You know that any captain needs a crew
Mario is iconic for many things, but whatever he does has his iconic ‘Mario’ flair. His games are happy-go-lucky, raising tension and drama only for the sake of adventurous thrill. His goals are usually simple, chasing after the same Bowser to save the same Peach, and their clichéd dynamic somehow remains charming. His gameplay is action-packed and fast paced, urging you to leap before you think. As a franchise, Mario is associated with fast, lighthearted fun and instinctual whimsy. This flair is pretty much the antithesis of the typical mental image of the quality RPG; a slow, methodical thinking-man’s journey that tells complex stories and wrenches at your heart.
So why am I making such a comparison? Because Mario’s got a dozen RPGs split between two recurring subseries and a couple of one-offs.
No, seriously. Twelve RPGs. Count ‘em. I’ll make it easy to count ‘em, because I’m about to list and summarize them all to answer this question... how can you successfully adapt a series like Mario to a genre like RPGs?
This tangent began with the aptly named Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the SNES, developed in partnership with Squaresoft of all companies. Didn’t even glance at the game yet and already I think we’re starting on the right foot. If you’re going to pioneer such an unusual direction for your flagship IP, I sure can’t name any more appropriate company to trust with the job than the folks who more or less conquered the RPG genre in the same way Mario conquered platformers! But you can’t simply combine a Final Fantasy source code with a Mario skin and call it a day. No, Square understood that they needed to build this game from the group up to fit a Mario game.
Super Mario RPG’s overworld is much more involved than most other RPGs at the time. It’s isometric and molded with colorful clay-like structures. Mario can jump to interact with objects and even to platform his way across the landscape. On a contrasting note, characters act on transparent, cartoonishly exaggerated mannerisms. The storytelling is a lot simpler, but it uses that simplicity to convey raw emotion in a way not unlike the classic Disney movie. Sadness and drama is accentuated by animation and music. Fantastic problems such as star power disappearing are made relatable through mechanisms such as a dungeon where you read the wishes of people across the world. It’s every bit as silly as you’d expect a Mario story to be, and it plays with that silliness to successfully wrap its audience in a variety of not-so-silly emotions.
But what’s most important is that the gameplay manages to stick to traditional JRPG roots, with tweaks that compliment Mario’s style. Stats and numbers are toned down from thousands to a few hundred at most, making them easier to follow. Parties are slimmed down to only 3 members with very little customization, giving every character a defined role in the party. Everyone shares an FP gauge instead of having personal MP bars. And what really makes this game stand out are Timed Hits; every time you attack or defend from basic attacks, you can time a button press to inflict more damage, power up your abilities, or block part of an attack. It’s not so involved as to change the genre into an action-oriented one such as Ys or Secret of Mana, but it constantly keeps the player’s skill involved and captures its audience’s attention every turn of battle.
This simple Timed Hit mechanic turns an otherwise traditional battle system into one of the most outstanding examples in the genre at the time. Super Mario RPG excels at everything an RPG is known for doing, but within a cartoonish and child-oriented niche that barely any of its competitors touched. It’s a resounding success that remains critically acclaimed to this day.
I say so much about this one game because, in a way, it represents the model of what a Mario RPG is. And Nintendo recognized that moving forward with the rest of these games.
Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64 was originally conceived as a SMRPG sequel, but due to Things™, it instead spun off into its own beast. Its SMRPG roots show - Action Commands that function mostly identical to Timed Hits, small party sizes, cartoonish worlds and plots, and small number sizes (far smaller than before, such that damage numbers rarely reach double digits even in endgame!) all centered around Mario. But there’s enough tweaks to that foundation for it to have its own identity. The art style is almost pop-up book-esque. Grinding does far less for stats, urging players to utilize more creative tactics. Your party is formed from more than half a dozen original partner characters, though you can only use one partner at a time. And the badge system? As you level up and collect badges, you can customize Mario’s active and passive abilities as you see fit, making this the most customizable Mario RPG yet!
Until Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door came along for the Gamecube, anyway. Which I played first, and then discovered it’s the best RPG in the series. Oh, these glasses? Thanks, I love the rose tint on the lenses!
I’ve already raved about why I love TTYD so much, so to keep it short, I love everything about this sequel. The art style is more crisp and features so many more models on screen. The battle system is further refined. Exploring is more fun than ever. The writing made me laugh and cry repeatedly. Partner characters actually keep getting speaking lines after they join your party! Everything about TTYD just feels better than the first Paper Mario… except the backtracking. The backtracking is worse. But if I have to wait longer than necessary to eat a cake this delicious, that wasted time a price I’d pay again for seconds, thirds, and seventeenths. I still consider it the best Mario RPG and I will suplex anybody who insists otherwise. Unless you’re wearing rose-colored camouflage, then it’s hard to see you with these glasses.
