Something About Mario RPGs

Earlier this year, I picked up the 3DS remake of Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story. But before I play through it, I remembered I (strangely) never beat the 2017 3DS remake of Superstar Saga. So I recently started a new file on that game (and have since beat it, and will review it once I play more of the remake’s exclusive “Minion Quest” mode). Not only did returning to Superstar Saga end up being an utter joy, but it also really, really made me miss what the Mario RPGs used to be.

It’s been ten years since the original release of Bowser’s Inside Story on the DS, and not counting the aforementioned 3DS remakes, that was the last time the Mario RPGs were truly great (I did enjoy Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle a great deal, but seeing as that was both a crossover and a strategy RPG, I guess it’s not quite what I’m talking about). And I really, really miss the days when the Mario RPGs were among the best things Nintendo had going for them.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars remains my favorite RPG of all time, and arguably my favorite game period. It perfectly combined the accessibility and fun of Mario with the depth and turn-based gameplay of RPGs, without sacrificing the quality of either of its halves. Although it tragically never received a proper sequel, the Square developed title did receive two spiritual successors created by Nintendo’s own internal studios.

Paper Mario simplified the formula a bit, but still made for a hefty adventure that boasted a unique art style, and saw Mario team up with party members based on the series’ iconic enemies. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga was more focused on fast-paced action, and featured genuinely hilarious writing. Both of these Super Mario RPG spiritual successors would wind up becoming their own sub-series.

Paper Mario was followed-up by the critically-acclaimed Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on the GameCube, while two Mario & Luigi sequels were released on the Nintendo DS: 2005’s Partners in Time, and 2009’s Bowser’s Inside Story. Of the lot, Partners in Time is the only one that fell short of the rest, though even it was still a good game in its own right (though I’m not complaining that the 3DS remakes went directly for the best M&L entries).

While it’s usually the Mario platformers and The Legend of Zelda that are held in the highest regard in Nintendo’s canon, the Mario RPGs were, more quietly, delivering experiences that were often just as good. And with their Nintendo mentality of “fun at all costs,” the Mario RPGs provided some of the most timeless games in the genre (Final Fantasy hasn’t aged so gracefully).

But then, in a creative move that truly defies all logic and reason, Nintendo decided to begin stripping away many of the elements that made the Mario RPGs so memorable. The third Paper Mario title, 2007’s Super Paper Mario, was still a fun game, but it removed the series’ turn-based structure in favor of a platformer that featured RPG elements. Not a bad idea in itself, and Super Paper Mario still retained an RPG-like story, but considering the main Mario series are platformers, did Nintendo really have to sacrifice Paper Mario to test out this idea?

Hey, at least Super Paper Mario was still a good game. And it was followed up by the aforementioned Bowser’s Inside Story. Little did we know that Bowser’s Inside Story would be a one-time return to form. A “last hoorah” if you will. Because after that we got the 3DS’s Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the first Mario RPG that could be considered a flat-out bad game.

Not that you could truly call Sticker Star an RPG. Sure, turn-based battles were back, but they were dictated entirely by consumable ‘sticker’ items. Every action you used in battle required these consumable items. And for victory, you didn’t get experience points and level up.

For winning battles, you were rewarded with either A) more stickers, or B) coins…to buy more stickers. It was a self-defeating concept. Why should I bother fighting and spending my stickers if the only reward is more stickers? And if you think you’re supposed to save up stickers for boss fights, that’s not it either. Bosses required specific stickers to be defeated, so it’s not like conserving and strategizing the stickers you’ve saved up even meant anything.

You know what’s even worse? Sticker Star not only had virtually no story to speak of, and no party members, but it removed the humorous writing the Mario RPGs were known for (Bowser, of all characters, never even spoke). Sticker Star also marked the beginning of the bizarre trend of Nintendo not allowing the Mario RPGs to feature original enemies, with only established baddies from the platformers showing up. Perhaps strangest of all, this was also when Nintendo started making every last Toad in the Mario RPGs just look like the generic “blue vest, red spots” Toads. When the previous RPGs gave us Toads of all shapes, sizes and crazy geddups, why take that away and effectively remove so much personality from the games?

And yet, this was the direction Nintendo decided to stick with. Sure, the next RPG in the Mario pipeline, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (released on 3DS in 2013) was a step up in many ways (for one, it actually felt like an RPG again). But it also was, by a considerable margin, the most creatively bland M&L game up to that point. It did have some original enemies again, but the “Generic Toad” epidemic was still in full effect.

Then, in early 2016, the 3DS also saw the release of Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam. In concept, Paper Jam sounds like it should have been the shot in the arm the Mario RPGs needed, being a crossover between the two continuing Mario RPG series.

Sadly, the concept is the best part of the game, as Paper Jam was really just a watered down Mario & Luigi sequel that doubled down on Dream Team’s faults (Toads with zero distinction and personality, no more original enemies whatsoever). It just so happened to feature Paper Mario as a third party member. Considering how great the Mario & Luigi games once were, it was sad to see the series fall this far from grace.

