The Origami Sting (Paper Mario: The Origami King Impressions)

“Somehow… Palpatine returned.”

And somehow… Nintendo made something as wonderful as Paper Mario not fun anymore.

Yes, I hate to admit it, but Paper Mario: The Origami King is little more than validation for my (and everyone else’s) skepticisms. Just like Sticker Star, just like Color Splash, Origami King is a gimmicky endeavor that continues the series’ awkward mixture of being utterly shallow and overly thought out at the same time.

Yes, there are good moments, but those are found solely in the exploratory elements (finding lost Toads, combing for all the secret items in an area, etc.). But once you begin the battle system, it all goes to hell.

Nintendo and Intelligent Systems once again decided the original Paper Mario formula – a simplified RPG system that retained depth and strategy based on individual enemies and Mario’s moves – is too complex. So instead of an RPG battle system with action commands, they went the much “simpler” route of starting battles off with a bizarre ring system, where you have to solve the puzzle that is the enemy layout in order to align them in such a way as to make your moves more effective, all within a short time limit.

Thankfully, your moves are no longer completely consumable like in Sticker Star or Color Splash, but aside from Mario’s standard boots and hammer, you do have to keep buying weapons repeatedly since they break after a while (because weapons breaking is all the rage in games these days for some reason). The fights themselves are already tedious, made all the more so because you don’t even gain experience points or anything of the sort after a battle, so there’s no leveling up. All you get for completing battles are coins (with more rewarded for how well you line up enemies, taking no damage, and so on). And what do you need coins for? To buy more weapons!

Good lord, what incentive is the player supposed to have in regards to these battles? Fight battles to get coins to buy weapons to use in battles to get coins to buy weapons… Geez! What’s the point?!

As purposeless as the regular battles are, they pale, pale in comparison to the boss fights. Good heavens, the boss battles of Origami King are bad. Just straight-up bad. How bad? Bad enough that – every time the game starts to win me over with it’s exploration and adventure elements – the boss fights make me not even want bother with that, because I know it will all culminate with a tedious, obnoxious, boring as all hell boss fight. They make me not care.

“Bosses will repeatedly change up the formula of battles, without letting the player know how that change effects things until they make a mistake. Yay, that’s always fun, right?”

What makes the boss fights so bad? Well, on top of following the general format of the already pointless battles, the bosses will add additional puzzle elements to the fights that are more cumbersome than clever. More often than not, figuring out how to solve these puzzles requires blatant trial-and-error, as opposed to problem solving skills. The game leaves the boss strategies unexplained until you try the obvious and fail while doing it. And if you don’t follow these fights exactly as the game wants you, the bosses will just heal and the whole thing starts over.

I hate this. I flat-out hate this. It’s not fun. Not at all. I thought Color Splash’s boss fights were annoying with how they were literally unbeatable unless you used specific items at specific times, but I’ll take Color Splash’s boss fights over Origami King’s any day.

Of course, another downward spiral that Origami King obnoxiously indulges in is its lack of character (both figuratively and literally). Though the game has its charms, it follows the bizarre trait the series has been cursed with from Sticker Star onwards of not having any original characters. Every Toad is simply named “X-Toad” (that is, when they even have “names.”).  And the first “partner” character who joins Mario is a Bob-omb named (wait for it)… Bob-omb!

Does this Bob-omb have any defining character traits or features? No, it’s a Bob-omb, plain and simple. And he jokes about once having a friend who was also named Bob-omb (Haha! Get it? They’re all named Bob-omb!). Well, at least you actually get partners in this one, which is more than you can say for Sticker Star and Color Splash, right?

But wait, do you even get partners here? The Bob-omb joins you in battle very infrequently (he conveniently chooses to stay outside dungeons to take naps), and when he can be bothered to help Mario out, he automatically attacks with a single move (which is simply bumping into an enemy), and half the time he trips while doing it, making it a complete waste.

“Get it? His name is Bob-omb, and he IS a Bob-omb! It’s totally a clever gag and not a side effect of creative limitation or anything.”

