Supported by creative writing, engaging exploration, and simple yet deep RPG elements, Paper Mario topples its legendary predecessor
Before Paper Mario, the titular plumber had already gone through quite an experience in the role-playing realm, albeit in a much less flat state. By the hands of Squaresoft, masters of the genre, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars transformed the Mushroom Kingdom from the curious background scenario of platforming antics into a fully explorable place packed with talking characters, towns, turn-based battles, stats, and leveling up opportunities. Still, even if Paper Mario did not set out to navigate through uncharted waters, it was a challenge; after all, without Squaresoft to take the reins of the project, it was up to Nintendo and Intelligent Systems to jump into the RPG format – a new undertaking for both companies – and produce a worthy successor to the Super Nintendo classic.
As beginners in the design of RPGs, one could expect both companies to play it safe; the bases established by Squaresoft were certainly strong enough to sustain yet another game. However, developers took the opposite path and decided to, perhaps guided by the knowledge they had acquired from working alongside the crew that birthed the Final Fantasy franchise, create an adventure that certainly acknowledged its main inspiration point, but that also carved its own very unique identity.
The first visible link between the two titles is the plot. Like Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario is a quest for seven missing stars. Bowser acquires the Star Rod, a magical artifact that grants wishes, and proceeds to storm Peach’s castle and lift it high into the sky. Mario, who was in the princess’ home for a royal party, attempts to stop the obsessed Koopa but fails to damage him, realizing that the Star Rod has made the villain borderline invincible. Mario is thrown out of the castle, falls back onto the Mushroom Kingdom, and is summoned by a mysterious spirit to Shooting Star Summit, where he learns of how Bowser succeeded in stealing the Star Rod and is told that the only way to defeat the villain is by rescuing the seven Star Spirits that lie in the power of his forces.
While the story connects both games, it is in the visuals that they start being set apart. Paper Mario replaces the tridimensional isometric view of Super Mario RPG with a signature aesthetic that gives the game its title: whereas the scenarios themselves and other major pieces such as buildings are 3-D – being appropriate but not spectacular; numerous assets – like characters, items, and minor visual elements – seem to have been drawn on a piece of paper, cut out, and placed in the middle of big detailed settings. More than absolutely unique, the game’s look is quite a sight, oozing charm from every detailed cleverly designed corner and being the perfect complement to a game that, through moments of wackiness and tension, never loses sight of its quirkiness.
As a smart touch, the paper look transcends the status of an aesthetic choice and influences the game’s setup as a storybook. The adventures that take place in Paper Mario occur in a fully connected world that slowly reveals itself to players. However, the whole quest is neatly divided into eight independent chapters that unravel in certain locations of the map, starting with the exposition of a problem and culminating with a boss battle of invariable challenge and delightful creativity.
The greatest gift such configuration yields, and possibly Paper Mario’s defining characteristic, is how it allows the game’s writers to run free. Under the overarching plot of Bowser kidnapping Peach once again and Mario having to look for something that will help him defeat the tyrant, lies a series of plot-lines that are amusing, creative, wonderfully developed, and that will have players bursting with curiosity to discover how everything will turn out. Mario will have, then, to deal with an invincible creature that haunts a village of Boos; handle the rivalry of a group of flowers that refuse to cooperate even though the fields on which they live face the mortal danger of mysterious clouds; locate legendary ruins that are buried in the middle of a desert; and more.
These stories, and every single moment of the adventure, are powered by writing that is distinctly clever and sharp. All characters, major or minor, have something interesting to say, be it a snarky remark, a desperate plea for help, or a comment that displays great self-awareness. Even though its quest is immense in size, stakes, and length – the whole affair can last up to thirty hours – Paper Mario is one of those games that is in equal measures self-deprecating and hilarious.
