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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Paper Mario: Color Splash Review

Color Splash

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars began the concept of transforming the world of Super Mario into an RPG series. Though Super Mario RPG never got a proper sequel, its legacy was continued by two series: the handheld Mario & Luigi titles, and Paper Mario. Both series were great in their own right, but it was Paper Mario that felt closer in spirit to Super Mario RPG.

Despite the Mario RPGs being among Nintendo’s best titles – up there with Zelda, Donkey Kong, and the Mario platformers – Nintendo, for reasons that will never make sense, decided to opt out of the Mario RPGs as time went by.

The last two Mario & Luigi titles have basically stripped away the depth in story, characters and gameplay from the first three titles, but Paper Mario has been altered all the more. Super Paper Mario took away the turn-based battles in favor of platforming with RPG elements, though it retained the strong storytelling of the previous Paper Mario entries.

It was Paper Mario: Sticker Star on the 3DS however, that remains one of Nintendo’s biggest blunders. Sticker Star brought back turn-based battles, but replaced the RPG elements with collectible stickers, a gimmick that quickly grew tired and even made battles predominantly pointless, since your only reward for winning battles were more stickers and coins…for buying more stickers. Not to mention the game removed virtually every story and character aspect of its predecessors, leaving it soulless on both a narrative and gameplay standpoint.

Sticker Star was greatly disliked by longtime fans of the series, and when Paper Mario: Color Splash was first revealed and looked to be replicating Sticker Star’s style, it seemed doomed from the start. But does Color Splash fix the many problems of Sticker Star? Or does it fall just as flat?

To put it simply, if Sticker Star broke the Paper Mario series, Color Splash does a pretty good job at fixing it. But even if you repair something after its been broken, it’s never going to look quite as good as it once did.

Paper Mario: Color Splash does adopt much of Sticker Star’s formula. Battles still use consumable actions (here presented as cards), and Mario still doesn’t gain levels, nor is he joined by any memorable partners that can aid him in battle (though his adventure is joined by a sentient paint bucket named Huey, who is a far more charming and funny character than Sticker Star’s Kirsti ever was).

There is a bonus this time around in the form of paint. Mario must paint his cards in battle to fully power them up, and also paint areas of the environment that have been drained of their color using the paint hammer. The inclusion of paint benefits the battle system by the addition of Hammer Scraps, collectible items that are rewarded after battle. Hammer Scraps more or less work like experience points, and when enough are collected, the maximum amount of paint Mario has at his disposal increases. This difference alone prevents the battles from feeling pointless, as they did in Sticker Star, though it sadly cannot change the tediousness of the battles themselves.

Color SplashThere’s no beating around the bush, making all of the actions in battle consumable items is simply bad game design. Sure, the game throws cards and coins at you all the time, so you’re rarely going to run out of actions, but you may easily run out of the cards you need for a given enemy or situation. You’re constantly scrambling to get the right cards, or going out of your way to get enough coins to buy them by the bulk, just so you’re sure to have enough to make your way through a specific section.

To further complicate things, the process of using these cards in battle is just as tedious as anything. You have to cycle through your cards on the Gamepad (which are always categorized, left to right, from oldest to newest), then set up the cards you want to use, tap the chosen cards to paint them, select the “done painting” option, and then finish things off with an entirely unnecessary “flick” motion to send the cards from the Gamepad to the TV. Then, and only then, can you perform the usual action commands in battle. The process can grow old fast, and you may find yourself avoiding enemies just so you don’t have to keep going through it.

Another huge downside to battles is that Mario will automatically attack the on-screen enemies in a set sequence from left to right. This not only removes so much potential strategy in battles, but also means that, should you defeat some enemies too soon, Mario could end up screwing things up (like jumping on a spiked enemy) and the player can’t do anything about it.

Finally, “Things” make a return from Sticker Star, being 3D objects that can be turned into super powerful cards for use in and out of battle. Each Thing includes a hilarious in-battle animation (like a breakdancing piggybank or a tornado-like washing machine), and make for fun special attacks. The problem with Things arrises during boss battles. Every boss in the game must have a specific Thing used against them in order to defeat them. It is mandatory that you have a specific Thing with you during each boss, so that you can use them at the right moment. If you don’t have the right Thing, the bosses are, quite literally, impossible.

