In a time where many role-playing games employ the conventional menu-driven battle system, you can always trust Mario to bring something new to the table. After numerous wacky sports and party titles, he livens up yet another derivative genre.
Paper Mario starts off predictably enough with Peach choosing a particularly sunny day in which to throw a swank party. Not on her invite list is her repeatedly would-be kidnapper, Bowser. However, he has found himself in the possession of a secret weapon that could turn the tide in his favour. Armed with the star rod, a wand that grants any wish made, he effectively becomes invincible and snatches her again, making it Mario’s task to rescue his dear friend. He must overcome his nemesis by freeing the seven imprisoned star spirits and then using their power to put an end to Bowser’s sleazy plans. Despite a lack of twists, the story gets the job done, and it opens up the chance for Mario to explore a variety of areas, as the star spirits are scattered across the world. One chapter sees you stuck in dense rainforests; another has you traversing serene snow-filled landscapes. In addition, the dialogue is superbly written throughout with witty jokes cropping up at almost every opportunity. From Bowser’s cringing attempts to ‘score’ with Peach to Luigi’s envy of Mario’s exciting adventures, Paper Mario is never short of laughs.
Though the game takes place on a three-dimensional plane, all the colourful, vibrant characters and surroundings have been flattened and carry a cardboard cut-out look. Whenever a character turns around, you see them flip over; whenever Mario sleeps at the nearby inn, you see him slide under the bed’s covers. Small touches like these are a testament to how fantastic Paper Mario looks. Even with the originality of the visuals, controlling Mario in the game’s overworld is remarkably simple and should be familiar to all role-playing enthusiasts. He can run, talk, and buy items just like any other hero. But what separates Mario from everyone else is the way he can interact with the world. He can hit blocks with his head and collect coins, à la Super Mario Bros., smack all kinds of stuff with his trusty hammer, and even initiate a first strike on an enemy before entering battles by either hitting or jumping on them. And thankfully, there are no pesky random encounters to deal with here.
Your reflexes play a large part on how the battles pan out. Whatever attack you choose, you must perform a corresponding action, and doing so successfully will inflict maximum damage on the enemy. Pressing ‘A’ the exact moment Mario jumps on a koopa, or releasing the control stick as he plonks a helpless goomba on the head with a weighty hammer may be the very difference between victory and game over. Defending is just as important, and jumping or shielding at the right time reduces or at times avoids damage — helping your party survive longer. A refreshing change from the repetitive menu-dependent battle systems, the interactivity of the battle system cleverly keeps you entertained throughout.
Over the course of the game, several characters join the plumber’s party, each with their own unique traits. Mario’s first companion, a goomba cunningly named Goombario, reveals an enemy’s HP and weak points, while Lady Bow, a green ghost, makes him invisible. But that’s not all. Because he can only have one by his side at any time, you often have to figure out who is most effective against which enemies. Extending his arsenal, even the star spirits lend him some powerful moves once rescued. Although replenishing the star power meter is slow, they are some of the most useful attacks in the game and range from sending all enemies to sleep to recovering twenty of Mario’s HP. One other distinguishing aspect of Paper Mario is the fact that he can also wear badges. These provide him with a range of upgrades, such as additional HP, new attacks, and extra attack power. Since Mario has a limited number of badge points, a little strategy is needed as to which combinations work best against different kinds of foes.
But, you don’t always control Mario. Though Peach is locked up in her room, it doesn’t mean she’s useless, and between Mario rescuing each star spirit, the damsel in distress takes centre stage. Here, she puts her detective skills to the test as she does her best to help Mario to rescue her. She hilariously tricks Bowser more than once, bakes cakes for a fat but good-natured shy guy, and even participates in a wacky quiz run by the Hammer Bros. in which they naïvely tell her where the next star spirit lies. These diversions are so charming that at times they surpass Mario’s adventure. That said, the plumber does get a few comical sequences himself. Imagine being chased by the gigantic ‘Invincible’ Tubba Blubba as all the boos courageously sacrifice their lives to buy you time, or playing hide-and-seek with five cute baby Yoshies. In addition to its fantastic sense of humour, what makes Paper Mario so loveable is its host of references. From Mario turning into an eight-bit sprite to fighting the Koopa Bros., a parodied version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the game never ceases to amaze you and brings back plenty of nostalgia. There is even a subtle nod to Dr. Mario when a thankful whale tells him he should consider a career change and become a doctor.
All in all, rescuing the seven star spirits and Peach takes around twenty hours. The only disappointment is that the game is a little on the easy side. The puzzles don’t take long to figure out and only a couple of the boss fights are remotely challenging, providing Mario is levelled up properly throughout. The game’s charm and wit, however, distract you from this small blemish. Besides, the easy difficulty makes the game approachable to nearly everyone. And even when you’ve taken Bowser down, there are still a large variety of side-quests to do, which include clearing out giant bloopers in the sewers, partaking in Chuck Quizmo’s quiz show, and putting your fighting abilities to the test in the local dojo.
With an engaging battle system, charming visuals, and references that will make any Mario fan giddy, it is hard to fault Paper Mario at all. Nintendo 64 owners can finally rejoice. Not only do they have a fantastic role-playing title now, but they also have one of the most delightful games of this generation. Everything — from the comical sound effects to the hilarious one-liners to the cartoon paper graphics — coexists wonderfully to create a feel-good, easy-going environment, and that’s part of Paper Mario’s charm: it never takes itself too seriously.