Much admired by gamers who stuck with the Nintendo 64, the visually creative Paper Mario has finally spawned a polished sequel on the GameCube. As Paper Mario RPG begins Mario receives a letter from Princess Peach, and dutifully sets sail to Hoodlum Town, only to discover Lord Batsugaruf of the Megabaten has kidnapped her. From here the player embarks upon a quest to collect seven Star Stones, stop some diabolical evil, and rescue the Princess. Along the way Mario visits an unusual forest and a village with a terrible curse, reaches outer space, helps a sleuthing detective, and becomes a star wrestler.
Hoodlum Town acts as the game's central hub, which Mario explores further as the game progresses, using abilities earned along the way. This traditional RPG setting gives us item shops, inns, loiterers offering poor conversation, and tasks of the nature 'get item A from character X, then give item A to character Y to get item B'. These elements are played out as very standard 16-bit RPG fare; functional but unremarkable. Thankfully Paper Mario RPG does add a generous dollop of charm to its cast of characters, including some entertaining back story featuring Peach and Bowser.
During his travels, Mario meets several companions who join him, each with their own special abilities. Party members can fight in battle arenas, and also help negotiate puzzles and platforms. Christunu the Goomba offers advice, Vivian can hide Mario in her shadow, baby Yoshi is able to jump long distances, Nokataro can smash blocks with his shell, and so on. You will often rely on more than one companion's abilities, as well as Mario's own, to overcome a single well-crafted puzzle. The imagination and quality shown by some of these challenges puts the RPG questing to shame; there are the ingredients here for a cracking little platform puzzler.
Getting down to it, the 'Action Battle System' is the real heart of this game: an action-oriented take on turn based battling. Offensive moves are executed by well-timed input commands, which isn't the cute bit of design fluff you might imagine. Later battles depend heavily upon the player mastering each character's attack moves, and even how to block each enemy's attack (by hitting B at the moment of impact). Battles take place in a 2D plane, with some attacks that only affect the nearest enemy, or enemies in a certain position. This straightforward setup rewards good attack strategies that eliminate the most dangerous opponents first, and that allow you to plan moves in advance.
The most striking aspect of Paper Mario RPG is the 'picture book' visual style of the first game, given greater justice here on the GameCube. Every visual element within the game is designed to fit this flattened aesthetic, weaving the idea of paper construction into the gameplay itself. Characters resemble printed images cut from Nintendo game manuals of old, who are literally paper-thin. Mario wanders around 'sets' that look like miniature models, with broad strokes of colour and simple physical design. Battles take place in a single theatre, with layers of painted scenery propped up in the background, cleverly poking fun at the approximation found in battle arenas from other games.
This paper design leaks into the gameplay in two main ways. Mario himself can attain special abilities based on paper folding (without giving too much away), allowing him to reach the hitherto unreachable. These paper abilities are brilliantly realised, and using them to discover a new area or hidden room is a very satisfying experience. Paper is also used as a visual signature throughout - 3D elements become 2D sheets of paper that are folded, flipped-over, torn, turned like pages in a book, and so on. These transformations are always impressive, although rarely depend on the player thinking 'paper' in order to trigger them.
As the story unfurls, it's clear the designers have had a little fun with the prized Nintendo intellectual property, and the unusual picture book game world. Some characters address 'the people behind the TV' (and others ask what that could possibly mean), there’s a running joke of Mario being something of a “ladies’ man” who is kissed by female characters, and Luigi's main role in the game is to bore Mario. The game world is, however, predictably consistent once you've grown accustomed to it; there are no substantial surprises to be had from the game's paper construction. So while it's true Intelligent Systems have dropped-in a few wry jokes and references, Paper Mario RPG is a long way from providing the kind of subversion you might have hoped for (Bowser's wonderful mini game excepted).
By the time you reach the end, Paper Mario RPG will have presented a considerable challenge; most players will find their game time clocking-in at thirty to forty hours. The shortcomings of the RPG exploration is made up for by the endearing characterisation, and splendid battle system. It is curious, then, that Mario himself is the least charismatic character in the game; his black, empty, beady little eyes betray his empty in-game personality. This may have been utterly intentional, as Mario never questions or offers an opinion - that is left to the player - but a strong narrative device is lost. In balance then, despite placing the value of its colourful cast above providing a compelling story, Paper Mario RPG is a visually original, addictive and enjoyable game.
Review by Richard Davies