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.
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.