Long Before The Origami King
In a simpler time – before stickers and paint buckets and origami – Paper Mario was released on the Nintendo 64. Touted by many as being a spiritual successor to Super Mario RPG, this new game had a lot to prove to audiences. Would it be as good as the masterpiece on the Super Nintendo? Was the Nintendo 64 capable of putting out high-quality RPGs? How much adventure can you really fit on an N64 cartridge anyway?
Paper Mario came out near the end of the Nintendo 64’s lifespan in 2001, the same year that the Nintendo Gamecube released in Japan and the US. I remember the very day that I found it at the local rental shop, sitting on the shelf all shiny and new, ready to be played. I had already been a huge fan of Super Mario RPG, so I figured that this game was basically a sequel – which is kind of true, but kind of not. It utilizes a lot of the same mechanics that Super Mario RPG had, but significantly updated in so many different ways.
Take the battle system, for example. Just like with SMRPG, Paper Mario had a turn-based battle system that allowed you to push buttons at precise times in order to do more damage. The better your accuracy with timing your button presses, the greater damage you will do. Sounds easy on paper, but it becomes more exceptionally difficult as the game gets harder and harder. You really have to start strategizing which types of attacks you’ll do and when to heal up if you want any hope of beating the late-game bosses.
My strongest memory of this game was the battle against the Crystal King, whose icy attacks and HP regeneration gave me no end of trouble. I ended up having to calculate every single bit of damage I could possibly do on a piece of paper I had just so I knew how to properly play out the battle. This was as close to being strategic in a game I have ever been, and the shouts of victory I gave after the battle was finally over (which went 100% according to plan) were certainly heard around the block that day.
The most striking part of Paper Mario has to be its visual design. Unfortunately, I remember the graphics being very maligned for that day and age. When everybody was chasing the newest and most detailed graphics and hype for the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube were reaching a fever pitch… well, the graphics for Paper Mario just don’t look that visually appealing. While not as negative as the initial hate for The Wind Waker’s visual style, Paper Mario certainly didn’t earn any brownie points from the “hardcore gamer” crowd at the time.
It is very disappointing, too, because the game was certainly breaking some new and interesting ground at the time. Blending the 2D character portraits with a 3D background really made the visuals pop out at you, almost like a storybook. In many ways, you can almost see how a game like this is a precursor to Octopath Traveler in how it is trying to present a particular aesthetic.
This unique visual style led to some amazing humor and visual gags throughout the game. The concept of these paper-like people traversing this land is funny enough, but when they really lean in on the fact that the characters are literal paper, the jokes practically write themselves. While there aren’t too many of these types of jokes in this particular game, the franchise as a whole really dove headfirst into this type of humor as the games went on. I will always chuckle when I think about the “Free Demo” advertisement in Nintendo Power.
Paper Mario stands out as one of the Nintendo 64’s best games. It helped to spawn a new wave of RPG games for Mario, leading to two concurrent RPG series releasing side-by-side for many years to come. It has, unfortunately, become a victim of its own popularity. Many people still look back at this game and its GameCube sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, as the pinnacle of the franchise, and continually deride newer entries in the franchise for not being like the originals.
This is very understandable, albeit perhaps a bit misguided. Paper Mario is a fantastic game, that much is certain. I remember spending hours upon hours with it whenever I could rent it, praying that my save file would not be erased during the times I had to return it to the store. I remember being in awe by the ending, even moreso than I was with any other Mario game I had completed before. This was certainly one of the best RPGs I had ever played during that time, so I cherished every moment of fun and humor that it gave me.
Paper Mario continues to stand the test of time. I hear about people discovering it even today, diving into the whimsy that it creates and seeing that the N64 could indeed deliver an amazing RPG experience. While it is tricky to get ahold of the game today (whether as an original cartridge or as a Virtual Console title on the Wii U), it is absolutely a game that is worth the trouble. If you enjoyed any of the newer entries in the franchise, do yourself a favor and see where it all originated. You’ll be glad you did.