To sum it up simply, Superstar Saga remains one of the funniest, most quotable games I’ve ever played, but I honestly can’t remember any bit of writing that came out of Paper Jam.

Later in 2016, we’d get the last new Mario RPG so far (again, unless we count Mario + Rabbids), Paper Mario: Color Splash on Wii U. Despite fans wanting Nintendo to return to the turn-based, actually-an-RPG style of the first two Paper Marios for years, Nintendo decided to go all WWE and turn a def ear on fans. They actually made the game a follow-up to Sticker Star’s gameplay.

Yeah, no kidding. I miss unique Toads.

To its credit, at least Color Splash had some humor and personality to it (though the Toads remain generic, and new enemies still weren’t allowed), and some of the gameplay could be fun. But there still weren’t any party members, and the battle system remained largely pointless (though the game’s “cards” were an improvement over their sticker predecessors, seeing as you could power up cards by painting them, and you could gradually increase your maximum paint through battles, so there was some semblance of progression). So Color Splash was essentially a version of Sticker Star that wasn’t completely broken. But that’s not exactly “on par with the Mario platformers and The Legend of Zelda” now, is it?

Again, one could argue that Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle set things in a right direction for Mario RPGs (and it’s certainly a better game than anything involving the Rabbids has any right to be), but you could also argue it should go in a whole other category. Even still, as enjoyable as Mario + Rabbids is, I still wouldn’t put it on the same level as the Mario RPGs of old.

Thankfully, the fact that the 3DS now houses Superstar Saga and Bowser’s Inside Story means we have access to brilliant Mario RPGs on contemporary hardware. But it’s kind of sad that Nintendo had to resort to past success in order to do so. Don’t get me wrong, the remakes are great, but it would be great if we could also get a brand new Mario RPG that could live up to its legacy.

Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, Superstar Saga, Thousand-Year Door and Bowser’s Inside Story are widely (and wisely) considered the top-tier Mario RPGs. But the sad thing is it seems like Nintendo has no plans on making a Mario RPG like they used to.

What’s particularly sad about that scenario is that the Mario franchise on the whole has really never been better. The release of Super Mario Galaxy in 2007 began a Mario renaissance that continues to this day. Between it, Galaxy 2, 3D World, Mario Kart 8, Super Mario Maker and Odyssey, the Mario franchise hasn’t lost any steam. And while Bowser’s Inside Story was released within this timeframe, that was it for the RPGs.

For whatever reason, Nintendo decided to strip away the things that made Mario RPGs so memorable in the first place. And instead of listening to fans and changing course (as they have in other areas in recent years), they’ve just gone into overdrive in regards to watering down the once great sub-genre. If one were only to have played Color Splash and Paper Jam, they’d never know that Mario RPGs were, at one point, among Nintendo’s finest achievements.

Here’s hoping that the recent remakes of Superstar Saga and Bowser’s Inside Story remind Nintendo of what Mario RPGs once were, and help them figure out how they can recreate that magic.

Whether its a worthwhile Mario & Luigi, a Paper Mario that returns to its roots, doing the impossible and teaming with Square to make a direct sequel to Super Mario RPG, or something new entirely, a new Mario RPG that can live up to the legacy of its best predecessors is something Nintendo sorely needs.

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Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Review

Paper Jam

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.

Paper JamLike 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.

Paper JamSuper 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.

 

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Top 5 Most Anticipated Games of 2016

Now that it’s December, 2015 is nearing its end. Along with preparing for the holiday season (and subsequently, the one-year anniversary of this site), Star Wars, and New Year’s Resolutions that I’ll probably stick to for five days, December also serves as a time to reflect on the year ahead.

This future-hype naturally finds its way into the world of video games as well. So as we all prepare to look back at the best games of 2015, we also look forward to our most anticipated games of 2016. And I am no different!

The following are my top five most anticipated games of 2016. They may look a bit different from most people’s selections, but for one reason or another, these games all have my attention. Let’s start with a runner-up then get to the top five!

Runner-up: Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Honestly, I had six games that stood out that I could choose from, so I feel guilty about placing any of them as a runner-up. But since a “top 6” list just sounds goofy, someone had to take the fall. Since Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam comes out in January, I don’t have much more of a wait. So that bumps it to a runner-up on this list of anticipation (just go with it).

Aside from Paper Mario: Sticker Star, there hasn’t been a bad Mario RPG. Though Dream Team was a considerable step down from Bowser’s Inside Story, I have high hopes for Paper Jam. Being a crossover between Mario’s two ongoing RPG series, Paper Jam has the potential to bring a new sense of creativity to the Mario RPG formula.

I do have to wonder where Mario RPGs will go from here though. After you have both series cross paths, it seems like it would be a good time to give Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi a break, and maybe start a new direction for the Mario RPGs. But maybe that’s just me.

Now on to the top 5!

5: Dark Souls 3

Dark Souls 3

Platform: Multiplatform

Dark Souls is one of the better modern franchises in gaming (even if I kinda suck at it), and I’m really excited to die repeatedly play this new entry. I do kind of hope it adds more to the series than Dark Souls II did though. As great of a game as it was, I don’t want the third entry to just do what the first two already did. I hope DS3 can take all the good things from the series (of which there are many) and add some new twists into the mix as well.

