The next entry in the Paper Mario series is making it’s triumphant return to consoles later this year. If you’ve been on social media of any kinda and are a fan of this series you’ve probably seen a lot of back and forth discussion about the game. Some people are excited for it, others are already tossing hatred out there for it. As someone who’d played every Mario RPG game out there from Super Mario RPG on the SNES to Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam on the 3DSI have my opinions. I’ve not hidden the fact that I don’t really like the way the series has been headed and I’m mostly skeptical of Color Splash, but I’m going to give it a try, like I have with every game in both the main Mario RPG series’.
My love for these games started back on the GameCube. I got Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door very shortly after it launched and I couldn’t stop playing it. Everything about that game was incredible to me. The visuals were solid. Everything had that nice, flat paper look, but the way things were laid out it also had a lot of depth to what was happening on screen. The writing was funny. Every character on the screen was memorable. It didn’t matter if you were wrestling Rawk Hawk in the arena, herding Punis around the Great Boggly Tree or reading Luigi’s side adventure that happens at the same time it was all entertaining. None of it felt out of place or unnecessary. It was and is still one of my favorite games of all time to be released on the GameCube.
From there I went back and played the games I’d missed, Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario on the N64, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. All of them were great experiences that while they had many similar mechanics they all felt unique. They all brought something to the genre that the other didn’t. Paper Mario had your sidekicks, and very small manageable statistics that didn’t overwhelm you. Mario & Luigi had more traditional RPG mechanics, dual character attacks. They both felt different while being familiar to fans of either series. They also both had their own separate spaces. Mario & Luigi was the handheld RPG while Paper Mario was there for players in their living rooms.
Shortly after the release of Thousand Year Door the DS got what I consider to be the best of the Mario & Luigi games, Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time. The DS had more buttons and allowed you to have additional characters to control. It added another layer of interesting mechanics to the game. The titular brothers, through an accident caused by Professor E. Gadd were united with their younger selves to save Princess Peach in multiple time periods. The additional characters allowed for different types of puzzles based on whether you were playing as the older or younger versions of Mario and Luigi. They also had skills that required all four characters to use. It was fresh and built on top of an already stellar game that was Superstar Saga. Many would argue that Bowser’s Inside Story was the best game in that series and I wouldn’t argue with that assessment either. It was also a fantastic game.
With the Wii Nintendo decided to do something different with the Paper Mario series. They took advantage of the Wii Remote and built in a mechanic that would allow you to move around in 2D space or 3D space and use the Wii Remote to search for items in the environment. The biggest complaint many people had with Super Paper Mario was that it wasn’t an RPG and it didn’t feel like a Paper Mario game. They also use that as an excuse to say that the game wasn’t very good. While they’re correct in that it wasn’t really an RPG, it was a platformer with heavy RPG mechanics, the game was good. It’s biggest flaw, really, was that it was too long winded. The characters in the game, while memorable, never shut up. There was far too much talking in that game for what it was. If it had pulled more of those elements out and just focused on an interesting 2D/3D platformer it would have been a far superior game.
After the release of that game Nintendo apparently conducted a survey where less than 1% of the people who responded said they liked the story in that Wii game. Because of that Nintendo decided to remove most of the story elements in the series, but tried to go back towards the series’ RPG roots. They removed almost all semblance of story with the release of Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the first game in the series to be featured on a handheld. Instead they played up the paper elements of the game and added in a mechanic where you had a sticker book that as you played through the game you earned, or bought, stickers that you would use to attack enemies in a fight. Some of the stickers were more powerful than others. Some caused huge, world changing things to happen. Most were pretty mundane and were based on the traditional attacks of jumping on enemies or hitting them with a hammer. When you used a sticker to attack it was removed from your inventory never to be seen again. This is where this game really started to fall apart. It was far to easy to end up in a situation where just by playing through the game normally you could use all your inventory of stickers and be left with no options to fight. You had to either lose and get a game over, or retreat from a fight and make your way back to a store that sold stickers or hope you found some in the environment. It was tedious to keep track of at best, and borderline broken at its worst. It wasn’t fun, and made a game that could have otherwise been really good end up a mediocre mess.
The last two entries in the Mario & Luigi series haven’t been great either. Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, the first game on the 3DS, was WAY too long. It wore out it’s welcome. If you sped your way through the game it took you at least 40 hours to beat. Closer to 50 if you played it at a pretty normal pace. It was fun, and the writing was as clever as it’s ever been; the characters just as memorable as the days of the GameCube. It was just too long for its own good.
The most recent entry in the series, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam looked to combine both series into one mashup. I was highly skeptical of that game at first because I didn’t like the idea of bringing the two series together. It looked weird to have Mario & Luigi side by side with the paper version of Mario and company. Somehow, despite my reservations Nintendo seemed to make it work. The game was great. It was really fun and it had just enough Paper Mario in it to make him feel right, while holding true to much of the mechanics that were familiar to the Mario & Luigi series. It really was a Mario & Luigi game with just a touch of Paper Mario, and somehow it worked. Then the worst possible thing happened.
Around the 35 hour mark, when I thought the game was beginning to drag on I made it to Bowser’s castle and what I assumed to be the end of the game. I fought both versions of Bowser Jr and rescued the princesses when Bowser burst on to the scene. You know you’re not going to have a Mario game that doesn’t include a fight with Bowser. The game came to a screeching halt. They did something I couldn’t believe. At the end of the game, 35 hours into what I thought was a brilliant entry in the series they added in numerous fetch quests that didn’t really add anything to the story. It was just there to pad out the length of the game. I crept up to the 40 hour mark and was at this point just trying to power through the end of the game when I hit a mission that had me try to find 3 Paper Toads amongst a slew of enemies, that if you got into combat with couldn’t escape from, taking your precious time from you. The mission has a 13 minute time limit that if you don’t find all three Toads means failure and you have to start over. These Toads are randomly hidden amongst the enemies and you don’t know when or where they’re going to be. It was frustrating and the point in the game where I said enough was enough. It wasn’t fun anymore and the time it took to finish these quests was far more valuable than seeing the end of this story.
The series has seen ups and downs. It hit its peak, I thought, around the time of The GameCube and the DS. Paper Mario has been trying different things with the series while Mario & Luigi have stayed mostly true to the RPG elements of the series. This is all by design according to Nintendo. They’re sort of in a darned if you do, darned if you don’t situation, but I for one would love a true return to the RPG roots of Paper Mario and a slimming down of the story in Mario & Luigi. I really like how that series has stayed true to itself, much like Dragon Quest has stayed very true to form over its many iterations. I like change, and experimentation in a series, but not at the expense of what the series is and was. Change for the sake of change isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes it’s best to make small modifications while keeping the bulk of the formula whole.
Paper Mario: Color Splash comes out later this year, and while early indications are that its repeating many of the mistakes that Sticker Star did, I will remain optimistic. I’m going to give the game a chance. Maybe I’m wrong and the game will be great and I’ll remember it as fondly as I do The Thousand Year Door. Maybe they tweak the things that were wrong with that previous game and it ends up being great. My problems with that previous game were easily fixable and with some small changes to the overall mechanic it could have been as good as the games of the past. We won’t really know until we play it. That’s what I encourage everyone to do. You have to give the game a chance. Until it comes out and people have played it we don’t know how it’s going to be.