I had a bizarre realization while playing the new Paper Mario game today. Or is that "the new Mario & Luigi game"?
I guess it's a kind of litmus test to see your natural inclination toward one franchise or the other; Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam smooshes together both of the Mario RPG franchises (that is, Paper Mario by Intelligent Systems and Mario & Luigi by Alpha Dream) into an action-RPG frappe. It's complicated and weird, but intriguing. I'm curious to see how it turns out, too; I turned out to be one of the few critics to thoroughly enjoy Paper Mario: Sticker Star, and one of the few to pan Mario & Luigi: Dream Team. Maybe Paper Jam will find a happy medium between Mario's two RPG offshoots, so everyone can enjoy it equally.
By all of that's not really the important part. The important part is that Paper Jam's E3 demo features three segments: First, the standard adventure mode in which you pursue a small quest. Second, you have a boss battle. All well and good so far. No, the bit that gave me pause was the demo's third segment: The "Paper Craft" mode.
As the name implies, Paper Craft involves a three-dimensional paper models. It makes sense; Paper Jam brings the two-dimensional Mario of Paper Mario into the isometric 3D world of Mario & Luigi. So of course the combination of paper characters and real-world dimensionality results in boxy paper models. The mode itself uses these models for what amount to giant mecha battles: The Mario 3D paper figure is an enormous cardboard construct that Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario control while standing atop its head, and it moves about courtesy of a small army of Toads who hold it aloft on a giant circular platform. It kind of reminds me of the Goemon Impact sequences from Goemon's Great Adventure on N64 (how's that for a deep cut, kids?), except actually much weirder.
Combat in Paper Craft — you fight an army of giant paper Goomba models in the demo, capped off by a King Goomba paper figure showdown — consists of ramming into enemy models, then tossing the Mario paper figure off the platform in a high arc onto downed foes ("jumping" on Goombas, essentially). Once you toss the giant Mario effigy, your now-empty Toad-controlled platform has to scurry forward to retrieve it before enemies descend on it and damage it while it's down. To add some complexity to the combat, the Toads have only a limited amount of stamina, and once you've drained that energy they're no longer able to dash. Stamina is restored by standing over circular platforms, which activates a rhythm minigame in which hitting proper cues results in stamina boosts. Like I said, much weirder.
It's a pretty fun and interesting (albeit weird) addition to the game, and the demo scenario took about 10 minutes to play out. But the whole time, I couldn't help but marvel at the sheer audacity of Nintendo in calling this mode "Paper Craft." Because, no fooling, the boxy giant Mario avatar you steer around looks basically exactly like Steve from Minecraft wearing a Mario costume. Minecraft remains conspicuously absent from Nintendo platforms (which looks to be a permanent state of affairs now that Microsoft owns the franchise), so this seems to be Nintendo thumbing its nose at the competition. Daring them to say something. I doubt there's anything actionable in Paper Jam — the ersatz mech battles of Paper Craft mode have nothing whatsoever to do with anything in Minecraft — so maybe this is just Nintendo seeing what it can get away with. It's a different look for the traditionally proper and unaggressive company. I kind of like it.
That said, I demoed Paper Jam just a short while after taking a look at the new Skylanders game, Superchargers, which of course features a collaboration between Activision (and developer Vicarious Visions) and Nintendo — at least for the Wii U and 3DS versions, anyway. Those releases will include Skylander figurines of either Bowser or Donkey Kong (one character ships with each version) and their character-specific vehicles, who differ from all 300-odd existing Skylanders in the fact that they only work with the Nintendo releases of the game. Considering Activision's commitment to maintaining functionality and feature-parity across all Skylanders platforms for all characters in all versions — Superchargers even includes functionality for the crystalline traps of Trap Team — this marks a pretty big deviation from the guiding ethos of compatibility that characterizes the Skylanders series, a special exception for Nintendo.
It also represents a pretty big exception on Nintendo's behalf as well. Nintendo character cameos in third-party projects aren't totally unheard of (see Soulcalibur II, for instance), but they definitely aren't the norm. This instance stands out as particularly unusual, though, thanks to the way dabbling in the Skylanders realm bumps up with Nintendo's own newfound toys-to-life business, the insatiable Amiibo. The Skylanders version of Bowser and Donkey Kong operate in a sort of quantum state, alternating between Amiibo and Skylander functionality with the twist of their figurine bases.
All told, it's a clever move for Nintendo. Amiibo may get all the press these days thanks to their scarcity, but Skylanders is by far the more successful toy venture. This crossover attempt allows Nintendo to slip their own take on the concept in through a sort of back door, getting word out about Amiibo to an existing audience of toys-to-life fans. (Sadly, that's as far as the partnership goes; Activision gave me a firm "no" when I asked if they'd be helping Nintendo bring their troubled Amiibo manufacturing processes up to speed.)
Clearly, Nintendo has an eye on the franchises kids obsess over most and are making a concerted effort to bring elements of those games into the Nintendo fold. You could even argue Mario Maker is an attempt to bring Minecraft's world-building ethos to the Mario franchise, though that's probably a little too much of a stretch given the precedent of games like Mario Paint and WarioWare DIY. Between "Paper Craft," Skylanders, and Puzzle & Dragons Z + Mario, the company that used to own every kid's imagination is leaving nothing to chance.