The year is 2001. Nintendo, together with developer Intelligent Systems, releases Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64. Meant as a pseudo-sequel to Super Mario RPG, the game is a big hit even without Squaresoft developing it. Fast forward to 2017, and Paper Mario: Color Splash, the fifth game in the spin-off franchise, is received lukewarmly by critics and fans alike. What happened, exactly? And what can be done to bring the Paper Mario series back to its former glory?
In the beginning…
I think the best way to answer this is to look back at what made the Paper Mario games so special to begin with. Despite being based on a really weird premise, (“It’s Mario, but in paper form!”) Paper Mario was, at its core, an RPG. More specifically, it was a turn-based RPG, and a really streamlined one at that. Whereas many turn-based RPGs of this time had complex game mechanics and overworlds with lots of complicated lore, Paper Mario strove for simplicity. Everything about it, right down to its battle mechanics, was designed for someone unfamiliar with how the genre operated.
I’m not kidding about that, either: I remember being able to pick up and play the game almost immediately when it first came out. I’m not exactly great at video games, and RPGs are the genre I tend to struggle most with. So to have a game in the genre that felt like a beginner’s RPG was more than enough to sell me on it. By the time it made its way to the Virtual Console in 2007, it wasn’t only a day-one purchase for me — it was a week-one completion as well.
A worthy follow-up
Gamers adored Paper Mario enough to earn it a sequel on the GameCube in 2004. This game, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, took everything that made the original work so well and improved on it. It added more character, better visuals, more intricate game mechanics, and more interesting locales. And like with Paper Mario, The Thousand-Year Door was met with stellar reception from both critics and fans. Having recently beaten it myself, I can attest to this game’s excellence. Because it really does build on what Paper Mario started.
It honestly seemed like there was no end in sight for these games and their quality productions. After all, how could Nintendo possibly destroy their credibility with something like Paper Mario?
“Everything changed when Super Paper Mario attacked…”
Well, leave that to Super Paper Mario. Or, more specifically, leave that to the legacy of Super Paper Mario. Back when this game was first announced, it actually seemed like a really cool idea. Why not take an established franchise and try something new with it? That’s how we got Paper Mario, after all! And if that game was great, then clearly there was room for experimentation, right? Right?
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way now: Super Paper Mario isn’t a bad game. Parts of it are even, dare I say, brilliant. But looking back on it now, 12 years later, something feels… well, “off” about it. It lacks the refinement of the previous installments. And its core gimmick — the ability to flip Mario sideways — loses its luster once you realize you can do that for the majority of the in-game levels and breeze through them with ease. The platforming mechanic also loses its novelty quickly, as it feels less like a Paper Mario game and more like a Mario platformer with Paper Mario-like twists.
Platforming in my RPG?!
Perhaps the best way to describe Super Paper Mario is to think of those sidescrolling Bowser levels from Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door and stretch that out to an entire game. Problem is — those were easily the weakest parts of that game. And even outside of that, that’s not what made the franchise special to begin with. Gamers don’t want another Mario sidescroller from the Paper Mario franchise — they want an RPG. So an awkward hybrid of the two, while fun for a bit, quickly becomes unexciting.
It’s a shame because, again, Super Paper Mario wasn’t without its merits. The game, though overly chatty with its dialogue, had the most in-depth story in the franchise to date. The backstory surrounding Count Bleck’s origin was really emotional and tragic, making him the most fleshed-out villain in the franchise. Bleck’s minions were also really fun to witness in action, and the real-time boss fights with them were a lot more nerve-wracking than those prior. Not to mention, you had Luigi, Bowser, and Princess Peach as playable characters in your main roster, giving them a lot more to do than their typical, archetypal roles.
The beginning of the end
In the end, Super Paper Mario remains divisive in the fandom. I lean more toward enjoying it for what it is, but I can see why some fans are turned off. Much like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, it really does feel like the biggest departure from what came before it. Yet while the Zelda games would see a return to form with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Paper Mario would be the beginning of the end for the Paper Mario games. The franchise would immediately start to spiral with the franchise’s next entry, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, and hasn’t really regained its former glory since.
This is where the franchise started to really piss fans off. Despite its decent reviews from critics, fans were unhappy with Paper Mario: Sticker Star‘s core mechanics. They cited them as broken and frustrating to maneuver, complaining that it “simply wasn’t the same.” I can’t say I blame them. Although I haven’t played it myself, the bits and pieces of game footage I’ve seen haven’t been too enticing. They come off as rote and monotonous, even boring, and they feel nothing like the early days of the franchise.
Under normal circumstances, that’d be the end of it: Nintendo would’ve learned their lesson and moved on. But Nintendo decided that the answer to Sticker Star‘s failure to resonate with audiences was to tinker with the franchise’s mechanics some more. Hence, we got Paper Mario: Color Splash, a game that was slightly better received than its direct predecessor but still lacked the magic of Paper Mario and The Thousand-Year Door.
I get that Nintendo wants to innovate with the Paper Mario IP, and I respect that. I really do. But there’s a big difference between tinkering with what already works and replacing it with something that doesn’t. It’s not like the original games weren’t without areas of improvement; what game isn’t? But fixing imaginary flaws often means creating new ones. Plus, it annoys people.
Rekindling that lost spark
In other words, it’d be great if Nintendo and Intelligent Systems would go back to their roots with the series. It’d be great if they remembered what made the franchise work as well as it did, utilizing that for future entries. It’d be great if they reintroduced the franchise’s simple, turn-based RPG mechanics, with all of the overly complicated gimmicks being replaced with something simpler to understand. It’s not enough to rely on brand recognition anymore — other series like Sonic have proven that time and again.
But above all, it’d be great if Nintendo would understand that Paper Mario and The Thousand-Year Door weren’t simply lightning-in-a-bottle games. They couldn’t be, or else the formula wouldn’t have been replicated for two masterpieces. It’d also be demeaning to the talents of Nintendo’s programmers to call it a “one-off.” The fact that Nintendo’s successfully replicated what appeared to be one-offs on numerous occasions shows that. And if they get their act together, realize that Paper Mario wasn’t solely about its gimmicks, and go back to the franchise basics, then I genuinely believe that they can make the next game a masterpiece like the first two were.
But what do you think? Do you feel like the Paper Mario games are past their prime, or can Nintendo actually bounce back? Let us know in the comments below.
Hey, if this franchise never bounces back, at least we have Bug Fables.