As mentioned before, we’ve finished Paper Mario 2. Which is a bit of an event: it is, by my count, the fifth video game that Liesl has ever finished. Though it’s not as surprising as that statistic makes it seem: two of the previous games that she finished were the original Paper Mario and the not-entirely-unrelated Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. The other two games, for the curious, are the two Golden Sun games, which I heartily recommend. What the Paper Mario and Golden Sun games have in common, as far as I can tell, is that they’re RPGs where you can use your special abilities (magic and equivalents) on non-battle screens as well as in battles, giving rise to Zelda-style dungeons. (The Zelda games fall into the category of games that Liesl starts but doesn’t finish; I’m not sure she’s even started any RPGs other than the ones discussed here, though admittedly we don’t have a lot of them around the house.)

So what’s the verdict? It’s obviously a pretty good game, or we wouldn’t have finished it. It does a lot of things in somewhat non-traditional RPG fashion, often with superior results. Aside from being able to use magic anywhere, I particularly appreciate the fact that monsters are visible. The fact that they don’t respawn in dungeons doesn’t hurt, either.

And lots of the RPG mainstays are given enough of a spin to be somewhat fresh: one of the dungeons isn’t a dungeon at all, another one is nicely mxed up with the associated overworld/city areas. I like the inter-chapter scenes featuring Peach and Bowser. It’s nicely balanced – as my ability to buy video games increases, I no longer have much tolerance for games whose play time is extended by mindless difficulty. (Or even, at times, mindful difficulty…) The Luigi appearences are pretty funny.

Having said that, while I quite enjoyed the game, I wasn’t blown away by it. Not much has changed since the first game; there are many worse things in the world than a video game sequel repeating the virtues of a well-done original, but it’s not the ideal that I hope for. I liked the relative lack of annoying overworlds, but the cities aren’t as strong as I’d hoped. The main city has some amount of territory to explore; the other cities are tiny. There are side quests, but they’re frequently tedious and don’t advance the plot at all.

And speaking of plots, that’s one advance in modern RPGs that Paper Mario has completely missed out on: the increased focus on plots. Princess Peach has gotten kidnapped; surprise, surprise. Yes, it’s not Bowser doing the capturing, but we’ve seen that slight twist before. There’s some nonsense about saving the world, but it’s hardly convincing, certainly not enough to make up for the lack of imagination in the “find the seven crystal stars” idea.

Also, while I’m complaining, it (admittedly, like most other RPGs) hits on one of my pet peeves – what’s the deal with having a large party but not letting you use all of them in battle? What are the other characters doing while you and your chosen primary companion(s) are fighting – eating popcorn and betting on the outcome? At least Paper Mario doesn’t have the character balancing issues that this can lead to in other games, since experience points only affect the main character, but I don’t get the idea behind giving you lots of characters without letting you actually use them. Of course, the answer is that it would be tedious to manage tons of characters in every battle, and it would be hard to balance regular battles with boss battles that way, but wouldn’t a better answer be to limit the number of sidekicks? (Maybe that would lead to a more concentrated and more effective plot, too…)

Better presentation would have helped, too. They’ve gone about as far as they can with this 2D-in-3D shtick; while voice acting might be out of place in this game, it might not, and I can’t help but wonder if the 2D thing is used as an excuse to skimp on production values elsewhere instead of as a strong design choice of its own.

All kvetching aside, I had a lot of fun with it, and it was one of the better games that I’ve played this year. I just wish Nintendo would get out of some of the ruts they’re in.

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