But things began to change for this subseries come the Wii. Super Paper Mario diverged in a lot of ways, mainly turning the game’s genre into a sidescrolling platformer with RPG elements. Some similar mainstays of the series exist, like collecting partners - or rather, Pixls - to gain new abilities, and hoarding consumable items to get you out of sticky situations. There’s a ton of dialogue, and to be frank, the main story of SPM is even more heart-wrenching than TTYD’s while maintaining a healthy supply of humor, and I love it for that. But for some reason, I dread coming back to it, and I want to say it’s because of pacing issues worse than TTYD’s. As well written the cutscenes in SPM are, their frequency is far more jarring in a platforming oriented game. That combined with almost every chapter having an “ehhhhh… I’d rather not” moment or two moment is enough to make me hesitant to revisit it. I think that explains why this is one of the more divisive games in the series, but I still consider it worth playing the first time around.
Then Sticker Star and Color Splash happened on the 3DS and Wii U.
These games have garnered so much infamy that I can’t say anything you probably haven’t heard over the past few years. It doesn’t help that I skipped both of these games specifically because of those things. Things such as the battle system being dumbed down, with a new core mechanic that resolves around everything you do using consumable items. Things such as the supporting cast being replaced with vanilla Mario NPCs. Things such as the presentation becoming sterile and void of charm. Things such as boss fights requiring specific items to use at specific times. Color Splash bandaged up many of these problems, especially by writing the strongest comedy in the series (seriously, I have to respect and applaud the writers on that), but the core gameplay complaints against Sticker Star remained in tact.
I respect creative and new game design that explores unusual avenues, but when it comes to the Paper Mario series, I can’t help but feel disheartened by the way it’s gone. Sticker Star not only strayed from everything that the previous games were respected for, it failed to replace that void with anything but counter-intuitive and bland design choices. Color Splash seeked to atone for Sticker Star’s sins, and while its attempt to do so is reasonable and even partially successful, I can’t imagine that having been a smarter move than to go back to the formula which made the original and TTYD so beloved.
So let’s backtrack away from that disappointing turn all the way to the GBA, with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. This one used another battle system, borrowing many foundations from SMRPG again (except FP, instead giving each bro their own BP meter) and refining them into something new and fresh. Action commands have a more profound effect, allowing you to multiply damage and frequently counterattack enemies during their turns. Mario and Luigi are respectively controlled by A and B, both in and out of battle, to execute solo and combination techniques. This unorthodox control scheme has a steep learning curve, but after adjusting to it, it creates a much more active experience to both fighting and exploring. I especially loved Bros. Moves, dynamic special attacks requiring multiple varied inputs which could branch out into different moves if you practiced them enough! Add in the delicious spice of the exotic Beanbean kingdom and its colorful inhabitants, and you have a recipe for success!
Oh, and they made a remake to Superstar Saga last year on the 3DS. It looks alright, but it doesn’t add anything other than an optional minigame mode that has good ideas but which underwhelmed critics? The art style is more colorful and refined, but at the cost of downplaying the original game’s exaggerated, cartoonish animations. I’d play it if I ever got it as a gift, but as it is I’m not compelled to drop the money to add it onto my already mountainous backlog.
Since Superstar Saga was such a hit, it launched another series of RPGs released parallel to Paper Mario, with Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time landing on the DS. The biggest fundamental change this game brought was the addiction of Baby Mario & Baby Luigi as extra party members assigned to X and Y. It’s not a huge innovation, but it iterates upon the previous game’s unique strengths. I enjoyed it, and I’d go back to it again. Not a big fan of replacing the BP-based Bros. Moves with consumable Bros. Items though, that rarely feels right or balanced in a progression-driven RPG. Also, time travel! It’s a good thing this series is comedy driven, or else I’d have actual complaints about how time travel integrates into the plot, which is relatively vanilla except for a few twists.
Shortly after, Bowser’s Inside Story continued this series, also on DS. The babies were switched out with Bowser, who never occupies the same screen as the bros, but constantly acts parallel to them as they fight in his… insides. After he eats them all. Also, the first story arc is kicked off by Toads inflating to giant balloons uncontrollably. Okay who let Miyamoto on that side of DeviantArt again
Bowser controls radically different from the bros but follows the same general gameplay rules, creating an asymmetric dynamic between the two halves of your “party”. This makes BIS stand out a cut above the other Mario RPGs. It helps that Bowser has a tendency to be one of the most entertaining characters in these games, so constantly putting him in the spotlight did wonders for this game’s writing! And Bros. Moves, despite being less dynamic and based around “items”, consume BP instead of inventory again! So that’s all around a step back up.
Unfortunately, I can’t say too much about the next two games in the M&L series by virtue of not having played them. Unlike Sticker Star, I have faith that they’re acceptable games, but I hit a point in my life where I had less time for games. Thanks to that and a momentary whim, I wasn’t quite as interested in this series at the time.