I actually found this to be kind of passive-aggressive on Nintendo/Intelligent System’s part. It’s like they’re saying “Oh, fans liked the old Paper Marios and want partners back? Okay, we’ll give them partners, but there’ll be nothing that stands out about them, they’ll automatically attack with the most basic move, which won’t even work half the time, and they’ll only join Mario in battle on occasion! Lol!” It’s like the game is literally making fun of the classic Paper Marios.

I have to ask: who is this game made for? It presents itself as being more approachable to kids than past entries, but its battle system is more convoluted than ever. I can’t imagine kids would have very much patience for it. It wants to be a puzzle adventure game, but felt the need to incorporate a turn-based battle system that slows the puzzle/adventure down considerably. It includes said RPG-style battle system, despite its utter disdain for anything resembling an RPG. And it certainly isn’t made for Paper Mario fans, as it continues to gut everything that once made the series so great.

I know I probably sound like an entitled fan. And I’m sorry for that. But Paper Mario is a bizarre, unique case where it seems like its developers actively refuse to listen to criticisms, and blatantly ignore fans’ wishes. They continue to work on a series by making games that feel like they want nothing to do with that series. It is a baffling disconnect if ever there were one in gaming.

I’m about halfway through Paper Mario: The Origami King, and I would love to review it. Normally, I like to beat a game before reviewing it, but to be honest, I’m not sure I want to push myself through the whole game. Would it be wrong to review a game without defeating its final boss? That might be the only way I can review it, because honestly getting through the game’s story is feeling more like a chore as I go on.

I know some people would balk at me to have an open mind. But I did go into Origami King with an open mind, the same way I did Sticker Star and Color Splash. In the case of Color Splash, I actually ended up having some fun and being charmed by it, despite its many flaws. But Origami King is feeling more Sticker Star than Color Splash to me. It’s tedious, monotonous, gimmicky, the battle system is pointless, the characters lack personality and charm, and those boss fights are just… NOPE!

I want to review Origami King properly, I really do. But do I have to beat it? Do I really have to? I feel like I’m deep enough in the game already to give a more detailed analysis of it (not that it would require delving very deep in this case). I feel like beating the final boss would just be a formality at this point.

You know what the worst part of all this is? I am not only a fan of Super Mario, but I have a particular fondness for Mario RPGs. That’s why – no matter how far previous Paper Marios may have fallen – I still gave subsequent entries their fair shot, simply because Paper Mario is part of that Mario RPG lineage. I felt obligated to give any game with Paper Mario in the title a go. Not even Sticker Star derailed that hope in me for the next entry. But Origami King has been such a disheartening experience, that I don’t even want to get my hopes up that the next Paper Mario will even be good, let alone go back to what made the series so special to begin with. Origami King has crushed my enthusiasm for the series, and that’s not something that happens to me lightly.

At least we have Bug Fables now…

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of Bug Fables*

When the original Paper Mario was released on the Nintendo 64 in 2001, it was not only the last great game for the system (and it still holds up today), but also the N64’s one and only truly memorable role-playing game. But if the system could have only one great entry in the genre, it certainly had an excellent one. Serving as a spiritual successor to the SNES’s Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario was another terrific mergence of Super Mario elements and RPG traditions. Though it was simpler than Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario’s accessibility didn’t come at the expense of depth, as it provided an RPG adventure as grand as any. Its GameCube sequel, subtitled The Thousand-Year Door, was further testament that Mario and RPGs are a match made in heaven.

Though the Paper Mario series continues to this day, Thousand-Year Door was sadly the last time the series served as a spiritual continuation of Super Mario RPG. And that’s largely because it was the last time the series was actually an RPG. The series’ third entry, Super Paper Mario, strangely abandoned the genre, instead opting for a 2D platformer with some RPG elements and a big, RPG-style storyline, to mixed results. From there, turn-based battles would make a comeback to Paper Mario, but in a butchered, shallow form, stripped of their substance and meaning, with more emphasis being placed on paper aesthetics and gimmicks than any deep RPG gameplay. Paper Mario continues to this day, but as a husk of itself. The heart and soul of the series were left behind on the GameCube, leaving many fans yearning for the series to go back to its roots and deliver another Mario RPG classic.

Well, since Nintendo seems hellbent on not delivering such a thing (even the handheld Mario & Luigi RPG series lost its way once it set foot on the 3DS), indie developer MoonSprout Games decided to make their own Paper Mario: Bug Fables.

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is classic Paper Mario in all but names and faces. Rather than the iconic world of the Mushroom Kingdom, we have the insect world of Bugaria, in a future where insects have evolved to have human sentience. But aside from the change to a bug-themed setting and characters, everything else about Bug Fables is essentially the Paper Mario we’ve been waiting sixteen years for.

The battle system is virtually copied and pasted from the first two Paper Marios. And yes, the game adopts the flat characters amid 3D backgrounds that Paper Mario was known for (before it took the “paper” aspect far too literally). Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is indeed Paper Mario…but with bugs!

While that does mean the game isn’t the most original title out there, it’s a detail that’s easy to look past considering how starved the gaming landscape has been of a proper Paper Mario title for all these years.

As in Paper Mario, battles are a turn-based affair, where timing and button combinations take place during moves (“Action Commands”). If the player gets the timing or button combinations right, their moves are more effective, while the right button press at the right time during an enemy’s attack will reduce the damage taken to your characters. The player will also have to take note about how each of the characters and enemies function, as just like the Mario RPGs, certain actions can only be used on specific characters (grounded attacks can’t reach airborne foes, and things like that). One of the big reasons the Mario RPGs soared to such heights is their interactive battle systems, which added so much depth and timeless appeal to RPG norms, and Bug Fables is a reminder of why we miss classic Mario RPGs so much, and makes it all the more baffling how Nintendo can’t seem to grasp why people want it so badly.

“All three characters learn a few abilities that can be used outside of battle as well. For example: Leif can create ice platforms on bodies of water.”

If there is a big difference between Bug Fables and Paper Mario’s RPG systems, it’s that, while Paper Mario saw Mario joined by one of several “partner” characters during battles, Bug Fables has a set party of three characters, all of whom are present in every battle: Kabbu is a beetle who is the group’s tank, able to take and dish out more damage than the other two characters, but at the cost of having the most limited attack range (only being able to target the closest ground-based enemy, save for a few of his special moves). Vi is a little bee equipped with a “beemerang,” giving her the most versatile range and can also bring down airborne foes, but with the caveat of the smallest damage output. Lastly, Lief is a moth who possesses ice magic, with which he can let it go to attack any ground-based enemies and even those who burrow underground, but will still need Vi’s help for flying foes.

“You’ll meet all kinds of cute and charming characters in Bug Fables. This little guy is probably my favorite NPC.”

It’s the party dynamic that serves as Bug Fables’ biggest change to the Paper Mario formula. On one hand, it makes things a bit more streamlined without having to switch party members for different situations. And the small amount of main characters means you get to know them a bit more in regards to the story (Kabbu is overly apologetic and sensitive, Vi is sarcastic and anxious to become a famous hero alongside her team, and Leif has been in a long hibernation, and can’t remember his past). But on the other hand, part of the charm of Paper Mario was found in those partners, and knowing which one to have at your side at what time.

I think the simplicity of Paper Mario’s partners is perhaps better suited for the style of gameplay provided, but that’s not to say that anything is really lost from a gameplay standpoint in Bug Fables, but it does showcase a benefit an established franchise can have. Part of the joy of Paper Mario is how these familiar Mario enemies were now friendly characters (a Goomba, a Koopa Troopa, a Boo, etc.). Obviously, Bug Fables can’t go doing something similar, as it doesn’t have that history to tinker around and mess with. That’s not to say I hold this against Bug Fables, as that would be an unfair criticism. But I do think – in a time in which so many people insist new IPs automatically equate to originality and franchises are old hat by default – that this is an example of a creative benefit established franchises can have over other works, which is something that isn’t acknowledged enough.

