The specific balance between platforming action and RPG convention that Intelligent Systems struck with Super Paper Mario earlier this year was revelatory, and it made for one of those genuinely unique game experiences. As good as it was, there was a certain contingency that lamented the change of pace from the first two Paper Mario games. So, for those who wish to relive the good old days, or just want to see what all the fuss is about, Nintendo has brought the original Paper Mario to the Wii Virtual Console. This was regarded as an incredibly well-crafted and ambitious RPG when it hit the N64 in 2001. The ways it played with 2D and 3D visuals, along with its use of real-time combat elements, made for a great Mario experience and a great RPG experience, though the sum of its parts made it suitable for those who didn't care for one, the other, or even both.
Of course, it’s the unique presentation that gives Paper Mario its name and a certain measure of its personality. The world itself appears polygonal, while Mario and the rest of the characters have the look of paper cutouts. It makes for a ridiculously charming look and feel, and that charm partially excuses some of the boxy environments and fuzzy textures that give the game an aged look in 2007. The music follows suit--the quality of the N64 synthesizers doesn't always do justice to the quality of the compositions.
The story seems like typical Mario business involving Bowser kidnapping Peach, though this time he's armed with a powerful artifact called the Star Rod that, in an uncharacteristically dark turn, enables him to give Mario a swift beating at the beginning of the game and toss his limp body off Bowser's floating castle. Mario, scrapper that he is, pulls himself back together, and goes on a quest to rescue a bunch of power-wielding star spirits before he can juice up and get a rematch with Bowser himself. A strong story is the lynchpin to any good RPG, and Paper Mario's is a joy. The writing is sharp and funny, the game teems with likeable, memorable characters, and it takes you to virtually every known corner of the Mushroom Kingdom, putting its own spin on all of them.
While Super Paper Mario pitched the balance more towards a platformer peppered with RPG elements, the original Paper Mario went the other way. You'll explore an overworld, taking on tasks and solving puzzles, but when you encounter an enemy, the game cuts away to a separate, RPG-style battle stage. The combat might be turn-based, but it's definitely informed by Mario's platforming roots. When you see an enemy, you can take the initiative by jumping on their head or whacking them with Mario's massive, Donkey Kong-era hammer. During combat you'll select your attacks from a menu, but when it comes to executing the attack or defending against one, a well-timed button press can increase or decrease the damage.
Mario is your regular point-man during combat, though you'll meet a whole lot of interesting side characters during your adventure that will join your party and who can back you up during a fight. These secondary characters can also be critical in solving specific puzzles in the overworld. There are hit points to concern yourself with, as well as flower points, which are used to execute special attacks. Equipment comes into play most prominently with badges, which, when equipped, can give you new abilities or infer all kinds of crazy bonuses. The tricky thing about badges is that they require badge points to equip, and though you regain used badge points whenever you un-equip one, this limits the number and the quality of badges you can have equipped at any time.
Every time you earn an experience level, you have to choose whether to boost your hit points, your flower points, or your badge points. It's a choice you'll often struggle with, since you can almost always stand to have more of all three at your disposal. A lot of Paper Mario's core feels pretty typical of Japanese RPGs, but it's also been streamlined in such a way as to not feel too obtuse or slow-paced. While there are moments when it feels like enemy encounters are coming more often than would be ideal, the combat stays pretty fresh throughout.
This is an epic RPG experience, and for all the hours you'll spend tearing through Paper Mario, it is a downright steal for the $10 Nintendo is asking. Aside from some visual fuzz inherent to the game's age, Paper Mario feels as fresh and fun as when it first came out.