When Nintendo unveiled Paper Mario: Color Splash about a year ago, the internet erupted in a near-universal wave of hatred and disappoinment directed towards this new game. Even amongst the people who were excited for the game (like me), there was one common sentiment: "we want a TTYD sequel." It's been 12 years since the much-beloved GameCube classic came out, and despite 3 brand new entries in the series, none of them have attempted to build off what that game established. And that's a real tragedy. The first 2 games are typically seen as fun RPGs by the general gaming public, but to me, and a lot of other people, they're so much more than that. There are so many great and wonderful things that make the Paper Mario RPGs so special, and I'm here to hopefully explain why their fans hold these games in such high regard.
The Art Style
Let's start with literally the first thing everyone notices about the Paper Mario series, their art style. I mean, it's in the title. The games blend together 3D environments with 2D character sprites, and the end result is absolutely beautiful. Every environment looks handcrafted and suitably paper-like: grass is made of green cardboard with strands of thin green paper, buildings fold open when you enter them, changes to the environment are often handled in a flipbook-like fashion, the list goes on. This amount of love and care also applies to the sprites, which are awesome in their own right. The sprites are very detailed and well-animated with cartoony, stylized character designs. The environments and characters compliment each other perfectly: it truly feels like I'm playing as a hand-drawn cartoon exploring a storybook world.
This unique art style also allows these games to age far better than their counterparts on the same system. Whereas other N64 games look blocky and outdated, Paper Mario still looks wonderful to this day (it's also one of the first Nintendo games to utilize real-time lighting, so that's pretty cool). And The Thousand-Year Door? My goodness, even in still screenshots the game looks unbelievable. Besides the 480p resolution and lack of widescreen, it looks indistinguishable from a Wii U game.
It's not just the visuals that are a sight to behold, the soundtracks of both these games are phenominal. Paper Mario's soundtrack is stuffed with your typical happy, upbeat Maro tunes, with clasiscs like Gusty Gulch, Shiver City, and Tubba Blubba's battle theme. But one thing that caught me off-guard playing this game for the first time is how atmospheric a lot of the soundtrack is. Songs like the Crystal Palace, Cloudy Climb, and Forever Forest manage to perfectly set a quiet, ambient mood in their respective levels, while still having pretty catchy melodies to boot. Not counting Super Mario Galaxy, it's probably the best Mario soundtrack to date when it comes to perfectly conveying the mood of an area.
The Thousand-Year Door's soundtrack, while it never quite reaches the same level of ambience as the first game's, is still every bit as diverse and high-quality. You've got happy songs like Petal Meadows, intense songs like the final boss theme, scary songs like the Tower of Riddles, and the god damn Rawk Hawk battle theme. It's like someone too cute cat GIFs and converted it into music, it's pure bliss to the ears.
They're also fairly beefy soundtracks too. With a handful of rare exceptions, every location, boss battle, important character, and cutscene has its own unique song. You're constantly being treated to a new musical masterpiece, which is something I can definitely appreciate. But of course, good graphics and music don't mean shit if the gameplay isn't up to snuff (just ask Sonic). And thankfully, the gameplay is every bit as good as the presentation.
The Combat System
The combat in any RPG game has to be fun and engaging, and the Paper Mario saga delivers this in spades. What really makes the combat in these games so special is the amount of interactivity. Every attack in the game has its own action command: button imputs you have to accurately perform to deal damage. This makes combat much more engaging and skillful than simply choosing an option from a menu. After all, even the strongest late-game attacks won't do shit to an enemy if you can't perform the action commands properly. Unlike other RPGs where combat can get tiring and old by the late-game, in Paper Mario I never get tired of fighting.
By far one of the best things about the battle system is just how many different options and playstyles there are. This is thanks to 2 things: the partners, and the badges. Partners are party members that'll join your team as you progress through the story, and they all have their own advantages and quirks that set them apart from each other. For example, Goombario can use his Tattle ability to reveal enemy weaknesses, Bombette specializes in dealing massive damage to all enemies, Watt can pierce enemy defenses, etc. Not a single partner feels completely useless or obsolete, and it's a ton of fun figuring out which party member is best equipped to deal with the environment.
The badges are Paper Mario's equivelent of equipment. You can find badges hidden in the overworld or in shops, and they have a wide variety of effects, ranging from giving Mario new attacks, boosting his stat points, negating certain types of enemy attacks, and even giving Mario the ability to cosplay as Luigi. With the sheer amount of badges there are, there's no limits to the amount of customization you can do: I've spent hours just messing around with different badge configurations.
Even your stat points feel meaningful in these games. In other RPGs like Final Fantasy, your stats will often skyrocket to a point where 3000HP and 4000HP are pretty much indistinguishable. In Paper Mario, that's not the case. You'll pretty much never have more than 50 of any stat, which means that even a single stat point can seriously turn the tides in battle, even in the late-game.
