Super Paper Mario

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Super Paper Mario by Intelligent Systems, for the Nintendo Wii, directed by Ryota Kawade (2007).

This is the third Paper Mario game. The first, Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64, was a simple and elegant role-playing game using the characters from Nintendo’s “Mario” series of games with a neat RPG system; I reviewed it back in January. The second in the series, 2004’s Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door for the Nintendo GameCube, was a pretty straightforward repeat of the Paper Mario gameplay, with nicer graphics and a very witty plot.

1. Two innovations

Super Paper Mario has two significant innovations. One is graphically and conceptually spectacular, and was hyped in the game’s advertising, and is somewhat of a failure. The other is subtle, little commented on, and a big success. It’s not surprising that the marketing should emphasize the former, but slightly disappointing that the reviewers should mostly miss the latter (based on a limited sample at metacritic.com). I guess the marketing creates expectations that influence what reviewers think and write.

The feature that everyone commented on is the combined 2D/3D gameplay. Mario, a character in a standard 2-dimensional platform-game world, gains a power that allows him to turn sideways, revealing that his 2D world is but a paper-thin façade on a 3-dimensional underlying reality.

This is initially very exciting, because the first level is laid out in similar fashion to a traditional Super Mario level, and deliberately invites the comparison: “look what you can do now!” If you can’t get over an obstacle, go around it in the third dimension; if you can’t jump over an enemy, go around it in the third dimension.

A barrier in 2DNo barrier in 3D A wall may be a barrier in two dimensions, but there’s no difficulty in three dimensions.

2. 2D is beautiful, 3D is big

But I have to say that the novelty soon wore off and it quickly became rather tedious. The trouble is that there are only a small number of kinds of ways the 2D/3D interaction is used:

And that’s pretty much it. The way it plays out in practice is that you play in 2D until you get stuck, and then you switch to 3D and look for the hidden passage or concealed item. The mechanism seems rather limited in its application. And I sympathise with the designers: I spent some time trying to think of exciting new 2D/3D puzzle ideas that were omitted in Super Paper Mario, and I pretty much drew a blank. Tough assignment, guys!

You can tell that the designers realised, at some level, that their innovation wasn’t really all that good, because they bolted on a gameplay element to stop you using 3D travel too much. You can see it in the right-hand screenshot above: the multi-coloured meter underneath the hit points. The meter gradually runs down as long as you stay in 3D, and when it gets to zero, you start to lose hit points. The meter recharges as soon as you transition back to 2D. This kind of bolt-on device to prevent you overusing a gameplay mechanism is evidence that the game designers weren’t able to find a natural way to balance it. I think I can probably reconstruct some of the steps they went through in their design process:

  1. Why not let the player use 3D all the time?
    — Parts of the game become too easy: you can just walk round all the obstacles and each level becomes a walk from the entrance to the exit. (Indeed, if you watch Sri Singh’s speedrun you can see that this is exactly what a good player can do, even with the meter.)

  2. Why not make 3D just as hard to navigate as 2D, by filling it with stuff?
    — The 3D world is much, much, bigger than the 2D world. If you filled 3D with stuff, it would completely overwhelm 2D both visually and in terms of gameplay.

  3. So how about having some kind of natural balance, perhaps in the form of “ammunition” items that you can collect, each of which gives you a certain amount of time in 3D?
    — But we want to have puzzles where 3D is essential, for example a locked room where you can only escape using 3D. A player who takes too long to work out the solution will use up their ammo and then they’ll be stuck.

  4. How about regenerating ammo (like in the 3D Zelda games where essential items can be obtained by cutting grass which then grows back, or killing monsters which then regenerate)?
    — But this would give away the places where you’re required to use 3D, because we would have to put regenerating ammo nearby. We could try to disguise this by putting regenerating ammo everywhere, but then there would be no limit on your use of 3D. [I think this might have worked out better than the meter: it’s not as if there was ever any doubt about where to use 3D. And at least there would have been some gameplay in collecting the ammo. Maybe the problem only became apparent very late in development, so that only a quick-and-dirty solution was possible?]

