While a great part of Nintendo’s franchises are riding a massive wave of success, others have fallen victim to great struggles. One of the saddest cases of a property that has been unable to find its footing in recent years is certainly the Paper Mario series. 2014 marks ten years since the release of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, not only one of the finest RPGs published during that timespan, but also one of the best products the Big N has produced during its run on the gaming industry. And in the midst of the celebration of that anniversary, the realization that it has been awfully long since the last masterful game in the series came out reveals that Nintendo has been slowly losing sight of what made these games so much fun in the first place.
The original Paper Mario, released thirteen years ago on the Nintendo 64, is a surprising triumph. Though it is not the pioneering act for Mario on the RPG world, it was a game whose release was surrounded in doubt. Super Mario RPG, perhaps the Super Nintendo’s last great masterpiece, had already proved that the Mushroom Kingdom could be more than an empty scenario to dress up a platforming game, but it was a game captained by Squaresoft, a company drowning in role-playing success.
Paper Mario, on the other hand, was set to be handled by Nintendo, which did not have many remarkable RPGs under its belt. Smartly, the game’s development was passed over to Intelligent Systems, a specialized first-party studio that had already developed many turn-based strategy games; namely, the entirety of the Fire Emblem series. Still, Square’s magic was awfully hard to duplicate, let alone be surpassed, so Paper Mario would storm right out of the gate as a game with a whole lot to live up to. To make matters worse, it would not receive any contributions from the surprise factor, as it had been already worn out by Mario’s initial incursion into the universe of exp points and parties.
Nevertheless, the game succeeded remarkably. Its stripped-down look, supported by its simple art style, was irresistibly charming. More importantly, that simplicity did wonders to automatically separate the newly released game from its looming ancestor. To increase that gap, the game did away with the concept of a party – a major staple of any RPG game – and gave Mario a set of fantastic partners that helped him in battle. Although the plumber’s attacks were relatively balanced and simple, the cast of extremely likable sidekicks had more specific abilities that allowed players to take advantage of the weakness of certain enemies.
Where Super Mario RPG had a battle system that was not considerably different from a Final Fantasy game, Paper Mario stepped up and added its own flavor to the turn-based framework. It added new layers of strategy, giving gamers a number of options as to how to approach battles, and – at the same time – it made the whole thing extremely accessible. After all, a younger audience who would have had trouble grasping the concepts of levels, equipment, and stats could easily learn how to manage their partners.
The biggest impact Mario’s crew had in the game, though, was certainly not felt inside battles. Their unique abilities supported the creation of overworld segments that added a platforming flavor to the adventure that was mixed with a slight dash of The Legend of Zelda puzzle-solving, hence breaking up the endless cycle of battles that traditional RPGs tend to fall into. The infusion of Nintendo charm, then, was not merely restricted to the Mushroom Kingdom theme or the plot, but it spilled into the gameplay itself, making Paper Mario the first on a long list of Mario RPGs that would, to great effects, go against the genre’s mold.
The Paper Mario games thrived on those qualities, but none of them were the series’ greatest allure. Super Mario RPG opened up a keyhole through which players could spy into the kingdom’s backstage, and that is precisely the area on which it succeeded the most. On Mario platformers Toads were brainless citizens, Goombas blindly followed orders, and Bowser was en evil mannequin. The Legend of the Seven Stars gave voice to those characters, and in turn it was able to create some sort of bizarre society where turtles, mushrooms, plumbers, royalty and fish were a part of the same social fabric. Aware of the ridiculousness of it all, the writers added a bottle of humor and a gallon of self-mockery to the game, and a classic was born.
Paper Mario and its glorious sequel, The Thousand-Year Door, took those basics to brand new uncanny levels. The two games behaved like eight-chapter books on which individual storylines and situations were tied together by one overworld and a common goal: finding the seven stars and defeating bowser. As a consequence of that individuality, on the first same game, Mario was accused of murder, entered a mad toy box, helped Boos defeat an unbeatable enemy, and made selfish flowers secretly collaborate to save the land from doom. While on the sequel, he became a wrestling star, took a relaxing train trip, searched for a pirate treasure, and had his soul stolen. To our delight, all those disturbing situations and insanity made a whole lot of sense when they were put together.
Games are meant to change; maybe not drastically, but new elements must certainly be added to keep things fresh. However, after reaching its peak on The Thousand-Year Door, the Paper Mario series has not simply changed; it has watched as core parts of its own identity have been attacked and taken away from it.
Super Paper Mario, the 2007 follow-up to The Thousand-Year Door, was not – by any means – bad. It retained the storybook nature of the previous two titles, and it put Mario in outrageous situations, including a visit to the land of the dead and to the end of the world, and Peach being kidnapped by a geeky chameleon. It was filled with stellar writing, even if sometimes its dialogue was a little bit too much, and it offered great combinations of puzzle and platforming. Unfortunately, it replaced the charming partners with creatures whose lazy designs undermined any attempts to give them personality and threw turn-based battles out the window, putting jumping on enemies’ heads in its place.
In a way, Super Paper Mario’s nearly non-existent combat was a reflection of Nintendo’s recent approach of keeping things simple in order to make them universally appealing. A philosophy that, for example, brought Mario sidescrollers back to life with amazing financial results. That same line of thought led to the utterly disappointing Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Where Super Paper Mario failed only in its lackluster oversimplified combat, Sticker Star was a disaster in both its battles and its plot.
The concept of stickers could have done wonders for the series, but it was implemented in a way that made combats pointless. The reward of leveling up was nowhere to be seen, and the only prize gained from battles were more stickers, whose only functionality was being used in other battles. The game then fell into a bizarre mindless cycle on which players battled so that they could battle some more. Once that circular pattern became clear, playing the game became a dull affair.
However, Sticker Star’s biggest offense was its total lack of compelling storylines, and the culprit behind that act was none other than the brilliant Miyamoto, who insisted that the game be kept as simple as possible by the removal of plot development and dialogue. What was once a fun storybook that gave us a funny glimpse of the inner workings of the kingdom became an empty shell that was neither an RPG nor a platformer. Gone was the sheer charm of the series, and in its place all that was left was a game that did not seem to know what exactly it wanted to be.
As it celebrates the tenth anniversary of its finest entry, the Paper Mario series also mourns ten years since it last showed up in its complete form. Over that period, Nintendo made commendable attempts to change the franchise, but they ended up stripping the series of its core characteristics and giving birth to one good game and a poor one. Now that The Thousand-Year Door is one decade behind us, healthy change could be achieved by going back to the series’ roots and delivering one more glorious Mario console RPG. Nintendo fans would certainly be grateful to see the series up and running again is its full state.