What do we want from our nostalgia?
Many of us, especially those of us who have, say, been out of college a few years, or have kids, or remember when The Police were a fresh new sound in music, are utterly convinced that things used to be better than they are right now. They don’t make world leaders like they used to, they don’t make pop music like they used to, heck, they don’t make cars like they used to; everything’s coated in plastic, everything now is too superficial and slick. What happened to the ton-and-a-half musclecars? Why isn’t there more dialogue in today’s movies?
This holds particularly true for video games—the technology keeps getting better, but what about the games? Those weaned on the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System surely appreciate the graphical advances and cinematic feel of much of modern gaming, but the complicated control mechanics and pitch-black themes of recent entries on the worldwide game bestseller lists are leaving many behind. What was wrong with Mario and Mega Man? Why do we need Tommy Vercetti propositioning hookers in Vice City or Tony Montana disemboweling his enemies with a chainsaw in order to have a good time?
It would be easy to tell these stubborn old-schoolers to go back to their old games—modern consoles cater to these not-what-they-used-to-be’s via download services that allow gamers to legally re-buy the old games that made their childhood the utopia they so obviously remember it to be. And maybe it’s the constant sensory overload of modern times, maybe it’s just the rose-tinted that we see the past through, but there’s a bit of an empty feeling in playing the games of our past. Those games are never quite as entertaining as we remember.
If there’s any company that recognizes the old-school gamer’s longing for nostalgia, it’s Nintendo—why else would they put their A-1 design teams on games that are continuing the sagas of 20-year-old franchises? And yet, one gets the sense, as they do things like give Luigi his own game and put a water-powered jetpack on Mario, that even Nintendo senses the creeping staleness of the franchises as they once existed. This, then, is where the Paper Mario offshoot, and specifically its newest Wii incarnation Super Paper Mario comes in. Super Paper Mario is unabashed in its evocation of previous incarnations of the Mario franchise, and yet Nintendo has actually managed to add a fresh coat of paint to the Mario franchise, via the unique, consistently fresh graphic style, play mechanics that feel upgraded and yet familiar, and a disarmingly quick wit.
It is this wit, above all, that makes Super Paper Mario such a joy to play. The old Mario had the pleasing underdog story of the plumber-turned-hero, but other than that, its unflagging sincerity and all-too-cute attitude made the stories that drove the Mario games fairly forgettable at best. To be fair, the story arc that drives Super Paper Mario is nothing new—saving the world from an evil mastermind is nothing all that new; saving the world from an evil mastermind called Count Bleck that punctuates random sentences with the occasional “BLECK!” has a sort of charm that makes you grin. That Count Bleck’s assistant speaks in middle-management talk is an added bonus. Some of Mario’s allies utter over-the-top hip-hop-isms, some speak very slowly. When characters get too long-winded, Mario is bound to fall asleep, sparing us the unnecessary exposition. It’s that kind of game.
And yet, even with the quick wit and graphic shine pushing the franchise forward, it is constantly looking backward. Like the original Super Mario Bros., there are eight major sections of the game, divided into four smaller sections each. They even go out of their way to call them “Chapter 2-3”, or chapter “6-4”. There are various occasions throughout the game where our “Paper” Mario is joined by “8-bit Sprite” mario, sometimes in tiny form, sometimes in giant form (an acknowledgement that while a two-dimensional Mario may seem novel now, he did kinda start out that way, too). The sense of nostalgia doesn’t even stop at the Mario franchise—an extended sequence finds Mario working for “rubees”, which happen to be little hexagonal bits of currency, one of a few winks to the Legend of Zelda franchise. None of this is even to mention that the constant text-reading and buildings with familiar little symbols on the outside indicating the contents of the inside evokes fond memories of just about every old role playing game ever made. The more familiar you are with the originals, the more you can find in Super Paper Mario, indicating that its Wikipedia entry will soon be overflowing with every bit of meaningless minutae that the developers decided to put in.
And oh, those developers… It would be inappropriate to go into too much detail (for fear of ruining some of the more clever bits of game design), but one gets the sense on more than one occasion that those developers might just be having a good laugh at what they decided to put us through. Of course, that’s their reward for designing every single level twice—once in 2-D, and once in 3-D, allowing for Mario’s much-ballyhooed (and admittedly impressive) ability to switch between the two on the fly.
Super Paper Mario isn’t perfect by any means—its attitude and style cover up many of its flaws, such as somewhat slow-paced action and the somewhat tacked-on addition of “style points” to Mario’s attack arsenal, for the sake of using the Wii controller (the familiar mechanic of a sideways-held remote becomes foreign when you’re encouraged to shake the thing to make Mario do flips). Still, I can’t even count the number of times it made me laugh. My poor wife’s legs are tired from constantly being called into the living room to check out the newest cool thing the game did. And every time the game gets turned on, there’s a sort of excitement, a level of anticipation that reminds me of every single time I turned on Metroid when I was nine years old: “What will I find today? How the hell will I find it? How cool is it gonna look when I get there?”
That’s the sort of nostalgia we really want—we don’t necessarily want to play the old games over again, we just want something to make us feel like they did, so many years ago. Flaws and all, Super Paper Mario does exactly that.