  5. OK, then, how about bolting on a meter?

In fact, the meter was wasted on me, because of the difference in quality of the graphics between 2D and 3D. The 2D graphics are often extraordinarily beautiful, with abstract worlds based on retro video game themes, drawn in sharp, bold lines. One level is drawn in reverse video, with mesmerizing shining white torches on a deep black background. At the start of each level the screen is completely cleared, and then the world is drawn, first in outline as a single line traces the landscape, and then filled in with colour (see screenshot below left). There are occasional coups des yeux such as the moment when one of the levels is destroyed and reduced to the utter essentials of platform gaming: a single black line at the bottom of the screen, giving a sense of devastation and loss more effectively than many a fancy effect. (The screenshot below right doesn’t really do justice to the emotional impact. But it does exemplify Nintendo of America’s editorial rule that an ellipsis is non-spacing at both ends, contrary to Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style.)

The start of level 1 in outlineThe world reduced to a single line Visual tours-de-force. Left: each world appears first in outline before being coloured in. Right: a destroyed world is reduced to a single black line.

By contrast to the beauty of 2D, the 3D graphics are subject to the usual frailties of the medium: aliasing, pixel creep, fogging, anisotropy. They look OK, but nothing like as nice as the 2D graphics. So I was always reluctant to play in 3D, and always left it as a last resort.

3. Combat

The second, and successful, innovation is in the combat. Like the previous Paper Mario games, Super Paper Mario is an RPG in which fighting enemies makes up a significant proportion of the gameplay. There’s more platforming and exploration than in the previous two, but fighting is more than half the game.

Combat in traditional Super Mario games is completely skill-based: all about running and jumping at exactly the right time in the right direction at the right speed. Advancement comes as the player improves in skill.

At the extreme end of the scale are pure RPGs, in which very little of combat is based on player skill. Instead, outcomes are dependent on statistics earned by characters from experience or some other reward system. Advancement comes mainly from the experience built up by the character, and only to a small extent from player improvements in tactics and strategy.

Super Paper Mario achieves a near-perfect blend of these two forms of gameplay, in which character experience and player skill are balanced.

A low-level Mario deals 1 point of damageA high-level Mario deals 4 points of damage RPG gameplay provides a way to trade time for skill while keeping the fast-moving free-flowing gameplay of the Super Mario games. Left: a low-level Mario deals 1 point of damage to a squiglet, earning 100 experience points. Right: a higher level Mario deals 4 points of damage to a samurai warrior.

How does this work? There are three components to combat: tactics, skill, and experience.

Tactics. The game takes the attack/defence mechanics from the turn-based battles of the previous Paper Mario games. Your characters have multiple kinds of attack (for example, Mario can jump on enemies or hit them with his hammer) and each variety of enemy may be resistant to a subset of these, for example spiked enemies cause you damage if you try to jump on them, and armoured enemies take no damage from the hammer. For each enemy you have to learn its system of strengths and weakness. You have the option of swapping between four characters: Mario has a hammer for hitting spiky enemies and can use his 3D ability; Bowser can breathe fire and scores extra damage when jumping on enemies; Peach is invulnerable when sheltered by her umbrella; Luigi can jump the highest. You also can choose to employ one of eleven “pixls”, companions that have an offensive or defensive ability. Choosing the right combination of character and pixl can be critical to winning some battles, and can turn a difficult fight into an easy one.

Skill. The action command mechanism which introduced a limited form of timing-based play to the turn-based Paper Mario games comes to life in the form of exquisite timed behaviour of the enemies. Some may be vulnerable only at certain phases of their behaviour, or only on certain parts of their bodies. Other have powerful timed attacks that must be dodged.

Experience. On the RPG side (as usual), as your characters level up they gain hit points and increase the damage they can deal. This allows players to trade off time for skill. You have the strategic choice of bypassing battles and forging ahead at the level you are, relying on your skill to survive, or fighting all the battles you can to gain experience. Most likely you’ll do the latter because the combat is so much fun.

What makes the tactical part of the game work so well is the enormous variety of enemies, and the attention to detail in their programming. Combat never becomes routine, and you never stop having to pay attention, learn new behaviours, and develop new counter-tactics. There are, I think, 175 different types of ordinary enemies, plus 22 bosses. Many of them have behaviours that have been developed and refined over many years and many games, but it is nonetheless a quite astonishing piece of work from only six programmers.

