I’m (well, we’re, but more about that some other time) in the middle of Paper Mario 2 right now, and it’s setting off such a cascade of reactions, I figured I’d better start posting about it now instead of waiting until I’m done with the game. It’s not that the game is so stunningly excellent – I quite like it, but no more so than several other games – but rather that it’s interestingly and productively different from other RPG’s out there.

I had been lumping this game together with its N64 predecessor Paper Mario (for obvious reasons) and with a GBA game from a year or so ago, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. And while its gameplay has only minor differences from the original Paper Mario, it’s actually quite different from Superstar Saga, and, frankly, a good deal better. (Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Superstar Saga.) The difference that is relevant to this entry is one that I’ve also noticed when comparing handheld Zelda games with their N64/Gamecube compatriots.

Superstar Saga and the 2D Zelda games divide the non-dungeon parts of the world into a rectangular grid. Some of the grid contains the various cities and towns; the rest of the grid is the overworld. This overworld typically has walls of trees, waters and other barriers limiting your navigation through the world, and making it somewhat tricky to avoid wandering monsters. Sometimes, the overworld can have interesting enough puzzles; most of the time, it’s just boring.

In the 3D Zelda games and in the Paper Mario games (which have flat sprites but are more 3D in other ways), the overworld has quite a different effect. The 3D Zelda games may have just as much, or even more (I really have no idea) overworld as their 2D counterparts, but it’s much less oppressive. (Well, at least on the N64: Wind Waker, the Gamecube Zelda game, had way too much overworld to slog through.) You don’t run into artificial barriers every couple of seconds, there aren’t grid transitions constantly popping up, it’s much easier to avoid wandering monsters if you’re in a peaceful mood, and you have a nice, fast mode of transportation to let you go through the game. The Paper Mario 2 overworld behaves much more like a 2D overworld in terms of dividing the world up into a grid and having artificial barriers everywhere, but there’s an incredibly small amount of overworld, so it turns into a pleasant diversion instead of a chore.

Also, while I in general prefer cities to overworlds, it’s also the case that, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I much prefer the cities in the 3D games to the cities in the 2D games. There just seem to be more interesting people to talk to, more nooks and crannies to explore, more favors to do for people. This last factor should not be minimized: in particular, one reason why Majora’s Mask was so wonderful was the little notebook of things to do other than make progress the main plot. It gave you things to do while wandering around, it recognized (and bounded) those things (the presence of the notebook makes a difference, too), and some of those tasks fit into story arcs of their own (I probably got as much satisfaction out of setting up the wedding in that game as in actually beating the main boss).

Which made me wonder: wouldn’t I prefer an adventure or RPG without any overworld at all, where the whole game was one big city? And, of course, I have played such a game: Shenmue. Which rocked. Ever since its sequel came out for the Xbox, I’ve wanted to get the console; but buying a whole console just for one game seemed a bit much. So I kept on waiting for another must-have game to appear on it. I think, however, that the time is fast approaching when I will give in and admit that yes, I do want to play Shenmue II enough to justify buying a console just for it. Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure I’ll buy other games for it once I have the console – there just aren’t any other games that will leave a void in my soul if I never play them.

I also wonder if the Grand Theft Auto series has the all-city feel that I’m looking for. I’ve stayed away from the series largely because I’m not sure I’d want to explain them to Miranda, but I do feel uncultured for not having played them. Of course, they’re not adventure / RPGs to begin with, but they might have an appropriate mix of exploration, task completion (like a modern platformer but more coherent), plot, and what not to make me feel happy.

In this discussion, I have of course ignored the fact that RPGs have not only cities and towns but also dungeons. To that, I will say that, while I do enjoy a well-constructed dungeon, the 4 dungeons that recent Zelda games have had instead of the traditional 8 (or whatever the number is) is, I think, about the right number from my point of view. Though the dungeons in The Ocarina of Time really were a lot of fun…

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