It is not just the writing that makes Paper Mario endlessly engaging. Its gameplay is also absolutely spectacular. In relation to battles, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems manage to simplify and improve the traditional party and stats-based combats of Super Mario RPG; when it comes to exploration, the straightforward platforming of the Super Nintendo classic is enhanced and joined by interesting puzzle-solving segments. In both cases, the responsibility for the leap forward can be attributed to the game’s best new feature: partners.
As chapters go by, Mario will be joined by eight characters that will aid him in battles and out of them. When out exploring, each partner has a specific skill that needs to be used in order to clear obstacles or go through perilous situations. Goombario hands out advice; Kooper uses his shell to reach distant items and switches; Bombette blows up fragile walls; Parakarry uses his wings to lift Mario for a short while; Bow makes Mario temporarily invisible; Watt acts as a lantern; Sushie traverses bodies of water; and Lakilester carries Mario on his cloud. With those tools, rather than simply walking around and talking to characters, Paper Mario’s exploration segments are filled with a variety of situations usually not found in RPGs, giving the game a distinct and fun platforming flavor in-between battles.
During combats, Mario battles foes alongside one partner – which can be switched whenever players feel like it – in turn-based matches. Mario’s actions are relatively simple: he can jump, hit enemies with his hammer, defend, and use items. His arsenal, however, considerably expands when one considers that all partners arrive with two different moves and can, by being powered-up during the game, acquire another two. Moreover, each Star Spirit that is rescued can be summoned during battle by using a specific percentage of the Star Power bar, which is filled up as attacks land, to deliver a variety of moves that go from putting enemies to sleep to creating a mighty star storm.
Therefore, from simple building blocks that can be grasped by anyone, Paper Mario builds battles that are challenging and offer plenty of room for players to build their own strategies; matching Mario’s moves with his partner’s skills, which are incredibly varied and can be attack-oriented or stat-inducing, and the Star Spirits’ powers in order to find the best way to defeat enemies of exquisite design and that have an impressive assortment of moves. Additionally, much like it happened in Super Mario RPG, battles gain action contours thanks to the fact players can diminish the effects of incoming blows and augment the damage from their attacks by timely presses of the A-button.
Another step taken towards simplification is that Mario is the only character that effectively levels up, upon which gamers can choose to upgrade his HP, FP (which is burned when special attacks are delivered by partners), or BP. The last of which, in particular, is what gives players the opportunity to customize the character: BP stands for Badge Power and, with it, it is possible to select which badges (each with a specific BP cost) to activate. Every badge has a specific effect, which can go from giving Mario new moves, improving offensive or defensive power, or even decreasing attack in exchange for recovering 1 unit of HP every turn. Consequently, while the stats that were prominent in Super Mario RPG are gone and character-specific enhancements are limited, Paper Mario still packs a punch when it comes to battle options.
Aside from a soundtrack that fails to leave a mark, Paper Mario’s sole blatant shortcoming is how – as it has sadly become the norm for Mario RPGs – it is slightly thin on the sidequest department. With a world that is vast, rich and charming, and a plethora of characters of high appeal, it is a shame there is not much to do after the long main adventure concludes. Truthfully, it is possible to wander around the Mushroom Kingdom to collect star pieces, which can be traded for badges; or even deliver letters and fight a couple of optional bosses, but those tasks lack in significance and rewards, two qualities that are vital to extra content.
By its curtain call, Paper Mario will have proved itself to be an improvement over its predecessor; certainly not an affirmation to be taken lightly given the classic status of Super Mario RPG. Supported by three strong pillars of unquestionable quality – its creative writing, its engaging exploration, and its simple yet deep RPG elements and battle system – the game shows that Nintendo and Intelligent Systems used the knowledge acquired from their partnership with Squaresoft to build a work that is utterly original, from its visuals to its gameplay, and that is not afraid to abandon the more traditional approach of Super Mario RPG for something that feels fresher and even more aligned with the aura of the Mario franchise. Legends are not easy to topple, but Paper Mario does it.