Nintendo hasn't been very kind to certain portions of its fan base during the lifetime of the Nintendo 64. Anyone who's spent any time with the machine over the last few years will certainly have noticed the absence of entire genres in their software lineup. There isn't a single decent fighting game to be had on the system, and RPGs have received the same cold shoulder as well. Maddeningly, the lack of quality role players was particularly hard to bear since the Super NES was home to so many outstanding games in the genre. These have been lean years for Nintendo fans indeed, and the only respite from this merciless drought has been to spend time with the competition's machines. I find it hard to believe that this was the message Nintendo was trying to send by not filling these gaps in its library, but you've got to wonder what goes on at Nintendo headquarters sometimes.
Now, in the twilight years of the Nintendo 64, we can only hope that the upcoming GameCube will not travel down the same racing-and-platformer-heavy path its predecessor has. However, in a strange turn of events, the Nintendo 64 has been graced with a supremely excellent RPG only a few mere months before it receives its last rites. It's odd timing that the cries of starved gamers would finally be heard now, but I for one am quite glad that there is now at least one worthwhile RPG on Nintendo's aging hardware.
Paper Mario is the most recently released addition to one of the most fruitful franchises ever created in the history of videogaming. Surprisingly, the game is the work of Intelligent Systems, rather than the series creator Shigeru Miyamoto, although you could hardly tell from the stunning quality. Paper Mario is best described as something like a traditional RPG, with combat taking place on a 2-D plane featuring heavy emphasis on action elements. The player takes on the role of the plumber extraordinaire, who is soon joined by a number of friends, each with various powers to help back him up as you venture to your goal. Your mission is to rescue the Princess (yes, again) from the clutches of the evil Bowser, but it's a long, harsh road to free her. In order to make your task easier, you'll have to save seven magical stars from Bowser's henchmen and collect enough power-ups and special abilities along the way in order to stomp the bad guys for good—until the next time. Before any of you fall asleep from the games overly familiar premise, let me assure you that the lack of creativity in the story department does not carry over to the other parts of the game.
Paper Mario does so many things right, it's hard to know where to start. Honestly, I cant believe this isnt an in-house, first-party product since the overall quality is extremely high, and literally no corners have been cut anywhere that I could see.
For starters, the battle engine is fabulous, being simple enough to grasp in a moment, while having enough options and complexity to satisfy anyone who craves customization in their games. The title starts off fairly slow, but the pace picks up rapidly and never ceases to build up momentum until the very end due to the huge amount of special abilities Mario can collect, in the form of badges. Each badge has varying effects and youre constantly accumulating new ones, so the battles never get old or stale. From granting Mario the ability to stomp all enemies onscreen in a row, to regenerating magic points, to doubling the coins collected after a fight—theres always a new power to experiment with, adding spice to what is usually the dullest aspect of most RPGs.
Not content to stop there, the level of active participation in the battles is absolutely perfect. Unlike some other games which have taken some dismal missteps in this area (The Legend Of Dragoon, anyone?), Paper Mario nails it spot-on by keeping the player awake, interested and moving their fingers in something different than the usual "hurry-up-and-cycle-through-the-attack-confirmations" button presses. Mario and his helpers have a variety of attacks, and each attack has sub-attacks with different motions of the stick or buttons required to perform them. Most of them consist of pushing the button at the moment of impact, or pulling the analog stick back and releasing it to simulate a hammer strike or windup, but theres a lot of variety here and the benefits are significant for players who can pull them off. (Before RPG fans get scared off by the prospect of needing manual dexterity, none of the motions are very difficult to perform.)
With combat being such an engaging part of play, the developers have also balanced other aspects of the game impeccably. It's impossible to aggressively level-up and throw the games difficulty out of whack since you can only accumulate a set amount of experience in a given area before the enemies give less, while the amount of coins they award rises. If you become significantly stronger than the enemies you meet, theres a badge that lets you completely skip low-level battles! This is just one example of the intricate attention to detail, and the solid quality of design present.
All praise for the games engin'e aside, the artwork and world design is marvelous. Keeping in step with the classic Mario color scheme and trademarks such as the puffy white clouds and piranha plants, Intelligent Systems obviously did their homework and have paid proper respect to the history of the character. Paper Mario blends in perfectly with the precedents set by the previous games while adding enough that it becomes an entirely new experience.
I would be remiss in my duties as a reviewer if I didn't mention the "paper" aspect of the game, though I found it a bit strange. Obviously, one of the new twists featured here is that Mario and the rest of the characters in the game are portrayed as paper-thin people in a 3-D world. It is actually rather charming with little touches such as the way Mario flutters into bed like a sheet of falling paper, or how a castle can suddenly appear out of nowhere by unfolding like a piece of origami. The strange thing is that while there were many instances of the game focusing on the fact that the world is made up of paper-thin objects, that focus was lost about halfway through. After reaching a certain point in the game, I didnt notice that the developers emphasized it any longer, and it sort of fell by the wayside, ending up feeling like a turbocharged Super NES game. It was still beautiful and never ceased to be visually attractive, it just wasn't as "papery" throughout the second half of the game for some odd reason.
While that isn't a negative per se, no review is complete without covering any legitimate negatives in at least cursory detail. With a game like Paper Mario, however, the real challenge here is finding the negatives. Without trying to sound like some kind of brainwashed Nintendo fanatic, there really are no major flaws or distasteful things about Paper Mario. I could only think of three things that could even be remotely considered areas for improvement, in fact.
First of all, the layout of the telepipe system that gives Mario instant access to different parts of the world isn't very centralized, and I found it mildly cumbersome to work my way down through the sewers and into the correct pipe. I wouldnt even mention it except that I found myself simply skipping some of the subquests because I didnt want to trek down to the area from which to take the shortcut. Having one neatly arranged area from which to be transported would have been nice.
Another thing that occurred to me as a possible negative was that some players may be slightly tired of Mario and his accompanying pantheon. The pudgy plumber is definitely one of Nintendo's most lucrative goldmines. (Although compared to Pokémon, I wonder which has been the biggest moneymaker?) While I never seem to get tired of him, I'm sure theres going to be at least a few players out there who won't even give Paper Mario a chance simply because of the franchise, which is their loss, really. As an interesting side note, I noticed that Microsoft Word automatically capitalizes the words "Mario" and "Nintendo"—so I guess you could take that as a testament to the strength of the company and its character. Does anybody out there really not like the guy?
The absolute last thing which I could think of as a negative would be that Luigi was never a playable character. Throughout the game you can talk to Luigi a score of times, and every single time I was waiting with bated breath to see the words "Luigi joins the party." To my utter dismay, it never happened. Nintendo must have felt that seeing the Mario Bros. back in action as a team would have been so mindblowingly cool that they decided not to risk shattering the fragile psyches of fans everywhere. Or something like that. (Going back to the MS Word test, the name "Luigi" is not automatically capitalized so I guess that says something. That poor guy never seems to get his due. Let's hope the GameCube treats him better!)
Seriously though, none of the negatives I listed are anything above supreme nitpicking besides my disappointment regarding Luigi. The experience that Paper Mario provides is just about as polished, well-tuned and finely crafted as videogames come, period. Perfectly blending timing elements of action-style games with the compulsive addiction that only comes with a great RPG, the classic cast of characters and beautifully designed world are the scrumptious icing on a heavenly cake. This game is a must-play, must-own for every owner of a Nintendo 64, and for those that don't have a "fun machine," this is exactly the type of game that makes the hardware purchase worthwhile. They dont come any better than this.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway