The Mario series has always been a stylistic oddball, a remnant from an era where character design had more to do with what could pass with limited technology than any semblance of narrative purpose. A plumber fighting a dragon-turtle to rescue a princess is the exact sort of nonsense we’ll accept in an NES platformer without question, because why would we care?
I bring this up because the Mario RPGs were handed the challenge of making some narrative sense of this nonsense. Instead of playing things as simple as the platformers, SMRPG and the Paper Mario games really go all-in on this strange setting, adding a layer of whimsical humor through excellent characterization and then ramping it up through its own bizarre creations. This is where most of the central cast really comes into their own, with special sections focused on Peach really adding to her character. The universe starts to feel like more than a dozen stray thoughts smashed together – or rather, it continues to feel that way, but with purpose!
The fifth generation of console gaming is perhaps the toughest to revisit. Even through the early PS2 era, capturing a sense of fluid motion in 3D gameplay proved challenging for many developers. Most games from this generation simply do not look very good. Nintendo, however, has always had a knack for making limited technology work in their favor. Through its combination of 2D characters and a storybook-styled world, Paper Mario might just be the best looking game from its era. There’s a simple charm about its aesthetics that work even twenty years later.
Paper Mario has the magical feeling of being a beginner-level RPG while offering enough to remain engaging to even the most experienced player. The use of timing mechanics during combat offers a better experience than simply mashing attack until the enemies are defeated like many other JRPGs – all while serving as a reminder that this is a Mario game, where timing your jumps as you land on enemies has always been key. Most enemies having certain weaknesses or immunities also adds at least some thought to basic encounters. Though the game might be overly easy, it never stops being fun. The simplicity of its numbers is also important here, allowing the player to better understand just how much damage they’re doing without much analysis required; these low numbers also keep the battles at a quick pace.
Even if the overarching narrative is simple, with Bowser again kidnapping Peach, there’s so much charm in each of this game’s locations and the characters within. Generic enemies from earlier games are given a chance to shine, and the subplots offer up their own whimsical moments.
Simple is a word I keep coming back to, but I think that’s what really sets Paper Mario apart; this is a minimalist RPG that does everything just right. There’s really not all that much to it, but the presentation is just that strong – and considering how many contemporary JRPGs really came down to rudimentary attacks in everything but boss battles, the lack of complexity does little to hurt. Ultimately, Paper Mario improves what Super Mario RPG started, a comedic RPG that still manages to capture the spirit of a classic Mario game.