Depending on where you are in the world, the final Mario game of 2015 will have a different name. Stateside, you're looking for Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam. In the UK, for whatever reason, there needs to be a "Bros." after the "Jam." My favorite title is the Japanese version, Mario & Luigi RPG Paper Mario Mix, which is the clearest when it comes to describing what sort of experience you're getting with this 3DS exclusive. Namely, your tried-and-tested Mario & Luigi role-playing game crossed with Nintendo's Paper Mario spin-offs. Sounds simple, is simple, and such a straightforward setup leaves the joyous gameplay to assume center stage.
The game's story is as threadbare as the Paper Mario character's entry-level hammer. While addressing a vermin infestation in Princess Peach's castle, green brother Luigi accidentally opens a magical picture book of the Mushroom Kingdom, spilling its come-to-life paper characters into the three-dimensional world. While this means access to an army of paper toads, ready to craft useful new tools for our sibling heroes, not all of the familiar faces that slip from the pages are friendly. There's a second Bowser for one thing, the franchise's traditional big bad boss, and between them the game's villainous pair kidnap two Peaches—one with curves, the other creases—leading to your standard rescue-the-princess situation.
What's not so predictable is Paper Jam's terrific creativity when it comes to combat. It uses a turn-based system, much like Mario & Luigi games before it, with every hero character mapped to a single button—the rotund brothers on A and B are soon enough joined by Paper Mario, who occupies Y. Combo moves and Paper Mario's unique attacks—including turning the enemy into a kite, and pinning their flattened visages to the wall of a cardboard squash court for some forehand smashes—are a delight to play around with, from the most basic fire(flower)balls to more intricately timed moves with shells and rockets. And every enemy type adopts unique techniques, too, some of which can be countered with a swift whack of a hammer, turning defense into attack, while others can be dodged assuming you press the character-relevant button at the right time.
Initially, this button-mapped approach to managing battles can be tricky to click with, often requiring split-second-perfect timing. The game's second "proper" boss encounter pitches the trio against a couple of cactus-like Pokeys, one a tower of spiked spheres and the other a rather thinner, but no less pointy, version. The fuller of the two will perform a rolling move that has to be leapt using swift alternate presses of the three protagonist action buttons. Once you've established the right rhythm to deal with an attack, it's easy to avoid injury—until your enemy switches approaches, that is, and goes for an entirely different form of attack. The first boss, a sort of piranha plant on legs, will chase you—and Mario and Luigi must hold onto Paper Mario, who at this point has changed into a paper airplane and is gliding overhead, in order to avoid being splatted as they sprint away.
Every ten minutes or so, Paper Jam pulls a surprise out of a crinkly brown bag and thumps its player over the head with it. It might be something environmental that a newly unlocked ability can interact with; a Toad quiz in the middle of a village, testing your knowledge of the game so far; or a fourth-wall breaking joke that lets you know that the game knows that it's just a game, and isn't supposed to be taken seriously. The overall tone of Paper Jam is refreshingly playful. When the paper and regular Peaches are imprisoned together, behind bars, the one we're more familiar with panics: "What are we ever going to do," she exclaims, or something like that. The paper princess casually slips through the bars. "Oh, yeah, there's always that." I'm paraphrasing the script but it's the visual humor that matters here, and it regularly connects.
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That light-hearted tone is well complemented by bright visuals that show off the Mushroom Kingdom's exaggerated landscapes superbly, from grasslands to deserts to icy hillsides and tropical shores (and, eventually, Bowser's hellish castle). What's paper and what's not is always clear—as environment assets begin to turn corrugated, the deeper into the game you go—and while the stereoscopic 3D rather turns down the contrast and dulls the colors, it's useful to slide it up when attempting to take down moving airborne targets while using a trampoline. Obviously.
Being an RPG, each character levels up as they squash goombas and send shy guys packing. Ascend a certain number of levels and that character's overall rank increases, allowing for the optional activation of a new perk, like extra hit points per new level or a bonus gear slot. What gear you equip does dramatically affect combat difficulty—the better your boots, the tougher your stomps, and all three brothers carry a hammer with which to both perform aggressive moves and whack away incoming bombs and the like. It's not hard to get a handle on, quite deliberately shallower than a great many RPGs on Nintendo's handheld, but it's always worth checking what gear you might have picked up, and upgrading whatever you can at conveniently positioned toad villages.
'Paper Jam Bros.', Nintendo Direct Trailer
Available at these settlements are mini-missions where Mario and company must rescue a certain number of paper toads, from enemies, hiding spots, high places, or themselves. These are then flown back to Peach's castle and, before you know it, they've put their flappy heads together and made a new toy for you to play with. One of these is a gigantic papercraft Mario, which introduces a wholly different, real-time battle mode that you'll either love to pieces or loathe the sight of as soon as its second occurrence. Like the regular dust-ups, there's a strong element of rhythm to these encounters, as the papercraft titan is powered up on drumbeat spots—tap in time to boost your energy. But then comes the tossing and the chasing, which is a bit like chucking a stick to a dog that died three years ago when your noggin doesn't connect with a rival.
But with anytime saves outside of select missions, it's very easy to stop proceedings whenever you like and come back the next day with fresh eyes, forgetting the small annoyances in favor of remembering the pizazz that flows through this adventure. Paper Jam Bros. isn't an RPG for sessions lasting half a day—it's an hour-or-two-per-time sort of game, and sticking to that kind of engagement will keep it feeling fresh every time you turn it on. It's just really happy, in the way that the best Nintendo games are, and while it's not right up there with Mario's recent best, like Super Mario Maker and Mario Kart 8, Paper Jam is a perfectly timed, neatly paced heart-warmer for when it's getting cold on your morning commutes.
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros. is out now in the UK and Japan, and releases in the US on January 22, 2016.
Before you ask, I didn't personally use an amiibo with Paper Jam Bros., as I have an old-model 3DS (XL). But it does have a system for Nintendo's little plastic figures, which combine with collectible in-game cards to provide boosts in battle situations.
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