Retro Review: Paper Mario

Author: Greg Lozano

“Recommended if”

Paper Mario is an interesting gem. Nintendo needed to create a worthy successor to the giant that was Super Mario RPG on the SNES and appease an audience with limited options. After the fallout between SquareEnix (then SquareSoft) and Nintendo following the introduction of the original PlayStation, developers favored the ease of PlayStation’s development environment over Nintendo’s N64. This led to a drought in certain genres on the N64, particularly RPGs. While the PlayStation boasted a top 50 list of RPGs, Nintendo had to step up to fill the gap. Enter Paper Mario.

Paper Mario exudes the charm players expect from Nintendo. It’s surprisingly fun despite its simplified mechanics compared to typical Japanese-style RPGs. The intuitive gameplay makes it engaging, ensuring that players feel involved rather than just pressing a single button to progress. However, its strongest point is also its weakness: while the combat mechanics are engaging, the story follows the same recycled narrative of thwarting Bowser and rescuing the princess. This leads to fun gameplay mechanics and exciting bosses but ultimately a narrative that feels prolonged and a bit dull.

While I criticized Baldur’s Gate 3 for its low damage number system, I praised games like Final Fantasy for their high numbers. Paper Mario uses an even smaller damage output per attack, but it works. The simplicity of the numbers makes sense. For example, knowing the final boss has 99 health and you deal 10 damage per attack means you understand the battle will take 9 more successful turns, assuming no tricky moves (which there always are). This clarity is refreshing.

The battle system in Paper Mario takes a cue from Super Mario RPG, where well-timed presses can mean the difference between a stronger hit or a blocked attack. Different characters have unique prompts, like tilting the analog stick or rapidly mashing a button to maximize damage. The variety of enemies adds depth, requiring players to decide whether to attack with a hammer or a jump. The designers made sure boss battles didn’t feel repetitive, giving players the freedom to strategize.

Paper Mario also features a badge system that allows players to buff their characters in unique ways. The wide range of badges means each player can have a distinct play style. Some might expand their flower points for nearly endless special attacks, while others might focus on status changers, like jumping on spiked enemies without taking damage. This freedom adds to the game’s replayability.

One of the biggest surprises of the game is its ease of play. Despite the N64/PSX era being notorious for difficult, clunky controls, Paper Mario feels natural and seamless. Even without “C-buttons” on a pro controller, the controls are intuitive. However, the game itself isn’t easy. Certain battles require smart thinking and strategic use of items or star power. And if you fail, you better hope your last save was recent because there were no checkpoints back then.

My major complaint about Paper Mario is its length. Most RPGs are lengthy due to their elaborate narratives that keep players engaged. Paper Mario, however, focuses heavily on combat and gameplay mechanics, pushing playtime to over 30 hours. In contrast, Final Fantasy IV was only 20 hours but packed with twists and drama. Paper Mario’s villains lack depth, and the story feels stretched, making the journey to rescue the princess feel longer than necessary.

There’s a reason Thousand Year Door was remade for the Switch instead of the original Paper Mario. While Paper Mario is fun and a great introduction to RPGs for newcomers, it falls short in a world of titans. The game has original concepts and serves as an excellent reference point, but there are better options. Super Mario RPG offers a more balanced introduction to RPGs with its minigames. Paper Mario: Thousand Year Door improves on its predecessor and is worth the time investment. I’d recommend Paper Mario if you’re a diehard Mario fan or interested in game design and quest mechanics.

If you’re a fan of classic RPGs and curious about game design, give Paper Mario a try! And if you enjoyed this review, consider supporting our work by donating to Geek Therapy. Your contributions help us continue bringing you in-depth reviews and analyses of your favorite games.

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