I find it hard to imagine gaming nowadays without some form of mature mindset, be it the relentless murdering spree I embark on in The Division or the peerlessly intelligent story that racked my brain in Persona 4. From burning down the floating city of Columbia to barely surviving the night in quarantined Harran, the games I’ve loved over the last few years have been inseparable from violence.
Without an 18+ restriction slapped on the box art I never seem to care much about games these days. The occasional 15+ will also stick, such as the Arkham games, but even in that series there’s perpetual brutality, with the final chapter of the trilogy (an 18+ for a few odd scenes, sure, but still) letting you plough into pedestrians in a friggin’ tank, complete with delivering a ‘non-lethal’ gigawatt jolt, and that’s still considered a pacifistic way of stopping crime. Hell, the only game I own that’s not dripping with blood is Rock Band, and as fun as it is I’m still pissed that they censor profanity in the songs.
My point is, I don’t register much going on that would have had me as a kid counting off the days until it was in stores. Nintendo’s dragging itself along by appealing to this market, and seldom else, while the rest of the industry only seems to care in safe bets like Just Dance and Fifa. Urgh, Fifa…Could we just take out a little bit of that funding and channel it into doing another SSX? That’s sport too, right?
But I digress, again, as what I was trying to get at was that I find it hard to remember I time I thoroughly enjoyed a game that was truly innocent, colourful, and family friendly. Yet there is something that’s the exception to that rule. I can’t think of anything that fits the bill for that so well, and yet still manages to entertain me so much, other than Paper Mario.
At a Glance
Originally conceived as a sequel to the cult classic Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario was going to fly under the banner of ‘Super Mario Adventure’. Much like Devil May Cry taking the reins of it’s own intellectual property as opposed to being a hack and slash version of Resident Evil, they took a good look at it and thought “This shit’s too good for a one off” and kicked off the paper themed franchise.
The novel graphic style, the clean yet clever humour, the lovable characters; what’s not to like in this game? The only harm it could inflict would be a paper cut, and even then you’d still bleed sparkling rainbows. Despite this seemingly simple, child friendly game there’s a prominent brilliance to it, what with it’s fun puzzles, captivating world and, of course, it’s stellar RPG style gameplay.
Holding true to it’s source material it’s very much a Mario game, although not in the way fans were entirely familiar with. Those accustomed to wearing that iconic red cap were used to side scrolling, kart driving, pill popping and exploring a giant 3D world, but Mario as a protagonist for an RPG had only been seen once. Yet in his return to this stage he was already more than ready for adventure, and honestly it felt just as fun and natural as squashing creatures under his brown boots.
Do I really have to say anything? It is a Mario game, after all. Well for the sake of thoroughness, everything is going well in the Mushroom Kingdom. The sun is shining, birds are chirping and no one is questioning why everything is suddenly two dimensional or made of paper.
The vanilla matriarchal totem Princess Peach is doing what all royalty does; throwing a party for little to no adequate reason. And of course, what better guest to invite to an elegant ball for the highest echelons of society? That’s right, a plumber. No party is complete without one. Then again, she might be inviting Mario because he’s virtually the only other human in that world. I mean, why is she the ruler of a kingdom that’s mostly made up of sentient turtles and fungus headed creatures anyway? I’m sensing something awfully colonial about her reign…
…Anywho, Mario arrives at the shin dig and what do you know, Bowser turns up, because what else has he got going on. Although this time things are different, as he’s stolen some magic star wand thing that can make him invincible. So for the first time (I think, I don’t know, there’s been a lot of Mario games) Bowser defeats Mario and throws his ass out of the castle.
Utterly defeated and close to PG rated death, Mario is visited by a bunch of star people, who brush him off and send him on his way to save the princess, save the world, etcetera etcetera.
So now that the copy and pasted story is settled it’s time to dive into the gameplay. Despite having ‘paper’ in the name the world you’re thrown into is somewhat suspended between two and three dimensional, meaning that the graphics, characters and virtually everything is as thin as, well, a sheet of paper (save for the blocks and various obstacles that are implemented as a sort of middle finger to your paper protagonist) yet the game isn’t a side scroller. You can move left and right, up and down, and all those kooky directions in between. This allows you to explore your surroundings like any other game, yet with a few novel twists that play upon the paper format, such as sliding through cracks in the walls.
But let’s not forget, this isn’t just your standard ‘Jump on a character’s head and steal the floating coins’ style of Mario game. Oh no, it’s an RPG, so you’ve got to toughen up, find shiny new weapons (or, you know, shinier shoes…seriously) and fight like a straight up gentleman, no matter who you’re fighting. It’s already confusing enough in turn based battles why the other guy is patiently waiting for you to dole out some damage, but a giant raging puppet monster? Didn’t think Bowser taught his minions manners. But as I said, it’s a turn based RPG, so when you run into an enemy, within whatever exotic location you’re exploring, the stage is set for a fight.
