When I was a young gamer, I never quite understood the RPG genre. I had experimented with games like Phantasy Star on the Sega Master System or Final Fantasy II on the Gameboy, but they never quite clicked for me.
Then I played Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.
There was something about the simplistic yet intricate combat of the timed attacks, and having my favorite videogame hero help guide me through the fundamentals of the genre that made me completely fall in love with it.
And while we would never see a true sequel to Super Mario RPG, we would get two incredible spiritual successors in the forms of the Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi RPG franchises. Nintendo’s latest RPG offering sees both these franchises merging into one with Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam, which finds the brothers teaming up with Paper Mario to stop Bowser and his paper counterpart from wreaking havoc on the Mushroom Kingdom.
Paper Jam starts like so many Mario games: it’s a peaceful day in the Mushroom Kingdom until Luigi accidentally opens a magic book letting out all the inhabitants of Paper Mario’s world, including Paper Peach and Paper Bowser. Together with the original Bowser, the two Koopa Kings decide to team up to capture the Princesses and it’s up to Mario and Luigi to stop them. However, the Paper Koopalings have a few extra tricks up their sleeves and quickly dispatch of Mario and Luigi, forcing Paper Mario to leap into the fold and save the day with his own brand of paper action!
It’s an incredibly novel idea, but I feel like much of it isn’t fully realized. Fans of Paper Mario may be disappointed to see much of the series’ inclusion in this game comes mostly from Sticker Star. Furthermore, the inclusion of the Paper characters is mostly aesthetic and never really delves too deeply in some of the humour that could have been had from the mixing of both worlds. It’s definitely there in small doses, but it’s underutilized.
From a gameplay perspective, Paper Jam plays similarly to most of the other Mario and Luigi RPG games: exploring ever-changing areas with puzzles solved by “Bro moves” the Bros learn through their adventure. However, so much of it is stuff we’ve already seen before. It’s the grasslands, the desert, the forest, ect. Even the Bro Moves are pretty similar to ones we’ve seen before, only now adding Paper Mario into them somehow. It isn’t until the very end that you get a move that actively incorporates Paper Mario in an original way.
The story is certainly the weakest so far, delegating everyone to their traditional roles (Princess is the victim, Bowser is the villain) and not enough screen time is given to any of the characters that made the series great, particularly Bowser who has virtually no dialogue and he’s not nearly as funny as he was in the last few games.
What’s more, Paper Jam just doesn’t feel organic. There’s a recurring “side quest” where you’re forced to run around parts of the map to collect Paper Toads. These missions vary to a certain degree (sometimes you have to fight an enemy, sometimes there’s a time limit) but for the most part they’re the same. Previous Mario and Luigi RPG games had their share of mini-games, but they worked because they were woven into the narrative while also adding extra fun to the game as opposed to forcing you to play hide-and-seek every time you want to advance the plot. It really feels like game length padding and nothing else.
Combat remains the same, and is most similar to Dream Team, borrowing the same semi-3D, cartoon style and several of Mario and Luigi’s Bro Attacks. In addition, there are the Trio Attacks where Paper Mario and the brothers team up to deal out massive damage, and this is where some originality can be found in the paper of Paper Mario. Interesting moves like turning into a paper shuriken that the bros throw at enemies perfectly captures the charm of each series.
However, while Paper Mario brings a bit of variety to the fray, he has the potential to be extremely game breaking through his main ability: “Copy.” Using this move spends a turn to create six Paper Mario copies giving him increased attack as well as replacing his health with the number of copies; every time he takes a hit, instead of losing health he’ll lose a copy.
On top of that, his defensive jump can be stretched for an incredible length, making it extremely easy to dodge attacks. In my experience, I found that I never lost Paper Mario in a fight and any time the brothers went down they could easily be revived with the new “Dual 1-UP” recovery item.
Oddly enough, unlike its predecessors, this game feels very unforgiving in a lot of the timed attacks/defence. Enemies like Shy Guys and even Hammer Bros can wipe out your health with one or two attacks, making the fights more frustrating as you try to understand your opponents’ attacks, on top of getting severely punished for making mistakes.
Outside of the standard combat are the new “Papercraft Battles”. Similar to the “Giant Battles” in Bowser’s Inside Story and Dream Team, Mario, Luigi and Paper Mario pilot a giant Paper Mech to battle other Paper Mechs. Rather than playing within standard RPG rules, the Papercraft battles are more like tank skirmishes. Players move their Papercraft around a large map defeating enemies and eventually engage in a boss fight. While these fights are fairly slow paced in nature, they’re made even slower by the Papercraft’s energy bar. As you use attacks you’ll deplete your energy, which can be replenished by stopping at designated Toad areas and playing a short, DDR style rhythm game. This wouldn’t be so bad if every enemy, including bosses, didn’t stop to dance along as you get your energy back. There’s no sense of tension and no need to manage your energy or attacks; it’s merely pointless busy work to pad the fight time. However, to spice things up, as the game progresses players will be given different characters for Papercrafts ensuring no two battles are exactly the same.
Overall, while I found myself enjoying Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam, I found myself enjoying Dream Team and Sticker Star, respectively, a lot more. It’s certainly not a bad game by any means, it just doesn’t do enough with the Mario and Luigi RPG or Paper Mario brands to really stand out.