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• Paper Mario

developed by Intelligent Systems, published by Nintendo
1 player / Nintendo 64, Wii & Wii U (virtual console) / 2001.2.5

Paper Mario (magazine ad)

After Squaresoft ditched Nintendo for Sony’s PlayStation, it seemed unlikely that we’d get a follow-up to Super Mario RPG. Intelligent Systems picked up the slack with Paper Mario, taking the series in a whole new direction on the RPG-starved N64 console. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that with my hands full with the RPGs on the PlayStation at the time, I didn’t get around to playing it until recently.

Mario and Goombario in a Toad house

Story

On its surface the Mario universe doesn’t seem to have enough depth to sustain a 30 hour RPG. Plus, everyone expects Bowser to kidnap Princess Peach with Mario on a quest to save her.

Paper Mario’s opening act doesn’t stray far from the formula, but it later skirts tradition by pairing Mario with a variety of standard enemies. Friendly Goombas, Boos, and Koopas team up with Mario throughout his adventure, and their abilities help Mario in and out of battles. Entire villages are populated by endearing and unique examples of the usual suspects offering a fresh take on iconic designs.

Bookending each chapter you’ll take control of Princess Peach as she tries to escape from Bowser and his minions. Keeping with the kid-friendly theme, even the villains can be adorable. It’s all very charming, and defies genre tropes with a couple surprising detours along the way.

Paper Mario battle

Active Battles

Like its predecessor, Paper Mario injects action into the RPG mould. You can see the enemies in an area, and by attacking (rather than simply bumping into) them, you’ll score a free opening attack. Weaker enemies can be killed instantly in this way, which is a much appreciated feature. However, if an enemy hits you first then it gains the upper hand.

Rounds are turn-based but still test your reflexes and pattern recognition. By pressing a button at just the right moment, or fiddling with the joystick, you can score an extra hit or neutralize an enemy’s attack. Paper Mario adds a variety of new ways to pump up your attacks compared to the original Super Mario RPG. This gives the player something new to master whenever a new character joins the party.

Although fairly basic, with fewer than 4 or 5 enemies to deal with at a time, battling does have a layer of strategy to it. Flying, spiked, and armored foes require you to use specific moves. At times you’ll want to swap turns with your ally or tag a new one in to hit multiple enemies at once. It’s fun to try to win as efficiently as possible.

Boss battles are especially fun, as they’ll use special tricks on you. I was consistently impressed by how imaginative these encounters could be within such a simplistic framework.

Paper Mario flowers

Presentation

One wonders if Nintendo found inspiration in the competition’s popular Parappa The Rapper character? Although the title Paper Mario implies a papercraft or origami aesthetic, it’s fairly limited here compared to later entries in the series. The 3D settings do contain flat props, and battles appear to take place on a theater stage, but that’s about it.

RPGs from the era mixed 2D sprite-based characters and 3D settings, but Paper Mario is the only one that intentionally shines a spotlight on this incongruity. You can see the characters are paper thin whenever they swivel from left to right. The character sprites were my favorite part of the game. They have really funny expressions and animations (even if the animations are only a few frames). And in certain lighting conditions the sprites get a really nice rim-lighting effect which is sadly absent from later games in the series.

Paper Mario

Conclusion

Despite its age, it’s hard to find fault with Paper Mario. Don’t be fooled by the cutesy artwork; it’s the total package clocking in at around 30 hours. Obviously this is not a serious or hardcore RPG, but that’s one of its strengths. Backtracking can get a little annoying, as can certain events with the Princess if you fail (and have to start over from scratch), but these are minor issues. If you’ve enjoyed the other Mario RPGs (like Mario & Luigi) you won’t regret playing Paper Mario if you give it a chance even all these years later.

PROs:

+ Quick, fun, active battles
+ Breaks a lot of Mario conventions
+ Cute & funny story and dialogue
+ Entertaining, expressive characters

CONs:

– Doesn’t really take advantage of paper theme
– Some support characters are odd choices
– Some backtracking for side-quests

Peach bakes a cake

Official website (Wii U, Wii)