Ah, Paper Mario for the N64. It is a very well-known game and an important one from my own childhood. Aside from being on cartridge the game is also available on the Wii U eShop. I decided to play it again for the first time in… six years? Though many would disagree with me, I think this game is better than its sequel: The Thousand Year Door. But this review is not meant to be a comparison, so maybe I’ll talk more about that another day. For now I’m just looking at the original Paper Mario and hopefully not have nostalgia affect my review. Emphasis on hopefully. This review may have a few spoilers, but it isn’t super plot heavy and it’s also 15 years old. So, deal with it.
The story is a basic Mario tale with a twist. You attend a party Princess Peach is holding, but Bowser comes to crash it and kidnap her. Mario is already on the scene, but Bowser has an ace in the hole: the Star Rod. The Star Rod grants any wish and Bowser uses it to make himself invincible. Bowser defeats Mario handily and sends Mario flying out of the castle.
Mario barely survives the battle and hears a plea from the Star Spirits. The Star Spirits created the Star Rod, and hold the power to counter it. Unfortunately Bowser imprisoned all the Star Spirits and they are carefully guarded by his faithful subjects. If Mario frees all the Star Spirits he can stand a chance against Bowser. So he sets off on an adventure that spans the entire Mushroom Kingdom.
For those of you that don’t know, Paper Mario plays like an RPG. It has turn-based combat and you get star points (experience points) to level up. So you’ll be fighting goombas, koopas, bob-ombs, and other classic Mario enemies. You attack by jumping on them and using a hammer, which fits in with the theme pretty well. I love RPGs so sign me up! I would also consider it an adventure game, for all the different areas you get to visit and all the environments you can interact with.
First of all the atheistic of the game holds up really well. All of the characters look like paper cutouts. Hence the name Paper Mario. Aside from the pixelated outlines, all of the characters look really good and detailed. It isn’t blocky like so many other character models did in the new emerging 3D era of games. It deserves points for still being nice to look at today.
While the characters are 2D the backgrounds and areas are 3D. It is simplistic and goes for a cartoonish look, so it fits in with everything else. There are also several kinds of levels throughout the game. Ancient ruins, a palace made of ice, a dense jungle, a haunted mansion, and more. The simplistic design is able to make the area look nice or ominous depending on the location. Something about the way the Crystal Palace looks still makes me feel uncomfortable.
There is a lot of variety when it comes to gameplay too. The dungeons in Paper Mario are very similar to the dungeons you might find in the Legend of Zelda. You will encounter enemies while you solve puzzles and locate keys to unlock doors until you finally reach the boss. Instead of using items to solve puzzles you use the various party members you recruit like a goomba, koopa, bob-ombs and… Wait this feels familiar. Yes. A lot of the types of enemies you fight you also get respective allies. There exist good lakitus too, if you can believe it. Each party member has their own special abilities to help Mario in battle or in the field.
Each story area has something different to do. When trying to rescue the 2nd Star Spirit you must travel across a vast desert and use a magic jewel to uncover hidden ruins. Another time you are facing the Invincible Tubba Blubba and must sneak around his castle to find his weak point, but need to avoid him spotting or catching you. Another time has you teaming up with an inept explorer to find out how to gain access to the inside of an active volcano. You even get to solve a murder mystery in a frigid penguin populated town. These events are a lot of fun and none of them are quite alike. There are also tons of sidequests and mini-games to do if you ever feel like deviating a bit from the main story.
However much I love this game, it is not without its flaws. As aforementioned the combat is turn-based, but you have influence over the impact of your moves and your enemy’s. When attacking or defending you can press buttons at specific times to increase the damage you deal and decrease the damage you receive. This is in every Mario RPG (as far as I know).
This is all well and good, but for some reason this game takes a ridiculously long time before you can activate these action commands. In Mario RPGs after and before this one you usually learn about them within the first few battles. In Paper Mario you have to fight through lots of tedious battles and even bosses before you can have any real impact on the combat. You can’t use the action commands even if you know how, because they don’t work until you get the item for it. There is literally no excuse for this and if you’ve played this or any of the other RPGs it gets really annoying.
The party members are unique and interesting, but they don’t have enough time in the spotlight. You see a lot of personality when you first meet them, especially Bow, your Boo/ghost party member. After they introduce themselves and do their thing, they don’t say much other than comment on the situation with casual throwaway lines. So that is a bit of a bummer.
The difficulty in this game is also laughable. I mean, I get it. It’s a Mario game… it is for casual gamers most of the time. But I spent the majority of the game with only 10 HP (the amount you start the game with) and had zero issues. The only times I struggled a bit were with the optional bosses and once I figured out their attack patterns, I took them down no problem. The final showdown with Bowser offers a little bit of challenge, but mostly because he soaks up damage like a sponge… and he can heal himself during the battle. Ugh. And that doesn’t necessarily make it difficult, it just makes it aggravating.
I don’t want to end the game on a bad note, because it is a truly great and charming game. The flaws are not to be looked over, but they don’t do enough to make this not a fun game. Sure the game brings me back to an earlier time in my childhood, but it is still a good game to this day. I wouldn’t blame anyone for playing the sequel instead, because it actually fixes all of my complaints. But there is something about the adventure of the first game that cannot be replaced. It is not my favorite game of all time, but I would encourage anyone to replay it if it has been a while or try it out for the first time…. Also the Koopa Bros are the best boss and have the best music.