This year has been an interesting one for rumors and leaks. As I type this article we’re coming off the hot takes inspired by the leaks at Naughty Dog regarding The Last of Us II, but a couple of months ago the new hotness were Nintendo rumors regarding two upcoming titles for 2020. The first was a 2D Metroid title, something we haven’t seen since Samus Returns on the 3DS and then an even longer gap before that. The second regarded the Paper Mario franchise, and the rumor was that the series would have a brand new entry which would be a “return to form.” It’s a loaded phrase, and for those who may not know the history of the series it can be difficult to fully understand why.
The original Paper Mario was a turn-based roleplaying game using timed attack mechanics that was a spiritual sequel of sorts to Super Mario RPG on the SNES. While folks who wanted (and still want) a true Super Mario RPG 2 perhaps found Paper Mario a bit disappointing, the game found its own fans and the strategic battles which were simple to pick up but challenging to master were a big part of the appeal. The game featured a large number of partner characters who were friendly versions of previously hostile Mario monsters. The clever writing, quirky characters, cute art style, and strategic battle system made the game a delightful entry on the Nintendo 64. When The Thousand-Year Door came out, it built meaningfully on the building blocks laid out by the first game. One new feature was a between-chapter segment featuring Bowser that played off of the original Super Mario Bros games, allowing Bowser to jump his way through familiar locales in platforming adventures like his rival. These segments of the game received a lot of positive feedback, and with another Mario RPG out in the world in the form of Mario and Luigi, Paper Mario decided to experiment: why not make the next game a platformer like these beloved sections of The Thousand-Year Door?
It was a divisive experiment. While there were certainly some fans who still liked Super Paper Mario (I include myself among them), the majority agreed that the previous RPG gameplay was the preferred approach for the series. When rumors of a fourth Paper Mario began to appear, it seemed like that was the direction Nintendo and Intelligent Systems would be going. But after a survey from Club Nintendo indicated that a large number of fans didn’t like the story in Super Paper Mario, Sticker Star went in a direction that frustrated a large number of longtime fans: no original characters, no storyline, and RPG mechanics focused on managing an expendable inventory rather than leveling up a character. Sticker Star’s critical reviews were fine but a quick look at Metacritic tells you everything you need to know – 9.1 for Thousand Year Door compared to 5.7 for Sticker Star reflects a clear and powerful step in the wrong direction for fans of the series.
We can go on all day about the causes of Sticker Star’s misstep and the issues that brought the game down, but there are plenty of articles on that topic and I don’t want to rehash it all here. The negative response to the 3DS Paper Mario was the point where a lot of folks gave up on the series ever becoming what they remembered from their childhood. It’s a sentiment I hear from most Paper Mario fans I speak with in the blogging world and that I see from quite a few YouTubers/streamers as well – “I’d love a game that felt like the original and Thousand Year Door, but it probably won’t happen.” A return to form for the Paper Mario series is something that a lot of people feel is impossible at this point – so a rumor saying it will happen is one that is understandably met with a powerful combination of hope and skepticism.
I can remember my hopes for a Thousand Year Door sequel from my younger days. When the GameCube title was still fresh, what I wanted more than anything was Paper Luigi: the tale of Luigi’s adventures while Mario was in Rogueport. Actually getting to play out the hi-jinks he experienced in the Chestnut Kingdom while playing as his unique set of partners seemed like a really fun concept. Luigi had partners that were quite different from most of what we’d seen from Mario – a fried Blooper, a director Dayzee, and a Buzzy Beetle mechanic are just a few examples of the unique characters he ran with. For me, the idea of Paper Luigi captured what fascinated me most about the early Paper Mario games – exploring new parts of the setting with characters who were totally different than the cast we see in a typical Mario game.
These days, I think the time for Paper Luigi (at least as I envisioned in then) have long passed. Paper Mario is the series that has fallen from grace in the minds of the fans, and it is Mario himself who must lead the charge back to where we were before. But that of course raises its own question: is backwards the direction we really want to go? The Thousand-Year Door is an excellent game – my personal favorite – but would remaking a game that felt essentially the same as that one really scratch the itch of modern fans? What about people who only played Color Splash? What about people who never played Paper Mario at all?
I think no matter how you slice it, to some degree the series finds itself in impossible circumstances. For players like myself, managing expectations is going to be key. Obviously we’ve been asking for a game that’s a story-driven, turn-based RPG that feels like the first two games in the series. But I can see a future where Nintendo goes too far in that direction, and our partners feel like hackneyed reskins of the characters we knew before and the stories nothing more than a nostalgia handjob for people who played the first two titles. “Hey do you see how this villain is basically Tubba Blubba? That’s cool, right? That’s what you wanted? *wink*” I want the game I thought was going to come after The Thousand Year Door, but if it tries too hard to be what the series once was then I can see a version of the game where our conclusion is that a port would have been a better option.