Even so, I hear that Dream Team for the 3DS is an enjoyable experience. It introduces a brand new art style that draws some criticism, but I think it’s crisp and colorful enough to be great. The new gimmicky hook of DT is that you regularly visit Luigi’s dreams, which modifies Luigi’s abilities in battle. It also gives you the chance to explore weird stuff in weird dream worlds by poking him around on the touch screen while you explore on top. At this point, it’s quite clear that the M&L series regularly experiments with gimmicks, but it keeps the core foundations that Superstar was loved for and instead iterates upon them to build creative additions to that core gameplay.
Most recently, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam came out for the 3DS. For the first time, this spinoff series crosses over with… another spinoff series. Paper Mario, to be exact. Where THE Mario made of paper joins your party as your third fighter alongside the fleshy Mario and Luigi.
Alright, so first, this seems like a pretty confusing premise. This is quickly explained as the Paper Mario universe being from a magic book in Peach’s castle, but it’s still a head scratcher. Do other Mario spinoffs exist as alternate universes with vague connections, like Wario’s games or Donkey Kong’s? Is each Paper Mario game a different magic book? More importantly, this was right off the heels of Sticker Star, one of the most hated games in Mario history. Was it really a good idea to make a crossover like this when everyone was still upset over that game?
Not like it matters too much, because Paper Mario doesn’t fight like he did in any of his previous games, nor much like the Bros. Instead, he has this weird stacking mechanic where he accumulates copies of himself to tank hits and deal extra attacks. It’s an interesting idea, but it feels… out of nowhere? It doesn’t capture the exciting thing about crossovers - seeing how two different characters, systems, etc. would interact with each other. Nor does it help that the only Paper characters in this game are copies of existing Mario characters, instead of iconic original partners or antagonists. Other than that, I’ve heard criticisms of this series beginning to experience burnout, and that this is the weakest M&L game to date. Not that it seems bad, but I get a constant impression of… “okay I guess”. Maybe it’s time to give this one a rest in favor of repairing the damage done to Paper Mario’s reputation?
The most recent Mario RPG to come out, Kingdom Battle for the Switch, is disconnected from both of the ongoing series. It’s better known as Mario and Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. Yes, those Rabbids. It’s still not as weird as Disney’s properties meeting Squaresoft’s. I was hesitant to include this game in this blog for many reasons, the biggest of which being it’s not a normal RPG. M&R plays out more like a turn based tactics game with a few RPG progression elements. As such, it abandons almost every tradition laid by the Mario RPGs before it, sans the writing’s emphasis on comedy.
Thankfully, if the shocking amount of praise this game got last year was any indication, it did so for the best! Every battle plays out similarly to an XCOM battle, minus the frustrating RNG of XCOM. With randomness underplayed so heavily, player choice mostly comes into play through unique battle mechanics. This is especially apparent in the depth of move actions, not only because you can use them as supplementary attacks, but because you can use teammates as springboards to reach farther spaces. It’s a much more acrobatic and mobile game turn-based tactics game than most, which is very fitting for Mario! On paper, these actions are simple enough that children can easily execute them. But in practice, they combine together to create strategies so elaborate that XCOM wants to learn from it. No, seriously, the XCOM creative director said that. The usually mocked Rabbids humor being polished to a point where most audiences enjoy them as they are is the icing on top of the cake. I’m only halfway through this game myself, but I hope to get around to the final worlds before the DLC drops!
But that exception aside, Mario’s RPG spinoffs seem to be demonstrating a trend similar to his sports titles. Both branches of this series started extremely strong, but have started to dive down in reception as of the 3DS, for contrasting reasons. A part of that may just be lingering cynicism from Sticker Star and an overwhelming desire for Paper Mario to return to form. Maybe those feelings are making the new M&L games seem lower quality than they actually are, as I often heard such complaints during the lead-up for Paper Jam.
Regardless, Mario has proven that he can, and he did, make his unique vibe work for RPGs. Against all odds, he thrived on many occasions, and he holds potential to conquer still more avenues of RPG design, as Kingdom Battle demonstrates. Perhaps now may be the time for the two long-running spinoff series to rest for a little while so their teams can explore other ideas for a while. Or, alternatively, maybe it’s time to revisit them and address their vocal concerns? Just last month, we were greeted with a trailer for Mario Tennis Aces, which seems almost tailor-made to disprove the complaints against the likes of Ultra Smash.
What I saw got me excited for a Mario sports game for the first time in a long time. Sure, anything could still happen with that game, but as of this moment, I only see reasons to be optimistic. Perhaps Nintendo’s teams may be re-examining Paper Mario in a similar light. The Switch will probably get a new Paper Mario game eventually - every one of their previous television consoles got one. So maybe Mario Tennis isn’t the only spinoff series that will be redeemed. It’d be foolish of me to draw conclusions this early, but I still see hope for the future of Mario’s RPGs. I mean, many people hated Super Mario Sunshine, and you know what came out after that? A duology that many fans consider to be their favorite games in Mario’s history, if not of all time. But I’ll talk about those next month!