After the success of Super Mario RPG, I thought that a proper sequel was inevitable. Instead, Nintendo decided to go at it alone, leaving Squaresoft, Mallow, and Geno behind. Heartbroken by the change in direction, it took me almost 20 years to give Paper Mario a fair shake.
Super Mario RPG first broke away from the traditional Super Mario look with an isometric camera and 3D-rendered graphics. Paper Mario takes it a step further. The camera is in a more traditional side-view, but the world is fully-rendered in 3D. That said, almost all of the characters exist as flat objects and are coloured to look like sprites.
It gives the game a distinct look while adding to the whimsy of the game’s story and your interactions with the world. There’s a moment early on where Mario falls from a high ledge and he floats to the bottom, swooping back and forth like a falling piece of paper. But there are also gameplay ramifications. Mario’s unusually svelte figure also lets him slip through certain cracks. Glad that Nintendo took steps to justify the game’s unique art direction.
One of the aspects I loved about Super Mario RPG was the way in which its story added depth to the Mushroom Kingdom while injecting a cheeky sense of humour to the proceedings. Paper Mario goes a step further. With the horsepower of the Nintendo 64, the game is able to present the events of the game’s story in a more dramatic fashion, with the camera shifting and panning on the action, while cleverly using perspective to showcase the dichotomy between the 3D world and the flat characters.
Geno and Mallow are gone, but Mario’s new friends do more than just fight alongside of our portly plumber. Between the jokes and plot points, Paper Mario goes out of its way to establish the Mushroom Kingdom as a place where not every Goomba, Koopa, or other Super Mario enemy type is evil. Koopas and Goombas live in their own lines, with normal lives, and some are kind enough to team up with Mario on his quest to save the princess. It’s nice to see this world as more than just one big death trap for Mario to traverse.
When Mario does have to battle, you’re treated to an evolved take on the Super Mario RPG combat system. Enemies are visible in the overworld, which is where the actual battle begins. Besides being able to have some control over who you fight, you can even land the first hit by jumping on their heads or smacking them with your hammer in the overworld. However, if they tag you first, they’ll hit you first.
From there, the battles are turn-based, with a few unique wrinkles. For one, enemies are arranged in a line. Where enemies are located matters, as certain moves can’t hit enemies further back. Also, certain enemies may be invincible to attacks from certain angles. As the game progresses, you’ll need to be thoughtful in your approach, as your choice of ally, attacks, and the order you engage with each enemy really matters.
My favourite part of the old Super Mario RPG battle system was how the game went beyond selecting attacks from a menu by including bonuses for timing your button presses just right. For example, Mario could score an extra jump if you pressed the attack button right before he lands. This system has been expanded upon here. Every attack has some sort of additional input tied to it, whether it’s charging the analog stick back and letting it go at the right time, mashing the attack button to charge up an attack, or targeting a projectile at just the right spot to hit a weak point.
Between dungeons, there are a number of playable interludes featuring Princess Peach. Even though she’s under captivity, she has no shortage of things to do and highlights of her own. In fact, I think some of the most entertaining moments occur when you’re playing as her.
My only real gripe with this game occurs pretty late in its story. Almost out of nowhere, the game throws in a fetch quest that requires you to backtrack to previously-visited areas to collect items that unlock the next area. If you know this is coming, you can preemptively collect them all beforehand, but the game doesn’t prompt you to do so until very late in the game. Even if the fetch quest is a common trope – having most recently experienced something similar in Anthem – it only adds an extra hour or two of gameplay for the sake of extending the game’s length. Also, while the build up to the final battle is amazing, the great equalizer doesn’t really make the battle any more exciting to watch or play.
There will always be a hole in my heart for a true successor to Super Mario RPG. Paper Mario isn’t exactly that. But Paper Mario is a fantastic title in its own right that is debatably better than the game that inspired it. Building off of the framework from Nintendo and Squaresoft’s collaboration, it establishes its own identity with a unique art style, clever writing, and a battle system that really shows its teeth as the game progresses. Age hasn’t hurt this one’s appeal at all, and it was still a joy to play after all this time!
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