Games

20 Years Ago, Paper Mario Made the Mushroom Kingdom Feel Like a Real Place

In the years since, Nintendo's RPG series has drifted further and further away from what made it so interesting in the first place.
November 4, 2020, 2:00pm
The box art for the video game Paper Mario.
Artwork courtesy of Nintendo

As the biggest gaming franchise of all time, it’s unsurprising that the Mario name has sparked several offshoots, be it kart racing, golfing or board games. The majority have been good, often definitive of their respective consoles’ libraries, while others have been so shockingly egregious that they’ve spawned a sea of memes - lookin’ at you, Hotel Mario. Few, however, have been as truly divisive as the Paper Mario series, the first of which was originally released on the Nintendo 64 in Japan in 2000 and in other territories the following year.

It combined Mario’s block-bonking, mushroom-munching, turtle-hopping tropes with the turn-based battle and level-up systems of the role-playing genre, a setup that required more cognitive investment than jumping on enemies’ heads. This reimagining of the Mushroom Kingdom earned it widespread acclaim, while its Gamecube sequel, The Thousand-Year Door, would build on this success and cement them both as classics in the hearts of fans across the world.

But this critical consensus would not remain positive. A shift in creative direction at the beginning of the following decade would forever change the Paper Mario series, and few would argue for the better. The third installment - Super Paper Mario, released on the Wii in 2007 - focused more heavily on puzzle-platforming, but still garnered a level of fandom. 2012’s Sticker Star and 2016’s Color Splash, however, would largely strip away the evocative characters and engaging combat - the elements that made the original title so beloved. These days, the announcement of a new entry is met with trepidation bordering on despair, while subsequent critique is usually mixed, to say the least. But that’s an ongoing, overdone dialogue - the aim on the 20th anniversary of Paper Mario should not be to denigrate or lament, but celebrate what made the original so special and take a look back at how it set such a high precedent.

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Paper Mario wasn’t, in fact, the plumber’s first role-playing adventure. The SNES had been home to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, a collaboration between Nintendo and legendary RPG-mongers Square that placed Mario and friends into a Final Fantasy-esque world. This turned out to be a match made in heaven; while only released in Japan and North America, the game was well received, earning critical acclaim and eventual cult appeal. Fans’ appetites had been whetted and when the Nintendo 64 launched a short time afterwards, a sequel seemed inevitable.

However, there was a twist in the plot. Another Square project also loomed large on the horizon in the form of Final Fantasy VII, the most ambitious of that series and a game that would far exceed the technical capabilities of Nintendo’s new hardware. This led to the third party shifting development to Sony’s recent PlayStation console and breaking ties with Nintendo - a rift that wouldn’t be healed for several years. The production of Super Mario RPG 2, therefore, was delegated to Intelligent Systems. This independent company had been formed when founder Tohru Narihiro had been hired to carry out programming work in the NES era, but had, over time, morphed into something of a subunit of Nintendo, working on titles as notable as Super Metroid, Fire Emblem and Mario Paint. Losing the isometric layout of SMRPG in favour of a pop-up book aesthetic, but retaining the same tone and tongue-in-cheek humour, the company crafted Paper Mario, this time to be enjoyed by a global audience.

The story and world that Intelligent Systems presented were very familiar, but somehow overwhelmingly new. Mario and Luigi are invited to a party at Princess Peach’s castle. Upon their arrival, things quickly go awry when the wicked Bowser’s castle inexplicably rises from the ground underneath Peach’s royal abode, lifting it into the heavens. It turns out the reptilian fiend has stolen the Star Rod from the Star Spirits, granting him invincibility and the power to make wishes a reality. Mario is sent flapping back to earth while the damsel is once again left in distress, and it’s up to the paper-thin plumber to save the day by travelling to many regions and freeing the displaced Star Spirits. These locales were fairly typical - bucolic path, desert, jungle, snowy mountain and such - but they were framed in ways far beyond the linear courses of the Super Mario Bros. series, often requiring Mario to revisit the same places once equipped for further exploration and interaction with the environment.

This is subtly taught to the player in the first area, Goomba Village; as soon as you clear a path by breaking a yellow block with your newly acquired hammer, sitting nearby is a similar-looking block, but one made of stone that your current tool can’t handle. You’ll therefore need to come back here later to uncover all of the village’s secrets. Early on, you’re quickly taught that this isn’t a mere platforming level, but part of a cohesive realm that will change over time. For a game made of paper, it was perhaps the first time the Mario world had felt truly three-dimensional.

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And that world would soon take you to the likes of Dry Dry Desert. During a recent replay, I even had to consult a guide for this section written by my much younger self, which amazingly still lingers online. There’s a palpable harshness that comes with traversing the unforgiving, mysterious dunes; gangs of taxing enemies, a dearth of healing points and a number of secrets dotting a largely barren landscape make it tough going for an early-game area. It’s just one of many cleverly designed set pieces. The foreboding Boo’s Mansion is another highlight, home to a number of ghostly puzzles that need to be solved in order to reach its topmost haunt. It’s hardly Resident Evil’s Spencer Mansion, but a satisfying, clockwork gauntlet of tasks nonetheless. You’ll then have to storm a giant’s castle and experience an intense chase sequence, take part in an expedition to a volcanic island and venture to a frozen mountain city where you’ll become embroiled in a penguin murder mystery. Coupled with the storybook imagery, these imaginative scenarios imbue Paper Mario with the nostalgic charm of a child’s fairytale and remain a delight to revisit even now.

