About a month before the release of Paper Mario: The Origami King, Nintendo has released a second trailer showing off more of the game’s many features. It answered a lot of questions raised by the initial trailer. Do partners participate in combat? Are weapons permanent tools or expendable inventory? How does Mario interact with the audience? For many players who were fans of the first two Paper Mario titles, this trailer was confirmation that while The Origami King is certainly closer to what came before than either Sticker Star or Color Splash, it is not so much a return to form as it is a new experiment. Comparisons to The Thousand-Year Door brought on by rumors of a “return to form” aren’t even fair at this point: it’s clear that such a return is not what Intelligent Systems is interested in. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it can certainly be disappointing news for those who deeply want to return to the classic gameplay of the series.
I cannot emphasize enough that if you want to play a game that returns to the combat of classic Paper Mario, you need to play Bug Fables.
I first heard of Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling on Twitter in a rather unconventional fashion – someone posted a clip of its gameplay as a reply to someone else’s tweet. I don’t remember the context at all, but I remember clearly seeing an action command bar that looked straight out of classic Paper Mario. Immediately I went to search the game and found the Twitter profile of the developers (appropriately named @PaperBugDev). My excitement dissolved into disappointment when I realized that the game was only available at that point on PC, and therefore I wouldn’t be able to play it. However, there was talk of an eventual Switch port, so I waited patiently for the time when that port would be confirmed.
For me, that confirmation came with the release of the first Origami King trailer. Once again, it was the reply to another tweet, this time a screenshot of someone’s Switch home screen with Bug Fables already downloaded. I looked it up and sure enough, the game was available for predownload and would be released by the end of the month. I wasted no time putting Bug Fables on my console, and at the time of writing I had played the game for between 20-30 hours and cleared four of the seven chapters. That has been plenty of time for me to get a feel for the game’s combat mechanics, including how they are balanced over time and how they connect to other mechanisms in the game.
Bug Fables battles are turn-based timed-attack affairs. Each character has an attack value from which the target’s defense value is subtracted; the result is deducted from the target’s total HP, and when HP reaches zero the character is defeated. Defeat all the enemies and you win, but if all of your characters are defeated you lose the fight. The timed attack portion of this means that each attack or block is a microgame of sorts; pressing a button with perfect timing, mashing a single button or pressing a combination of buttons within a time limit, etc. Successful timing on an attack increases the damage you deal; successful timing on a block decreases the damage you take. These are the bare basics of the system but they are expanded upon in a variety of ways.
You have three main characters in Bug Fables – Vi, Kabbu, and Lief – and each one has a different type of basic attack. These basic attacks define the basis for a character’s suite of abilities and each character essentially has a different specialization. Kabbu strikes a ground-bound enemy in the front row with his horn, piercing a single point of defense and flipping over enemies with hard shells. Vi throws her beemerang (get ready for puns galore, friends) at an enemy on the ground or in the air; damaging most airborne enemies causes them to fall to the ground, making them vulnerable to attack from other characters. Lief sends ice magic into the ground which erupts upward and jabs the enemy, unearthing foes who are hiding underground and exposing them to attack.
With the basic attacks alone you have a formula with a lot of mileage. Most random encounters will focus on identifying enemy positioning and staggering your attacks in the correct order to expose them and deal the maximum amount of damage possible. You might expose the underbelly of an acornling with Kabbu’s horn and then deal big damage with Lief’s supereffective ice magic. Or you might hit an opponent with Kabbu that then causes the enemy to retreat underground or fly upwards, requiring Lief or Vi to intervene so that your third character has an opportunity to get their attack in. The character at the front of your party deals one extra point of damage but also draws more aggro and is more likely to be attacked by enemies, so managing your own positioning to maximize damage and protect vulnerable allies is key to your strategy as well.
That sound like plenty on its own? There’s more! The party has a pool of shared energy called TP (which I believe stands for technique points) that allows them to use special abilities during combat. These abilities accomplish effects that the basic attacks don’t – some just deal extra damage or hit more targets, but others can inflict status problems (like freezing enemies with Lief’s magic), restore health to the party (Vi’s Secret Stash ability), or draw aggro from enemies (Kabbu’s Taunt for example). As you progress the game, you can unlock special techniques that allow you to use more than one character together to accomplish even bigger attacks. These big moves have big payoffs but they burn extra turns, too, so learning when to invest in them is an important part of mastering them.