What makes the Dark Souls series great is that it really feels like a modernized version of the kinds of games you’d play on the NES back in the day. It’s incredibly difficult, focused entirely on gameplay, and features a kind of progression that would feel at home on an 8-bit console. Yet it also feels brand new. The series has so far continued this trend through three games (remember, Demon Souls was the first game, Dark Souls was the second), and I’m confident it can repeat its success for a fourth time.

4: Star Fox Zero

Star Fox Zero

Platform: Wii U

Lack of multiplayer aside, Star Fox Zero looks to be the return to form I’ve been waiting for from the series. The gameplay looks like a modernized Star Fox 64, none of the weirdly sexualized characters from the subsequent games are present, and the story is going back to basics. It pretty much looks like the proper follow-up to Star Fox 64, which has somehow not yet happened in almost two decades.

If Star Fox Zero does indeed end up being this generation’s Star Fox 64, then it will be well worth the wait. Now I just hope the game’s delay into 2016 means they’re adding a multiplayer mode.

3: Mighty No. 9

Mighty No. 9

Platform: Multiplatform

Though the Red Ash Kickstarter fiasco might have put a sour taste in gamer’s mouths in regards to Keiji Inafune’s Comcept studio, I’m still super excited for Mighty No. 9.

It’s hard to believe Mega Man hasn’t appeared in a game outside of Super Smash Bros. for over five years. But if Capcom won’t let us have the Blue Bomber, at least we have a spiritual sequel to look forward to.

Mighty No. 9 really does look like a Mega Man title, and hopefully the gameplay and level design can live up to that heralded series. As a huge bonus, the game looks to feature several different additional modes to add some replayability and change up the experience.

2: The Legend of Zelda Wii U

Zelda Wii U

Platform: Wii U (but maybe NX)

The latest “proper” addition in The Legend of Zelda series looks to be the most ambitious entry yet. It could be one of the last great Wii U games, or one of the first great NX ones. Or both.

The Legend of Zelda is one of gaming’s greatest series, and a new home console entry is always a big deal. But this one in particular seems to be aiming to change up Zelda conventions, and hopefully, as we learn more about the game, that becomes more apparent.

Though I really wish Nintendo would give the series another art direction as daring as The Wind Waker, I like the new cel-shaded look. It looks a lot like a more advanced take on what Skyward Sword did visually. But while Skyward Sword used its visuals to guise the aging technology of the Wii, this new Zelda actually looks to be taking full advantage of its hardware.

My two great hopes for Zelda Wii U is that it really does change up the series, since Zelda games, great as they are, lack the consistent sense of newness of its sister series, Super Mario, and that the main adventure is only as long as it needs to be. I’m actually among those who loved Skyward Sword, but I admit that game would have been better if it were trimmed a few hours shorter. There’s no need to stretch a game’s length just for the heck of it. I’ll take a 10 hour game that feels complete over a 60 hour one that feels largely comprised of filler.

Anyway, it’s Zelda. Of course I have it on this list!

1: Yooka-Laylee

Yooka-Laylee

Platform: Multiplatform

Rare made some of the greatest video games of my youth. With a resume that includes the likes of Donkey Kong Country 2 (arguably the best 2D platformer), Banjo-Kazooie (arguably the best 3D platformer until Mario went to space), Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark, and so many other classics, it’s a wonder how the developer has fallen so far from grace over the last decade.

Yooka-Laylee is something of a dream come true for me. The new studio Playtonic Games – founded by a small group of some of Rare’s finest former developers – debuted the game as a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie series in a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. And so far, everything about the game is looking like a modernized version of the Banjo-Kazooie style of platformer.

Playtonic has been vocal in saying that the game isn’t merely a re-skin of Banjo-Kazooie, however, and that Yooka-Laylee is making the winning formula new again. The collectibles will all serve a purpose, the game will have a greater sense of freedom in exploration, and players will have some forms of customization in gameplay and progression.

After Nuts & Bolts more or less kicked Banjo-Kazooie fans in the… nuts & bolts, Yooka-Laylee looks like the proper follow-up to Banjo-Tooe that I’ve waited fifteen years for. It was even the first game on Kickstarter I’ve helped fund. The only other game I’ve funded since was Red Ash. And well, let’s just move on.

Yooka-Laylee simply looks to bring back a style of game that’s been all but forgotten in the last few console generations. Given the minds behind it, I have a lot of confidence they’ll be able to pull it off. Really, there’s no reason why Yooka-Laylee wouldn’t be my most anticipated game of 2016.

My Top 5 Games from E3 2015

E3 has come and gone once again. Amidst all the big announcements, awesome games, and presentations that aren’t nearly as bad as people are making them out to be, the event itself, while not without its highlights, was ultimately one of the lesser E3s of recent years. But, even if the show didn’t quite reach greatness, it still gave us a glimpse of some great games. Here are my top 5 games presented at the show…but first, some runners-up! Continue reading “My Top 5 Games from E3 2015”