You know what time it is? That’s right. It’s time to talk about a game series that I want to talk about because I feel like it deserves some attention. This week we will talk about the Paper Mario series because despite my love for some of the things Nintendo has brought out over the years, this particular series has been through quite a lot. So I thought I might as well talk about it. Now I won’t really go too far in depth as usual just for the sake of brevity and in case you want to experience this series for yourself. Now, what makes this series interesting is it is one of the few series of games with Mario and co. in an RPG setting. Mario has to go through a bunch of interesting lands to stop whatever nefarious plot involves Princess Peach and potentially the fate of the world. However, in recent years they have hit a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to this series and I would like to take a moment to make some suggestions on how the series can build itself back up again.
Now, before I delve too deeply into that I want to make a distinction between the games in the series. Now the first three games were very good with the second, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, being hailed as the best to this day and thoroughly cementing this franchise as one that would be around to stay. The first, just called Paper Mario, was a classic that paved the way for these games coming to fruition and the third, Super Paper Mario, was still a pretty good game in its own right despite not being quite as good as the second. Now, the problems started after the third game when the fourth game came out. After Super Paper Mario came out Nintendo decided to double down on the paper idea and decided to go for a simpler approach back in the Mushroom Kingdom. I’m think it had something to do with sales not being what they expected so they thought to just start from scratch. The new game Paper Mario: Sticker Star received less than enthusiastic responses to put it mildly. So much for boosting sales for the franchise. The next game in the series Paper Mario: Color Splash didn’t do much better in that regard. Being totally honest, I didn’t even know that the game came out until months later. They really didn’t know how to market things with the Wii U did they? Recently, the latest installment, Paper Mario: The Origami King came out pretty much out of nowhere and while not being a bad game, it was not really at the same level as the original trilogy. So what happened? I’m so glad you asked.
The main problem with the series of games since Paper Mario: Sticker Star is that the games have become a lot more simplified. To be fair, some of these trends did start taking place in Super Paper Mario, but the game still managed to be good because it still had the necessary imagination of an RPG. One of the reasons the Paper Mario series was so good was because it was a fun RPG to explore with Mario characters with an good story, a fun battle system, a fun world to explore, and a lot of personality from the characters you met on the journey other than Mario. Now the first two games were pretty strong in these aspects, but the third installment started to falter because while the story was still good and the characters still had a fair of personality, the problem lied in the changing of the battle system and world exploration. The battle system was completely scrapped in favor of a more traditional platforming approach which some nuance between the four playable characters. The worlds to explore were contained in storybook chapters that you entered through a central hub which made the game feel a little less open than before since each section takes place in a different dimension where backtracking is essentially nonexistent. That is not to say that it was that bad, but the thing is that the changes didn’t add a lot to the game. The main problem is that it started to feel more like a standard Super Mario game instead of a Paper Mario game. Unfortunately, they continued this trend in the following games by experiment with the combat system while simplifying the story, character interactions, and world exploration. If that wasn’t bad enough the combat was grossly imbalanced in Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Paper Mario: Color Splash. Now thankfully, there has been some recovery in the aspects of characterization and world exploration with the newest title Paper Mario: The Origami King. The story and gameplay could still use a bit more work, but the series feels like it could potentially be able to make a comeback. Now what I want to do is talk about how we can further speed up this series’ recovery.
The first thing that should be addressed should be the gameplay, specifically the experience of leveling up. I addressed in one of my first posts that experience can feel out of place and unnecessary in certain settings. However, I have yet to see a time where it wasn’t beneficial to an RPG. So why not include it? You can experiment with the combat system as much as you want, but if fighting battles doesn’t really benefit you then even if the combat system works just fine you are still not going to get into that many battles because that just eats up time. The second thing that should be addressed is characterization. The reason having party members worked so well in the first two games is they not only enhanced the gameplay, but they also were interesting characters that made the world feel a little more real, so if you can’t get them to be a part of gameplay then you should at the very least make sure they are fun to interact with from both a story and gameplay perspective. In other words, have the character interesting enough to bring along while also being useful in taking with you to explore the world. There is one last thing that I want to say. Recently the Paper Mario series has been fairly insistent on paper gimmicks for each installment. I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing to incorporate these ideas into the series, but I feel the series would benefit more from instead of having just one paper theme per game, they should instead have different paper themes in each area of the game so that they don’t feel stale after a while. Or maybe incorporate more paper elements into the gameplay itself. As an example, bring stickers back as a temporary/permanent powerup in battles you can equip in order to give you different effects with your attacks. That’s just an example, but all I want to say is that if you are going to force yourself to go heavy on the paper aspect of the series just make sure each installment doesn’t feel like a one trick pony. The appeal of the Paper Mario series was never in the fact that the characters were paper, but that the characters never felt paper thin. If you create a good RPG with an engaging story and world to discover with a fun gameplay experience, that is all I need. If you are having trouble with ideas though, I have a way to buy you some time Nintendo. Next year, just re-release the first three Paper Mario games as an all-stars collection like you did for Mario’s 35th birthday this year. Just a thought, but trust me when I say you wouldn’t be able to keep it on the shelves. Thanks for hearing me out everyone. Oh, and have a Happy Holidays! I figured I’d just slide that in at the end.