All of this begs the question of what exactly a satisfactory Paper Mario game would look like in 2020 (or more likely 2021 if this thing truly does exist, in a mid-COVID world). I can’t answer for the whole fandom – some fans feel differently than me about individual games in the series or may have different things they loved about the original two that they would prefer to emphasize. But I can speculate about the things that would potentially help me to get the most out of a modern Paper Mario title, the elements which I consider to be core to idea of “returning to form.” I want to talk about those ideas by addressing the game’s setting, story structure, characters, and gameplay.
I have one big thing on my setting wish list: I don’t want to go back to the Mushroom Kingdom or to Rogueport and its surrounding locales. For me, a Paper Mario returning to form does not mean literally returning to the places we have already been, and I think if that were to happen we’d be pretty firmly in the territory of “may as well have done a port.” The main thing I don’t want is a screen-by-screen recreation of the settings as they were. I’m okay with revisiting Rogueport as a hub if the places we go around it aren’t Boggly Woods or Keelhaul Key or even Glitzville. I want the places we explore to be new ones, even if they technically fall into a world we recognize.
The original Paper Mario is a great demonstration of this. It’s set in – you guessed it – the Mushroom Kingdom. But the places we visit within the Mushroom Kingdom are new and interesting. We don’t go to Bob-Omb Battlefield or Jolly Roger Bay or Booster’s Tower or Tadpole Pond. Paper Mario has an internal consistency with other Mario games by referencing the same species of creatures, but it adds them into new contexts that help them to feel fresh. Goombas who are peaceful hermits instead of loyal footsoldiers, koopas who are harassed by fuzzies, yoshis babysat by a cheep-cheep – we see familiar concepts explored in new ways and that I think is where Paper Mario shines. Piantas may be laid-back on Isle Delfino but don’t ever expect to catch Don Pianta selling fruit out of a market stall or he’ll give you a new pair of shoes, if you know what I’m saying.
With this in mind, one thing I think could be really cool would be for a new Paper Mario to give us a more concrete look at the kingdoms explored in Mario Odyssey. As a platformer with limited character interactions and storytelling, most of the locations in Odyssey only have one key civilized place (if any part of it is civilized) and we learn very little about the locals. Show us the cities and landmarks of these kingdoms and let us explore them RPG-style, breaking into people’s houses and asking about their stories and their lives. There’s familiarity but there is newness, too, and the world of the new Paper Mario would be adding flavor and context to the larger Mario universe in the way the first two games did.
I’m not going to pretend to know what the story of a new Paper Mario should be about. In fact, what the story is about isn’t nearly as important to me as how it is structured. Classic Super Mario Bros is known for an eight world structure with four levels per world. That structure has been utilized in many other Mario games throughout the years, including in Super Paper Mario. Personally, it’s a structure that I don’t find enjoyable for an RPG title. When a story is broken up into disjointed episodes, it can feel less like a cohesive whole and you lose sight of how the world itself is connected together because a lot of time and physical space can be elided between episodes. This is something for me that carries over to 3D Mario as well – I like how Odyssey handles its structure better than 64 or Sunshine, and those still better than Galaxy (please note I’m discussing structure ONLY when I say that).
Now while a level structure is what I don’t want, a chapter structure is still something I consider core to the Paper Mario experience. Each chapter in the original games is unique in tone, tells its own story with different characters and locations to highlight, but still fit together as progressive pieces of a larger narrative. The best chapters stand out as having strong concepts backed up by lovable characters and fun gameplay. Meeting specific conditions during combat while fighting your way up the ranks in the Glitz Pit, bringing toys to life and finding stolen objects from the real world in Shy Guy’s Toy Box; having unique mechanics to engage or new interpretations of familiar mechanics helps to really set a chapter apart in the Paper Mario experience.
The final story element that is truly important to me is the detail. Paper Mario is a game with a lot of layers to its story. You can delve as much or as little into those layers as you want. Take the tale of the four heroes in The Thousand-Year Door. They are only briefly mentioned by Frankly in a description of the calamity that destroyed the original town before Rogueport, but by speaking with Grifty you can learn details about each hero’s life. When you connect those stories with little touches spread in the chapters most closely related to each hero, you can see more meaningful connections with the present day that give you a whole new appreciation for what’s going on in the grander story. Speaking to NPCs regularly as you progress a chapter or progress the game will slowly fill the world with color and detail. None of it is necessary to finish the game and have a perfectly fun time, but the love and energy spent on building each tiny facet of the setting is a big part of what makes early Paper Mario shine.
There’s a lot about Super Paper Mario that I think still managed to hold pretty tightly to what made the first two games special. But one way in which it faltered is that Mario’s normally meaningful partner characters are replaced with generic one-off Pixls who bring very little to the game in terms of storytelling. You enjoy their personality for the brief moment in which they are acquired and then you never get a sense of them again throughout the rest of the game. Partners are such an important piece of what makes Paper Mario special, because each one has a place in the setting that they connect to in order to make the world more meaningful.
