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Chronological Game Challenge – Paper Mario

The Chronological Challenge continues to roll along through the start of the millennium, and today is the very last N64 game we’ll be covering. I know, it’s tragic, but it’s also a good note to end for Nintendo’s classic system.

Paper Mario
Publisher: Nintendo | Developer: Intelligent Systems | Year: 2000
Original System: Nintendo 64
Played on: Wii Virtual Console

Goal: Reclaim the seven Star Spirits

Actual Outcome: Bowser defeated!

In the last review, we had a look at one of the serious big-hitter RPGs of the early 2000s, but sometimes, JRPGs can get very complicated. Stat management, big numbers everywhere, vast expanses of world to explore; sometimes it would nice to just strip it down to basics and make it more appealing without diluting the experience too much.

And that’s where Paper Mario comes in, a game that’s very appropriate to talk about right now with the latest sequel now out on Wii U. Essentially a sequel to 1996’s Super Mario RPG, but also not a sequel to that at all, this once again places Nintendo’s beloved mascot in a tale of world-saving, turn-based combat and storytelling typically not seen in the Mushroom Kingdom. This time around, however, Mario’s looking a little flat.

Yes, Paper Mario was so-named because the characters of this world are played up as being paper cutouts occupying a world seemingly made of crafts. It’s Yoshi’s Story but with the book theme taken even further, and without being kind of rubbish.

Indeed, this flat character perspective helps to bring together the JRPG world with the traditional 2D platforming antics of Mario and crew better than Super Mario RPG managed. Navigating the world feels like a slower-paced version of Super Mario World with the possibility of turn-based battles to be initiated at any time. Even those battles are played in a 2D perspective and use that as a mechanic in and of itself, by placing enemies in a line that can only be attacked in order unless an ability allows you to skip over them.

Battles are interesting as they carry over Super Mario RPG’s interactive turn-based ideas, with attacks being triggered or enhanced by specific button presses or other actions, but also operate on a single-person party principle. With this, Mario is the sole main party member and will take all the damage from his opponents, but he also gets switchable sidekicks who can add an additional attack or ability to Mario’s turn. It’s an odd system that works really well when it works well, but sometimes the inability for sidekicks to absorb some damage here and there can be immensely frustrating.

In other areas, the story of Paper Mario is fairly rubbish and certainly isn’t worrying any of the major titles, but at the same time, this is kind of the point. It’s a simple story told well, where Bowser has been a naughty boy again and Mario has to stop him by collecting McGuffins. Where Paper Mario makes this shine is in its persistent sense of fun and playfulness, where characters make jokes, act blasé that Bowser does this all the time, and some of the challenges you encounter are just downright silly.

Paper Mario is generally fun, but as stated, somewhat frustrating battle mechanics can hinder enjoyment a little. This is a game that evidently prides itself on being an entry-level JRPG which strips away stat management and is accessible to all, but at the same time can also do things that hinder that accessibility. For instance, fairly early on in the game it’s quite easy to stumble into the sewer area where much tougher enemies await, and those new to the genre might wonder why they’re getting crushed to a pulp when everything had been fine up until that point. Character growth, particularly with the sidekicks, is also highly dependent on finding easily-missed stat boxes so there were moments where Mario was fine but my sidekicks were all proving useless, simply because I missed a couple of those boxes, and trudging through the next couple of areas felt like a chore.

But while I had some issues in this area, the game is generally a great experience. Nintendo’s sense of fun is evident throughout, despite some frustrations, and it’s hard not to be won over by its charms. And what do you know? A rare N64 game that’s actually aged very well!

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