Super Princess Peach (DS) review
"Densetsu no Peach: The Mario-Starfy crossover you always wanted but were too afraid to ask"
Super Princess Peach is one of the few instances where the work of contract developer Tose is clearly credited, though the company is believed to have been involved in over a thousand games since the Famicom boom days. When approached as a Mario game, Super Princess Peach is an anomaly. It feels vaguely like Yoshiís Island meets Wario Land II, but the design is rough, the levels are easy, and the art belongs in a manga. Itís too happy and too colorful, has a bunch of collectibles tied to mini games, and has a bizarre story about a talking umbrella. While some of the enemies look like foes from the Mario series, they often act or exhibit movement patterns not seen in that series.
While there are plenty of crossover games, most such games are upfront with the player about what they are. Though it isnít mentioned in any marketing materials and though contemporary and retrospective reviews never mention it, Super Princess Peach is the Mario-Stafy crossover
you I always wanted.
Densetsu no Stafy was born from a collaboration between staff at Tose and Nintendo starting around 1995. The concept was to have a floaty character like a balloon that could move in all directions. This evolved into an underwater game where free movement stands out from the grounded gravity found in most other platform games. This allows Stafy to focus more on puzzles and variety over individual platform challenges. Stafy obtains powers, transformations, and vehicles in ways that make each level feel mechanically different than the one that came before it. Progression through levels is often tied to moving an object or unlocking a door rather than overcoming something difficult. There are no lives and no timer; the focus is on fun over challenge.
There were three games in the Densetsu no Stafy series by Super Princess Peachís 2006 North American release. While Stafy was moderately successful in Japan, it was an unknown to most North Americans, who would have lacked the manga context to make sense of it. Comparing Japanese and American television ads for Super Princess Peach shows that the manga influences were, as usual, hidden as much as possible for the International audience, trying to spin the game into something targeted at young girls who might want to take on the role of the titular princess. In Japan, the game seemed to be more aimed at children in general, where the cuteness is part of manga already. Stafy is a very cute game as well. So is Kid Dracula.
The Stafy series and Super Princess Peach have an extraordinary amount in common in style, design, and aesthetics. From Peaches movements to the overall sprite design to the quasi-puzzle side objectives littered throughout each level, a few sprite swaps would make the two indistinguishable. Even the color palette and musical style seems more Stafy than Mario.
Itís no surprise that Stafy and Super Princess Peach have a lot in common. Designers Yasuhiro Minamimoto, Hitoshi Yamagami, and Azusa Tajima worked on both games, as well as artist Chiharu Sakiyama. The inner workings of Tose are opaque simply by the contract nature of their work, but I donít think itís a stretch to assume there were shared staff between these titles from the top down. Much like how Final Fantasy II is really a prototype for SaGa under a different series, I think there is a very strong case to be made that Super Princess Peach belongs in the Stafy series.
Playing Super Princess Peach with the experience of the Stafy series, itís difficult not to see the similarities. Peach is floaty, she gains new abilities that get used in subsequent set pieces (donít mistake this for a Metroidvania though), she unlocks mini games, and she solves minor puzzles throughout the adventure. There are quite a few things that distinguish Peach here though from both Stafy and Mario.
The core game is based around ďvibes,Ē four abilities that Peach has from the outset. They deplete a vibe meter, so they canít be used indefinitely, and the player needs to find the readily available vibe crystals or absorb an enemy to restore it. Most of the vibes have multiple uses. For example, the joy vibe allows Peach to fly, but she also twirls and can power windmills, blow away obstacles, or clear poisonous gas from a room. The angry vibe has Peach literally stomping and burning in rage, able to crush and burn different things. The sadness vibe has Peach running hysterically and crying, moving faster, putting out fires, and watering plants.
By and large, the vibes are used in novel and interesting ways throughout the game. Their use is not commonly required, but utilizing them would reward a curious player with coins or collectibles. When a vibe was required, the game was usually very explicit and provided clear instructions. Moments like these feel unnecessary but do save the player from frustration in the event where a solution is not obvious.
I donít want to gloss over the vibes and the potential subtext. A female protagonist whose skills are based around an overflowing and loss of emotional control is somewhere between insensitive and misogynist, especially when the target audience is children. This type of stereotyping is unfortunately very common in Japanese media, including manga and video gamesĖarguably much more so in Japanese works. While Western developers get flack for making an RPG that disallows same sex relationships, we gloss over the racy costumes and waifu nonsense omnipresent in so many Japanese-developed games. As a manga-inspired game, Super Princess Peach feels culturally consistent and innocent. Peach is the hero after all, and there are no overt attempts to rob her of that for being female, but itís hard to overlook what this might imply of women (and young girls in particular). Super Princess Peach would have been a more interesting game had Peachís powers been tied to something else.
Outside of vibes, Peach has a number of physical abilities and, like Stafy, she gains new ones as the game progresses. These are usually focused around Perry, her talking umbrella companion, and include things like swinging her friend to attack or fluttering in the air. By the end, Peach is armed with an interesting skill set that is as useful as it is distinct. Like Stafy, her movement is fluid and she is a joy to control, sliding and bouncing with ease. I found the parasol attackís hitbox to be a bit too small, but thatís made up for by combat that is overall slow and relaxed (and a dedicated vibe to restore health when needed).
All of Peachís abilities help to unlock various coins, puzzle pieces, and mini games, as well as three Toads in each level that are analogous to the star coins in New Super Mario Bros. Coins actually serve a purpose here as they can be used to purchase new abilities, increase Peachís health and vibe meter, and unlock new puzzles and minigame levels. Like Stafy, Super Princess Peach has a huge amount of optional content that is just for fun. The minigames have multiple difficulties and reward the player with more coins. Most of them are very of-the-era, requiring the player to do things like blow into the DS microphone to make Toads jump. For the most part, they are not unenjoyable.
The primary complaint cited by most contemporary reviews is the lack of difficulty. This is absolutely true, and its root cause is something Stafy also suffers from. Letís take the fourth boss of the game, a giant wiggler. The player needs to use Peachís fire vibe to push down a pillar, and then let it spring to flip the wiggler upside-down and jump on it. The room will start to fill with poisonous gas later in the battle, which needs to be cleared with the bliss vibe.
The last paragraph isnít a spoiler; itís explicitly told to the player before entering the boss room. The game needs to do this because it didnít appropriately show you all these elements before. This is the first time the player encountered pillars acting as springs as well as the first encounter with a wiggler. Had the game been more didactic with its gameplay elements and introduced them in advance, bosses would have felt like a test for the playerís existing knowledge and skills rather than enemy set pieces.
For the most part, Super Princess Peach fails to do what Mario (and good platform games) do: introduce the player to gameplay elements in a safe, obvious way, and then build on them without tutorializing. For example, Peach can stomp certain switches only when using her rage ability. Super Princess Peach opts to use a hint box to outright tell the player how this works; it could have shown an enemy in a rage state doing this to convey the same thing. Peach has so many abilities and the game would have been most interesting to play were it not so heavy handed in its explanations.
While it reduces the difficulty a fair bit and feels unartful, the act of playing Super Princess Peach is still fun. Even if a strategy is spoon fed to the player for every boss, these bosses are still more interesting than pretty much every enemy in every Mario game. Levels with branching side paths, little secrets, and minor backtracking add just enough exploration to make each level interesting on its own.
I walked away from Super Princess Peach with the same vibe as Stafy: itís a lot of fun, itís a bit heavy-handed in helping the player, and some of its set pieces would benefit from being more developed, but itís a delight for those times when you want a good platformer with some variety but without anything punishing.
Featured community review by dagoss (March 17, 2022)
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