Super Paper Mario has the typical hallmarks of a 2D Mario platformer—stomp on enemies, jump over pits, and avoid obstacles—but failing carries minuscule stakes. If you fall into a pit, you only lose a single health point. The enemies are weak, by and large, and powerups and Shroom Shakes are plentiful. That it’s nearly impossible to die in the game garnered a lot of criticism in 2007, with players claiming Super Paper Mario made too many concessions to young children and was ‘dumbed down’ for the masses. But this criticism misses the point: Super Paper Mario is not a platformer so much as a role-playing game, a meta-commentary about acknowledging gaming’s past alongside its present.
The trajectory of the Paper Mario franchise reminds me of Metallica’s trajectory as a band. The early material (Paper Mario, The Thousand Year Door) is universally loved by the hardcore fanbase. The latter material (Sticker Star, the upcoming Color Splash) is simpler and more accessible, even though the original fanbase largely rejects it. And if one extends this metaphor, then Super Paper Mario is The Black Album of its franchise. It’s Mario at the crossroads, struggling with where he’s come from, where he is, and where he’s headed. The game has so much that it wants to show you that any additional challenge would only get in the way.
Part of Super Paper Mario’s mixed reception had to do with how and when it was released. The Wii had no Mario title when the console launched in December 2006. Super Mario Galaxy, originally slated for an early 2007 release, was pushed back to the end of the year, so, Super Paper Mario became the first Mario title on the Wii. It sold copies to a starved public on that premise alone, becoming the highest selling game of the Paper Mario franchise—4.23 million copies by the end of 2014, even though it’s not the most critically acclaimed.
Many fans who bought the game assumed it would be a classic Mario platformer. Nintendo did everything they could to advance that perception. Take a look at this commercial that aired in the U.S. at the time of release:
One has to laugh at the customer who booted up this game expecting wall-to-wall platformer action, who instead was forced to sit through 15 minutes of unskippable cutscenes, briefly interspersed with walking and talking.
Including the pre-title introduction (which was necessary for the plot to make sense), players had to sit through a little over 30 minutes of exposition before there was any sort of meaningful action. There was a lot of mumbo jumbo about a Light Prognosticus and a Dark Prognosticus and a Void and a villain named Count Bleck, and none of it made any sense until hours later. But once players got past this interminable exposition, there was so much to love and appreciate.
The core gameplay mechanic of Super Paper Mario is the ability to move from 2D to 3D. Mario views and interacts with each level from two different perspectives, and he ‘flips’ between them in order to solve puzzles. It’s a figurative representation of the Mario franchise, which evolved from 2D to 3D as technology advanced and tastes changed. Super Paper Mario plays out the age old debate that players have—2D or 3D? Nostalgia or newness?—and settles the debate by offering them both.
Here’s one of my favorite ‘flipping’ scenarios, which occurs fairly early in the game. You reach a large pit—so large that it’s impossible to jump over.
But when you flip into 3D...
...you can walk on the background. Even though the original Super Mario Bros. was in 2D, players made the visual assumption that it was a 2D representation of a 3D environment. Super Paper Mario brought that assumption to its logical conclusion.
Your jaw drops fairly frequently throughout the game. Oftentimes you’ll happen upon a dead end, only to flip to 3D and see a solution that you would have never considered. Take a look at this line of Thwomps, which seems extremely intimidating and insurmountable at first glance.
But when you flip to 3D…
It’s a common trick the developers employ...
Each time it happens it can’t help but put a smile on your face. For close to three decades, Thwomps and Chain Chomps and Boos and Hammer Brothers have been putting players through hell. It’s a visceral thrill to waltz past all of them, without challenge, for the very first time.
The best flipping sequences are those that reinvent the iconic Mario levels. There’s a recreation of 1-1 from Super Mario Bros that takes on an entirely different look when you flip it.
Fans, before and since, have done re-imaginings of what World 1-1 might looks like in three dimensions. But this is the first and only time that I’ve seen a recreation that staggers the blocks. Nintendo is playfully challenging our assumptions; it’s fun to see something iconic be reframed in such an unexpected way.
Or how about this classic sequence from 1-2 that, when flipped, reveals a pipe sandwiched within the staircase:
To me, this feels like discovering an Easter egg in the original 1985 game. In my head, the pipe had always been there, hidden from view until Mario’s flipping ability exposed it.
Super Paper Mario allows players to witness an evolution in gameplay, in real time, happening before their eyes. The old is re-appropriated with loving detail. When Mario grabs a Mega Star, he turns into a massive, invincible, 8-bit sprite of himself.
Peach will turn into an 8-bit Peach.
And Bowser will turn into an 8-bit Bowser.
These little tributes to Mario lore have a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect them. Right before your boss battle against Francis, a massive, nerdy, socially inept chameleon (for real), the distinctive red curtain from Super Mario Bros. 3 drops over the screen:
And when you travel to the Underwhere, the game’s version of Hell, the residents refer to it as “World -1,” a direct reference to Super Mario Bros.’s famous Minus World glitch:
The nostalgic meta references go on and on. You need to talk to everyone-especially the villagers in Flipside and Flopside—to get them all.
Nintendo values and loves its history, and that seems to be the implied message throughout the entire game. Super Paper Mario acknowledges that embracing one’s past is important, whether in games or (if you follow the storyline) in love. In an era of gaming that is increasingly transient—where physical media is being replaced by digital media; where technology is outdated by the time it hits shelves; where games function online-only; where games are simply erased from existence—history and the recording of that history becomes ever more crucial. Super Paper Mario, by reframing the past and unifying it with the present, made a compelling, heartfelt argument for its preservation.