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Sure, there's quite a bit of story, and you do gain levels as your score increases throughout the game, but instead of a big world ready to be explored, you're ushered from Chapter 1-1 to 1-2, 1-3 and then for a boss fight in 1-4. Repeat through 8-4, just like the good ol' NES days. The end of each world gives you a bit more of the story, introduces a new ability or two and maybe even throws in a new playable character - Peach, Bowser and eventually Luigi all become part of your heroic quartet.
Even the Wii Remote gets in on the old school action - it's held sideways, so everything handles like a true '80s Nintendo game. It's a great sensation to run through locales like Hell (aka the "Underwhere") with an uncomfortable rectangle mashed in your palms. Ah, the joys of pre-ergonomics ergonomics.
There's much more to this game's charm than simple nostalgia, however. Anyone with half a heart will absolutely fall in love with the characters, the graphics, the dialogue, the old-school shout-outs to previous games, the little visual effects lingering in the skies of every world... the love just keeps plopping out of the speakers at an incredible rate. For every annoying, excessively long fetch quest or mundane puzzle, there's a huge, cutesy payoff that makes all the trouble worthwhile.
Two quick examples: Early on you're saddled with a million dollar debt. You're supposed to work it off by running in a hamster wheel for about 20 minutes straight. Then you find a way to cheat the system and sneak by with only 10,000 bucks, just in time to watch the bank teller literally explode in shock.
A little later in the game you're searching for a piece of sacred parchment. The investigation spans an entire moon, takes most of level 4-2 to accomplish, only to have someone wipe their butt with it in the end. Honestly. The dude uses it for toilet paper. Some might get a little pissed, but we thought it was damn cute.
But if you want to get super technical, these aspects aren't all that different from Paper Mario 2. It was cute, overlooked and all that too, but other than a side-scrolling presentation, what's Super Paper doing different? Well, there's this whole "changing the world's axis" thing to make the game feel completely different from, well, almost anything you're playing today.
So you're running through a normal Mario level. Seen it a lot, probably. But with the push of the A button, Mario can move the viewpoint behind him and see this flat, 2D world from a whole new perspective. It seems simple and gimmicky at first, but there are so many creative uses in this 20+ hour quest that you'll be dying to invert axis the next time you bust out a 2D game. (True story - one editor went back to playing Symphony of the Night and had to re-adjust to the static side view.)
By moving the screen, impassible walls are just paper-thin shreds that have no depth and can easy be passed. Enemies that spanned the whole screen are now pushovers. Bottomless pits now contain caves that go "into" the screen and come out somewhere else. It's hard to describe, but the first time you switch views and see out into Mario's world, you'll totally understand.
Mario's the only one who can pull off this feat, but the other three aren't useless by any means. Peach, in a wonderful addition, uses her parasol like a glider (yes, like Super Mario Bros. 2 ); Bowser can breathe fire and deal heavier damage; and Luigi is able to bust out a super jump that rockets him right out of the screen. Certain areas require a lot of time sharing between heroes, but for the most part you'll be Mario, only switching to one of the others when they're needed. The axis flip is crucial to playing the game - breathing fire rarely is.
The various Pixls you acquire also go through periods of use and then total disuse. These little holographic critters are where your power comes from, but only one can be equipped at any time. It would have been nice to have the throwing power of Thoreau and the gliding ability of Carrie at the same time, but you're forced to menu-surf quite a bit. Other powers include shrinking, swinging a hammer, doing the butt-stomp, planting bombs and flipping areas of the screen like a window.
The point to gaining these powers is, naturally, to advance further in the game. And much like a Metroid or Castlevania game, your new powers let you go back and revisit old places for greater access. Thing is, replaying an entire level just to check out one potential lead, then be forced to finish the entire thing is incredibly grating. Why can't you get in, do your thing, pause and hop out of the world?
While the charm does start strong (the first two days of playing in the office drew a fairly consistent crowd, about the same number of people as the GTA IV trailer), everything starts to peter out close to the end. The plot thickens and loses its silliness, the different Pixls get used less and less and the levels start becoming more and more about wandering around looking for crap instead of having fun. So, much like Wind Waker, Metroid Prime 2 and Super Mario Sunshine, it's easy to get 75% through this and call it a day. Call it a GameCube Curse.