Paper Mario (known in Japan as Mario Story and originally conceptualized as Super Mario RPG 2) was originally released for the Nintendo 64 in 2000 in Japan and in 2001 in North America as one of the very last big budget games for the then aging N64 console – Paper Mario released in North America and Europe just months ahead of the release of the GameCube system making many people completely unaware of the existance of the game at all. Paper Mario is a beginner’s adventure/JRPG title designed to introduce casual gamers to role playing game concepts while using the familiar Mario character from so many action-platformer titles which made Nintendo famous in the past.
Paper Mario was originally planned as Super Mario RPG 2, a direct sequel to Squaresoft’s Super Nintendo release Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars. The style of the games differ quite significantly, however, and because of this, I believe, Nintendo decided to introduce Paper Mario with its own name and identity to keep gamers from comparing the two titles too closely as they are definitely very different games.
The big innovation that we see in Paper Mario is the use of very attractive, rendered three dimensional environments (some of the best seen on the Nintendo 64) with all of the characters and artifacts in the game being flat, two dimensional objects rendered on top of the environment. The effect is somewhat gimmicky but it is cute and unique and works well considering the limited rendering power of the N64 console. The effect is so key to the look and feel of the game that the title of the series, Paper Mario, came from the graphical approach used.
Paper Mario contains many basic JRPG (Japanese RPG) elements but does so in a very basic manner making it a nice introductory JRPG for younger gamers or casual gamers looking for a game to ease them into the genre. As a true JRPG, Paper Mario contains no character decision making (you do not determine the story-affecting actions of your character nor do you determine the outcome of the story) and the game is completely linear.
Unlike more traditional JRPG games (Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Kingdom Hearts, Suikoden, Fire Emblem, Breath of Fire, etc.) Paper Mario contains very little storyline or character development and what little storyline there is is completely non-engaging or interesting at all. This has been the curse of the Mario franchise from the beginning. In the more traditional Mario games (e.g. Super Mario Bros., Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, etc.) this was not really a problem as action-platformers really don’t need a storyline to be interesting. This does become a problem in a JRPG – a gaming genre whose sole purpose for existing is to act as a delivery mechanism for deeply engaging interactive literature.
The idea behind Paper Mario seems to be a combination of showing off what the N64 could do now that several years of experience with the console had prepared developers to really take advantage of its power and to introduce young and casual gamers to a genre for which Nintendo platforms were generally pretty well known. Since the introduction of Paper Mario the Nintendo platforms (GameCube and Wii) have leaned heavily away from adventure, JRPG and RPG genres but Paper Mario has remained one of the very few series to survive through the development of the new consoles.
Personally, I find the “Mario world” (Mushroom Kingdom) characters to be empty and shallow. The idea behind the original Mario games was never to have characters with deep, inter-personal relationships, detailed backgrounds, personal motivations, etc. or even to have a universe that made particular sense. Let’s face it, the concept of Mario, the Italian plumber, who adventures through bizarre vertical pipes that take him to magic realms where he fights turtles in order to rescue Princess Toadstool sounds like an “F” on a second grader’s creative writing assignment. Taking this game world, made quickly without any particular thought as nothing more than a series of simple plot devices to make action game development simple in the early 1980s, and attempting to shoehorn a JRPG around it feels uncomfortable and strange. The settings do not blend well together and everything feels like a plot device rather than like a carefully constructed story full of plot twists and surprise relationships.
One interesting and well done piece of the game mechanics involves the need to “acquire” a large number of allies who travel with you throughout the game hiding in a form of “friend inventory” ready to be pulled out when you need them but only one at a time. Each of your allies has a different skill or power and by selecting the right friend to have “active” at a given moment will allow you to solve a puzzle or advance past a certain point. The puzzle solving aspect makes Paper Mario feel, in many ways, like a more traditional graphical adventure game but its JRPG roots are pretty solid. Battles in PM are turn-based but with minor action elements thrown in to keep the player involved. It is a nice blend.
Technically the game shines for its generation. The graphical approach is fresh and interesting, the graphics in general are quite impressive for the N64, the audio is well done too and the controls are quite acceptable. The game clearly looks old when played on the Wii VIrtual Console today, but it does not look nearly as dated as its console breatheren like Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask look. It holds up much better with age although should never be listed as a classic alongside those other two.
Overall, Paper Mario appears to meet its goals. The game is not overly ambitious and it is very accessible to a wide audience. Its simplicity, lack of deep story and use of the tired Mario game world will turn off most gamers but those who are truly in love with Mario, Pricess Toadstool and Bowser or are looking for an easy way to ease into the JRPG genre may find it a cute and enjoyable game. (For reference, Paper Mario is a far more “casual” and beginner JRPG than are the Disney-themed Kingdom Hearts titles.)
Paper Mario is, to the best of my knowledge, the very first title that can be considered a JRPG or RPG ever produced by Nintendo themselves (the Zelda games are adventures and do not qualify at all as JRPGs, Super Mario RPG was made by Squaresoft and not Nintendo) and remains the only JRPG series that they have produced.
Paper Mario produced a sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, on the Nintendo GameCube which, in turn, spawned the recent fourth installment Super Paper Mario for the Nintendo Wii (fourth after Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario and PM: 1000 Year Door.) At this time, Super Mario RPG (SNES) and Paper Mario (N64) have both been rereleased for the Wii’s Virtual Console making the Wii the one system where all four titles are available together.
If you are a die-hard Mario fan then there is no way that you can skip Paper Mario. If you are looking for a low cost and easy to digest introduction to the Japanese RPG genre then this is a decent place to start for Wii owners. If you are really interested in JRPG and console arcana then there is a neat bit of history tied up in Paper Mario. But if you are already into more serious JRPG and RPG titles then think carefully before investing your gaming time into Paper Mario, it is probably too simple and too shallow to make you really happy.