Paper Jam is a well-executed amalgam of Nintendo’s two active Mario RPG series, where the two-dimensional cast and papercraft creations of Paper Mario unknowingly invade the lands of Mario & Luigi. Both properties have four releases apiece, going back to 2001, so well spaced out that their sequels always alternated release years. Now is as logical a time as any for these two worlds to collide, but unfortunately, the fusion gameplay of Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is almost as unsurprising as the game’s premise.
As countless comic books can attest, one essential element of an effective story-driven crossover is the series of reactions when characters from separate universes meet. It’s especially amusing when there’s a doppelganger element, which is a key hook of Paper Jam. Most characters and their counterparts quickly get over the shock of their initial encounters. It’s precious to watch Toads help displaced paper Toads cope with new surroundings. Two Bowsers meeting up is a clash of egos, though their eventual partnership is foreseeable. And naturally, having two Princesses Peach is a mildly comical twist on the tiresome kidnapping premise. The only way a Nintendo crossover would be more precious would be a textile team-up between Yarn Kirby and a Wooly Yoshi.
Paper Jam continues the Mario game tradition of establishing its narrative with an impressively concise introductory cutscene. It is revealed that the world of Paper Mario is contained in a casually filed book in a neglected room within Princess Peach’s castle in the Mario & Luigi universe. All it takes is an overly curious and accident-prone Luigi to knock over the book to unleash the paper world’s inhabitants.
If the classic components of a Mario game overworld--the kind with a Browser castle, a desert with two-toned sand, and an obligatory snow region--offers you comfort, there’s a lot more of that kind of familiarity in Paper Jam--which extends to the game's basic platforming sections. The humor and sight gags are pervasive, but seldom does the comedy ever achieve the same level of surprising wit found in prior Mario RPGs. The fragile alliance of the two Browsers leads to some funny banter, and there are comical scenes where the paper cast use their literal thinness to get out of jams. And let’s not forget the fourth wall-breaking jokes and self-referential humor, both of which are present here. These moments represent the standard issue comedy one should expect from the Mario RPGs; just don’t expect any laugh out loud moments in Paper Jam. Witnessing gigantic cardboard automatons, in their full corrugated glory, impose themselves on the Mario & Luigi universe proves just as delightful as seeing Mario interact with his 2D counterpart.
Those familiar with the Mario & Luigi series know that its main challenges come during battle. Doing well involves learning the very specific, rhythmic timing of attacks and studying enemy animations to know when to press a button dodge or counterattack. In some ways, these factors make Paper Jam more involved than many JRPGs--at leas the kinds that let you get away with spamming the attack option against low to mid-level foes. With the steady stream of new enemy types (not to mention bosses), the demands in Paper Jam never let up. It’s what’s made the Mario & Luigi games worthy of the attention of even the most dexterously talented players who get gratification from mastering frenetic action games.
As a crossover that is already intriguing based on concept alone, it’s hard to blame Nintendo for playing it safe and predictable in its execution.
Paper Jam’s lands are spacious, with an abundance of platforms and spaces that at first appear inaccessible, thereby encouraging players to explore. That said, I never felt guilty or anxious about not investigating every nook and cranny. That’s partly because level growth opportunities, gold, and useful consumables are seldom ever scarce. These factors, along with the option to make battles easier with an assist option--which reveals which party member an enemy is targeting during an attack--encapsulate Nintendo’s reputation for highly accessible games. This level of accessibility and the crossover premise also make Paper Jam the best gateway entry to both the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario series--a rare feat for a sequel.
As a crossover that is already intriguing based on concept alone, it’s hard to blame Nintendo for playing it safe and predictable in its execution: undeniably adorable but bereft of genuine surprises or innovation. Of course Paper Mario would wield a giant papercraft hammer in battle. Of course a mix of 2D and 3D enemies would present an expanded variety of attacks. Of course Paper Mario would make himself useful by accessing passages too thin for Mario or Luigi.
As Mario & Luigi: Dream Team and Paper Mario: Sticker Star proved, Nintendo has a knack for showcasing new and inventive ideas in both series. Paper Jam effectively relies (and often coasts) on its novel crossover appeal. Bold experimentation will have to wait, perhaps in an installment where, conversely, Mario and Luigi visit Paper Mario’s world. I’d be on board with such a sequel, provided that it doesn’t suffer from the dialogue-heavy NPC interactions of prior Paper Marios.