“Discovering new recipes with the game’s three chef characters is a fun side quest.”

Much like Paper Mario’s badges, Bug Fables features items called medals that, when equipped, provide a variety of different bonuses. Once the player levels up (which works as the whole trio leveling up at the same time, as opposed to each individual character), the player can select which attribute they want to increase: hit points (self-explanatory), TP (Teamwork Points, Bug Fables’s equivalent of traditional magic points or, more appropriately, the Mario RPGs’ Flower Points), or Medal Points, which allow you to equip more medals.

So Bug Fables functions very similarly to the Paper Mario titles that inspired it, but aside from the set three character party, the main difference between Paper Mario and Bug Fables is the difficulty. Bug Fables is a more difficult game than Paper Mario, and it can be made all the harder right off the bat, as a prominent NPC in the game’s opening grants you with the ‘Hard Mode’ medal which, naturally, makes the game more difficult when equipped (and it costs no medal points to equip, so the challenge is open to anyone who wants it). While the challenge is mostly fair, I do have to admit that – at least with the Hard Mode medal equipped – the difficulty can seem a bit inconsistent. I actually found some earlier segments to be harder than some of the later ones, and some mid-bosses were more challenging than the big bosses at the end of the same chapter.

In a time when fans’ pleas for a return to form for the Paper Mario franchise continue to fall on deaf ears on Nintendo’s end, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is something of a gift, and the next best thing we could ask for after a proper follow-up to The Thousand-Year Door. Some have already claimed Bug Fables to be better than the games that inspired it. Though I can’t agree with that sentiment, Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is the best Paper Mario game to be made since those beloved first two entries. And that in itself is cause for celebration.

 

8

First Thoughts on Paper Mario: The Origami King

Yesterday, we celebrated the twenty-fourth anniversary of Super Mario RPG (in the US). A mere day later, Nintendo announced a title that further sullies Super Mario RPG’s legacy!

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. But the first trailer of the newest installment of Paper Mario, The Origami King, raises more concerns than it does build hype for the game.

Here is Nintendo’s announcement trailer.

Okay, so the game doesn’t look terrible: Bowser being folded into a square and Peach being brainwashed and joining a cult by means of origami look like they can make for a fun plot, there’s actually variety with the NPC characters (not everyone is the basic, red-spotted, blue-vested Toad this time! Yay!), and the paper aesthetic looks as charming as ever.

But that last one is also kind of the problem… Why does Nintendo insist on making the Paper Mario series about the paper aesthetics instead of using it as a backdrop for unique RPG adventures?

Granted, we only get an ever-so brief glimpse of the battle system here, and from what I can tell, they’ve exorcised the demons of stickers and cards from the proceedings. But it still looks like it’s following a similar path as Sticker Star and Color Splash. Which is something that no one wanted.

I hate to sound like an entitled fan, but when we’re talking about Paper Mario, you always hear the same thing from everyone: “can we get a new Paper Mario that’s an RPG like the first two?” And every time a new one is announced, Nintendo seems completely ignorant to what people want.

While I don’t mind Nintendo putting more emphasis on the paper aesthetics   of the series, the problem is that’s what the series has become all about. No one fell in love with the original Paper Mario or its sequel because Mario was made out of paper, they loved it because it was a damn good RPG that – while maybe not quite Super Mario RPG – did a great job at keeping its predecessor’s spirit alive.

After the first two acclaimed Paper Mario titles, the third entry, Super Paper Mario, was a steep departure. It abandoned turn-based battles and partner characters for a platformer with RPG elements. It was different and not as good, but at least it was – at the time – a one-off thing. We could understand and appreciate that it was experimental and trying something different for the series. It may not have always worked, but hey, Nintendo learned their lessons from Zelda II and Super Mario Sunshine, so maybe that meant the series would get back to the RPG style gameplay we were all craving.

