*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.
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.
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. 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.
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 quite 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.