The first thing I noticed about the new Wii title "Super Paper Mario" is usually one of the last things I ever notice in a Nintendo game: the graphics.
Never mind that "SPM" is the first major single-player Wii adventure made by Nintendo since the "Zelda" that launched with the system five months ago. Never mind that the game plays like the first three "Super Mario Bros." games, with an added twist that lets players rotate the levels so they can be seen from within (compare watching a train pass by to standing in the train and looking down the length of the car). Never mind that the writing is sharp. And never mind a clever Wii gimmick that turns the system remote into a flashlight that illuminates different parts of the screen.
What jumped out to me like a hopping Super Mario was how the game looked. Like previous "Paper Mario" games, it presents Mario's world as if printed in a pop-up book. Mario and Luigi resemble flat pieces of paper, and the plumbers appear so skinny when they turn from right to left that they can't be seen for a moment. Houses, trees and green pipes look as if they were constructed with scissors and glue, connecting tabs A to tabs B.
"Super Paper Mario" takes that look and revises it. Previous "Mario" volumes appeared as if folded and painted by a sweet children's book maker. The new game looks like it was assembled by a well-meaning robot. How else to explain the mushroom and fire-flower math problems that float through the bright blue sky? How else to explain the moments when magic bridges and giant versions of Mario are drawn into the game in smooth, thin lines, as if Photoshop had developed a mind of its own, decided to try to cheer players up, and drew stuff with the speed of a flower budding in time-lapse photography? Plenty of video games are fun to play. This one is fun to look at.
Nintendo isn't known as a graphics company. It's a company that puts gameplay — and profit margins — first by often releasing hardware less powerful than the competition: a DS instead of a PSP; a Wii instead of a PS3. Nintendo's sales haven't suffered, but neither has the company developed a reputation for pushing graphics. That claim has gone to companies like former Nintendo studio Rare, "Gears of War" maker Epic, "Lair" developer Factor 5, Sony's "Gran Turismo" team, "Final Fantasy" company Square, Team Ninja of "Ninja Gaiden" fame and "Doom" developers Id.
"Super Paper Mario" may prove how valuable smart art design is over processor-pushing graphics, but it's a decidedly rare showpiece for a company not big on promoting visuals. That got me thinking that maybe I had missed something. Maybe Nintendo employed better graphics people than I thought. Maybe there have been visual innovators all along at the company? My world was turned upside down, and to right it I decided to do what always needs to be done to put things in perspective: I created a list. This is my first pass at the five best-looking Nintendo games I have ever played:
- "Yoshi's Island": Mario and Yoshi's world scribbled in crayon
- "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker": An ocean adventure slickly rendered as a hand-drawn cartoon
- "Metroid Prime": A realistically rendered, alien-infested planet covered with striking, distinct architecture
- "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess": A beautiful landscape that's home to a cast of charismatic, quasi-realistic characters
- "Donkey Kong": A stark, simple, classically designed pile of girders
There are five convincing exhibits to prove the case that Nintendo can push graphics if people at the company so choose. But who am I to be judge? I e-mailed a pair of Nintendo-centric writers.
Kevin Cassidy, who posts as Raw Meat Cowboy at GoNintendo.com, scanned my list and offered his own. He ranked them, with his most preferred up top:
- "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker"
- "Yoshi's Island"
- "Paper Mario"
- "Star Fox"
- "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker": "For being so 'simple,' graphically I swear that the characters' expressions tell just as much of the story as the text boxes do."
- "Yoshi's Island": "The 'Yoshi' games keep going back to that old 'storybook-brought-to-life' plot, but this is the only game in the series where I actually buy it."
- "Super Smash Bros. Melee": "Everything just looks right about this game."
- "Super Mario Bros.": "There must be something special about a game's art style if fans and artists are re-creating it in various projects 20 years later."
- "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess": "Undoubtedly the best, most realistic visuals to come out of Nintendo's development house."
Kevin is right about "Pikmin." It was an eye-catcher on GameCube. About his fifth choice, he wrote: "I had to give a nod to 'Star Fox.' At the time, it was amazing, and for some reason I am still impressed today."
Matthew Green, the Wii editor at the Advanced Media Network, also replied. He offered his own unranked remix:
What does this exercise tell us? The consistent quality in the games listed above is that there is no consistent quality. The art styles vary from game to game, almost always going for cute and happy, but rendering it with a full inventory of tools. Absent from the lists are many of the games Nintendo fans consider to be the company's all-time greats, like "Super Mario 64," the first "Zelda" and anything made for a Nintendo portable.
That "Super Paper Mario" could go into history as one of the best-looking Nintendo games doesn't guarantee its spot as an overall company great. That it encourages a reconsideration of the company's strengths may be achievement enough. The game goes on sale next week.
— Stephen Totilo