With the Paper Mario franchise conspicuously absent for a long while, especially when it is considered that its two most recent installments were titles that stripped the series off its most remarkable characteristics – with Sticker Star going through that process so haphazardly that it took away everything that was great about the formerly spectacular property, Nintendo finally relented. The company’s retreat, however, was not complete. As if they had quickly overheard fans clamoring for the return of the saga in its true form but, either purposely or not, misinterpreted those requests; they opted not to lift the Paper Mario mechanics out of the sarcophagus in which they were buried following 2004’s masterpiece The Thousand-Year Door. Instead, they chose to place the flat character back in an RPG adventure by making him tag along the Mario brothers in the plumber’s other role-playing saga.
Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam, the fifth entry in a line of games that was born in 2003, chooses to join those two universes in one package. As it turns out, the book containing the Paper Mario world happened to be forgotten and tucked away on a dusty shelf in a random room inside Peach’s Castle – whether or not that is an allegory for the current location of the Paper Mario franchise within Nintendo’s headquarters is an unsolvable mystery. When Luigi and Toad enter the place to fix a hole on the wall, the former bumps onto the piece of furniture while fleeing from a mouse, accidentally knocking the book down to the floor, where it lands wide open. As a consequence of the accident, the paper-made characters are propelled all over the tridimensional Mushroom Kingdom.
From a certain point of view, Paper Jam is unquestionably solid. After all, it is a title that builds on the main prowesses of the Mario and Luigi franchise, qualities that were key in the construction of the two modern day masterpieces that the series has yielded so far: Superstar Saga and Bowser’s Inside Story. The battle system remains engaging and action packed, with players being constantly asked to deliver timely button presses to increase the efficiency of their attacks and avoid moves performed by enemies; the humor is top-notch, with the brothers often finding themselves in self-aware situations that are as ridiculous as the concept of two plumbers rescuing a princess from the claws of an angry turtle-like dinosaur; and the game’s progression, a blend of puzzle-solving, exploration, and battling is well-done.
Truth be told, the title only has one considerable flaw; the problem is such shortcoming is omnipresent, for it permeates the entirety of the adventure. Aside from Superstar Saga, a game whose glorious and incessantly amusing running length is spent establishing the novelty of having Mario and Luigi work together in an adventure, the remaining three journeys that separate the original from Paper Jam focused on two gameplay lines of distinct natures that frequently crossed each other’s paths. Partners in Time did so by forcing the brothers cooperate with their young selves due to a space-time rift; Bowser’s Inside Story had the titular nemesis swallow the two heroes, therefore turning rivals into inseparable associates; and Dream Team thrived in the interactions between Luigi’s wacky dream realm and reality.
Paper Jam shuns that structure, a worthy move considering it had already been used three times, and opts to simply make Paper Mario tag along Mario and Luigi. His addition, and that of paper characters and enemies running around the kingdom, does affect gameplay to some degree, especially in battles. However, other than that, standing close to the game’s halfway point, Paper Jam has yet to truly pull off something remarkable and inventive out of that combination. Instead of feeling like a crash worthy of the hadron collider, Paper Jam has – so far – come off as something that was quickly stitched up together without much thought.
The game succeeds in being charming, fun, and appealing. However, as the match between the universes of Mario and Luigi, and Paper Mario fails to gain any true traction, Paper Jam heavily feels like Mario and Luigi by-the-books. For a franchise that now reaches its fifth installment, that is not quite enough, as the work ends up as a flat line with no twists, surprises, or awe-inspiring moments.