“Mom, mom! I want to go to Gamestop!”
So we went. It was 2007, the year after the Wii had hit shelves, and I had my eye on some new games for the shiny silver Gamecube plugged into my parent’s TV that was so old, it still had static when you turned it on. There was one game I’d played at my friend’s house that I had to get for myself. So I walked up to the counter, traded in about 50 dollars worth of games for $3.50, and picked out my crowned jewel: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door.
The community fell in love with the game and franchise for the same reasons I did: memorable stories, hilarious and heartfelt writing, innovative characters, and an RPG element alien to the main title Mario games. Each game stars our titular Mario, but this time crumples up the old, “Save Peach through 8 Worlds and defeat Bowser” trope and recycles it, adding new characters while spotlighting new gameplay packaged in a neat paper gimmick. These games are so unique, fans have made the case that Paper Mario is not only a character separate from Mario, he’s in universe all his own, a theory that was later canonized when Nintendo released Mario and Luigi Paper Jam.
However, in some of the more recent titles, the community has seen a tear in the Paper Mario formula.
Along with many others, Youtuber Scott Falco has noticed this shift. In his “Side of Salt” series, he extends the idea that Paper Mario is in a different universe than the classic plumber. What if we took it a step further? What if instead of looking at the Paper Mario franchise as a whole, we crumple that up and throw it in the trash? In essence, Falco asks: What if the games take place in a split universe?
On one side are the Japanese-titled “Mario Story” games, which for this article we’re going to dub the “Paper Mario” games, focusing on story and RPG elements. On the other side lie the “Paper Mario” games, which keep with the idea of story but prioritize the essence of paper. With our perceptions torn down the middle and fed to a shredder, and with many more paper puns to be had (at least until I get tired of them), we must start from the beginning, examining what makes these games RPGs, their reception amongst the community and fanbase, and why Nintendo has gone in the directions they have with this series.
THE PAPER MARIO UNIVERSE
When Squarespace partnered with Nintendo in the ‘90s to create Super Mario RPG, gamers everywhere rejoiced. Nintendo took a character we all loved and added new gimmicks, a new story, and a new villain. But when development began on Super Mario RPG 2, Nintendo and Squarespace didn’t see eye to eye, and since Squarespace owned part of the rights to Super Mario RPG, Nintendo couldn’t make a direct sequel.
Going back to the drawing board, the team wanted to come up with a game that included those same RPG elements and incorporated the new graphics and 3-D modeling of the Nintendo 64. Thus, Mario Story, or in the West, Paper Mario, was born. The game went on to be a commercial and critical success, prompting a sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, also released to critical and commercial success. The community knows this story, albeit in much more detail, and also love the first two games of the series, so why the background?
In order to understand both the split universe and the split community, understanding the background is key. The development of the first game, and in essence its successor, recreated what made Super Mario RPG so beloved and found ways to expand on it. Nintendo put their focus on the key differential between that title and the rest of the Mario franchise: the RPG element. In the first Paper Mario game, you control Mario as he explores vast new worlds— many outside the Mushroom Kingdom— helps numerous people along the way through sidequests, and levels up through new abilities, companions, equipment, and experience points. All of these are staples of an RPG. The second game expanded on that, with even more partners, more exploration, and the addition of post-game content.
As Falco puts it, “It wasn’t a world made with paper; it was essentially a Broadway Production with Paper Players.”
These games are so beloved because of their RPG variety. Between the hundreds of unique characters and equippable badges unseen in other games, the possibilities are nearly endless. Add in the turn-based battle system and you’ve got an RPG recipe for success. This not only lent itself to the massive following of the two games, it gave rise to a dedicated community of people who want to explore every avenue this game has to offer. It has gotten, and is currently at, a point where glitch hunting is an art, with new glitches, routes, and overall crazy things about the franchise being discovered every day. There are even rom hacks of the original game for veteran players or masochists.
This brings us to Super Paper Mario, the third installment in the franchise. Falco says the game doesn’t really belong in either universe, but I feel it still fits within the cutout requirements of this one. You still gain experience points, have partners with unique abilities, and juggle so many side quests, it’s hard to keep track of which one you’re completing at any given time. Some people even praise it as the best story of any Paper Mario game (looking at you, The Completionist.) However, this is definitely where the franchise started to turn, focusing heavily on gimmicks and cementing itself as one of the weaker entries of the series.
In Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, you mainly play as Mario in his quest to save the world, but for brief intermissions between chapters, you play as Peach and Bowser. During every other Bowser intermission, you play as King Koopa through a side-scrolling minigame that pays homage to Mario’s platforming roots. This was the inspiration for Super Paper Mario, as the entire game is in 2-D with the exception of Mario’s ability to flip between dimensions. They also removed the turn-based battle system in favor of live battles. On the upside, you were not only able to have numerous companions, you could play as four different characters: Mario, Peach, Bowser, and Luigi.
While the game had many positives, the move away from the original premise that made Paper Mario and its sequel so great shocked and angered fans, who cried out for a return to form. Nintendo kind-of listened but moreso pulled a SEGA and went ham on gimmicks. Which leads us to…
THE PAPER MARIO UNIVERSE
The Paper Mario community drank from a dry well for a while. Then, five years later, Nintendo released the first handheld Paper Mario game on the 3DS. It looked like a return to form, with new abilities, the use of 3-D space, and 2-D characters, but there was something off. It hit shelves. People played it. Then they hated it. This was Paper Mario Sticker Star, considered by the majority of players as the worst of the franchise. While it did have general critical and commercial success, the fan base and community loathed the game.
