I like Super Paper Mario. It is a cute game, is played using familiar mechanics in a new environment, and has an interesting cast of characters who actually have some emotional response. I am not referring to the silent Mario, Cowardly Luigi, buffoonish Bowser, or the ditzy inhuman Princess Peach however. The staples of the Mario crowd at this point are only caricatures of any being we would recognize as having human emotions and values. The real “people” in this game are the supporting cast, specifically Tippi a pixl butterfly and Count Blek who is trying to end all reality.
Mario and his crew, after the introductory plot which I won't spoil here, engage in their traditional head stomping antics to save reality with an occasional cut scene or save the princess break from game play. Additionally, the game has several hidden zones, a collection mini-game, and hidden characters to fill in the back story. The game play is fundamentally 2D, traditional, Mario however.
The tone of the game is dark, sinister, and cynical. As I mentioned earlier, the main villain is trying to end reality and the NPC's are well aware and afraid of this fact. Worse, the Count has several goons who seem intelligent and emotional working for him. These characters don't flinch at the thought of destroying the world however. Finally, the game constant lampoons the game industry as a whole. The over dramatizations of the player characters, the mocking of video game conventions, and an entire level focused on mocking the sexualization obsessed, social misfit, “hardcore” gamers make this game seem as much of social commentary as bop heads and save the world.
Peach's character is emotionally explosive (with actual explosions). She is a stereotype of the girl who pitches a fit every time someone offends her, gets in her way, or otherwise annoys her. Her over the top reactions become almost farcical. When compared to the other female characters who exhibit human responses to situations, Peach becomes less of an offense and more of an acknowledgment. It is as if the content team looked at the female audience to say, “We understand your pain. We are still working on these things. Ms. Laurel, we are sorry about the marshmallows.”
Finding information on the Internet about the internals of development processes for this game, or any game, isn't easy. Why certain choices were made. For instance, I don't know if the collection mini-game was put in to pad out game play or to appeal to female audiences. In the paper, “Hegemony of Play”, the authors discuss that the game development world has an echo chamber like effect. Male producers create games built by majority male development teams which are tested by majority male testers. In my experience the software development world rarely focuses on testing “How does this make me feel?”, but instead on “How can I break it?”. I would like to think, however, that Super Paper Mario had a bit of this extra treatment. It is a great game and it would be nice to think that it made efforts to attract other people and not to simply tack on what had been proven popular with certain demographics in other games targeted to them.