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Previews

Super Paper Mario

Preview: One of the best games we've ever played

Works better on paper. A criticism? Not a bit of it. For all the joy of catapulting a near-spherical plumber around in 3D space, it's arguable that, sometimes, Mario really does work better when he's wafer-thin. Super Paper Mario is brilliant - and we've got hours of exclusive hands-on play to prove it.

Featuring 2D characters in a 2D world, the game's closer in style to retro Mario than even New Super Mario Bros. Initially it's hard to recognise it as part of an RPG franchise stretching back to The Thousand Year Door on GameCube and the original Paper Mario on N64, as it's so heavily disguised with simple platform hopping and noggin-bopping combat. Even the controls are simple: you hold the remote sideways like a NES controller, so that you're only really employing the D-pad/two button setup that ye olde Mario titles would have required. Goombas, Koopas, shell-kicking, hidden blocks... this is all very familiar. Right?

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Wrong. Just as you settle in for some old-time fun, a tap of the A button brings the retro screaming into the future. A computer cursor materialises, drags a box around Mario and - hell's bells - flips the world into 3D. Any sense of familiarity with the 2D level furniture - the '?' boxes, the castles of 'your princess is in another' fame - is completely obliterated as you finally see what lies behind. Have a look at the screenshots on page 13: it's level 1-2 from the original Super Mario Bros - but now you've got the ability to literally step into your '80s memories and see what things looked like from Mario's perspective. It'll leave you floored.

Suddenly, rows of piston-like 2D Thwomps are revealed to be merely millimetres thick, allowing Mazza to waltz by unharmed. In 3D, a row of ten coins can become a field of 50 - and a slowly descending spiked ceiling is revealed to be just half the width of the room, remaining dangerous only to Indiana Jones wannabes with a lousy sense of depth perception.

They call him flipper
And it's not always so obvious when the ol' plane of perception switcheroo is needed. A mountain gatekeeper, trapped side-on in the alternate dimension, is visible only by his forlorn tears: press A to spot him and cure his blues. In a great twist on Shigsy's old trick of hiding goodies beyond the 'end' of levels, you can often find hidden paths at the 'back' of the 2D levels' finals areas. And in chapter one's climactic stage - a dank, ruined castle with twirling flames that harks back to Bowser's fortresses in original SMB - the whole level is a satisfyingly befuddling optical illusion of secret routes and hidden doorways that can only be found with judicious perspective-switchery. The view-flipping truly revolutionises the platformer - why hasn't anyone thought of it before? - and demands you have your flipping wits about you.

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Plotwise, Super Paper Mario might surprise you. The game starts with - shocker! - Princess Peach marrying Bowser. The 'vicar', if you like, is the game's ubervillain, Count Bleck. He reckons the Bowser-Peach nuptials will fulfil the prophecy written in the Dark Prognosticus (author: C Bleck) and bring about the destruction of the universe. Quite the ambition. But that's not the real beginning of the game: because you're then dragged back in time to before the wedding, and Mario setting off on a quest to find the eight Pure Hearts that, together, can counter Bleck's future plans.

After a stroll around Flipside - a town trapped between dimensions - the game's divided into chapters. So chapter 1-1's a retroesque revision session on Mario bricks, baddies, pixels and pipes (the latter pick you up and plonk you down at either end with a gorgeous block-by-block materializing effect). Chapters 1-2 and 1-3 are mountainous deserts, where you'll polish off your first miniboss: O'Chunks, a spiky boulder-boss who just about has the brains to jump, spin and land on Mario, and that's it. Then chapter 1-4 is the modern-day Bowser's Castle-alike - and culminates in a battle with Fracktail, the robotic dragon guarding the first Pure Heart. Of which more later.

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