Way back in 1996 something magical happened. A company named Square developed a Mario RPG game, and that game has since become a classic from the 16-bit era, setting a standard for all Mario RPGs to come afterward. Paper Jam is the latest installment in the Mario & Luigi franchise, and continues the tradition of putting a wacky twist on the standard “Bowser kidnaps Peach” plotline. This time the Paper World has invaded the Mushroom Kingdom, and Bowser has teamed up with Paper Bowser, but despair not, for Paper Mario has also joined the fray, and the three-man team of Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario is set on an adventure equipped with new items and special moves, but be warned: if you’re a completionist, you’re gonna have a bad time (see the final section, “Why this game is painful for perfectionists”).
Double the Mario
At it’s core, Paper Jam feels like a Mario game, mainly because of the familiar setting, level design, and enemies. Whether I’m in the Beanbean Kingdom or Delfino Plaza, so long as I see Mario jumping on a bad guy’s head, it’ll feel like a Mario game. The addition of Paper Mario blends two different styles of Mario gaming together, but the game is most definitely a “3D Mario” game.
I do, however, suspect that long time fans of the Mario & Luigi series will feel something is off about this title. Super Mario RPG took Mario and co. to various lands fighting new enemies, eventually to the big boss, Smithy. Most of the subsequent Mario RPG games have followed Super Mario RPG‘s path, taking place in a brand new setting (Pi’illo Island, Bowser’s Tummy) with a new villain carrying out a dastardly plot.
This formula is distinctively absent in Paper Jam, as the game takes place in the Mushroom Kingdom with just Bowser and Paper Bowser. I think the reason this feels dull is because Bowser and the Mushroom Kingdom feature so prominently in the regular Mario platforming games, and that is what made the new kingdoms and villains in the RPG games so refreshing. Paper Jam lacks the sense of stepping into a new world that past Mario RPG games had, and it feels like a step backwards for the series. In this case, there was, figuratively, too much Mario.
So What is New?
Besides the coming together of the 3D and Paper worlds, Paper Jam has three major and unique gameplay features: trio attacks, battle cards, and papercraft battles.
Trio attacks are special attacks initiated by Paper Mario, and require all three brothers to use. These are the strongest attacks available, and probably the most fun to execute. Almost all of them require precise button timing, and feel pretty satisfying when you pull the attack off perfectly. My personal favourite is the Whirligig, which is good for one-hit killing big groups as well as dealing heavy damage to stronger enemies. Each trio attack is new and never before seen in any previous Mario RPG game.
Battle cards replace badges this time around. Like the badges, the cards serve as a form of resource management, though their effects are more immediate in battle, because you have to use them in real time. You will need star points to use the cards, which can be accumulated by performing attacks with precision and accuracy. The effects of the cards range from power-ups in attack and defense to gaining extra EXP and coins at the end of battle. For me they added a neat dimension to the gameplay aspect; they are good for leveling up faster during the main game, and excellent for getting S ranks in the boss arena, provided you pick the correct cards to bring with you. Once you figure out how to optimize your card sets, however, the game becomes substantially easier, as you’ll be leveling up faster and defeating enemies twice as fast. I don’t think abstaining from battle cards would make sense, since they are a key part of the game, but fortunately they aren’t too intrusive either.
Lastly, there is the papercraft battle system. Throughout the story you’ll be periodically thrown into a papercraft battle, where you control a giant mech-like figure, and must ram your way past other mech-like enemies. Check out this video for a sample.
I did not enjoy these battles at all. They were too easy to the point of being meaningless, as the method for victory was repeated ad nauseum, which was to either knock them out from behind or wait for them to attack, dodge, then stomp them. During the main game it’s virtually impossible to lose, and the battle is prolonged by the fact that sometimes you have to charge up your papercraft by doing a short time-based minigame. This wouldn’t be so bad since all the battles are one-offs and take place in varied settings, but the fact that they return in the arcade is what makes them so frustrating.
