Paradoxically, Super Paper Mario is like every Mario game you've ever played -- and like nothing you've seen before. All the iconic Mario mainstays -- breaking bricks, eating mushrooms, collecting coins, and navigating green pipes to save Princess Peach -- are back once again. But in the end, it's Paper Mario's staggeringly brilliant approach to game play that teaches an old Bowser new tricks. Still, without seeing it for yourself, it's kind of a bitch to explain just how it works. Let's try anyway.
In this, the third in the Paper Mario series, the characters you control appear as flat, simplistic, paper-doll versions of themselves. An explanation is never given -- you just have to accept it.
Besides the charming aesthetic of placing 2-D characters against 3-D backdrops, the paper plumbers serve a practical purpose: When Mario turns sideways, he's a sliver of himself and can fit through tall cracks. Luigi can float, like a sheet of newspaper, slowly toward the ground. The brothers can even tear the background like a notebook page to reveal 1-Up 'shrooms.
But Super Paper Mario takes this 2-D meets 3-D concept to another mind-bending level -- imagine The Matrix set in the Mushroom Kingdom.
The basic side-scrolling play will send a nostalgic chill up your spine, but beating levels requires Mario to "flip" from a 2-D environment to a 3-D one. Is a pipe too tall to leap over? Simply flip the screen into 3-D with the push of a button, and run around the pipe. The entire game forces you to think in multiple dimensions, angles, and perceptions. That's pretty nifty for a game about an Italian plumber who kicks turtle shells.
While hard to explain, Super Paper Mario is a breeze to play. For all the Wii remote's innovation, the game is actually controlled by holding the Wiimote sideways, like an old-school NES controller. Along the way, you'll meet helpful sidekicks called "Pixls," who lend you puzzle-solving tools -- wall-busting hammers, bombs, and even the ability to shrink Mario to flea size. Though the bulk of Wii games would force players to swing the Wiimote wildly to use these, Paper Mario rarely strays from the simple controls that sold millions in 1985.
If there's ever a moment you'll want to crumple Paper Mario into a ball and toss him in a wastebasket, it's during the game's xeroxed story-line interludes. As in The Legend of Zelda, this Nintendo title coasts by on the old "collect eight legendary items to save the world" plot and regales players with lengthy dialogue sections. While the situations are occasionally funny -- a Goomba cries "Gary! Nooo!" when one of his own is felled by an evil wizard; who knew those things had names? -- the dull story often slows the action to a crawl. (Still, sympathies go out to Gary the Goomba's family.)
Cutting through the many Mario spin-offs, Super Paper Mario stands as a must-buy for Wii owners and fans of overalls in general. Because non-"mini-game-based" titles for the Wii are rare these days -- and near-perfect, lengthy adventure titles even more so -- Super Paper Mario never feels flat. Even if its hero is.