To the prudent eye, the name Paper Mario isn't completely accurate to the game's theme. Yes, all the characters and various portions of the world are rendered in flat 2D sprites, but all that hardly recalls paper. While the name rolls off the American tongue easier than its Japanese name, Mario Story, the watercolor backgrounds and cutesy character designs would rather evoke the bedtime storybooks of youth.
And that's exactly what this game is: a living children's storybook. It's bigger than most, it having eight chapters and all, but every one of those tales are so charming, so delightful in how they reimagine the world of Mario within not just a "My First RPG" framework but one of such self-parody and humor that it's impossible not to fall in love with it. Be it the 80's Nintendo veteran familiar with all the references or the eight-year-old that's likely as big a fan of Mario as the Goombario character, there's something for everyone no matter how old you are.
I mentioned reimagining Mario, which is funny considering Paper Mario's origins. The game started as something of a sequel to Super Mario RPG, which, as the very first Mario RPG, presented the dangerous risk of transitioning the series over to the RPG format. What ensued was something far more outlandish than Paper Mario: being developed by RPG legend SquareSoft, the game was stuffed with Final Fantasy-inspired tropes of all sorts. As a result, it was a Mushroom Kingdom the likes of which we'd never seen before; for instance, platforming was distilled into an isometric framework. Mario was still the silent protagonist, but now Toads and Koopas alike spoke on behalf of a cheeky script. There was an actual plot, one populated by dozens upon dozens of bizarre new characters that we'd never see again. And despite what the prologue might imply, Princess Peach does not remain the damsel in distress by the tale's end, nor does Bowser remain the antagonist; in fact, they both join Mario's party!
While Super Mario RPG was a masterpiece in it's own right, Paper Mario chose to dial back on the craziness. It eventually settled on being something of a spiritual successor, borrowing the most pivotal elements for a beginner's RPG format (the "timed" attack system) and for a Mario game (the aforementioned self-parody and humor). The result: a much more familiar Mushroom Kingdom -- there are new characters, yes, but here we witness settlements of not just Toads, but Goombas, Koopas, and Boos alike, some of who even join Mario on his adventure. Bowser starts as the villain and ends as the villain. The plot revolves around magical stars again, but they now possess countenance and even speech.
Whether or not this is actually better is up to preference, but the end result is so undeniably sweet-natured, so fun and bursting with life. Toads of every sort roam the streets of Toad Town, be it the guy screaming about current events, the little old lady who'll cook you treats, or the dude raising money-grubbing piglets. When visiting home, Mario receives letters from all sorts, right down to the Ninja Turtle-ripoffs he trounced in Chapter 1 (and in return, you can deliver lost letters courtesy of Parakarry). And no matter who they are, your friend Goombario has the deets on every single NPC.
Because the game hews closer to home, we delight in witnessing the every day routines of supporting Mario characters. We smile at how Shy Guys, for instance, invade Toad Town with all the giddiness of prankster children (a prelude, you understand, to the bit where you have to infiltrate their lair: a Shy Guy Toybox). We shake our heads at how we're forced to explore a volcano with a zealous Koopa treasure hunter. We giggle when we discover Luigi's diary, chock-full of all his latent desires. And while Peach may be a prisoner in her own castle, her post-chapter escapades with an aspiring star child ensure not just her relevance, but an adorable tale of friendship.
I admit this Paper Mario doesn't have me rolling in hysterics like it's later sequels (The Thousand Year Door and Super); rather, I'm more prone to innocuous giggle fits. And that's really where Paper Mario's humor lies: whereas those two sequels delight in exploring the darker underbelly of the Mario universe, there's not a single cynical bone within their predecessor. It frames a good deal of its conflicts within light-hearted mischief, which is why the game's "darkest" scenario--Mario being the prime suspect of a penguin murder mystery--is also its most ridiculous.
Hence why the game's depiction of Bowser is Paper Mario's funnest character. The big softie in Super Mario RPG may be echoed in the cuddly design, but the Bowser here is a big bully who adores his title and revels in his newfound powers. He's also kind of an idiot, as we witness in one of the game's best scenes where he interrogates Peach on Mario's weaknesses. Here the aforementioned mischief theme comes into play: we could lie and say that Mario hates Mushrooms for a free snack, but it's far funner to pick, say, wimpy enemies and watch them cower in the face of Mario (my favorite being the shell-shocked Goomba: "feel my, uh...wrath, I guess!").
Which reminds me: let us not forget the efforts of NOA's localization. Indeed, it was Paper Mario that shifted the course for Treehouse translations. No more dry scripts or awkward translations of Japanese nouns (as seen in Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Zelda: A Link to the Past, respectively), for this was to be a fun localization! Lively characters everywhere! Liberties to be taken with the dialogue!