Sticker Star returned to three dimensions and a turn-based battle system, but they didn’t keep much else. No longer were you able to play with numerous companions, instead only having one (basically a Mario version of Navi from Zelda.) Stickers now controlled all battles, whether as one-use items or power-ups. Gone were all the interesting and unique characters that made the first three titles stand out; in came hundreds and hundreds of Toads, which— spoiler alert— would remain a staple. There was also no post-game content, a flash point of Thousand Year Door and Super Paper Mario. Finally, your main enemy was Bowser, albeit a possessed Bowser, but Bowser nonetheless.
Here is where we see a true shift from “A Broadway production with Paper Players” to “A world made with paper.” Rather than just having a paper aesthetic, Nintendo doubled down on the sticker aspect, infiltrating every part of the game play. Other than the already-mentioned sticker battles, stickers must be found and placed in order to progress, the six “Royal Stickers” became the main objective, and a talking sticker even became your only companion. The game also introduced “Things,” stickers of real life 3-D objects like a fire extinguisher or a giant cat thrown into Paper Mario’s world.
Regardless of whether you’re an originalist or you enjoy the new games, almost everyone agrees Sticker Star’s adhesive didn’t hold very long.
Four years later, on the Wii U, Nintendo gave us another Paper Mario game, Paper Mario Color Splash. To the naked eye, the game looked like a direct sequel to Sticker Star. This is because the game was marketed as a direct sequel to Sticker Star. It had the same graphics and design, the stickers were only slightly reformed into battle cards, “Things” made a return, you only had one companion (this time a paint can), and you couldn’t move 5 in-game feet without seeing a Toad. Also, Bowser was the main villain, again, and he was possessed, again. Before release, fans already wanted to set the game on fire and watch it burn, and it was understandable why. There was even a widely-circulated petition to cancel the game.
When Color Splash hit shelves, half of the community went, “See? See? We just wanted the first two games, why did you give us this garbage?” The other half went, “Hey, this game’s pretty good.”
While it didn’t exactly return to form, the gameplay was fun, the world was expansive, and some people even thought the writing was funnier than Thousand Year Door (looking at you again, The Completionist.) However, it was clear that Nintendo was still very interested in keeping the paper aspect of these games in full view. The opening cutscene involves a color-drained Toad folded into a letter, and when you first meet your paint-can companion, they’re in 3-D only long enough to give you the power of paint before becoming 2-D like everyone else. Another gimmick in this game is to repaint the world that has been stripped of its color, requiring you to hammer white spaces when you come across them. You can also use the gamepad to “cut out” various parts of the map in order to advance and find secrets.
Color Splash’s reuse of Sticker Star’s papercraft world made many fans see red even though the game was commercially and critically successful, even becoming IGN’s Wii U Game of the Year. However, fans knew that after Color Splash, the Paper Mario team had cemented going in a new direction and it was only a matter of time before the next installment.
Enter COVID-19, an abbreviation and number combo that makes you wish you could shred and throw yourself in the recycling bin. With everyone stuck at home, video games became an even hotter commodity, with Switches selling faster than hotcakes. Then one day we all woke up to see a new trailer released by Nintendo for a new game on the Switch: Paper Mario: The Origami King. The name alone tipped off fans this would be another installment in the Paper Mario franchise. And then, in the opening seconds of the trailer, you see Princess Peach, folded into an origami version of herself, opening a trap door and sending Mario to his presumed death. Everyone went, “What?”
The community lost. Its. Mind. Videos upon videos theorized what this new game would be like, accumulating in a mess of speculative battle systems, inter-game similarities, and paper puns. When all was said and done, the gaming channel of Youtube flooded with 2 hour videos about a 2 minute trailer.
As more and more trailers came out, people got more of an idea of what the game would be, and it was clear they were simultaneously taking more risks and going back to Paper Mario’s roots. For starters, you seemed to have your jump and hammer abilities at all times, as well as multiple partners. However, they revealed the battle system would be completely different, this time having you maneuver rings to line up enemies and solve puzzles to defeat bosses. Also, much like Color Splash and Sticker Star, the idea of “real world” objects made a return, as one of the bosses is literally colored pencils.
Upon release, the community was divided again. The writing is great, there are plenty of unique characters, Bowser isn’t the main villain, and there are multiple parts of the game where you gain new partners. Yet, the game was still very linear, conspicuously lacking side quests, using new battling mechanics, and the new partners are only temporary. All said and done, it still seemed like a step in the right direction, with many Youtubers and streamers calling out the die-hard fans for not even giving the game a chance even while creative liberties stretched it from the original.
There is also one massive difference between the Paper Mario series and the Paper Mario series not yet specified: experience points. There are no experience points in the Paper Mario series, meaning there isn’t necessarily a reason to battle other than forced encounters and bosses. This fundamental element of what made Paper Mario an RPG has been stripped in the past 3 games, and I think this is what’s stopping fans from giving these games a chance. If there was a leveling system, a true way to show that as you progressed you got stronger, many problems would be solved. Turn-based battling is a staple of many RPGs and was fundamental to the success of the original two. This feature, combined with the gaining of experience points to show progression and higher ability, is truly the extra layer that made the Paper Mario franchise an RPG instead of an action adventure.
END OF CHAPTER
Paper Mario has had its ups and downs, but for the most part, it has still maintained a thriving and dedicated community. The fact so many fans have intense feelings for what the franchise was and has become proves that they care about it. Whether you’re a Paper Mario fan or a Paper Mario fan, I just hope you enjoy the games, and hopefully one day you’ll take your child to Gamestop and trade in all your gaming equipment for a dollar of in-store credit (adjusted for inflation.)