After the inaugural Super Mario RPG, the Mario roleplaying games branched into two different series: the Paper Mario series, and the Mario & Luigi series. After going back and forth between the two spinoffs for a decade and a half, it seems only appropriate that they’d eventually end up coming together. Enter Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam.
As the title of the game suggests, Paper Jam is more Mario & Luigi than it is Paper Mario, but perhaps that’s for the best, seeing as the last Paper Mario (that would be Sticker Star) was the first dud of a Mario RPG, while the Mario & Luigi games have been a bit more consistent. Though Paper Jam retains much of that consistency in a number of areas, it’s a bit paper thin in others.
In Paper Jam, Mario and Luigi are joined by Paper Mario, after Luigi accidentally opens a magic book that unleashes the denizens of Paper Mario’s world into the Mushroom Kingdom.
Paper Mario makes for a fun new addition to the gameplay, being able to squeeze through tight spaces, roll into a scroll to grab out of reach objects, and even turn into a paper airplane when necessary. But Paper Mario’s biggest contribution comes in the game’s battle system.
Like all of the Mario RPGs, the battle system is fun and engaging, with each of the character’s actions being mapped to a different button on the 3DS (A for Mario, B for Luigi, Y for Paper Mario). As is series tradition, each enemy provides a different strategy in their attacks, leaving every battle feeling fresh. Mario and Luigi still use their usual jump, hammer and Bros. attacks, while Paper Mario puts a new spin on the equation.
Paper Mario can create copies of himself, which give him more jumps in his attacks, and allows his hammers to attack multiple foes at once. Paper Mario also gets special “Trio” attacks which, as their name implies, are special moves that utilize all three characters.
Boss battles are another highlight of the game, with many of the boss encounters bringing out all the stops in the battle system. Additionally, Papercraft battles – which serve as exclamation points to a number of the chapters in the game’s story – further change up the gameplay. Papercraft battles more or less replace the giant battles from the last two Mario & Luigi installments, and place the three heroes on top of mech-like papercraft constructs.
Between the player interaction, enemy varieties, Bros. and Trio attacks, fun bosses and papercraft battles, Paper Jam certainly has a lot going for it on the RPG battle system front. On the downside, there are two elements to the gameplay that prevent Paper Jam from reclaiming the glory of Superstar Saga or Bowser’s Inside Story.
The first, unfortunately, is part of the battle system itself, in the form of character cards. Not long into the adventure, the Mario trio gains the ability to use special cards in battle (mostly as a means to integrate Amiibo functionality into the game), but they’re a practically broken mechanic that make battles far too easy. I found myself never using them as to keep the fun of the battle system intact.
The other problem occurs outside of battles, in the form of Paper Toad rescue missions. Within each chapter of the game, the heroes will have to take part in multiple mini-games in which they need to rescue a series of Paper Toads. On their own, these mini-games aren’t bad, but they become so insistently frequent they end up breaking the flow of the game. As an optional sidequest they may have added to the experience. But seeing as they’re often forced on the player in order to progress, they start to feel like unnecessary padding.
Perhaps the biggest misstep of Paper Jam doesn’t involve the gameplay, but the writing. Since their inception with Super Mario RPG, Mario roleplaying games – the Mario & Luigi series in particular – have been some of the funniest games out there. They often play up the bizarre and surreal nature of Mario’s world to give them a unique sense of humor that simply wouldn’t work in a game outside of the Mario series. That’s why it’s a shame to admit that Paper Jam, though not without its moments, isn’t really funny.
The storyline is incredibly simple, with Bowser and his paper counterpart working together to conquer the Mushroom Kingdom, while the heroes try to get both worlds back in their place. It’s a plot that simply doesn’t play up the charm and weirdness of the Mario series in the way the Mario & Luigi games used to excel at.
It should also be noted that every character who appears in the game is a returning face from the Mario platformers. While Superstar Saga, Bowser’s Inside Story and, heck, even Partners in Time and Dream Team introduced us to some fun new characters as well as old favorites, Paper Jam seems to be playing things incredibly safe with its character selection. Fawful will forever be missed.
If you’re looking for a solid RPG on the 3DS, then Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is a whole lot of fun. The battle system is terrific if you ignore the cards and Amiibo, it looks great, with the paper characters in particular really standing out with the 3DS’ 3D effects, and the musical score by Yoko Shinomura is once again a standout. But there was a time when Mario RPGs were more than simply “solid,” and provided some of the best RPGs of their respective generations.
Super Mario RPG is still remembered as one of the classics of the genre, Paper Mario is one of the more timeless N64 titles, the Thousand-Year Door was one of the GameCube’s finest offerings, and Superstar Saga and Bowser’s Inside Story are underrated gems. The fact that the last few Mario RPGs haven’t been nearly as memorable is somewhat worrisome.
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is a fun game in its own right. But perhaps it’s time the Mario RPGs created a whole new identity outside of Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario and start fresh. It would be a true shame if the Mario RPGs continued merely being “solid” and not something more.