Released to wide acclaim back in 1996, Super Mario RPG for the Super Nintendo was the plumbers’ first dip into the role-playing game genre. Since then, it has split off into two different franchises, first with Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64 in 2001 and then Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga for the Game Boy Advance in 2003. Both featured similar turn-based battle systems, but each took place in its own universe and had varying amounts of humor. Each series would see three sequels, and likewise, not all of them were as successful as the originals. Everyone has his or her own favorites. Mine happen to be the original Paper Mario (N64) and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story (DS). While I wouldn’t say either of the franchises suffered from an absolutely horrid entry, there have been some mediocre ones, like Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS) and Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time (DS). So, you can imagine my reserved optimism when this newest entry for 3DS, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam was announced. The idea of both universes colliding sounded great
on paper in theory, but would it ultimately deliver?
The first thing to know going in is that this is a Mario & Luigi game through and through and as such, AlphaDream, not Intelligent Systems, has created it. I’ve always felt this series has been a bit zanier in the story department, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The game takes place in Mario & Luigi’s universe and begins with Luigi and Toad investigating a draft in a dark room. In typical fashion, Luigi is afraid of the dark, but after the drapes are opened the room lightens up and he goes to inspect the hole in a wall to see if that’s where the wind is coming from. He gets scared by a mouse and knocks a book off a shelf. It flies open and hundreds of paper characters from the Mushroom Kingdom fly out of the castle and across the world.
Shortly thereafter, the game shifts to Princess Peach’s throne room when who should waltz in, but the paper version of Peach. Confusion ensues and one of the Toad’s asks Luigi for an explanation, before immediately writing him off as useless. Poor Luigi, always the butt of so many jokes. Indeed, some of the funniest parts involve Luigi and the two Bowsers who are often fighting amongst themselves. It is immediately decided that Mario & Luigi should embark on a quest to find and rescue all of the paper Toads that have been whisked away across the kingdom. Almost immediately, the two brothers come across Paper Mario, and he joins the group to help aid in the search.
If you’ve played any of the Mario & Luigi games in the past, you’ll be right at home with the game’s mechanics. As you roam around the overworld you’ll see many familiar features from the 2D Mario games, like question mark blocks hanging in the air. Pressing A will allow Mario to jump, B for Luigi, and Y for Paper Mario. These same buttons are utilized in the battles as well, which combine turn-based skirmishes with real-time action sequences. Pressing the correct button at just the right time can cause extra damage to enemies. Likewise, when the bad guys are attacking you have an opportunity to dodge or counterattack with precise button presses. The battle system becomes even more nuanced with the ability to make copies of Paper Mario to allow for multiple attacks in one turn. Special Bros. Attacks allow Mario & Luigi to combine efforts for even more devastation, but often require increased dexterity and timing to unleash their full potential. For the ultimate smack down, unleash a Trio Attack where all three of the heroes gang up on the enemies at once. Of course these can only be activated when all three characters are able to fight and have enough battle points to spend.
New to the series is amiibo integration, and quite honestly I was a bit taken aback at how much this can potentially break the game. Early in my play through I got a Battle Card that allowed me to tap a compatible amiibo (Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, Yoshi, and Bowser) to create a Character Card. I chose Yoshi and it created a card that allowed me to deal 20 damage to all enemies in battle, just by tapping the amiibo to the bottom of my New 3DS screen. Surely, I thought, this must be limited in some way, either in number of uses or decreasing power or something. It turns out that I could use it once in every battle, assuming I had won the previous incursion. There were no limits, so pretty much every battle I encountered I could simply tap Yoshi and cause massive damage, most of the time killing everything on screen. Of course, as the game progressed 20 damage wasn’t enough to wipe out enemies, but it sure put a dent in them. I may have just gotten incredibly lucky with the card that I got, but others are pretty powerful as well. Granted, amiibo are completely optional and don’t have to be used, but I was a bit surprised at how much of an effect they could have on the game.
One really nice feature of Paper Jam, and one that I hope Nintendo adopts in more of its titles, is the ability to view tutorials on your own terms. At the beginning of the game it is explained that you can view more information in depth at any time in the menu, and indeed even in battle you’re able to delve into explanations and hints. The game has multiple toggles to make the game easier for those younger players out there that may struggle with the real-time aspects of the battle system. Games like Zelda could really benefit from this type of treatment instead of shoving tons of text and tutorials our way.
One aspect of Paper Jam that comes to light is just how amazing the animation of the characters can be. The paper versions are pretty stiff (obviously), but the amount of detail present in the protagonists is astonishing. Early in the game both Mario and Luigi show off fantastic expressions and convey emotion via superb facial animations as well as exaggerated body movements. It comes across as an interactive cartoon and really delivers the story in an expressive way. The lush environments look wonderful with the 3D slider turned up a bit, although I did notice some cross talk in the visuals if I turned it up all the way. It’s a very visually appealing game in almost every way and although it’s not technologically impressive in the way some games may be, it really strikes the right balance to create a fun world to explore.
The soundtrack is sufficient, but lacks some truly memorable tunes. It does incorporate some familiar scores and beats, but nothing really stood out to me as outstanding. I do really like the gibberish voices of Mario and Luigi when they talk, but this has been done in prior games so it’s not anything too surprising.
I enjoyed my time with Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam. It kept me entertained, although I feel that the game’s length could have been shortened a bit. There are some annoyances, like the Toad fetch quests that pop up all too often. In addition, I really miss having unique characters to switch into the party like some of the Paper Mari games allowed. Most RPGs are known for their stories and character progression, but here it is somewhat lacking. While the game is fun and often humorous, I didn’t find it as engaging as some of the prior games. The crossover between the two franchises could have resulted in more interesting ideas, but I feel the story never really went anywhere and the usual tropes, like Bowser kidnapping the princess, are getting tired. If you’re strictly looking for an RPG, I’d probably suggest looking elsewhere, but if you’ve played these games before and have enjoyed them, this one does a lot of stuff right. It’s not the best in either series, but it’s not the worst. It lands somewhere in the middle. It’s a solid, but unsurprising effort.