Super Paper Mario Retrospective

Video games, in all fairness, struggle to be funny. Sometimes charming but seldom witty, there are a few notable exceptions, such as pirate parody The Secret of Monkey Island or the dark humor of Portal (let’s not mention the juvenile Conker’s Bad Fur Day). Nintendo and Intelligent Systems’ Paper Mario titles are also subversively funny, and Super Paper Mario is a clever spin on the Mario platformer.

Adventures in Space and Time

Super Paper Mario on the Nintendo Wii was released in 2007, a direct sequel to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on GameCube and Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64. While those games were out-and-out RPGs, Super Paper Mario mashes up its genres, blending elements from classic platformers together with the leveling-up and character interactions from adventure RPGs.

New, innovative ways of manipulating game environments were a feature of this era – Super Paper Mario was released in the same year as Super Mario Galaxy (which played with gravity), space- and mind-bending puzzler Portal (which involved creating dimensional portals between locations), and was followed by indie platformer Braid (a game built around rewinding, slowing, or accelerating the flow of time). While not as tricky as those titles, Super Paper Mario features a neat gameplay hook of “flipping” the environment from a traditional 2D side-on view to a 3D perspective, a concept that’s easier to see than describe:

Super Paper Mario Flip

Super Paper Mario 3D Flip

Super Paper Mario reveals its depth – in every sense – through Mario’s ability to flip the traditional side-scrolling view onto a hidden z axis. By literally turning the game on its end, Mario can move in full 3D, avoid enemy attacks, access previously concealed platforms to dodge pits, and discover secrets that were otherwise hidden when viewed side-on. Super Paper Mario’s pop-up book aesthetic and cheery graphics play neatly into this unique gameplay hook.

So very nice to meet you… and your mustache!

Yet in combining adventure RPG elements and old-school platforming, Super Paper Mario isn’t quite able to split the difference – Intelligent Systems’ game is not deep enough as an RPG, nor as inventive or challenging as a platformer like Super Mario World. But no Mario game has ever made me laugh as much as this.

Cheeky and completely off-the-wall, Super Paper Mario’s cutesy, family-friendly exterior belies witty wordplay and irreverent characters. Setting the tone early on, one helpful character provides a “tutorial” on the flipping function:

1. In trouble? Flip!

2. Something suspicious? Flip!

3. Feeling saucy? Flip!

Super Paper Mario is packed with in-jokes about Mario’s mustache, and why Princess Peach is always being kidnapped by Bowser. The game is also fond of breaking the fourth wall – another helpful companion’s tutorial on the controls: “What’s this ‘One Button’, you say? You need not worry. The great being that watches us will know what it is.” And the developers were clearly having fun with the Fort Francis levels, in which Mario ventures through an 8-bit-themed world to rescue his companion from Francis, a geek in gecko guise.

Super Paper Mario Peach Francis

An unimpressed Princess Peach prepares to beat Francis at his own role-playing game.

Sealed in his fortress, surrounded by special collector’s editions of video games, comic books, and movies that he has never played, read, or seen, Francis is the meta-nerd – he is Comic Book Guy taken to the next level. Francis can’t talk to women (he uses a device programmed like an RPG game to walk him through his “options” when speaking with Peach), writes angry reviews on nerdy shows he hasn’t actually watched, and is obsessed with graphics cards. Super Paper Mario pokes fun at the fanboys – and why not?

Super Paper Mario Cragnon

My favorite section may be Land of the Cragnons, a cheerful prehistoric world of abstract-styled cavemen – hilariously, they also happen to have out-of-time television and other modern conveniences, as well as their own distinct patois:

Marbald: Yah? You not cragging my chain? Cragnons owe you big-time, brahs…

Jasperoid: You rock, serious!

Skarn: Yah, serious, no cragging! Big Rock Who Watches sent you to Cragnons, for sure!

Video games can immerse the player in drama and action, but humor has often been a blind-spot for developers. Irreverent and mischievous, Super Paper Mario deserves to be considered one of gaming’s funniest titles.

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