And that was the plan… at first. Early screenshots and materials of a 3DS Paper Mario title gave fans glimpses of partner characters, and a return to the turn-based battle system. But then, somewhere in development, Nintendo decided to change course, and instead we got the stinker that was Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Sure, turn-based battles were back, but with the glaring caveat that every last one of Mario’s abilities used consumable “sticker” items, and your only rewards for battles were either A) more stickers, or B) coins… for buying more stickers… This made this new battle system not only a tedious chore, but also inexcusably pointless.

Fast forward to the Wii U, and when Paper Mario: Color Splash was announced, and served as a direct follow-up to Sticker Star’s gameplay, it was close to insulting. Although Color Splash was an improvement over Sticker Star, it was still a pretty shallow experience that suffered many of its predecessor’s drawbacks (namely the aforementioned pointlessness of its battle system). By this point, it was pretty clear that Nintendo had no intention on giving people the Paper Mario they actually want.

But times have changed in the Switch generation for the Big N. Breath of the Wild did what Zelda should have done a long time ago and said “screw you” to Ocarina of Time’s shackling influence on the series. Super Mario Odyssey brought back the more open style of Super Mario 64 back into the 3D Mario canon (not that there was any problem with the more linear Super Mario 3D World, but hey, they still listened to what people wanted). Perhaps most notably, the Switch finally brought back the third-party support Nintendo had been lacking ever since the Nintendo 64.

Point being, Nintendo seemed to be listening in recent years. And earlier this year, amid reports that Nintendo wanted to celebrate Super Mario Bros’ 35th anniversary in a big way in 2020 that supposedly includes an HD compilation of the previous 3D Mario titles, rumors also circulated about a Paper Mario title that would return to the style of the N64 original and The Thousand-Year Door.

Admittedly, while I could imagine the compilation being a reality, I took the rumor of a new, traditional Paper Mario as a “I’ll believe it when I see it” kind of thing. I would have loved if my skepticisms were proven wrong. Sadly, this trailer for Paper Mario: The Origami King has only made me let out those skepticisms in a sigh of disappointment.

I mean, I just don’t get it. It’s not like Nintendo’s fanbase keeps quiet about these things. And while fans can of course go overboard at times, I don’t think wanting a beloved series to go back to its roots, which we haven’t seen in sixteen years now – especially when general consensus points that said series has only gone downhill ever since it changed things up – is asking too much.

People want a new Mario RPG. An actual RPG. With a proper battle system, level-progression, teammates with different abilities, a story, the whole Mario RPG shebang. Why does Nintendo seem incapable of grasping this concept? Because it’s not just Paper Mario, but the Mario & Luigi series, the “other half” of Super Mario RPG’s branching legacy, has also stripped away the depth of its mechanics and battle system with its 3DS entries.

I seriously, honestly, sincerely just don’t get it. Super Mario RPG remains one of the most acclaimed and beloved Mario games of all time, and the first two Paper Mario titles have had a similar appeal. None of the Paper Mario games since Thousand-Year Door have received the same level of reception and devotion than the earlier Mario RPGs (the ones that actually were RPGs) had. So what the hell is possessing Nintendo to go down the “hey! Look at all the papery stuff!” well at the expense of making a deep Mario RPG? It’s a “creative” decision that outright boggles the mind.

 

Of course, it wouldn’t be the only time Nintendo completely ignored what people actually wanted and instead delivered something absolutely no one asked for.

At the very least, if this is the direction Nintendo is going to insist on traveling in regards to Paper Mario (and Mario & Luigi), can we get a brand-new Mario RPG game as well? Just…something!

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars remains one of Nintendo’s best games. It has been starved of a direct sequel for twenty-four years now. But at least in years past, we had Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi to play a similar role. Now, we don’t even have that.

Nintendo has acknowledged Super Mario RPG’s beloved status by giving it notable re-releases on the Wii Virtual Console (where they made a point of it being the 250th game added to the service), the Wii U Virtual Console (where it was the last SNES game added), and including it as one of the games on the SNES Classic Edition. But when it comes to continuing that great game’s legacy, Nintendo seems to have a bizarre aversion to it. And don’t tell me that it’s Square-Enix’s fault, because while they may be holding Mallow and Geno hostage, Nintendo used to make great Mario RPGs of their own as proven with Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi.