The original Paper Mario is a world populated by toads, goombas, koopas, squeaks, boos, shy guys, yoshis, bub-ulbs, bob-ombs, penguins – and even within these broad archetypes there are specific characters with personalities that both compliment and reject the stereotypes of their species as a whole. The Thousand-Year Door built on that with piantas, doogans, punies, bandits, twilighters, and x-nauts, and added even more flavors to the archetypes that already existed. Toads and bob-ombs could be sailors, goombas could be thieves, lakitu could be photographers, yoshis could be punks – the NPCs of Paper Mario were characters with tons of flavor due to their unique designs and quirky personalities. Contrast this with the world of Sticker Star, where the only NPCs were toads. A return to form Paper Mario has to have a cast of characters who are colorful and fun and unique.
I think to keep a new Paper Mario feeling like something more than pandering, those new characters need to really have a fresh lens and not just be a reinterpretation of existing tropes. If we start the game with a goomba companion who can tell you about the world, meet a koopa whose shell we can toss at distant objects, and at some point add an exploding bob-omb buddy to our ranks, those characters are likely to feel like copies of the ones we have known before. Not every partner has to be a Mario universe deep cut to make this happen, either. We’ve never had a Shy Guy companion, for example. No bloopers, either. This could also be a fun opportunity to remind people that piantas exist. Or maybe one of the fun transformations from Odyssey could make an appearance. There are plenty of opportunities for new concepts available for Mario’s companions as well as the various NPCs and villains.
This is perhaps the trickiest element to master because on the surface, games like Sticker Star and Color Splash are still technically turn-based roleplaying games. They focus on a different form of advancement and don’t use all of the same strategic elements as the original Paper Mario titles, but they’re closer to an RPG than Super Paper Mario was. So what does it mean to return to the true gameplay of the first two games? I think a key part is a combat system once again focused on characters with reliable basic attacks. Having even your most basic moves as depletable inventory wasn’t an enjoyable experience for a lot of players.
Paper Mario’s core mechanic was a battle system which highlighted strategic attack choices. Jump dealt low damage twice and struck flying enemies directly; hammer dealt higher damage once and didn’t make direct contact with the opponent. If the enemy was spiked, electrocuted, or on fire, your hammer was the necessary tool. If the enemy was flying, had a protective shell, or behind another opponent where the hammer couldn’t reach, your jump would be a much better combat option. It’s a simple base on which lots of challenges could be added. What if a spiked enemy charged their attack and was at the back of the enemy line where you couldn’t take them out quickly? What if an enemy was on the ceiling where neither your jump nor hammer could reach? Learning to effectively utilize the alternative techniques unlocked by badges and to best take advantage of what your partners could do was key to defeating different combinations of enemies. In that sense, Paper Mario had almost a puzzle or strategy element to it. Defeating enemies wasn’t just about grinding levels or having the most powerful attack stat; each encounter had multiple possible solutions – unlike Sticker Star where one specific item was the necessary win button for important battles.
I think one simple step for Paper Mario to become more complex mechanically would be to increase the scale of the battles – two possible partners at once and therefore three battlefield positions (front, middle, and back) could add interesting layers when combined with certain attacks having limited ranges or specific positions giving important boosts. (What little I have seen of Bug Fables, a Paper Mario style indie game, took this approach to its combat.) A third basic attack option could potentially expand things too, creating a sort of rock-paper-scissors dynamic that already fits well with the way that Jump and Hammer are applied in the game. Finally, I think making the player more active on the defensive turn and not just when attacking would make a big difference. There are a couple of specific enemies or attacks that have done this in past games (particularly in the first Paper Mario): trying to mash the A button to shake an enemy off or resist an attack, that sort of thing. Having the same kind of varied button inputs for blocking attacks would make defensive play more compelling and possibly create opportunities for parrying/counterattacking as well.
I don’t know if this rumored Paper Mario can possibly live up to my expectations. If it does in fact exist, I’ve accepted that in all likelihood it will not be what I want it to be. Perhaps what it turns out to be will be enough to satisfy some fans of the series, maybe even a lot of fans. As someone whose favorite game has been The Thousand-Year Door since its release, it’s hard to imagine that Nintendo and Intelligent Systems could possibly make a game that could live up to my 15+ year expectations. If this game turns out to be real, my plan is to be cautious and to carefully watch trailers and reviews before I get too excited about the idea of a “return to form.”
I’m curious to hear what you think, adventurers. Are you a Paper Mario veteran? How do you feel about the rumors of a return to form? I’d love to see comments on other ideas about what elements are important to keep from classic Paper Mario, or if other players are concerned about Nintendo perhaps overdoing it in their attempts to make this game the same as before. Whether you’re hesitant like me or are experiencing unbridled excitement, feel free to share your thoughts on the concept of a modern Paper Mario.