Design has added far more layers to this familiar design. Before dungeon-diving, Mario may have to go on a quest to find some missing Yoshi kids, save some Koopas from some irritating fuzzies, or even solve a (humorous) murder mystery. Many of these pre-dungeon quests are a blast, and even some of the dungeons may suddenly get derailed into a fun sidetrack. This keeps the game unpredictable and far from boring. As far as plot goes, there's some stuff about magical stars and a rod of invincibility, and Bowser doing a bunch of naughty stuff and kidnapping the Princess again, along with her entire castle this time. Thankfully, this well-worn tale is spun in an extremely humorous fashion, with the text-based dialogue crackling, and the aforementioned visual humor moving the plot along, as well. 
Paper Mario's most major wrinkle, however, is that Mario is not always the main protagonist. To subvert the usual Mario plot, the game shifts from Mario's perspective after every dungeon is beaten, to that of Princess Peach. While Peach may be exiled in her stolen castle, which is hovering high above the Mushroom Kingdom, she is not just lying around, waiting to be rescued. As Peach, the player will take on such diverse tasks as spying, theft, and baking a cake, all which in turn further Mario in his quest to reach her. These mini-quests with Peach are a great change of pace, and give an already diverse game an embarrassment of gameplay riches.
The heart of the game, though, as is true for most RPG's, is in the battles. As mentioned, the two-party system adds several strategy wrinkles. Mario can choose between using physical attacks (utilizing his feet and his battle hammer), the most powerful of which deplete his flower (magic) bar, or using an item (to heal, up his attack or defense power, or to attack). He can also choose to use one of the star moves he has learned, which deplete the corresponding star bar. The amount of star moves available to Mario grow in number respective to the star spirits he rescues. More minimally, the sidekick the player has chosen can spend it's turn either attacking, switching to another member, or running away. The player can choose whether Mario or the sidekick moves first. However, the sidekick cannot use an item or star moves. Only Mario can. This is where, again, strategy comes heavily into play.   
Finally, the player must also strategize how they want to level up Mario and friends. Experience points are earned for every battle won, unless the foe defeated is considerably weaker than Mario. Once a player collects 100 experience points, they can choose to either increase their available hitpoints (amount of damage they can sustain in battle without dying), increase their flower points (which are used to enact magic moves), or badge points. Throughout the game, the player collects special badges that lend Mario and friends special privileges. Only a certain amount of badges can be used at once, in conjunction with however many badge points the player has earned...again, strategy. Some of these badges are quite hard to find. 

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Lasting Value: If the reader of this review has not picked up on the subtext to this point,  it should be said bluntly: for a game that on the surface seems cute and childish, Paper Mario is surprisingly complex. As the first-time player learns the nuances of the fight system early in the game, they will often die in battle. When these nuances are mastered, the player may never lose another life, except perhaps to one of the game's latter bosses. Getting to those bosses and through Paper Mario's massive world takes quite a while, though, and the player will burn nearly 30 to get to the final boss. Beyond that are extra items to collect, and side-quests, not key to conquering the game, that can extend Paper Mario's playing time even longer. This is no short quest. 

The paper-style graphics are a lot of fun and easy on the eyes, coupled with great character design, especially the bosses, and a visually arresting color palette.
Music and Sound
No voice, despite coming so late in the 64's run, but decent, if stereotypically Nintendo sound-effects, along with a good score, slightly marred by some low-quality midi samples.
Deceptively-deep turn-based battles, juxtaposed with some enjoyable, yet simple platforming and puzzle-solving, and a lovely, breezy sense of humor.
Lasting Value
Around 30-hours of non-stop entertainment, and that's without finishing all of the side-quests.