The most endearing, enduring aspect, however, is not this world that it builds but the characters who inhabit it. Mario games had long since been packed with memorable, often iconic enemies, but in the previous platformers they had been little more than voiceless obstacles in the journey from left to right. Here, they were reappropriated as denizens of a living, breathing land, where they’d form mixed communities with their own moralities and opinions.

Again, this is made clear at the start of the very first chapter, a few steps into which a friendly Goomba approaches Mario and exclaims that he’s his biggest fan. Compare this to the original Super Mario Bros., in which a silent Goomba is the first enemy you encounter, who’ll promptly kill you if you don’t figure out which is the jump button. Mario would ultimately build up a party of charismatic allies to aid him in battle throughout the game, comprising several erstwhile enemies including an adventurous, young Koopa, a feisty, feminine Bob-omb and an aristocratic Boo. Sure, there would still be villainous versions of these that would try to kill you - but now they’d at least articulate a reason.

The combat with which you dealt with them was reminiscent of the ‘90s role-players that had come before it, with Mario and the enemy taking turns to deliver blows and wear down each other’s health meters. The plumber was armed with his renowned jumping prowess and a hammer, but could find and equip badges throughout the game that would bestow further advantages upon him such as stronger attacks or heightened defence against certain enemy types. His party, on the other hand, possessed unique powers based on their species - for instance, the Cheep Cheep fish Sushie could flood the screen to easily dispatch fiery foes, while the electrical Li’l Sparky creature Watt could zap defensive enemies into paralysis. An integral aspect of fighting was adapted from SMRPG in the form of the Action Command, which involved timed inputs to bolster your abilities. Two decades later, rattling the A button and rapidly pushing the control stick is harder on my aging joints, but the way they turned each round into a pseudo-mini game instead of just a list of options was an engrossing and influential part of Paper Mario.

It wasn’t just enemies who were fleshed out. Toads made up a large part of the population, but even they were redesigned into more fun guys; there were moustachioed musicians, long-haired female versions—including the brilliantly named songstress Chanterelle—and even dark-skinned, desert-dwelling nomads with tagelmusts wrapped around their fungal noggins. They would react to the developing events of each chapter, while sidequests that involved delivering letters revealed even more about their lives, weaving a sense of realism through this Mushroom Kingdom. Episodic segments would also put you in control of the captive Peach and her star sidekick Twink—amusingly named by oblivious writers, most likely—as they searched the dark castle halls for clues to help Mario back on terra firma.

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But the most significant piece of character development was that of Luigi. During the game, you can periodically return to the Mario brothers’ home for a visit. Ground-pounding their bedroom floor will lead to a secret basement where one can sneak a peek at Luigi’s diary, chronicling his innermost thoughts and feelings—mainly jealousy over Mario’s adventure. A couple of entries even detail his fear of ghosts and how he longs to star in his own, titular game, foreshadowing the release of Luigi’s Mansion, which was in the works at the time. While it’s just a nifty little hidden feature with no bearing on the larger story, this was actually the first time the lankier brother had been canonically portrayed as the anxious, clumsy but good-natured character we’ve come to know and love over the years. In previous titles, he had been little more than a palette swap of Mario; here, he was established as a more interesting, flawed, relatable figure compared to his silent, everyman brother.

So where did things go wrong? How did Paper Mario mutate into a barely recognisable, barebones version of itself? The answer lies in an ideological disconnect between creator and consumer. This seemingly stems from Mario mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto's strict, questionable insistence that modern entries should not be story-driven or feature new interpretations of established characters. Development staff have therefore been limited—arguably stifled—in their creativity, having to work in “the exact opposite direction” from the classic formula, as the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata opined while interviewing them around the release of Sticker Star, maintaining a somber diplomacy about the team’s misdirection. It’s no secret that Miyamoto isn’t the biggest advocate of storytelling in gaming—director Yoshiaki Koizumi has had to sneak narrative elements into other Mario and Zelda games—but when that inexplicable philosophy extends to an RPG like Paper Mario, it feels like the devs are doing the series a disservice.

Still, the original Paper Mario hasn’t lost its lustre after two decades and stands as a classic in the Nintendo 64’s canon. Its legacy lives on elsewhere too; Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is a highly regarded indie title that fiercely emulates the same colourful, papery world, proudly wearing its influence on its sleeve. Meanwhile, the most recent Paper Mario game—this year’s The Origami King—has notably earned more praise than its Color Splash predecessor. Much of this, however, has been attributed to the way in which it tangentially recreates the partner system and worldliness of old, rather than its own ideas. While progression is usually something to be lauded, it speaks volumes that a sizeable demographic of fans considers a step in the right direction for the series as one going back towards its roots. But if the ineffable joy of the first Paper Mario is to remain in the past, this desire for a true successor is, in itself, a testament to how important a chapter it was in Mario’s story.