The Underwhelming Evolution of Paper Mario

paper mario

Nintendo has a fine tuned process when it comes to developing their pre-existing franchises. Watching a Nintendo franchise through the years is like watching a child star grow up. You don’t have any control over the situation, yet you find yourself hoping they don’t destroy themselves. New Super Mario Bros grew up to be a wildly popular and entertaining performer that I’m slightly tired of seeing so often, while Metroid was a beloved entertainer until he mysteriously went missing four years ago. Bear with me with this analogy here, but the Mario and Luigi, and the Paper Mario Series are like two fraternal twins who try a little too hard to be different by developing unnecessary traits in an attempt to distinguish oneself. Over the past decade, the Mario and Luigi series appears that it has found it’s niche in the market, while Paper Mario’s recent added features such as stickers detract from what originally made the series great.

Though generally regarded as similar series’, which is fair seeing as they’re the only two RPG Mario series, the Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi franchises both offer different experiences at their core. The Mario and Luigi titles stick to a lighter storyline and incorporate a sense of familiarity to the classic Mario games with their art style and platforming elements. The Paper Mario series, on the other hand offers its own unique, yet enjoyable experience. It’s battle system is less interactive, yet involves more strategy, the adventure requires problem solving abilities in lieu of a platforming experience, and the brilliant art style manages to take the clever theme of paper, and turn it into an beautiful and imaginative world. The series even manages to strike originality by incorporating a storyline that couples a clever style of humor, with a deep, and often dark tone. I know referring to a Mario title as “dark” is on par with calling a Michael Bay movie low key, so let me offer some proof. Paper Mario and the Thousand-Year Door serves as a perfect example seeing as some of its main chapters centered around (spoiler alert) fighting in an arena that ended up being owned by a corrupt turtle who sucked the life out of pre-existing champions, a computer that discovers self awareness and love only to be shut down by its creator, and a bleak, depressing village (literally called twilight town) on the verge of extinction due to a curse that turns its inhabitants into pigs. I like to think I possess a steely stoicism while playing video games, yet watching a child’s parents be turned into pigs before his eyes elicited an emotional response that I felt all too often while playing The Last of Us.

This is what fear looks like

This is what fear looks like in The Thousand-Year Door

Paper Mario and the Thousand-Year door in my opinion still remains as the pinnacle of Nintendo’s RPG games. Because my opinion has yet to reach levels of credibility, I’ll add some facts to it. The game itself sold 1.64 million copies worldwide which makes it the eleventh best selling Gamecube game of all time and the second best selling RPG Gamecube game, second only to Pokémon Coliseum. The Thousand-Year Door was unanimously well received by critics, and praised mainly for it’s unique and expertly crafted storyline, and won Role Playing Game of the Year at the 2005 Interactive Achievement Awards. The originality doesn’t stop with their storyline though. The gameplay and combat system deviated from the standard RPG experience by adding a layer of interactivity in battle, while also retaining a strategic baseline. With The Thousand-Year Door being such an integral game of my childhood, and what I can only assume made me into the man I am today, I expected big things from Super Paper Mario for the Wii when it was originally announced. By no means was it a bad game, yet I still couldn’t help but feel disappointed while playing what felt like a completely separate franchise. The new combat system was fluid, boss battles were creative, and the 3D transition concept added a whole new layer to the games exporation, but, by adding these elements the Paper Series was transformed into something entirely different from what I had known an loved. The praised combat system no longer existed and the comforting confine of the 2D 3D hybrid landscape was transformed into a pseudo platformer with an added layer of puzzle solving. The only thing that kept it a Paper Mario title was of course the paper art style, and a top-notch storyline. It’s sad to think that while playing Super Paper Mario, the first time it reminded me of Thousand-Year Door wasn’t until I was being held as a labor slave in a mansion, mining rubees.

All complaints about Super Paper Mario and its lack of consistency aside, the game itself was well executed. It may not have been what I was hoping for, but it didn’t make me lose hope with the franchise. All that changed when Nintendo gave me a reason to have trust issues by releasing Paper Mario: Sticker Stars. If any readers here are big Sticker Star fans then I’m going to go ahead and apologize for this entire paragraph. Paper Mario: Sticker Star decided to abandon nearly every concept that made its predecessors great. Did you like the RPG elements in the original Paper Mario games? That’s too bad because Sticker Star decided to abandon that in its entirety by removing experience, levels, and hard earned items with stickers. Stickers. Someone had to make the executive decision to incorporate single use stickers. No longer is there the joy of leveling up or learning a new move to incorporate in battle. The only feeling of reward I could get out of that game was finding a rare sticker that I could only have the joy of using possibly once. Of course this turned into a process of me hoarding all of the rare stickers, waiting for an appropriate time to use them, which never actually came because all of the main bosses required the use of a specific and gimmicky sticker, essentially making the use of strategy during boss fights obsolete. All in all, I was willing to look past all of my qualms with the gameplay just to experience the quality storytelling that was prevalent in the past three iterations. This is where the trust issues come into play. The quality storyline in Paper Mario ended up exactly like its RPG elements, obsolete. After three content riddled Paper Mario titles filled with creative and developed characters, Sticker Star thought an NPC lineup of 90% toads would be better suited for the Paper Mario Experience. I understand that Sticker Star was more intended for a young demographic, yet that’s no excuse for sub par writing and development, which is truly apparent when comparing environments between Sticker Star and the Thousand-Year Door. To provide an example, I’ll compare the hub world/starting town between the two games. The Thousand-Year Door’s hub was an imaginative town called Rogueport, which came complete with separate districts, dozens of original characters complete with their own personality, and plenty of secrets that can be found throughout the game. Sticker Star’s hub on the other hand is a wildly underwhelming and lifeless town, filled only with toads and stickers. In a way, both towns serve as an indicator to what their respective game has to offer.

Notice how there are zero toads in sight

Notice how there are zero toads in sight

All of my complaints thus far have a purpose to them. I’m not trying to provide a review or reliable critic of the most recent Paper Mario title (I may be a little too bias for that). No, what I’m trying to do is beg the question, why? Why change so many aspects of an already well-established and properly functioning franchise? This is where my original “child star analogy” comes into play. The Paper Mario franchise was worried about being too similar to the Mario and Luigi series, and in an attempt to distinguish itself, ended up abandoning the core elements that originally made it so well loved. Though this is all considered to be speculation, it becomes more believable once the dates of release as well as the number of copies sold are made known for both series. Mario and Luigi Superstar Saga, the first title of the series wasn’t released until 2004, which was one year before Paper Mario and the Thousand-Year Door came out. The Paper Mario Series was better known at the time and that’s why there was such little difference in game mechanics between the first and second Paper Mario titles. However, once Superstar Saga proved itself as a great title that would spawn several sequels, Nintendo must have thought the two series were too similar. It wasn’t until the Mario and Luigi series made a name for itself with its successful Gameboy release (Superstar Saga) in 2003, and Nintendo DS release (Partners in Time) in 2005, when the Paper Mario staff realized that they needed to change several core elements to keep the game fresh and original. Unfortunately for many of the long time fans of the original two Paper Mario games, these changes compromised the Paper Mario Formula that drew us in, in the first place. Due to continued positive sales reports for both the most recent Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi iteration, We’re sure to see future Paper Mario releases, and if we’re lucky, maybe they’ll involve original mechanics. Time will tell.

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About The Author

Feature Writer

Eli Hile is a content writer at Always Nintendo. He likes spreading his opinions and knowledge on all things Nintendo, and is currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Aside from logging countless hours into Pokemon and Super Smash Bros, Eli enjoys playing tennis or golf with friends.