20 years ago, Super Mario RPG stood as an outlandish proposition. Adapting Nintendo's simple, side-scrolling gameplay to the world of stats, equipment, and battle strategies? Like a lot of people, I picked up Squaresoft's strange experiment if only to see how the hell they could possibly pull it off.
It's funny how things change. Two decades and roughly 10 games later, Mario's RPG adventures have become almost as much of an institution as his runny, jumpy ones. And Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam fully understands this fact. Its story begins with the flimsiest of premises, if only to immediately drop players into the main attraction: Luigi accidentally knocks over a magical book, which sends a nearly endless stream of Paper Mario characters—and enemies—into the world. Even for a Mario & Luigi game, it's an extremely straightforward story: Mario, Paper Mario, and Luigi are tasked with journeying to Bowser's Castle to defeat him and his paper-thin counterpart. (Oh yeah, and rescuing two princesses.)
Admittedly, this lax approach to storytelling may irk Mario & Luigi fans fond of the series' chattier qualities. It's something I sincerely used to love, but somewhere along the line, developer AlphaDream fell in love with the smell of their own farts and starting cramming their games with too much dialogue. Granted, it's well-written and smirk-worthy dialogue, but it soon became the main course rather than a surprisingly good side dish. That's the reason why I steered clear of 2013's Mario & Luigi: Dream Team: Based on what I read in Jeremy's review, it's a game that just doesn't know when to shut up.
Ultimately, this change is for the best, because Mario & Luigi's battle system has never been better. If you've never played the series before, its enemy encounters resemble Nintendo's Punch-Out more than anything: Combat involves using timed button presses to make the most of your attacks, and watching enemies closely so you can either dodge or parry their own offensive abilities. And battles essentially boil down to wrapping your head around the latter: While the timing never changes on your party's jumping and hammer attacks, each enemy comes equipped with a collection of abilities that require a keen eye to fully understand. Since each of these enemy moves begins with some sort of visual cue, battles mostly entail figuring out how to respond within a limited window of time. It's an approach that could result in tedium from overly long encounters, but Paper Jam has a way of introducing new enemies just as soon as you've mastered fighting the current crop.
The "Paper Mario" angle is more than just a fun gimmick, though: Both he and paper variants of enemies move and act differently from their fleshier counterparts, which adds a little more to think about in every battle. Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time made things a little too complicated by involving four party members, but for this installment, three seems to be the magic number. Paper Mario's main ability involves making copies of himself, which gives him a buffer against enemy attacks and allows extra attacks during his turn—a clever way to make the smaller numbers of his series play nice with the larger numbers of Mario & Luigi. Paper enemies can use this ability too, which adds yet another angle to battles: At times, you'll have to battle a stack of foes whose attacks change as they shrink in number. One of the more interesting bosses in the game uses this ability to shuffle himself into a pile of clones, so you can't inflict damage until you work your way down to the randomly placed real McCoy.
Along with the standard solving of Zelda-style environmental puzzles using the Bros.' odd abilities, Paper Jam also includes mini-games that don't have a whole lot to do with the RPG genre. Some battles have the three protagonists riding a giant papercraft into battle, where they do battle with a similarly huge enemy made of folded paper. These battles play out kind of like sumo matches, and remind me a lot of the great segments from Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story which saw a massive King Koopa fighting castles, towers, and trains.
Less effective are the multiple "toad hunt" quests, which involve chasing and/or finding various Mushroom Kingdom residents who are too freaked out to listen to reason. While toads act as a kind of currency to unlock new areas and abilities, at times, these missions feel like a poor excuse to get a little more life out of environments you've already visited. If Paper Jam worked these objectives organically into the journey from Point A to Point B, tracking down toads wouldn't be too bad—but these little time-wasters can't help but feel like padding in their current state.
Given that Paper Jam will undoubtedly be the last Mario & Luigi entry for the 3DS, it's great to see AlphaDream at the top of their game in terms of presentation. Their interpretation of the Mario universe has always been a touch off-model, which gives the characters a sense of vibrancy their depictions in other games is often missing. Though I'll admit AlphaDream has grown a little more conservative with the 3DS installments of Mario & Luigi: The once-sharp and evocative spritework has been traded for a style much fuzzier and indistinct, sort of like the pre-rendered characters of Super Mario RPG (but nowhere near as ugly). Mario and Luigi still talk with their hands in a charming approximation of Italian, but I do miss the little touches, like Luigi's high-water pants revealing stripey socks. In any case, Yoko Shimomura—who launched Super Mario RPG in 1996 with an amazing soundtrack—brings yet another great collection of tunes to this Mario & Luigi sequel, even if a few remixes pop up here and there. In an era where most composers her age transition to more of a producer role, it's great to see Shimomura create an entire soundtrack that's up to her regular standard of excellence.
I tuned out of both Mario RPG brands during the 3DS generation, so I didn't have the highest hopes for Paper Jam. But it ended up surprising me, thanks to how AlphaDream realized the series' strengths and decided to double-down on them. Paper Jam cuts down on the chatter, and puts its battle system front and center, making for some surprisingly difficult and creative encounters—some of those later bosses will absolutely school if you if slip up just a few times. 13 years after Mario & Luigi's debut, it's doubtful if AlphaDream could dust off these mechanics for a sixth time and still make them worthwhile; but regardless of what the future holds, Paper Jam is a fine return to form that makes the most out of what could have been a pointless gimmick.
Mario & Luigi's interface delivers all the visual information necessary for those vital, split-second battle decisions.
As with most RPGs of this type, there's no real reason to jump back in when you're done. But one trip through should leave you fully satisfied.
The always reliable Yoko Shimomura once again brings her a-game to the table, resulting in a soundtrack that perfectly matches the off-kilter world of Mario & Luigi.
As usual, AlphaDream amps up the cartooniness for a game that's as fun to watch as it is to play.
By shoving the story aside and doubling down on its great battle system, Paper Jam smartly emphasizes what the series does best. Some of the padding can be a little annoying, but the way paper-thin characters add new angles to enemy encounters makes this crossover more than just a simple gimmick.