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I have a confession to make: I am not the biggest fan of Super Mario RPG. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike the game by any stretch; it was beautiful, a neat concept for combat, and was an excellent game for a younger crowd. However, I don’t personally see the draw to it that other people do.
On the other hand, we have the Paper Mario series, which does a lot more to make an experience that’s truly memorable. It also has a unique aesthetic, while taking the combat of SMRPG to new heights. On top of that, the story and dialogue, while not epic, is at least fun, humorous, and entertaining – even if you’re an adult.
The premise is typical: as usual, Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach. However, this time he has stolen an artifact called the Star Rod, which makes him invincible. Thus, Mario has to go find the seven star spirits, who, with their powers together can help Mario fight against the power of the Star Rod and save the princess.
The first thing you’ll notice about Paper Mario is the graphical style. It’s done entirely in 3D, however, the character models are paper thin, with the flat sides displaying 2D drawings on them. The result is that all the characters look like paper cut-outs.
It works out really well because the first consoles to do full 3D games – Nintendo 64 included – were not capable of making very attractive character models in 3D. 2D sprites (or rather, the guise of 2D sprites) juxtaposed on 3D environments created many of the most visually breathtaking games of that era.
Obviously, the paper graphics look a little funny, and it’s even hammed up a little bit (try staying at an inn and see how Mario hops into bed). This sets the tone for the entire game, which sort of pokes fun at itself and generally doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is the main reason why Paper Mario is easier for me to enjoy as I grow older than Super Mario RPG, which had a story that was hardly more remarkable, yet at the same time regarded itself with such importance.
Paper Mario‘s gameplay is equally excellent, and I certainly wish more developers would follow its lead. You’ll send Mario through 3D environments with enemies littered throughout. You can jump and swing a hammer on the field to cross gaps or break obstructions, but you can also use them to hit enemies that approach you. Making any contact with them starts a battle; if you hit them, you get the first strike, and if they hit you, they will get the first strike.
At a glance, combat seems pretty threadbare; there are experience points and levels, but hardly any stats whatsoever: HP, MP (called Flower Points, of FP), and Badge Points (BP). In fact, when you level up, you can only increase one of your three stats, and that’s it.
Badges are the only type of equipment in the game, and they allow you to raise attack, defense, and grant special attacks, which use FP. Any badge you find requires a certain number of BP to be equipped, and you can equip as many badges as your max BP allows. Attacks at the start of the game deal an underwhelming 1 point of damage, and the only way to increase your damage is to find Badges or special key items that increase the strength of Mario’s Jump and Hammer attacks.
Lastly, Mario can take one companion into battle. Mario’s friends don’t have any stats, and are not usually targeted in combat. They can be incapacitated for a few turns if they’re hit, but it’s a rare occurrence. Mario’s friends level up by finding special power-up blocks, which increase their damage, in addition to giving them a new ability.
Though the combat sounds plain, it’s successful because it forces you to be strategic. Each different type of attack has a different little mini-game that allows you to deal extra damage with it. For example, if you perform a jump attack with Mario, you can press ‘A’ at a certain time to make him do a second jump, doubling the damage.
There are different minigames for almost every attack that Mario and his companions have. Learning to perform these skillfully is key, since they tend to make a significant difference to the overall damage you inflict in combat. Similarly, you are able to press a button at a certain time to reduce damage from enemy’s attacks, which is equally important, as HP is pretty scarce for a while.
Your companions have different types of attacks, and they shine at different times. Certain enemies will actually harm you for attempting certain attacks. For example, you can’t use Goombario (who only has jump attacks), against an enemy with spikes on their head. Enemies who are on fire need to be attacked with long-range moves, and enemies who carry their weapons in front can’t be approached from the ground. These are all things to consider while battling.
Since the leveling system only allows you to level up one of three attributes, you’re forced to decide what you value in a character. Choosing more HP will allow you to take more hits, but your attack options will be limited. More FP will allow more special attacks, but you’ll die very quickly. Choosing more BP will give you many offensive and defensive options, but your companions will be lacking.
Perhaps the way I talk about the game sounds kind of like an instruction manual, but think about all these things I’ve mentioned; how many RPGs have combat that really forces you to be aware of what’s happening at all times, instead of just mashing the attack button? Sure, you could say that SMRPG did that to an extent, but the rewards for doing the timed hits and timed blocks were inconsequential, and you couldn’t even perform a timed hit/block with or against certain attacks.
How many RPGs have you played with a leveling system that forces you to think hard about how you want to build your character? Sure, there are games that allow you to customize your character in specific ways as you level up. In those games, however, you’re still leveling up other stats simultaneously, and a few games like that even allow you to redistribute the points you spend if you dislike your current build. Paper Mario forces you to constantly think about what you need, because if you make a rash decision, it could be quite a while before you level up again.
This is the brilliance of Paper Mario‘s gameplay. It’s fast, engaging, varied, and rewards you for making smart decisions – something that is ironically missing from most games in the RPG genre. It wouldn’t be until the second Paper Mario game that the humorous element of the game would be in full swing, but the entire package is more than enough to entertain someone for its relatively short length (about 20 hours).
The Sony Playstation had Final Fantasy 7, and the Sega Saturn had Panzer Dragoon Saga. Both were excellent examples of storytelling in the genre, and were innovative in the gameplay department – particularly PDS. What did the Nintendo 64 have? It had Paper Mario: a fine example of what you can do with the RPG genre if you throw out all the tiresome tropes and try to do something original for a change. It’s easily the Nintendo 64′s most brilliant RPG, and one of the most brilliant RPGs of its console generation. Not to mention, it was a strong start for an excellent RPG series.