But what sparked this new direction? Were they attempting to emulate Ted Woosley's Super Mario RPG localization? Could it be how it was the very first localization project for now-famed Treehouse member Nate Bihldorff? Was it simply times and standards changing? All are viable guesses--indeed, that the previous fall's Majora's Mask was a significant improvement over OOT in this regard already proved changes were coming to Nintendo's localization practices, and boy do they deliver.
Note, for instance, how slang starts seeping into the English-speaking Mushroom Kingdom. Of course, the American localization team was already on this way back in the days of Super Mario World (via the special world stages; "Tubular", anyone?), but there was nothing as radical as, say, Kammy Koopa--Bowser's elderly Magikoopa assistant--referring to her king as "your Gnarliness". It's a word obviously not present in the Japanese version, but as she frequently varies her evil-themed appellations, even today I am amused at the thought that she meditates day and night coming up with new titles to address her king. So thank you for that imagery, Mr. Bihldorff.
And let us dispel the concern Paper Mario wasn't inherently funny in it's native Japanese language; after all, that would dismiss any of the aforementioned scenarios (particularly the Koopa Bros., undoubtedly birthed from Japan's fascination with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). That's not even mentioning how the game pokes fun at RPG tropes, such as how Merlon's family elaborates on pretentious, useless backstories of their youth. You don't need the world's best game localization team to see the humor in that, although it certainly helps!
I mentioned earlier that Paper Mario is best described as a children's storybook. Obviously, that's not to say the games are only for kids, but I remain amazed at how in regards to actual play, it strikes a perfect balance for any audience to master. This is mainly regarding the battle system; at first glance, that attacks rarely venture into the realm of double-digit damage seems like a significant downgrade, but Paper Mario expands upon what made Super Mario RPG so fun to play: the "timed" hits. Note how every one of Mario's companions possess unique button commands -- we're encouraged to aim with the control stick, flick it back and forth, and even holding the A button for brief, intermittent periods. Through this process, we learn that they're not just immensely satisfying to pull off; when we slip up on a timed press, we're legitimately disappointed and strive to do better.
And that's not even bringing up the equippable badges, flexible to any player's tastes and needs as according to a limited point system. For instance, do I spend huge badge points on boosting Mario's HP and FP, or do I balance all three point upgrades for the level-up rewards? Do I stick with just one set of attack and defense-based badges for the entire adventure, or switch 'em around as I go? Be it solely for use of battle or even for convenience within battles or the overworld, there's an unlimited amount of combination for players to choose from.
Of course, the true star of Paper Mario's battles is the impossibly fun battle theme. Fire Emblem veteran Yuka Tsujiyoko, a master of the xylophone, draws out every ounce of that instrument to craft a lively cacophony I always look forward to. RPG battle themes have the reputation of growing old, but I daresay this song ranks alongside Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga's as being the very best within Mario RPG canon.
Indeed, so much of Paper Mario's innocuous adorableness hails from its soundtrack. As seen above, it's no surprise Toad Town is the game at it's most idyllic (except for Chapter 4, anyway). Its accompanying song varies from location to location, but the core melody always establishes a warm sense of familiarity and home. Being the central hub of the game, it's undeniable this is the song that sparks nostalgia for longtime Paper Mario fans.
Speaking of which, as a children's storybook, Paper Mario never forgets that wistful scent of dreamy nostalgia. It pops up in spades near the game's climax, with its best example displayed above. Snow Road encapsulates so much of those misty, snowy December nights you might've spent gazing out the window as a child. It's the perfect segue into the village of the Star Children, who I imagine frolic about within those very same nights.
With all this lavish praise, would it be easy to deem Paper Mario the best Mario RPG? Perhaps, but the highs and lows in relation to it's GameCube successor, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, grant me pause. In particular, the perfect cast of TTYD really shines a light on how bland most of the original's party members are even by themselves. Fun as they are in battle, there's a stark contrast regarding who's actually well-written and who's not. There's a world of difference between, say, Lady Bow and Bombette, as the former is a driving force for the plot whereas Bombette is, well, Bombette.
But let us not linger on any such imperfections. Paper Mario may not reach the highest of highs found in TTYD and even Super Mario RPG, but that it possesses hardly any lows is a sign of fine craftsmanship. It's a warm, feel-good adventure, one that embraces any audience and certainly one I know I'll revisit whenever I'm down in the dumps as a full-grown adult with very real responsibilities. Lord knows I need to project my troubles into Jr. Troopa, another bully who decides his life mission is to stalk Mario and lay the beatdown on him. What a prick.
This is probably my shortest review yet! As I'm aiming for a five-to-seven day waiting period between reviews, more condensed pieces like this will be inevitable. At the very least, I hope I struck that balance of "less is more" with this one! Please let me know what you think.
Anyway, see you guys tomorrow with another Retro Scope courtesy of Nintendojo!