But now, those days seem like a distant memory. It’s all the stranger when you think of where Nintendo is right now. Not just commercially, but creatively. The Mario series, in particular, has been in something of a second (and extended) golden age ever since Galaxy was released in 2007. Between Galaxy, its sequel, 3D World, the Super Mario Maker titles, Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario Odyssey, the overall Super Mario series has arguably never been more consistent, or more acclaimed.

Yet it’s the Mario RPGs that have been left out of this renaissance. The last truly great Mario RPG was Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story in 2009. Since then, the sub-genre of Marios has become increasingly more shallow, has removed most of their identity (no more original characters allowed! Only basic Toads!), and have even become obnoxiously wordy (the Mario RPGs of old were genuinely hilarious. The newer Paper Mario titles desperately want us to think they’re hilarious).

Again, I’m not trying to write off Paper Mario: The Origami King completely as a game itself. It could end up being really good when taken by its own merits (and we don’t have to wait very long to find out, as the game is being released quite suddenly on July 17th of this year). But why does it seem like Nintendo is incapable of hearing what fans want from this series? No one loved Paper Mario “because Paper,” but that seems to be what Nintendo believes, despite the never-ending requests and criticisms that claim otherwise.

Why does Paper Mario always have to be a sacrificial lamb for experimentations? Why isn’t Mario & Luigi allowed to have its own identity anymore? Why can’t Super Mario RPG’s legacy be allowed to continue?

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.

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

Five Nintendo Franchise I Want to see Receive the Mario Maker Treatment

Super Mario Maker

Super Mario Maker is undoubtedly one of the best modern Nintendo games. In recent weeks I’ve found myself playing it as extensively as I did when it was first released. That’s the kind of longevity and replayability most games couldn’t hope for.

Why is it so addictive? It’s like I’ve said in the past, it turns the process of level editing into something that’s not only accessible, but fun in its own right. And playing the levels of other players provides countless surprises (some pleasant, others not so much).

While there were some limitations when the game first launched (and there still are a few that could be addressed), Super Mario Maker’s updates through the months have smoothened things out all the more, and added some great new features (the Fire Koopa Clown Car allows for more accurate shooter levels, for example).

Playing Super Mario Maker again has made me think about what other Nintendo franchises I’d like to see receive similar treatment. So here are five other such Nintendo series that I would like to see get a “Maker” of their own. They may not all be realistic options for one reason or another. But I want them anyway. Continue reading “Five Nintendo Franchise I Want to see Receive the Mario Maker Treatment”

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.

Paper Mario Memories

Paper Mario

I recently began a playthrough of the original Paper Mario on the Wii U’s Virtual Console, and I’m loving every minute of my revisiting of it.

Paper Mario was, of course, the last great Nintendo 64 title, being released months before the GameCube’s launch. In many ways, Paper Mario remains the most timeless of N64 games. I know many would consider that statement an act of video game blasphemy, considering the N64 housed both Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. But with all due respect to those classics (which are two other members of the small club of N64 games that have aged well), they both still look like they were from the early days of 3D gaming, whereas Paper Mario’s unique art style and blending of 2D and 3D gameplay perspectives have ensured it a timeless quality unique unto itself.

It’s not just the visuals that stand out in Paper Mario though. The game’s true genius that continues to endure is how it takes the RPG genre and makes it far more accessible to those unfamiliar to RPGs, while not sacrificing any of the depth of the genre.

"The game was originally going to be an RPG with a Zelda-style health system. That's actually a really cool idea!"
“The game was originally going to be an RPG with a Zelda-style health system. That’s actually a really cool idea!”