A small part of the Super Paper Mario menagerie, courtesy of the Super Mario Wiki.
Goomba
Goomba
Spiked Goomba
Spiked
Goomba
Paragoomba
Paragoomba
Gloomba
Gloomba
Headbonk Goomba
Headbonk
Goomba
Koopa Troopa
Koopa
Troopa
Mega Koopa
Mega
Koopa
Koopatrol
Koopatrol
Paratroopa
Paratroopa
Buzzy Beetle
Buzzy
Beetle
Spike Top
Spike
Top
Parabuzzy
Parabuzzy
Spiky Parabuzzy
Spiky
Parabuzzy
Stone Buzzy
Stone
Buzzy
Spiny
Spiny
Lakitu
Lakitu
Dull Bones
Dull
Bones
Dry Bones
Dry
Bones
Hammer Bro
Hammer
Bro
Boomerang Bro
Boomerang
Bro
Fire Bro
Fire
Bro
Magikoopa
Magikoopa
Koopa Striker
Koopa
Striker
Toopa Striker
Toopa
Striker
Soopa Striker
Soopa
Striker
Clubba
Clubba
Squiglet
Squiglet
Squig
Squig
Squog
Squog
Squoinker
Squoinker
Sproing-Oing
Sproing-Oing
Boing-Oing
Boing-Oing
Zoing-Oing
Zoing-Oing
Boomboxer
Boomboxer
Beepboxer
Beepboxer
Blastboxer
Blastboxer
Piranha Plant
Piranha
Plant
Putrid Piranha
Putrid
Piranha
Frost Piranha
Frost
Piranha
Crazee Dayzee
Crazee
Dayzee

A typical problem with RPGs is that the easiest way to play them is grinding, fighting many easy but tedious battles in order to gain power before going on to the harder challenges. In theory you could do this in Super Paper Mario but in practice there are two features of the game that make it a rather unattractive proposition to the player. First, most of the enemies don’t regenerate. Once you’ve killed them, they stay dead. So if you’re determined to grind you have to go pretty far afield to find the regenerating enemies in places like the “Pit of 100 trials”. Second, the levels are very long and very linear, and there is a shortcut only in one direction (a “return to the hub world” spell), so if you want to grind your way past a challenge you are going to face a very long walk back to the action through a mostly empty level. (Note that these are natural limitations: no need for an anti-grinding meter!)

4. Intertextuality

Super Paper Mario enjoys playing with the conventions of video games, sending up a few well-known game devices.

One of the levels begins with Mario breaking a precious vase, and being compelled to labour until he has repaid the 100,000 coins that the vase supposedly cost. Initially the only money-making opportunity is running on a treadmill and jumping to hit blocks, each of which dispenses a single coin. Running on the treadmill for hundreds of hours looks like a pretty grim prospect, and it’s only because I trusted that the game designers wouldn’t actually make me do this that I didn’t switch off the game right then. It’s an amusing commentary on the repetitive nature of many video game tasks.

In another level there’s a miniboss that you must fight using a textual turn-based interface straight out of an 1980s microcomputer RPG (see screenshot below left). Deprived of the chance to use your skill to avoid attacks or compensate for your lack of hit points, you realise how good the combat system is in the rest of the game.

At another point, playing as Princess Peach to infiltrate the lair of a nerdy chameleon, you find yourself playing a dating simulation—but on the wrong side (see screenshot below right). The horror of this situation very effectively highlights the sexism of the dating simulation genre.

Text-only gameplayPeach is stuck in a dating sim Playfulness with video game conventions. Left: a miniboss must be fought using a turn-based textual interface. Right: playing Princess Peach, you get stuck on the wrong side of a dating simulation.

5. Translation woes

The quality of the script is pretty high, and the translation is often witty. But one of the levels is populated by “Nimbi”, angelic beings who speak in Early Modern English (there’s a nice joke about “shuffling off this immortal coil”). The person who localized the script from Japanese into English did not know how to write Early Modern English, and as a result most of the lines of dialogue in this level have a grammatical or lexical solecism. The lesson is that if you don’t know how to write a language, you must at the very least get someone who does to proofread your work. You wouldn’t make this mistake with a foreign language, for example using your O-level French to translate the game. At least, I hope not. If any game writers are reading this, be honest about your own competence!

