Review: Paper Mario – Thinner Mario, Bigger Adventure

Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
: Nintendo 64, Nintendo Wii
Release: October 5, 2001 (N64); July 13, 2007 (Wii)

Widely considered the spiritual sequel to Square’s acclaimed Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Paper Mario boasts 30 to 40 hours of hammer-smashing, boot-stomping, Koopa-creaming gameplay; and the story isn’t half bad either. But after over six years, does this title stand strong as the greatest chapter in the Mushroom Kingdom’s history? Or has this old story been told too many times before? And most importantly, is this super-thin adventure worth the 1,000 Wii Shop Points?

So join Mario, Goombario, Kooper, Bombette, Parakarry, Lady Bow … oh, let’s just move on.

Paper Mario was released late in the Nintendo 64’s life cycle, standing alongside other such titles as The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Conker’s Bad Fur Day as one of the fondly remembered games that saw the console off, serving to keep Nintendo fans busy as they counted down the days to the launch of the GameCube. If you were like me and you played the GameCube sequel, The Thousand-Year Door, before you hit the original, you will immediately notice how the successor improved on its predecessor.

For a game inspired by paper and storybooks, it’s appropriate that the game’s plot ups the ante from the usual Mario fare. The story begins with Bowser stealing the Star Rod, which empowers him to grant all his wishes while the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom remain unhappy. He proceeds to lift Peach’s Castle from the earth and take Princess Peach hostage, and naturally, it’s up to Mario to correct the course. Where the plot really shines however, is with the sub-stories it weaves into its eight chapters. And while certain chapters inch forward as more engaging and interesting than others, it’s an all-round enjoyable experience to see each unfold.

Paper Mario, though an RPG in the truest sense of the abbreviation, isn’t a particularly advanced RPG. If you’re the sort of RPG player who likes to calculate the strongest possible armour and weapon stats, Paper Mario might not be for you. There’s no attack, defence or speed stats to speak of – just hit points, “flower points” (which are basically magic, or mana points) and “badge points” (which directly affect how many perks Mario can equip). One of these three stats can be upgraded whenever Mario gains enough experience points and grows a level. Otherwise, it’s fair to say Paper Mario’s RPG gameplay was designed with a younger audience in mind, with few complications. This doesn’t necessarily hinder the experience for advanced players, however.

Arguably, Paper Mario’s simplicity adds to its gameplay experience. For example, it makes room for fun, quick and approachable mini-games during battle, when pulling off powerful attacks. Elsewhere, there’s plenty of decisions to make in Paper Mario, including which badges to wear (enabling perks to directly influence the flow of battle) and which party members to upgrade and bring out in battle. I found one party member, Watt, to be extremely helpful in penetrating enemy’s defenses, something I didn’t discover until very late in the game.

There’s about 20 hours of gameplay without side quests, and about 30 to 40 with them. There’s a lot to do as well – you’ll find yourself going on long trading quests, helping out grumpy, old Koopas, finding all of the badges and star pieces, as well as discovering every recipe. I found most of these side quests too longwinded and unrewarding to see through to their completion, however.

The controls on the Wii Virtual Console aren’t exactly perfect, either. Regardless of which compatible controller you’re using, the N64’s C-buttons are rather cumbersome to operate. I found it annoying how I could only press down on the right analog stick (or C-stick, if you’re using a GameCube controller) to perform my party member’s ability outside of battle. I would have much preferred if I could simply press X or Y, or better yet, choose my own key bindings.

Ah, and how could I neglect to mention that the art style still looks as charming as ever? Paper Mario crafts its towns, dungeons and characters out of paper and other stationary, and it looks and feels terrific. There’s plenty of variety in locales as well, ranging from an Arabian desert town to an old, abandoned fortress and even the insides of a toy box. All the textures and models are displayed in higher resolution on the Wii, and it’s an added bonus to witness these delightful levels and characters in all their glory.

As Paper Mario was released late in the Nintendo 64’s life, it’s no surprise that it would be one of the prettier games on the console. Naturally the game looks outdated now, but there are some colourful textures and particle effects that delightfully play on the game’s paper aesthetic, and it’s charming to behold. It’s a bright game, full of detail, and players will find it never pushes itself so far as to drop the framerate (as was commonplace on the N64), but a few occasional drops are prone to occur during cutscenes when the visual effects ramp up.

Audio isn’t exactly Paper Mario’s strong suit, although that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great tunes among the poorer ones. Most to all battle themes deliver a high stakes tempo one should come to expect from a Mario RPG, and some boss battle themes are downright terrific (Huff N. Puff especially). There’s also plenty of unique character theme songs, each representing their respective personalities. Sound effects are also appropriately charismatic.

Some background tracks can become annoying after repeated listenings, however. The Toad Town theme grew on my nerves every time I returned to the central hub, and certain songs, like the theme for the Koopa Bros., teetered on the edge of a touch too loud. All said however, when compared to the likes of Ocarina of Time and Banjo-Kazooie, Paper Mario’s original themes don’t match up to the same iconic status, which is a shame. Speaking of iconic though, be sure to listen out for the original Super Mario Bros. theme!

What I enjoy most about Paper Mario is how Intelligent Systems injected a personality into the world of Mario, Bowser, Peach and Luigi. Rather than the expected, “princess is in another castle” fare, Paper Mario swaps in cries of bloody murder, yearnings for love, and a sense of culture among the Mushroom Kingdom’s denizens, Goombas and Koopa Troopas alike. Almost every NPC has something quirky or humorous to say. The Toads especially host a range of unique personality traits, which is refreshing to witness after years of seeing them with no character to speak of.

Where Paper Mario could have potentially improved upon its strong sense of character was in its characters’ facial expressions. It’s not exactly reasonable that Princess Peach should be smiling while being harassed by Bowser. It’s a testament to the quality of the writing and dialogue that such an oversight can be excused.

Paper Mario has a few noticeable rips and tears here and there, but they’re easy to look past when you plunge into where the game excels. As I expected before booting up, the storyline, characters and a few of the side quests are engaging. The game presents a charming and innovative art style, a fun and experimental battle system, and unrestrained character designs and dialogue. It’s the epitome of storytelling in the Super Mario universe. If you don’t pick up any other Virtual Console game, you should pick up Paper Mario.

If you have never played through it, you owe it to yourself to spend the 1,000 Wii Shop points. And even if you owned it on the N64, you get the pleasure of replaying it with the improved image only provided by the Nintendo Wii’s component cables.

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