During combat you can use consumable items for a variety of effects. The most common will probably be for healing. While Vi can restore a small amount of HP equivalent to some of the weaker items in the game, to restore someone from almost nothing to full health or to restore TP when that is low, you’ll generally need some recovery items in your inventory. Some items also function as weapons, potentially putting enemies to sleep or even flat out dealing damage to them. Most basic items aren’t very powerful – the key to making the most of items is to cook them with the help of various chefs located in the game world. Combining different items into new recipes makes the most powerful healing or attacking items in the game.
Finally, no Paper Mario style game would be complete without an equivalent for badges, and what Bug Fables offers to satisfy that craving is the Medal system. Medals are equippable accessories with point values that each have unique in-game effects. These can be as simple as increasing a vital statistic like HP or TP, but it can also create situational bonuses or even give new skills to your characters. The Mighty Pebble, for example, allows Kabbu to throw a rock at airborne enemies and knock them down, perfect for expanding his repertoire and addressing his limited versatility when it comes to attacking enemies. Or take the Favorite One medal – whoever wears this takes extra damage from attacks, but when they get hit the rest of the party gets an attack boost in order to better protect their vulnerable friend. Medals are game-changing enough that your specific medal loadout is a defining element of your playstyle. Will you simply buff your stats with no costs or complications? Will you wear risky medals that have difficult complications but big payoffs? Will you focus on adding new skills to increase your party’s versatility? It is your choice if and how you use medals, and they add a lot of customization to the Bug Fables battle system.
As you battle, you gain explorer points (the Bug Fables equivalent of experience points), and gaining enough of these allows you to rank up. Rank refers to the overall rank of your whole team and isn’t character specific – the rising tide lifts all boats. Each time you rank up you definitely get one upgrade of your choice: either a +1 bonus to everyone’s HP, a +3 bonus to the party’s shared TP, or a +3 bonus to the party’s shared MP. Paper Mario veterans may notice that these upgrades (particularly the HP) seem pretty small in comparison to the numbers in Paper Mario and The Thousand-Year Door. Bug Fables is balanced quite differently and it has a much more gradual progression when it comes to leveling up. The outcome of this system is that the line of what level is “appropriate” for a given area is pretty blurred, and it depends more heavily on your skill as a player. If you haven’t mastered blocking patterns for early game enemies, they can still be a pain in the tail long after they’ve stopped giving you EXP. Of course, the other end of that spectrum is that good timing and clever strategies can help you to push into areas that it may otherwise feel like you’re not supposed to explore yet.
This balance leads Bug Fables to feel more challenging than Paper Mario, and this is particularly true if you choose to use the Hard Mode medal given to you at the beginning of the game. As long as the medal is equipped, your enemies are more difficult to fight, but in return you’re rewarded with additional EXP for winning the battles. That’s not the only payoff, though – for each boss or miniboss that you defeat with the Hard Mode medal equipped, you get unique medals awarded to you when you return to the Explorer’s Association. Many of these medals grant new skills to your characters, and the medals I’ve received from playing on Hard Mode are many of the most useful medals in my inventory. In exchange for pushing yourself to beat the game at a higher difficulty, you are rewarded with more creative options and the most powerful tools that the game has to offer. In this way, playing on hard mode demands you to fully engage the mechanics of the game rather than just breezing through.
A key example of this is with cooking. In Paper Mario, I never cook anything unless I need a recipe for a side quest. I use items so rarely that the effort isn’t worthwhile, and items like Whacka’s Bump, Ultra Shrooms, and Jammin’ Jelly are useful enough in their own right that cooking them feels like overpreparation. In Bug Fables, I wouldn’t get anywhere without cooking. Each time I get ready to head out and explore, I am making sure my inventory is stuffed full of completed recipes so I can have access to maximum healing out in the field. Without fail, I have needed it. The challenging battles offered by both standard encounters and bosses push me to spend my TP liberally, and until I’ve mastered blocking a particular enemy’s attacks patterns the healing items are key to my survival. Playing Bug Fables on hard mode challenges you to fully engage with the cooking mechanic and to experiment with unique medal loadouts in order to overcome the more difficult versions of each enemy. In this way, the game takes the core premise of classic Paper Mario and pushes it to the limit.
If you are a fan of Paper Mario or Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Bug Fables is the game you’ve been waiting for. It takes the core mechanisms that made those games work and puts a spin on them which makes them tougher and more strategic. Particularly if you play the game in hard mode, you’ll be challenged to fully engage the cooking and medal mechanisms in exchange for expanding your possibilities even further than you could in normal play. While the proper Paper Mario series moves off in a new direction, Bug Fables is the love letter to the combat that the old guard fondly remembers.