Paper Mario (N64)

The year is 1996. Squaresoft, creators of the beloved Final Fantasy series, have announced they’re jumping ship and moving from Nintendo to Sony due to the limitations of the former’s newest console. As a farewell gift, they give the Super Nintendo one of its final RPG games, taking Nintendo’s beloved mascot, Mario, and making him the focus. Despite not being a colossal hit, due in part to the release of the Nintendo 64, Super Mario RPG sells over 2 million copies and gains a cult-following. The game’s followers rally around the idea of a true sequel to this day, roughly 20 years after.

But I’m not discussing that, I simply needed context for today’s review: Paper Mario, released in 2001 for the Nintendo 64. It’s interesting how, despite being intended as the spiritual-successor to Super Mario RPG, the game spawned its own franchise that, to-date, includes sequels for the Gamecube, Wii, 3DS and Wii U. Like Super Mario RPG before it, it too wasn’t a colossal hit, cracking under 1.5 million copies worldwide, yet has also gone on to garner a strong fanbase. I never got to play it when it first came out, due to not owning a Nintendo 64, but the availability on the Wii’s Virtual Console in 2007 meant that it was a must-buy for my 17 year-old self. Even now, roughly 9 years later, I’m amazed at how well it holds up, such that I, honestly, think it’s better than I remember.

The game begins with Mario, and his brother, Luigi, being invited to Princess Peach’s castle for a party. No sooner do they arrive when Bowser, ever the thorn in Mario’s side, crashes through the window of the castle’s balcony and challenges Mario to a fight. At first, the outcome looks to, as usual, be in Mario’s favour, until Bowser reveals a magical wand, called the Star Rod, that grants its user any wish. He wishes to become invincible, crushes Mario and kicks him out the window to his doom. Except that Mario doesn’t die, being saved by seven stars that are captured and held prisoner throughout the Mushroom Kingdom by Bowser’s trusted goons. It’s up to Mario to find these stars, rescue them, return to Peach’s castle and defeat Bowser once again.

In case you haven’t noticed, the story isn’t all that impressive. It’s not the worst ever, it gets the job done, but save for setting up basic groundwork, it’s almost non-existent. Everything you need to know can be summed up in a single paragraph, while the rest is ancillary. It’s a shame considering how much potential there is with a name like Mario, but I guess no one cares to try.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. The Mario franchise has always been about its gameplay, and Paper Mario doesn’t disappoint. It begins during Bowser fight #1 by introducing its battle mechanics, and it moves to a full tutorial once you get to the game’s Prologue. By the time you arrive at the main over-world hub, aka Toad Town, you have a pretty good grasp of how to fight, maneuver around the world and even access your menu screen to check your Items, Badges, (which you can equip at will depending on your Badge Points) party members, Flower Power (which act as your special power points) and Health, the latter two of which you can replenish via sleeping in specially marked huts. It’s a pretty straight-forward package, unlike many other role-playing games.

Actually, let’s touch on that: one of the key concerns I have with most role-playing games (or RPGs) is their needless complexity. They’re always trying to be all-encompassing, thereby becoming needlessly complicated. This is especially the case for turn-based RPGs, which I like in theory, since they allow me to think before attacking, but usually struggle to get through because of said complexity. Add in that most classic RPGs are excruciatingly difficult, and I’m left with frustration. That’s not what I want from a video game.

Fortunately, Paper Mario thrives in simplicity. It’s not a cakewalk, no video game ever is for me, but it’s simple enough that I know everything about combat, traversing the over-world, solving in-game puzzles and even when to save the game. No resorting to manuals, no using strategy guides, no asking for help, none of those second or third-party walkthroughs are necessary. And I love it. It makes playing the game feel enjoyable and rewarding, placing it alongside the Pokémon franchise as one of the few RPGs that don’t give me a headache trying to figure them out.

The game also has unique features that make it stand out. One of these is its paper aesthetic. The game looks like it was made from cardboard, and the game takes full advantage of that with its objectives and story points. It also has allowed for the game to age quite well. With all due respect to the Nintendo 64, it, like most consoles of its generation, was an innovator in the transition to the third-dimension, which had its pros and cons. On one hand, the ambitions of seeing people’s favourite franchises be brought to life in 3D made these games unique and exciting. On the other hand, with ambition comes setbacks, especially when something that might’ve been cool and exciting doesn’t age as well 10-20 years down the line. Paper Mario is one of those innovative and ambitious games, being a first in a sub-franchise, but by keeping the aesthetic and gameplay simple and stylized it ends up standing the test of time better than some of the console’s other outings.

But what makes Paper Mario great is its light-hearted and goofy in-jokes and quirks. The game, for one, is littered with jabs at Mario’s short attention-span, as evidenced by his inability to listen to long stories. And, for another, many of the character interactions, including the enemies Mario and company face, are colourful and witty, allowing the player to laugh at Mario’s misery or mock his opponents for suffering. Factor in the constant references to older games, whether it be in-game jingles or classic enemies, and you’re guaranteed a good time.

With all of that said, does the game have nothing wrong? Not quite.

For one, there’s a health and special power level cap. The former is 55 points, the latter 45. This’d be easy to overlook if level grinding weren’t easy, but it is. I get that the developers didn’t want Paper Mario to be too easy, but…yeah, why 55 and 45 respectively? Those are such odd numbers, a feat made more bizarre by it being really easy to max both out.

While we're at it, you can’t level grind in worlds you’ve already beaten. Or, if you’re somehow able to, you’re punished by it being harder. This extends to enemies in worlds you’ve already beaten, some of whom reappear later on. Did the developers think that, like the level and special power caps, it’d be too easy? Because not gaining experience from enemies that you encountered eons ago is really annoying!

On a different note, it’s impossible to access the title screen in-game. Believe me, I’ve tried. The only exceptions are after major boss fights, which take an awfully long time to get to. This means often having to shut the game off cold, thus risking messing up the cartridge. It’s good that I played the Virtual Console port, because that’s a pretty big oversight on the developers’ part.

Speaking of which, you can’t pause the segments involving Princess Peach. For that matter, you can’t save in them either. This is annoying for anyone with a life who forgets to quit before her segments come up. In the game’s defence, they’re not all that long, so I can forgive this design flaw somewhat. Regardless, it’s irksome.

Finally, you can’t skip the end credits. You also can’t save after you’ve beaten Bowser. This is probably the biggest design flaw of them all, both because it’s a pretty big oversight, and because it’s annoying to be unable to skip the end credits. Yes, I get that the developers wanted the final boss to be available whenever. But no, making it mandatory isn’t the right answer. And while I get that it's a cartridge game, hence end credit skips might be-actually, no, the Pokémon games managed this no problem! It’s not an excuse.

Fortunately, none of these are enough to break an otherwise fantastic RPG. Fans can argue as to whether or not this is a true successor to Super Mario RPG, or even if this game’s sequel is superior, but for my buck you can’t go wrong. Paper Mario is a unique and original idea utilized to its absolute fullest, being fun, witty, innovative and accessible enough to novices while intricate enough for veterans of the genre. It has its issues, obviously, but the good is too good to ignore. I can’t recommend it enough.


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