Review: Paper Mario (N64/Wii Virtual Console)

 

Once upon a time, the Nintendo kingdom teamed up with a developer called Square to bring great games to the world. Among these titles was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. A sequel was planned, but disagreements led to Square leaving the company. With the copyrights to Super Mario RPG belonging to Square, Nintendo was left with an RPG they couldn’t continue. To solve their dilemma, Nintendo decided to create a sort of pseudo-sequel to SMRPG with help from Intelligent Systems and dubbed it Paper Mario.

It was quite unusual for an N64 game, mixing 2D and 3D to create a storybook-like world where just about everyone and everything was as flat as, well, paper. The characters were 2D, yet they had 3D models so that they could turn in place. Buildings and landscapes for the most part were composed of multiple flat planes put together like a world of cardboard, or a stage. They were all very well made, however. The sprites, too, of the heroes, baddies, and non-hostiles had great effort put into them from idle to active animations. It got to the point where it didn’t feel like a storybook at times. It was more of a play.

Taking such an approach was risky as most developers at the time used 3D graphics, leaving the 2-dimensional world behind, to wow and reel in gamers. Such a kiddy concept, no matter how good-looking, couldn’t possibly garner much attention!

Fast forward to over a decade later. It’s gained 2 sequels in the same style with another scheduled to hit the 3DS. The series that kicked off from the original Paper Mario may not have as many entries as something like Mario Party, but it’s still going strong. But what is it about Paper Mario that makes it worthy enough to have multiple sequels?

A lot actually and it just wouldn’t be a Mario game without Bowser hatching some devious plan. Par for the course, he has decided to kidnap Princess Peach, yet again, in style. He makes his way up to Star Haven where the seven honorable Star Spirits watch over the Star Rod, an object capable of making any wish come true. Disregarding the fourth wall, he steals the Star Rod and imprisons the Star Spirits in large (collectible) cards. He then crashes a party being held at Peach’s castle in the most unusual manner.

His Keep magically appears underneath her castle, rising high into the atmosphere. Peach and all of her guests are effectively isolated from any meddling plumbers. At least, if a meddling plumber wasn’t already there attending the party. The two trade blows, but with the Star Rod Bowser is invincible and ridiculously powerful to the point where a breath of fire is enough to knock out Mario from full health. With a zap granted by the Rod, Mario is sent flying out of the castle, careening to the earth.

Unfortunately for Bowser, Mario survives. He receives help from the Star Spirits, projecting themselves from their prisons (somehow) to heal him up a bit, as well as a helping hand – er, foot from a nice family of Goombas. When he’s finally recovered, Mario begins his quest to rescue the Star Spirits from the clutches of Bowser’s most trusted (and flashy) underlings, and ultimately save the princess and trounce King Koopa. Just as soon as he finds a way to make Bowser vulnerable again.

The story that unfolds is divided into 8 chapters, a prologue, and a brief, peaceful epilogue. Throughout this adventure, Mario has to smash, stomp, and do things with a hammer that will leave his enemies quaking where they stand. That’s not to say there will be nonstop combat. Heck, there are measures in place in discourage grinding. Higher levels means less experience – called Star Points here; 100 of them levels you up – from the same enemies you defeated at a lower level.

Instead, combat is mostly optional since you can see the enemies before engaging them. If you bump into one normally, you are taken to the battle screen, which is really a stage complete with curtains and a cardboard background relating to the area you are in. A team of cannon fodder will be on the right side while Mario and company stand on the left. Fights are turn-based with Mario handed the first one. However, if while walking around Mario is hit by an enemy (say, a koopa spinning into Mario) the stage will open with the left-most foe getting a free hit at him using whatever attack the plumber was hit with. Thankfully, the tables can be turned by hammering or jumping on your enemy of choice. Even better: two of the teammates Mario gains can be used to do the same by using down-C. Kooper (a koopa) can have his shell shot forward and Bombette (a bom-omb) can be set down, allowing her to walk forward a few paces then explode. You get these guys early on in the adventure and mastering the art of the First Strike with and without them is essential to surviving the quicker and more powerful foes.