Help cannot reacheth himShuttest thy trap In the “Nimbi” level, most lines of dialogue have a grammatical or lexical error.

To prove that it’s not just my opinion, here’s a comparison of lines from the Super Paper Mario script with grammatically similar phrases in Shakespeare:

Rule Super Paper Mario Shakespeare Reference
Mine/thine before a vowel; my/thy before a consonant. Doth it make mine hair look … hot? He said mine eyes were black, and my hair black As you like it III.5
Thank thee for thine help Without thy help, by me be borne alone. Sonnet 36
The imperative does not inflect. Makest those beasts pay for their wrongs! Make those that do offend you suffer too. Much ado about nothing V.1
Speakest of my father Speak of the spring Sonnet 53
Dost what thou canst Do what thou canst Henry VI part I I.2
Taketh that! Take that, the likeness of this railer here. Henry VI part III V.5
Modal verbs like can and must take the infinitive. Help cannot reacheth him For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee, Sonnet 38
Thou must givest us the yellow orb! Thou must leave ere long Sonnet 73
The first person present tense does not inflect. I goeth to help the others I go to take my stand Julius Caesar II.4

There are many other mistakes less easy to demonstrate, such as the use of “thou” to address more than one person, and a lack of appreciation that “hither” and “thither” are not synonyms for “here” and “there”.

The worst single speech, for sheer density of error, is perhaps this: “Climbest onto the pedestal hither and placest the three orbs! Dost it now!”

Maybe one day one of the English translators (North American Localization: Nathan Bihldorff, Julian Chunovic, Reiko Ninomiya, Erik Peterson, Scot Ritchey) will google his or her name, read this, and resolve henceforth to translate only into languages that he or she speaks fluently.

6. Puzzles

The fighting side of the game is good, but the puzzle side is pretty weak. There are the usual staples of finding hidden items and using keys to unlock doors, but not much beyond that. Except for two puzzles which are surprisingly hard and seem a bit out of place. One has five sconces which you can light and extinguish. Short of ideas, I started systematically trying all 32 subsets, and discovered that if you light a specific three, then the puzzle is solved. This seemed rather unsatisfactory; maybe I missed a clue?

Then there’s the puzzle involving eight blocks, and eight switches, each of which causes a subset of the blocks to change its status (if up, it goes down, and vice versa). A different subset for each switch. You have to raise all 8 blocks to the up position.

I find that in my notes for the game the following program appears:

(let*
    ;; Each element in the list 'switches' is a set of blocks
    ;; toggled by one of the switches, represented as an 8-bit
    ;; binary number.
    ((switches '(#b10101101
                 #b11110110
                 #b10011010
                 #b01111001
                 #b11101010
                 #b00011111
                 #b01100111
                 #b11010101))
     (n (length switches)) ; Number of switches.
     (2^n (lsh 1 n)))      ; Number of sets of switches.
  ;; Loop over all sets of switches.
  (loop for set below 2^n
        if (eql (1- 2^n)
            ;; XOR all the switches in the set.
            (loop for j below n
                  for v = (logand (lsh set (- j)) 1)
                  for x = 0 then (logxor x (* v (nth j switches)))
                  finally return x))
        return set))

It’s an interesting problem: I suppose you could call it a “SUBSET XOR problem”, by analogy with the well-known NP-hard “SUBSET SUM problem”. Although my program exhaustively searches all subsets, in fact SUBSET XOR can be solved by Gaussian elimination in O(n3).1 In the context of the game it’s quite surprising both that such a hard puzzle should appear, and that there should be only be one such puzzle.


  1.  A reader e-mailed to ask for more details. Well, it’s pretty simple really, you just reformulate the problem as a matrix multiplication. In the Super Paper Mario example, you want to find the position (0 = off, or 1 = on) of eight switches (call them a to h) that will result in all blocks being present. This turns into the following matrix multiplication:

    You have to remember that when you would normally do addition you have to do XOR instead, which is just addition modulo 2, or as mathematicians like to put it, “addition over GF(2), the Galois field with 2 elements”. To solve for ah, invert the square matrix, by Gaussian elimination (or otherwise), and multiply both sides by the inverse (again remembering to do XOR instead of addition).