Color SplashIf this worked like Mega Man, and specific Things were merely particularly effective against certain bosses, it could be really fun and clever. Instead, you have bosses that are only beatable with specific items. There’s no strategy involved. If you know what Thing you need, you basically have victory guaranteed. It’s yet another display of blatantly bad game design.

Thankfully, this is where most of the complaining stops, because the aspects of Paper Mario: Color Splash that are enjoyable are very much enjoyable.

For starters, there’s a much greater emphasis on story and character than there was in Sticker Star (of course, any story and character at all would be much more than Sticker Star, but it’s intended as a compliment).

The plot is simple enough, with Mario and Peach traveling to Prism Island – a land renowned for its vibrant colors – after they receive a Toad drained of its color in the mail, sent from the island to the Mushroom Kingdom. Once they arrive at Prism Island, Mario and Peach find that the place is being drained of its color by an army of Shy Guys. Naturally, Bowser is up to his old tricks again, and it’s up to Mario, and his new paint bucket partner Huey, to restore color to the island and rescue the Paint Stars.

Color SplashSo the plot itself is nothing grand like Super Mario RPG or the first two Paper Marios, but Color Splash does liven things up with terrific writing and the series’ trademark humor.

Color Splash is one of the funniest games I’ve played in a long time. Whether it’s the visual gags that make great use of the paper motif, or the constant zingers the characters are spouting, Color Splash actually elicited a good number of laughs out of me throughout my playthrough.

Yeah, no kidding. I miss unique Toads.
Yeah, no kidding. I miss unique Toads.

On the downside of things, Color Splash continues Nintendo’s bizarre recent trend of making every NPC a generic Toad, with their only differing features being the colors of their spots and vests. I honestly can’t grasp why Nintendo thinks having every NPC looking like the standard Toad is more charming than the variety of characters found in past Paper Marios. It just takes away personality from the game.

This lack of variety also shows up in the enemies, who are relegated to simply being returning foes from Mario’s platforming ventures. Even the aforementioned bosses are restricted to the Koopalings. I seriously don’t understand Nintendo’s refusal to add new enemies to the Mario RPG series anymore.

On a lighter note, another highlight has to be Color Splash’s aesthetics. The game is absolutely gorgeous to look at, with Nintendo bringing the paper craft visuals of the series to life like never before. There are so many little details all over the place that make the environments pop. You can definitely tell the developers were having a great time thinking of ways to recreate Mario’s world out of handcrafted materials. It’s an absolutely beautiful game to look at, and it’s full of visual surprises.

Arguably even better than the visuals is the musical score. Color Splash follows in the tradition of the Galaxy series and 3D World of integrating a full band orchestra into the Mario series, and just as in past efforts, it pays off beautifully. Color Splash’s soundtrack is often (and appropriately) colorful and lively, but it ends up showcasing a wide variety of styles and tunes. It’s one of the best Mario soundtracks of the last few years.

Much of this review may sound a bit negative, but rest assured, the good ultimately outweighs the bad. Nintendo’s stubbornness may have never been quite as pronounced as it is here, with the continuing of Sticker Star’s infamous template. But the fact that Color Splash can take such a flawed blueprint and turn it into a very fun experience is also one of the biggest testaments to Nintendo’s mastery of the craft.

I very much love most of Paper Mario: color Splash: It looks stunning, sounds great, it’s often hilarious, always charming, and is full of fun little gameplay surprises. But the flaws that are present are a bit too prominent, and you may find that Color Splash is at its best in stages that work as their own, self-contained little narratives, and place the battle system to the side. Still, a tedious battle system is better than the pointless one of Sticker Star, and the stories, characters and writing that are present here help give the game an identity that was lacking not only in Sticker Star, but the past few Mario & Luigi titles as well.

Paper Mario: Color Splash may not bring back the glory the Mario RPGs once showcased so profusely, but its creativity and charm are so endearing that you can’t help but feel it’s getting things back on track.

But seriously, can we please just get a proper Mario RPG again? Please?!

 

6

Can the Mario RPGs Reclaim Their Glory?

Paper Mario: Color Splash

During the most recent Nintendo Direct, Nintendo unveiled the newest entry in the Paper Mario series, Paper Mario: Color Splash for the Wii U. To put it lightly, it was met with an underwhelming reception.