As I played through the game’s first chapter, I was taken back to the days of the N64, when seemingly every Nintendo Power issue promised a N64 sequel to Super Mario RPG in its previews sections. I remember at first it was simply titled “Super Mario RPG 2” and featured characters who looked like they were SNES sprites in N64 environments, which I thought was cool, since I hadn’t really seen anything like that (only Parappa the Rapper came close). Some time later it was renamed “Mario RPG 64” and “Super Mario Adventure.” This game had a long production history, as I remember seeing some early screenshots here and there for years before the game finally saw release at the end of the N64’s lifecycle.

I remember I couldn’t wait for new information about this game, but for years I rarely ever seemed to get new info (I was young, and the internet was still pretty young itself, Nintendo Power was all I had).

I have a lot of history with the original Super Mario RPG, it was the first RPG I ever played (and despite my love of Paper Mario, Secret of Mana, and others, it remains my favorite). Although it became obvious at some point that this new Mario RPG wouldn’t have any direct connection to the original, I honestly didn’t mind. It was a different time for Nintendo. Most new entries in their series seemed to be starting fresh, as opposed to direct sequels. So this was the closest I was going to get to a Super Mario RPG 2. So any new information I could scrounge up was like finding buried treasure. It was awesome!

The officially-titled Paper Mario would finally get some new life around the time most Nintendo fans were gearing up for the GameCube. Perhaps not the best timing, but I didn’t care. I was excited for the GameCube, sure. But Luigi’s Mansion, Super Smash Bros. Melee and a little oddity called Pikmin were lucky they were released near the end of 2001. Because for me, the first half of that gaming year was all about Paper Mario.

"I truly do miss Nintendo Power..."
“I truly do miss Nintendo Power…”

I remember how excited I was when I received issue 141 of Nintendo Power, and it had Paper Mario on the cover! I poured over that issue (more accurately, the article on Paper Mario) countless times. I was eleven-years old at the time, and my brilliant little adolescent mind was completely absorbed with this Paper Mario. I would even end up ordering the soundtrack from Nintendo Power (it still sits proudly among my favorite CDs)!

To finally have my hands on so much information on this elusive game was a thing of beauty. I simply couldn’t get enough of it!

I remember when the game was finally released, it completely lived up to my expectations. I know you’re probably wondering how much expectations an eleven-year old could have, but I had a ton of them! Paper Mario was a blast and, at the time, I may have called it my favorite game ever (I can’t quite go that far now, since there are some classics that shine a little brighter and even a few modern titles that take some of that cake). It was wonderful.

Its sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door would hit the GameCube three years later. I remember being really hyped for a sequel to Paper Mario, but somehow my hype just wasn’t quite the same (perhaps I was getting older and less enthused about things, or maybe it had something to do with the fact that each Mario RPG before it was unique unto themselves, so a direct sequel at that point wasn’t as surprising). Most seem to think The Thousand-Year Door is the better game, and I can understand such claims. The story is heftier, the writing has more personality, and there were even some fun tweaks to the battle system. But for one reason or another, the original Paper Mario always stuck with me more. I like that it was – more so than any other Mario RPG – a Mario RPG.

Paper Mario
“Swift justice!”

By that I mean it is the most literal translation of Mario into the RPG genre. Super Mario RPG is more akin to Mario meets Final Fantasy, the Mario & Luigi games are something of a self-parody, and the Paper Mario sequels would, understandably, take the series in new directions. But the original Paper Mario is Mario thrown into a role-playing game, pure and simple.

Bowser is the bad guy, the adventure spans across the Mushroom Kingdom and familiar environments (fire, ice, tropical island, etc.), Mario’s allies could be summed up as a Goomba, a Koopa Troopa, a Bob-omb, and so on. I adore its simplicity and directness.

A hefty fourteen years have passed since Paper Mario’s original release, and although I’ve replayed it on the N64 and Wii in the past, playing it again on the Wii U still takes me back to those early days. I may not quite see it as the “best game ever” anymore, but it’s still a landmark title in my gaming life, and it remains a personal favorite.

Once I finish my current playthrough I’ll write a full-on review for the game. But for now, I’m just relishing the memories, and enjoying how well Paper Mario holds up.