To the story-driven, turn-based RPG format Squaresoft had previously lent Super Mario RPG: Legend Of The Seven Stars, Paper Mario added a traditionally Mario-esque eight-world structure to form a contiguously-explorable adventure. It was the first RPG I knew to question needlessly arbitrary HP counts (a typical amount of damage was “1”). And while enough Final Fantasy combat became passive busywork, Paper Mario’s battles required anticipation and timing, making them feel active. The Thousand-Year Door later took this foundation, and its lighthearted and wacky tone, to the power of the GameCube.
Past that, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems seemed to wax experimental. Super Paper Mario went for tackier art, a more traditionally opaque level-to-world hierarchy, and an action-first battle system, appearing to meld the original Super Mario Bros. with an RPG at something closer to the molecular level than the original did.
Then Sticker Star went another way: back to turn-based combat, where one consumable sticker – peeled from floors and walls all around – equalled one offensive or defensive move in a battle, and a Super Mario World-like map for quick transit between courses functioning like the locales of a point-and-click adventure, requiring revisits with special items to advance the plot. These items were useful in boss fights as well, which – if you could guess which to use – slammed a major enemy’s Achilles’ heel, turning a genuinely difficult fight into a manageable one.
At this point, I felt the series beginning to lose me. Dead ends with empty spots for special items presented themselves, seeming like pure guesswork. Use the wrong item – even a rare one – and lose your sticker: no warning, no undo. After my insistence on avoiding tips and spoilers resulted in multiple world tours with no progress, my “but I love Paper Mario” energy ran out, and I gave up.
In Color Splash, those boss-battle advantages became requirements; partway through a boss battle, you’d be cornered you until you used the right item. Here was a triple-A installment on the Wii U crafted by the industry’s best, informed by everything preceding it, the GamePad a window to paint and slice at the world the kind of clever way I’m typically over the moon about. And somehow, that feeling of bliss for which I loved the original was missing.
Over 20 years, Paper Mario borrowed and combined elements of many genres without becoming any. You’d think such bold, long-term experimentation would yield a superior product, like a well-tumbled rock, even if it wasn’t a conscious goal. So, why am I not tempted to play the newly-announced Paper Mario: The Origami King, and why did my return to play the original feel more like a relief?
The traditions of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda are also experimental ones, but each installment in their sagas makes the originals feel like prototypes, foundational and beloved but readily exceeded. Several sequels in each compete for my favourite of the series while the originals stay below.
On the other hand, I don’t think Rare's Donkey Kong ever got better than the original Donkey Kong Country. I loved the trilogy enough to exhaust every last secret, and Retro Studios’ “Returns” games were expertly executed; but they never quite reclaimed the elusive “it” that made the original feel more like a frontier than a game.
So it was with Paper Mario. I chose “elusive” rather than “ineffable” because, while I’ve never distilled it to a concept, I’ve always felt there is one, and wording it precisely feels like a task for a game designer. I think that precision is still beyond me, but I can tell the answer doesn’t lie simply in that opening history of the series’ mechanics and structure.
The music is one starting point – I know that has something to do with it. Paper Mario’s music is credited to Taishi Senda and Yukja Tsujiyoko. Looking at my records, I see I named my first iPod shuffle after the latter (in my habit of naming my portable devices after video game composers), which means I found it special. Paper Mario’s music knew what it was: simple, melodic, generally mimicking acoustic instruments and sparsely and starkly complemented with accompaniment. Each dish was a deliberately chosen handful of ingredients – usually just two or three – like a purist chef might pick with a mandate to avoid overcomplexity and confusion. Quaintness on purpose. Even when it was dire, it was optimistic. Most of all, it was sincere: though the story was framed as a children’s book and lived by off-the-wall dialogue, it attested to a world that felt real. I could live in this place, looking as it looked, feeling as it sounded, and never find myself asking “oh, come on – I’m supposed to believe this is reality”?
That feeling about the world must depend on more than just music. The general production design, the locational layouts, and the dialogue all play into it.
Which brings me to the dojo at the heart of Toad Town: a cozy rooftop room in which train a small Buzzy Beetle, a cloaked figure, and an old Toad master. In an early instance of dynamic audio, the town’s marimba allegretto would fade into something churning softly at double the tempo, complementing the muted cries and strikes of unseen students through the walls or floor.
Toad Town served as a respite between challenges; a staple source of emotional counterbalance in games, from The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons with their hometowns, to Resident Evil with its save rooms. The dojo itself served as a periodic source of unusually challenging opponents to optionally test your cumulative strength and skill, a staple of the saga – but as your opponents’ beneficiary, it was peaceful: a respite within a respite. The wooden rooftop room had no access from the rest of the building, an architectural pattern I cherish in real houses for its feeling of isolation and secrecy, and borrowed sentiments of stillness and contemplation from Eastern martial arts. So, while I completed its challenges, I thought of it as the place I’d most fondly revisit just for the feeling of being there. I’d just sit there.
That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say “it.” No game design jargon I’ve heard attempts to hone in on that type of quality. Even Miyamoto and Iwata’s strivings to put words to nebulous feelingsc at the foundation of design seem to land on more general targets.
I’m left suspecting that quality eludes description because it wasn’t designed. The dojo is not the level or world structure, and it’s not the music, and it’s not the battle system, and it’s not the characters and their dialogue, but it is the result of all of them. Decades later, when I think fondly on the game, I think of things like that. And those moments are why I call that game the best of the series.
I can almost hear one response: “Paper Mario wasn’t intended to be a comforting world of routine and relaxation – that’s what Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing is for. If you insist on evaluating games by that measure, evaluate those ones.”
Something about that strikes me like a bell. Not because it’s right, but because it feels like the fundamental error. The value of a game excludes part of the player’s positive experience, as defined by its creators or professional critics? It’s antithetical to William Golding’s opinion on how Lord of the Flies should be interpreted by readers:
The only thing that matters is, first, the experience of being in the story, moving through it. Then any interpretation you like. If it's yours, then that's the right one, because what's in a book is not what an author thought he put into it, it's what the reader gets out of it.
Nintendo 64 was the system to creatively render paper in 3D space, clearly leaving the creators asking what else paper could do. They’ve since rolled and unrolled it, crumpled it, rotated it on axis to make it invisible, flown, painted, stuck and unstuck it, and are poised to glorify its folding. The soundtracks embraced rhythmic electronic jams and neon techno synths. The humour, upheld by the characters’ power to relay the tongue-in-cheek thoughts of the designers, keeps the games timely and belies the creators’ enduring enthusiasm. But neither the glitz, nor the sharp-edged beats, nor the metafiction, nor the mechanically-creative possibilites of paper were ever critical to my appreciation of the series, except that paper enabled that visionary art to take its rightful place in the game itself.
Is that critiquing voice the “mistake” of Paper Mario’s designers as well? Rather than to examine the source of the decades-lasting residual feeling the original achieved, to experiment with mechanics until creating what they thought Paper Mario “should” be? It’s almost as though they didn’t trust the original to have been an original, in the way Zelda’s and Super Mario’s stewards trusted their respective cores.
“Sequel” has proven neither to imply better, or worse. It implies “what the designers choose to do.” And what’s currently considered “game design,” – now a refined subject of entire conventions and academic programs, serving what has become a thriving industry – isn’t everything. The experience of a player, listener, reader or viewer does not equal – perhaps cannot equal – what creators intend. It’s an observation I hope I make at the outset of any project.