Why This Game is Painful for Perfectionists
There are three sets of challenges you must complete if you want to complete Paper Jam 100%. The first is the arcade.
The Boss arena sets up a rematch against every boss in the game, and in order to achieve S ranks you must get “Excellent” on your attacks, take minimal damage (sometimes you can’t hit at all), and you must beat the boss quickly. There’s nothing new about the battles, you just have to redo them, and do it perfectly. Personally, this style of challenge doesn’t really appeal to me. As the gamer, I’ve already demonstrated that I can beat the boss once, and asking me to do it again without getting hit is just a matter of trial and error, restarting until you get the timing down. That’s why getting the S ranks here didn’t really feel satisfying. It was tedious and repetitive, because you’ll be doing the same Trio and Bros. attacks again and again to try and finish the battle as fast as possible.
I already stated above the reason why I don’t like the papercraft battles, but having to them again without getting hit (in order to get the S rank) is just too much. Not only is it a rinse-and-repeat chore, but sometimes it’s just unfair. Where the enemy bounces, the timing of when the enemy chooses to attack, and whether your own papercraft falls into lava after a bounce, all of these things are random, and this experience was sometimes even rage-inducing since you have to start all over even after messing up one little thing near the end.
The only actual fun part of the arcade is the Attackathon, where you try to get a high score with the Trio and Bros. attacks from the main game. This is the best feature of the arcade because the moves are not the same as in the main story, but variations that add a bit of extra challenge. This is the correct way to reuse something from a core part of the gameplay: keep the basic mechanics and controls, but introduce slightly new features so that the basic gameplay remains familiar, and the Attackathon does this just right.
Continuing the journey for 100%, after the arcade you’ll want to complete the Expert Challenges, which range from getting five perfect special attacks in a row to counterattacking enemies a certain number of times. The most frustrating of these challenges is dodging five attacks in a row from every enemy in the game, and the most frustrating enemy to dodge is Paper Sombrero Guy.
This enemy represents a critically poor design decision on behalf of the game designers. First off, the encounter with Paper Sombrero Guy is random. Sometimes he shows up in battle with certain enemies, and sometimes he doesn’t, so there is no consistent way to meet him in battle. Secondly, when you are lucky enough to see him, sometimes he will randomly run away from the battle, completing negating the encounter. Last but not least, his dodge is hella difficult! Even if you’re lucky enough to have him attack you, it is extremely frustrating to learn the timing of his attack, and it even has a random variation that you need to watch out for as well. Just one of these elements (random encounter, random fleeing, next-to-impossible dodging requirements) would’ve been annoying but bearable. It is inconceivable how anyone thought combining all three into one enemy was a good idea.
Lastly, to officially get 100% in this game you must find every question mark block and drill spot (buried treasure) in the game. The good news: there’s a counter to let you know what’s remaining in each area of the game. The bad news: that’s it. To find it you have to literally scour through the entire world map, in every corner and crevice. Does that sound fun? There are different ways an RPG can implement a 100% system. My personal favourite is the inclusion of a bestiary, because it requires you to go out and explore not for a little “x” in the ground, but for enemies that are clearly visible and intuitively simple to locate. Sometimes you have to steal an item off that enemy, other times seeing/defeating the enemy is enough. Either way, this makes it feel like you actually went out and accomplished something. In Paper Jam you’re just looking for small marks on the terrain, which fills out a counter in the menu. It just doesn’t feel worthwhile or fun at all.
Despite the last section being quite negative, I would highly recommend Paper Jam to any Nintendo fan. The only frustrating thing about this game is trying to complete it 100%, but that is completely optional. The rest of the game is what we’ve come to expect from Nintendo: a charming story mode with a solid gameplay foundation featuring our favourite plumbers, and everything else from the lovable franchise. If you’ve played the previous Mario & Luigi games, you’ll definitely want to check this one out. It will help pass the time as we wait for Fire Emblem Fates and The Legend of Zelda Wii U.
This has been a gamobo review.