I’m the bad guy (duh)
Underhero is a game that takes the concept of a hero and twists it on its head. A game in which allows not only the underdog a chance to shine, but an actual antagonist. The adventure of Underhero places you in the boots of a nameless minion – a disgruntled follower of the main antagonist that teases the hero of this tale. But here the question is asked – what if the hero failed? And what if the heroes task fell into the hands of that undervalued servant?
Developer, Paper Castle Games, aim to answer those questions with their own unique spin. “We wondered how the classic story of Mario rescuing Peach could evolve from the perspective of one of Bowser’s underlings,” Paper Castle told me. “We asked ourselves: what would happen if the hero failed and an underling suddenly became the new hero? How is a normal day for a common minion? Where do they sleep? And so on. The story rapidly took off from there and here we are.”
What’s in a double helix?
These are questions the normal player would never even think of asking, but the team positioned their own unique spin on the genre, ensuring to defy player expectations. The Paper Mario inspirations are encoded in its DNA, not as a way of mimicking what makes the series so great, but as a catalyst for new and exciting ideas. “At first glance, Underhero may not look like a Paper Mario inspired game, simply because it was never our intention to make a clone of Paper Mario,” I was told. “We always wanted to let Underhero stand on its own two feet, with its own ideas and gameplay mechanics. We may have developed a different art style, but we did try to emulate Paper Mario’s simple premise, the charming dialogue, and the overall spirit of the game.”
Underhero uses these foundations as a way to constantly surprise the player by breaking out of its genre clichés. An early level features our reluctant protagonist in desperate search of a key to advance to the top of the dungeon. It’s joked that he could use his wall-jump ability to reach the peak, but alas, he is without. Instead, an elaborate hunt for a key ensues and climaxes with the whole dungeon filled to the brim with beer and our hero simply swimming to the top without the key. Moments like this act to twist the way we know certain situations and allow Paper Castle new ways to surprise the player.
“A big theme of the game was subversion at any moment, and when it’s least expected,” they informed me. This doesn’t only break the monotony, but it keeps players engaged throughout the whole game. We wanted to avoid making the player fall into a predictable routine and get bored. And at the same time, respectfully poke fun at those classic RPG tropes we all love/hate, like convoluted quest lines, backtracking, grinding, or bosses with a ridiculous number of phases.”
The latter trope is wonderfully exploited in a lengthy boss battle at the end of a decrepit haunted manor. Multiple phases of increasing intensity up the ante of a boss whose inability to die is inherently absurd. Paper Castle manages to never reach over the line and overstay their welcome with these genre-defying moments. Instead, they’re evenly paced out to cause a tale of constant wonder and discovery.
The feeling of creativity translates into the games combat system as well. Underhero uses a semi-turn-based combat style that uses energy as a power source for attacks. This bar quickly depletes as forceful slashes from the sword or powerful bashes of the hammer meet the face of foes. Although, this can be completely bypassed with Underhero’s ability to bribe enemies into letting you pass.
“We needed a way for the player to escape battles, but simply running away didn’t feel right. If a minion was attacked by another minion, they would report them as a traitor right away,” they explained. “So, in what felt like a very on-brand solution, we decided to incorporate the bribe mechanic which was not only funny and gave coins more importance, it also helped flesh out more dialogue for every enemy in the game. This way if an enemy is bribed, they will never rat you out to your boss and will forever stay quiet about your motivations.”
As a culmination of ideas, Underhero impresses in its ability to revitalise a genre that is constantly begging for new ideas. Paper Castle have prided themselves on a reinvention of genre elements and utilising new ways to rework those ideas. Underhero asks us what would happen if the hero tragically died and an underling took the reins. Not only does it answer the question, but it also takes the twisted concept and invigorates new beats of life into it.
Bioshock is the greatest game ever made and I will fight anyone on that point. Unless you believe the SpongeBob games are valid, that’s also acceptable.