Since his inception in the early 80s Mario has been a very busy mascot for Nintendo. He’s been placed in literally hundreds of games and starred in dozens, the most notable of course being the main series of 2D and 3D platformers that made the plumber famous. That said, it’s laughable to say that these platformers have much of a plot, and trying to establish a Zelda-esque continuity for the main Mario platformers is a lost cause for desperate fanboys who have long since missed the point. Mario’s creator Shigeru Miyamoto has always put gameplay and fun first, with story a distant afterthought. The games themselves have gotten pretty self-aware about it too, poking fun at the fact that Bowser never has anything better to do than kidnap the princess.
Curiously, however, Mario has also starred in a long-running number of role-playing games, starting with the aptly titled Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars way back on the SNES. Mario’s RPG adventures have since evolved into a surprisingly complex set of side-stories, first with Paper Mario on the N64 and later the Mario and Luigi games on various Nintendo portables. As a result there are no less than two well-established Mario RPG series, one on home consoles and the other on handhelds, and what’s more both have fairly deep stories. The Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi series are both characterized by their meta-humor, sarcasm and general tongue-in-cheek approach to Mario’s history.
One might wonder what would happen if these two series collided; would the snark and subtle irreverence make the experience collapse in on itself? Well wonder no more, as Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam is just such a mashup of Mario RPGs. And of course, it’s all Luigi’s fault.
Don’t be too hard on the green plumber, though. At the beginning of the game he’s just trying to catch a pesky mouse in his basement, failing hilariously, when he knocks an old, magic book from a dusty shelf. As luck would have it this book contains the entire Paper Mario universe, and as the book lands open on the floor thousands of paper Toads and Paper Bowser’s minions erupt from the book and are subsequently scattered across the Mario and Luigi Mushroom Kingdom. Paper Princess Peach arrives at the castle to meet normal Peach, and the two royals decree that Mario and Luigi must get to the bottom of this flimsy situation.
It isn’t long before normal and Paper Bowser meet, fight, get over their differences and decide to capture both princesses. Luckily Paper Mario has also entered the normal world, and he arrives just in time to help Mario and Luigi through a tricky battle with some Goombas. The three then set off to rescue the princesses and do a whole lot of power-leveling along the way.
While it mixes up the two Mario RPG timelines, Paper Jam’s story is refreshingly straightforward. The villains of both worlds team up to do what they normally do, hoping combined strength will finally work this time, and the three Mario bros answer that challenge with creativity instead of pure muscle. Both series’ signature humor is there, such as the two Bowser Juniors getting up to mischief while their dads fight, or the two Princess Peaches comparing notes on the various inept kidnapping plots they’ve both endured over the years. Unfortunately both series’ infamous wordiness is also repeated here. There’s a lot of expository dialogue and often I just wanted a cutscene or conversation to end so I could get back to grinding. Making the dialogue fully-voiced would go a long way to alleviating this problem, but at this point a fully voice acted Mario game is probably even less likely than a Zelda game with fully-voiced characters.
In terms of gameplay, Paper Jam mostly uses established Mario and Luigi mechanics, but with new Paper Mario moves. The combat shares more in common with the Mario and Luigi series. As in previous games, each party member is controlled with a different face button. With this single button you choose from a list of attacks, items and powerups and then time your attack properly to set up combos or get critical hits. Paper Mario, however, adds a new dimension to this tried and true formula. His copy ability lets him Xerox himself several times, and these copies can be chained into attacks depending on your skill and timing. Using this ability eats up a turn, but in exchange each copy will take a hit until they are used up instead of Paper Mario’s HP, and as I stated these copies can be leveraged into some pretty powerful and creative special attacks.
Paper Mario also figures into the devastating Trio Attacks, which as you can imagine involve all three brothers coordinating one complex choreographed coup de grace. These attacks are minigames in and of themselves, where all three characters will skydive through rings before landing hard on an enemy, or take turns swatting a tennis ball at a foe before powering up for one final smash. These Trio Attacks are easily the best new addition to the formula and will encourage you to keep all three brothers in fighting shape through a battle; naturally if one of them falls, you can’t do a Trio Attack.
If you think these new abilities will make your party overpowered, don’t worry. Paper Jam is surprisingly challenging, especially the boss fights. Even Petey Piranha, the very first boss, posed a challenge. His fight involved various stages, including one where he started flying and chasing the Mario brothers toward the screen. Paper Mario helpfully folded into a paper airplane, allowing Mario and Luigi to grab on and hover to avoid Petey’s slime ball attacks. It’s surprises like this that keep the boss battles fun and varied and routinely kept my playing on my toes.
With this added challenge comes a new learning curve, but thankfully Paper Jam improves upon the old tutorial system. Instead of dumping tons of exposition and mandatory hand-holding on you, tutorials are now optional and can be practiced anytime from the notebook. This is useful for longtime players who already know the basic mechanics, but is also extraordinarily helpful if you want to practice enough to really nail the timing on the trickier moves.
Graphically, Paper Jam is a real mixed bag; I had a difficult time deciding if I liked it or not because it does some cool things but the overall style just doesn’t work. Mario and Luigi’s world is vibrant and colorful, with well-designed environments and lively effects. Ironically though it’s Paper Mario and his fellow paper-world inhabitants that looks the most 3D. Paper Mario has the ability to flip, fold and transform, whereas Mario and Luigi and their fellow “normal” world inhabitants look painfully dated in comparison. Paper Jam uses the same blurry, low-res animated sprites for all non-paper characters and they still look like they walked right out of a Game Boy Advance game. As a result they look flatter and lower-tech than any of the paper characters, although the smooth animation is still praise-worthy. AlphaDream really needs to ditch these old sprites and upgrade Mario and Luigi to fully-animated polygonal models. If Super Mario 3D Land looked amazing five years ago there’s no excuse for Mario and Luigi to look so dated here.
The only other complaint I have is that the majority of new ideas from the Paper universe feel a bit tacked on, no pun intended. I’m not even going into the giant papercraft battles, the Nabbit chases or the irritating Paper Toad hunts, but this definitely feels like a Mario and Luigi game first with accompanying Paper Mario elements thrown in for variety. Paper Mario himself is beautifully integrated into the combat, but he and his world feel like they’re just along for the ride, at least until later in the game when more paper and cardboard environments show up.
Mario and Luigi Paper Jam is a fairly successful fusion of Mario’s two surprisingly consistent RPG series. It isn’t the mind-blowing crossover that Mario RPG fans have been dreaming of, but more of an amusing side-story that mixes the best elements from both series into a greatest hits game of sorts. Hopefully after this test run, we’ll get another crossover that’s a little more daring. Hey, wouldn’t it be wild if the original Legend of the Seven Stars Mario joins the party? Well, a man can dream.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.View Profile