It's interesting what a difference in context can make in the reception of a game. Although I wouldn't necessarily call it a favorite, one game that I feel is unfairly maligned is Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
, which has often been derided for its simplified turn-based RPG mechanics and inclusion of action mechanics. While Paper Mario
is a much better game, it builds off some similar components and has a sterling reputation, and one wouldn't be out of line to question if the game really has so much merit, or if it's just the "Mario" pedigree that has lead to this game's ongoing acclaim.
For myself, it's very hard to separate this from the first time I played it in the waning days of the N64. I have vivid memories of renting the game at the tender age of 13 and playing through it with the aid of Nintendo Power's guide. This game not only marked the end of the 64, but also the beginning of my transition from childhood to adulthood. While I enjoyed several of the later "Mario" themed RPGs, none of them have stuck with me as this one has, and it's just one of those pieces of media that seemed to enter my life at just the right time.
The aspect of Paper Mario
that stands out the most is, of course, its visual style, which eschews conventional 3D graphics for a lat paperlike quality, full of bright colors and limited animations. While this was a controversial change at the time, the game looks simply outstanding even by today's standards. Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars [スーパーマリオRPG]
may have pushed the SNES to its limits, but as polygon graphics became more the norm, it quickly looked outdated, while Paper Mario
's art style is simply timeless. Not to be outdone, the game also features an outstanding soundtrack by Yuka Tsujiyoko, which goes through many different styles, but always complements the action on the screen and visuals.
The events of Paper Mario
play out like a storybook with a prologue and 8 chapters. The plot is a typical "Mario" story, involving a quest to yet again rescue Peach from Bowser's clutches. This time around, Bowser has also imprisoned 8 "star spirits," from whom he has stolen a magic rod that grants him invincibility. Of course, it's up to Mario to save them, as well, and their power is necessary to neutralize Bowser's new powers. Although the story was clichéd even for its time, it is told in a whimsical manner with many moments of levity. It won't necessarily make you laugh out loud too often, but it's hard to play the game without at least smiling. You also have to give Intelligent Systems credit for understanding the "Mario" universe well. While some of the key players were from previous games, the majority are entirely new creations, and none of them feel out of place. This is yet another improvement over the game's predecessor, which at times felt like a generic RPG with the "Mario" license slapped on.
The attempts to make the game family friendly did not stop with its audio visual presentation or story. RPGs are known for being stat heavy, but like the aforementioned Mystic Quest
, Paper Mario
strips things down to their absolute basics. As the game begins Mario and his enemies do a mere 1 damage to each other, and the stats are limited to HP, FP (stand-in for MP), Attack, and Defense. Despite this, there is a certain amount of strategy involved. Mario's primary attacks are his jump and his hammer, and while some enemies can be damaged by either, some are only susceptible to one attack, and some are simply immune to Mario's standard attacks. Besides his basic attacks, Mario can use certain items to damage enemies and also can call on the power of star spirits that he has rescued. Over the course of the game, Mario will also pick-up various badges, and some of these grant special hammer and jump attacks that Mario can use, including some that allow him to damage enemies that would otherwise be out of reach. Moreover, many of them will boost Mario's stats, allowing him to go beyond the base damage of his weapons, to better defend himself, or even to grant certain types of interactions in the world. Much of the strategy comes from deciding which badges to use.
As mentioned earlier, not all enemies can be attacked directly by Mario, and this is where Mario's partner characters become relevant. Not too far into the game, Mario will begin recruiting partner characters, 8 in total, that assist him in his quest. Each character has a helpful move that will aid Mario in solving puzzles in the world, as well as a distinct move set with each character having their own strengths and weaknesses in battle. Initially, it may seem like the partner just amounts to some extra damage, but as the roster grows, using the appropriate partner for the situation can be crucial to Mario's success or failure. Between Mario's abilities and his partner's, there is a great deal of strategy. The game presents things in a simpler manner, obviously intending to be easily understood by any audience, but the game is not always easy, and the various types of attacks essentially stand-in for having different attack types, making for a satisfying experience for players of any skill level.
The last component of play that warrants mentioning is the various action aspects of Paper Mario
. While it was not the first game to include timed action commands, Paper Mario
goes all in on the concept, and quick reflexes are a necessity, especially for defense. RPG stalwarts may find this annoying, but as a child with limited RPG experience, it made the experience more engaging, and I find that my preferences haven't changed much. Turned-based RPGs often bore me, and I sometimes find that I just push the command button over and over and over again. The necessity of timing the attacks ensures that the player has to pay attention. Finally, as mentioned earlier, Mario and his partners also have to perform actions in the real world to advance the story and complete side quests. This wouldn't have been a game breaking or making feature, but it goes a long way towards helping it to feel like other Mario games. When you consider how rare it is for an RPG today to be purely turn-based, it sort of feels like Paper Mario
helped to lead the way, and it's a great example of how to balance between action and turn-based elements.
There are a few small gripes with the game. Although the game features a sort of hub in Toad Town, there is no way to quickly return to it, and this results in a great deal of backtracking. Sometimes, events will occur on the way back to Toad Town that justify the trip, but other times, it just seems to pad out the length of the game. The other aspect of the game that can be frustrating is its implementation of items. While useful in the early goings of the game, as Mario gains badges and rescues star spirits, the items begin to feel superfluous, and moreover, the limited inventory means that you will quickly run out of space. The game does allow you to store extra items with the various merchants in the game, which helps, but simply increasing the size of the inventory or making the items more useful would have been even better.
Overall, Paper Mario
is a game that I've returned to more times than I can count, and while nostalgia for simpler times may play some role in that, it really is an outstanding game that stands up to the test of time. Love for the "Mario" property may benefit the game, but it is unique in its implementation of action elements, and it has enough traditional RPG elements to scratch that itch, as well. When you factor in the fantastic presentation of the game, it really starts to feel like nitpicking to point out its few flaws. Of the various "Mario" RPGs, this one remains my favorite, and it ranks among the best titles the N64 and 32/64-bit generation offered.