Color Splash is scheduled for release later this year, and not too much of the game has been revealed, so I’m not about to pass full judgement on it until then. However, as it stands, the game is, quite bafflingly, looking to be something of a sequel to Paper Mario: Sticker Star in terms of mechanics and gameplay. Many of Sticker Star’s elements look to be reused or reconfigured for the upcoming Color Splash, with the Stickers of the previous game being replaced with cards and paint.

This is quite worrisome, considering Sticker Star is currently the only flat-out bad Mario RPG to date. And considering the two Mario RPGs that followed (Dream Team and Paper Jam) have simply been “good” and not something more, the Mario RPGs are in desperate need of a reinvigoration, and a follow-up to Sticker Star is the exact opposite of that.

My opinion on Sticker Star isn’t one of a minority either, as most longtime Mario RPG fans share my sentiments that it is a sour note in what was once a lovely symphony of Mario role-playing games. And if Color Splash does indeed serve as a successor to Sticker Star, it will be an absolutely dumbfounding decision on Nintendo’s part.

The first two Paper Mario titles on the Nintendo 64 and GameCube – Paper Mario and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, respectively – are among the most beloved Mario games of all time by fans. With their interactive, fast-paced battle systems, charming stories, and oodles of depth, they were RPGs of such quality and accessibility that they should rank highly on any list of the genre’s finest. While many once-classic RPGs have aged for the worse, the first two Paper Mario games (as well as the other classic Mario RPGs) haven’t aged a day. Their fanbases haven’t exactly been quiet about their desire for a more traditional follow-up to the original Paper Mario duo, and seeing as Thousand-Year Door was released way back in 2004, it is absolutely eyebrow-raising why Nintendo continues to stray further and further with the series.

I hope I don’t sound like one of those entitled, bratty gamers who have already started a petition for the game’s cancellation. For all I know, Color Splash may very well end up being a great game, so I’m not trying to write it off when all we have to go by are a couple of trailers. But judging from what is to be seen so far, it’s giving some very bad feelings of deja vu for Sticker Star. And if that does turn out to be the case, it could crush the reputation of the Mario RPGs.

The last truly great Mario RPG was 2009’s Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story on the Nintendo DS. After that, Sticker Star came along and diluted the Paper Mario series. Dream Team and Paper Jam were decent entries in the Mario & Luigi series, but lacked the quality and depth of Bowser’s Inside Story and its predecessors.

Paper Mario: Color SplashThere was once a time when every Mario RPG felt special. The original Super Mario RPG is still one of the most beloved games of the genre, Paper Mario was one of the N64’s best titles, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga ensured that the original trilogy of Mario role-playing games were all unique entities, while The Thousand-Year Door proved to be a substantial sequel. Although Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time and Super Paper Mario weren’t quite up to par, they were still memorable adventures. Then along came Bowser’s Inside Story, which felt like the proper follow-up to Superstar Saga.

Since that time, however, the Mario RPGs have simply become solid but uneventful Mario spinoffs, akin more to the Mario sports titles than the RPGs of old. And Color Splash doesn’t exactly look reassuring.

So where do the Mario RPGs go from here? Well, I’ve always been a fan of the idea of Nintendo working out a deal with Square for a proper sequel to the original Super Mario RPG. More realistically, I’ve also long supported the idea of a brand-new Mario RPG, with no direct ties to any of the existing entries, akin to how the first three Mario RPGs were distinct entities.

That might be the direction Nintendo needs to go if they wish to give the Mario RPG genre a future that can live up to their glorious past. The Mario & Luigi series, while still delivering mechanically sound games, have seemingly run out of creativity. Meanwhile, Sticker Star all but ruined the Paper Mario name, and if Color Splash is anything less than a complete redemption of it, then the series will have completely lost its luster, lest Nintendo finally decides to make a more literal follow-up to The Thousand-Year Door.

The core platforming entries of the Super Mario series are the ones that receive the most acclaim. And while they are deserving of such praise, there was once a time when it could be argued that the Mario RPGs were every bit as great. It would be a truly sad thing if those days were behind us. Sadly, if Color Splash ends up being little more than Sticker Star 2, that may very well be the case. At least as far as the ongoing Mario RPG series go. A complete overhaul is sounding better and better.