And all of this is just the combat in the first game. The Thousand-Year Door takes everything great I just mentioned, and cranks it up even further. The biggest difference is the audience: every battle in the game takes place on a stage, and the audience often joins in the fun. If you perform a stylish move (done by pressing A at key points in an attack), they'll cheer you on, increasing your Special Points. You'll also gain adoring fans that toss you beneficial items, and hecklers that'll toss trash at you (you can get rid of both by slapping them in the face with your hammer). The stage itself can also directly impact a battle. Mist can cover the battlefield severely reducing everyone's accuracy, stage props can fall on you, fireworks can explode directly in your face, etc. Some of the other additions to combat include giving your partners their own HP, a significantly harder form of guarding known as superguarding that completely negates enemy damage, and smoother and more fluid combat in general. So yeah, needless to say the battle system in Paper Mario is pretty damn incredible.
The Paper Mario games are split into 8 chapters, with each chapter telling its own self-contained story. For example, Chapter 7 in the first game sends you to the arctic Shiver region to solve a penguin murder mystery and explore a forgotten palace, Chapter 4 in the second game is about Mario having his identity stolen by a ghost, etc. This method of storytelling allows for some truly fantastic world-building and interesting scenarios, and some of them can get really deep and complex too (Chapter 3 in The Thousand-Year Door has enough narrative depth to justify its own video game). These chapters are all tied together by an overarching plot, and while they never get too complex or crazy, they're still highly entertaining and give the game a nice sense of cohesion.
What really makes these stories special are the characters you'll come across. You've got a Koopa archeologist trotting the world in search of ancient ruins, a Pianta who runs the god damn Mafia, and a seafaring Bob-omb with the saddest backstory of all time. But the praise doesn't end with the good guys, the villains are delightful in their own right. Paper Mario has the best portrayal of Bowser in the series. He's got his fair share of hilarious moments for sure, yet despite this he still solidifies himself as a threat to be taken seriously. He steals a magical rod that pretty much gives him the power of a god, allowing him to practically murder Mario in the beginning of the game and take over the kingdom. That's pretty fucking metal. The Thousand-Year Door's main villain is Grodus, and while he's pretty generic all things considered, his minions, Lord Crump and the Shadow Sirens, are anything but. Lord Crump is a hilarious Dr Robotnik-looking goofball, and the story arc with the Shadow Sirens is very interesting to watch unfold (especialy with Vivian).
Even the NPCs have been fleshed out. All throughout the world you'll find various towns and cities, each one with their own type of culture and inhabitants, ranging from a Mexico-inspired ghost town filled with Boos, to a snow-covered village inhabited by Russian Bob-ombs. The Thousand-Year Door in particular has some great world-building thanks to the Trouble Center, a sidequest system that tasks you with interacting with and solving the problems of various NPCs throughout the land. Some of their content is pretty questionable (looking at you Bub-Ulber), but as a whole, they're an awesome way of further developing the world. That's one of the things I love the most about these games: they take existing characters from the Mario franchise (and some new ones too), and craft a wonderfully imaginative and immersive world with them.
Time to talk about my absolute favorite part of these games, the world they take place in. Much like their narratives, the locations you visit in the Paper Mario saga are beautifully crafted and unique. Some of the highlights in the original Paper Mario include the dark ghost-inhabited Forever Forest, the snowy winter wonderland of Shiver Snowfield, the tropical paradise of Lavalava Island, and the otherworldly beauty of Star Haven.
In The Thousand-Year Door, you've got the eternally dim autumn forest of Twilight Trail, the lush beaches of Keelhaul Key, the floating metropolis of Glitzville, and the grimy (yet charming) city of Rogueport. And that's only a small handful of the areas in these games! The worlds in the Paper Mario games are truly a sight to behold, constantly providing the player with new, wonderful places to explore.
And that's just the atmosphere of these places, I haven't even gotten into the level design itself! Every area in these games are absolutely filled to the brim with interesting content. Much like your typical RPG, you've got enemies to fight, NPCs to talk to, sidequests to do, and an absolutely insane amount of collectables and side content. There's Star Pieces you can trade in for Badges, Badges themselves, Super Blocks/Shine Sprites to level up your partners, optional bosses, the list goes on. If you're a completionist, these games are going to keep you busy for a pretty long time.
One of the things that sets the world apart from other RPGs however is the amount of interaction you have with the environment. Platforming is a very important thing in these levels: much like the main Mario series you'll be doing a lot of running and jumping throughout the game world, which I adore. It makes the environment feel much more interactive, while simultaniously adding that signature Mario feel. These games also take a lot of inspiration from the Zelda and Metroid series in its world progression. As you travel across the world, you'll gain new abilities, items, and partners that allow you to access new areas and secrets that you couldn't enter previously. The best way I would describe the gameplay of the Paper Mario saga is a beautiful mixture of RPG, platforming, and action-adventure elements, taking the best parts of each genre and blending them all together to create something truly spectacular.
We all have those select few games: those legendary titles that will always have a special place in our hearts. For some people it's Ocarina of Time, others might say Final Fantasy 6, and yet others still might say Super Mario World. But for me, and a lot of other dedicated fans, Paper Mario and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door are without a doubt the best games ever made, and I hope I've done a good job explaining why these games mean so much to so many people. If you haven't played these games before, or hell, even if you have, I highly recommend giving them a playthrough.
Trust me, you're in for one hell of a Mario Story.