When the scrap starts it begins just as every great battle has throughout history, with our heroes on the left and some dastardly fiends on the right, like the UK taking the charge to Germany in WWII. Then again, that kicked off because Germany headed that way into Poland, but they were so far right that that ‘left to right’ mould doesn’t really fit them anyway. But enough of the horrible wars of our world and onto the charming scraps of Paper Mario. There are several choices for how to play out a brawl; jumping, hammering, using items, summoning specials and running for the hills. That’s where the equipment comes in, as that shiny shoe dig earlier was indeed serious, since you can upgrade Mario’s shoes and hammer for battle, which also have various puzzle solving/exploration purposes outside of beating marginally anthropomorphic animals senseless. You can also call upon the help of those aforementioned star sprites when you find them after each big boss fight and throw out all those weapons gamers have grown to loathe from Mario’s karting days, like abrupt thunder strikes and flocks of rohypnol coated sheep. They were in Mario Kart, right? There’s also the plethora of pins and badges you can equip that are scattered throughout the world and offer all sorts of wonderful ways to inflict pain on the lesser beings that dare get in your way. Huh, and I thought I was done talking about Germany.
Anywhen, that’s more or less the battling system, with bosses throwing out interesting curveballs to mix things up, like consisting of several independent parts working to smack you down in tandem. Honestly, the creative and kick ass bosses that come into the fray were all immensely enjoyable to encounter, chip away at like some many other RPG conflicts, and finally conquer. But I could talk about them all day, and there’s other aspects of the game vary wildly; such as the environments.
Where the initial story may feel lacking, it’s the environments that really breath life into the whole experience. Fans may be used to venues like the ‘water’ level and the ‘desert’ level and that ‘world where everything is on fire, holy shit, how is this building still standing’ level but Paper Mario went above and beyond in its imaginative approach to a larger world. The diversity is kicked into seventh gear right after the training wheels come off in the first, ‘Generic Village’ level as you’re thrown from cursed ruins to haunted forests to literal toy boxes to deluxe flower fields in the sky. With each location you find new obstacles, new challenges and new companions that bring a different theme and tone to the game, making the overarching story feel like a seamless transition from one crazy short story to the next.
It’s the companions that really give each chapter a unique flair though, with each one being represented by a different creature in the Mario Universe. Now, this is not without it’s confusion when first playing, as most gamers would have spent quite some time being familiar with these things under their boot. I imagine Mario would have been the same, his fingers twitching towards his hammer each time that know-it-all goomba started spouting some knowledge his way. Or perhaps he would have felt a tsunami of guilt each time they opened their mouths. I mean, think about it, they’re clearly sentient, and Mario had, until that point, spent about 20 odd years mercilessly slaying scores of their kind. Had he known they could speak his language? Had he known they lived their own lives, made their own towns, had their own communities where they laughed, loved and longed for a world without him? If the PG rating is anything to go by, no, but still I felt a little unusual having a turtle be my best bud, when both he and Mario probably knew that Mario had murdered his grandpappy.
…Maybe I’m dwelling on that too much, but still, homicidal guilt aside they were all incredibly endearing character in their own ways. And their abilities were what made Mario as formidable in this pseudo-3D world as he was alone in his 2D one, as another departure from the classic Mario game was that he couldn’t just magic up some powers by eating a chilli pepper with eyes or wearing a different hat; this time he had help from all elements of the Mario Universe. Need to be a bit stealthy? That uppity rich girl boo’ll turn you invisible. Need to blow some shit up? Throw that adorable pink bomb at it! Need to..hurl a turtle shell at some guys? Yeah, alright, you just jump on the turtle for that one. But hey, that guy was tough as nails. After all, he didn’t die after being propelled at a bunch of bad guys; he wasn’t even dizzy.
Those Finishing Touches
Yeah, as you can see, I got attached to the characters, from the living light bulb to the smooth as hell flying mailman; they were all badasses. They don’t sound like it, but they were. And that’s just one of the parts of this game that made playing it such an excellent experience. That’s including the main man Mario as well, as despite my lack of focus on him, being a classic voiceless protagonist as he is want to be, he truly brought the whole game together. And that’s not just because he had to be there, like a sun required for planets to orbit, but because this game really made him out to be the hero he’s always been told he is.
The story wasn’t just about him going to get the princess, it was about helping everyone else along the way. For once we didn’t simply see a ‘guy goes after girl’ quest with his eyes only on her as the prize, we saw Mario go through the rest of the kingdom, providing aid to everybody who asked him for help, in even the most menial of ways. Sure, they fit into the ‘side quest’ element of RPG-ing, but it was in this format that we finally got to believe he was beloved by the entire kingdom, not just by the dainty bitch on the throne.
Best of all, we were told this story through an immersive world that we ourselves got to explore, where every character had their own tale to tell, most of which we could be a part of. This coupled with a brilliant battle system, which managed to fuse familiar RPG aspects with intriguing new touches, made the entire game an utter joy to play through its entirety. Honestly, outside of a ROM, it’d be virtually impossible to play this game, and even its predecessor Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Dear (one of my most favourite games ever created) is virtually as rare as star dust, yet the franchise is still going strong, albeit in a worrying direction. Still, if you can ROM it, go for it, and if you can actually obtain the game itself then even better for you (and call me, I’ll give you untold riches for it) but I think it’s more or less unobtainable for me. But that’s okay, because I can remember it fondly; and it’ll always be there for me as a shining example that games don’t need to all be guns and gore. At least, not all the time.
By Tom Simpkins