The actual battle gives you several options on what to do. Hammer or jump on an enemy, use an item, switch out your partner, abscond, or do nothing (why would you do that?). Once you rescue a Star Spirit, you’re given the option to use whichever ability they gave you. This ranges from restoring some health to raining stars on everyone for unblockable damage in exchange for Star Power. Focusing in battle or resting at an Inn (for free!) restores SP so it’s not to be wasted.

Just so you’re not twiddling your thumbs while everyone takes their turn, the timed hits from SMRPG returns. You have to wait until after the prologue to gain access to it though. When you do, an icon will appear in the upper left-hand corner when someone attacks during battle. By pressing buttons or moving the control stick at the right time, more damage is dealt to the enemy or damage to Mario can be reduced. Want more? Throughout the game you’ll find hammer and boot upgrades that up your attack. There are also badges everywhere – in chests, in stores, out in the open, found during side quests – that grant a wide variety of special effects when equipped. The sound your hammer makes when attacking can change, you can get twice the amount of coins from battles, status conditions can be negated, and attack power can be increased. Among the many, many other badges there are those that can change how Mario attacks. In exchange for some Flower Points, he could gain a boost in his jumping attack or fling his hammer at any enemy on screen.

The catch here is that each badge – save for the sound effect ones – costs badge points. You start out with 3 and have the opportunity to gain 3 more every time Mario levels up. Another catch: you have to give up an increase in HP and FP. It’s a delicate balance at the start when choosing what to favor from the options and a cool badge is sitting in your inventory, just 1 or 2 points away from being worn. If you want some of those more impressive badges, you’ll have to work on reaching that level 27 cap.

Outside of battle, you’re free to roam the Mushroom Kingdom (or rather Toad Town) and the surrounding regions as they become open to you. Side quests open or continue after each chapter, hidden items await discovering as do Star Pieces used to buy very useful badges up at Shooting Star Summit, and the local cook Tayce T. can take one of your items and make a better HP-recovery meal or attack item out of it. If you are looking to waste your time spending some coins, there’s the lil’ oink corral. Just 10 coins and a whack of a hammer gives you a random little pig to look at in a small enclosure. Aside from filling the corral with cute pigs, there’s a good reason to invest in them if you find yourself filthy rich. Whenever there’s too many oinkers or you open the gate to where they are, they will run away. There’s a chance though that they might drop a valuable item, such as Jammin’ Jelly which restores 50 FP. In the event that 2 or more are left on the ground, you will only have time to nab one before they all disappear.

The other way is to find the underground playground where you can gamble in games of chance.

All of these are just pieces of Paper Mario’s charm. At its heart is a good dose of humor that keeps the story light-hearted and enjoyable. It’s mostly provided by Mario’s partners and some of the villains in the form of amusing dialogue. You have Goombario, Mario’s huge fan and first partner, who sometimes breaks the fourth wall – never obliterating it as Super Paper Mario does – Bowser as a ham, and the Koopa Bros. who bring to mind the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles only not as cool. Just to name a few. Minor characters like Kolorado the archeologist-who-would-be-dead-by-now get in on this, too, being over-the-top and completely unforgettable. No one else would brave a dangerous volcano for ancient treasure with such disregard for their health.

Undoubtedly you won’t be forgetting the music either. Classic Super Mario tracks have been remixed and added to a batch of original tracks. Trying to get the music out of your head may prove futile. (Fricking road to Koopa Village.)

Put together, the successful elements of Paper Mario make it difficult to put the game down permanently. Afterwards, little bits of memory come back and before you know it, you’ve found the hammer again, thinking of what you did last time and what you will do differently this time.

Unless you can break free, in which case you may want to step outside.

The big question now is: How well does Paper Mario hold up today?

To answer: Quite well.

Although it wasn’t terribly successful in 2001 what with the PS2 to contend with, Paper Mario gained an audience and the resulting series has yet to die. With plenty of shout-outs, a unique style, fun interactions, and a battle system that never feels stale wrapped up into a casual adventure, the original Paper Mario has aged well. It is a little rough when compared to the smoother textures in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, but still worth checking out if you’re a Mario fan. If you aren’t the type who appreciates 2D gaming, you are missing out.

About SmashQueen

Staff writer for ACGV.