Paper Mario: A Series Folding Under Pressure?

For any series that spans multiple games across the years, there’s bound to be changes, yes? Whether those changes are good or bad is up to the people who play the games. And like movies, music or books, chances are if you like one entry, you’ll give the other ones a chance. But what if the changes done from one entry to the next change is too much?

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I’ve been wanting to talk about Paper Mario series from a while now. And with E3 2016’s in-depth look at the latest entry, Color Splash, I think now’s the perfect opportunity to share my thoughts and opinions on the series.

This article is broken up into different sections: First, I’ll go into a short history of the series.Then, my personal background. And finally, the main point of the article.

Feel free to skip past the history and background if it does not interest you.

History

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The Paper Mario series began on the Nintendo 64 as a spiritual successor to Super Mario RPG, Nintendo/Square collaboration on the SNES that was met with high acclaim. Originally titled “Super Mario RPG 2” and Mario Story in Japan, it became to be known as Paper Mario elsewhere due to its unique graphical style by the game’s art director, Naohiko Aoyama.

Paper Mario and it’s sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, play with traditional RPG elements: turn-based combat, abilities that cost points (Flower Points [FP], in this case), items to use in battle, special attacks, to name some.
Unique to the games, however, are partners. These partners are characters that Mario meet throughout his journey and end up joining his party, assisting him in battle or helping with certain obstacles in the overworld.
Also notable in the games are action commands. Originating from Super Mario RPG and becoming a staple of Mario RPGs since, you have the ability to hit a button at a certain time to increase your damage output.

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Also notable in this series is that Paper Mario DOES NOT GIVE A FUCK.

Story wise, the Paper Mario series is well-known among the fanbase to have distinct characters and rich dialogue.. This element was also apparent in Super Mario RPG and the Mario & Luigi series, another Mario RPG series that premiered in 2003 with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.

In 2007, Super Paper Mario was released for the Wii. This game was a departure from the typical RPG fashion of the series, instead opting to be a 2D/3D side scrolling action-adventure with some RPG elements. It was met with mostly good reception upon release, despite the gameplay changes. The story still featured unique characters and dialogue, eventually growing onto fans of the older games. But generally, some were hoping for a ‘traditional’ Paper Mario game for the next release.

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Despite these changes though, Super Paper Mario is the best selling Paper Mario game, selling almost four million copies. In fact, it was recently released on the Wii U Virtual Console.

Finally, in 2012, the series ‘returned to form’ through the game, Paper Mario: Sticker Star. The game featured Paper Mario on a quest to save the Princess, with help from a Sticker fairy named Kersti and the power of Stickers placed throughout the world. Overall, the game received neutral to positive reviews from websites and publications. But from the fanbase, it was heavily criticized due to a lack of story, characters and gameplay. Mario does not have any partners sans Kersti, many characters in the game are from regular Mario titles and the RPG elements were altered from their classic roots. You will not find many positive reviews about this game.
But once again, despite the changes, Sticker Star is the second-best selling Paper Mario game, selling well over two million copies.

Since then, fans have been clamoring for a “true” Paper Mario sequel. And for a bit, the series was thought to be dead after the previous entry’s poor reception. But earlier this year, during March 2016’s Nintendo Direct, it was revealed that another Paper Mario game was in the works…in the same vain as Sticker Star. Named Paper Mario: Color Splash, it was very recently shown during Nintendo’s E3 stream and met with much of the same negative feedback.

Paper Mario: Color Splash will release worldwide on October 7, 2016 exclusively for Wii U.

Personal Background

I remember my first interaction with the Paper Mario series back in 2003, roughly. One of my brother’s friends was showing this game for the N64, called Paper Mario. I heard vaguely of it before but never knew much. He was showing me how game worked, the RPG elements such as HP, FP and BP. What really caught my interested was how he said that in the beginning, Mario was beaten by Bowser. To me, Mario always defeated Bowser so for it to be the opposite was…interesting.
Other than that, it’s all I heard about Paper Mario at the time. Around the time of The Thousand Year Door’s release, Nintendo Power (vol. 185, to be exact) had a poster of the game.

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Sadly, I couldn’t find the exact poster but here’s the cover.

Usually if there was a poster my brother didn’t want, I took it. And that’s what happened in this case: I put a poster on my wall of a game I never played. (Come on, I know I’m not the only one who’s done that.) That poster stayed on my wall all the way up until I moved from that place in 2011. It’s most likely in some boxes somewhere; I should try and find it someday.

Anyway, my interaction with the games as a kid was very limited to seeing someone else play it and a poster on my wall. I did remember looking up at that poster every now and then, wondering how the game was like. Several years later, I would finally know for myself.

Around 2013, I wasn’t doing too much: Graduated semi-recently and kinda scattered a bit. In short, I had a lot of free time. Early in the year, I saw someone doing a playthrough of Thousand Year Door. While watching a bit of it, I thought to myself, “You know, this looks cool. I sort of want to play it.” Luckily, I knew a friend who had it and asked to borrow the game. And the rest is history. I played it pretty frequently and had fun. Took me about 2-3 months since I wanted to take my time. But overall, it was a good experience: Meeting characters, witty dialogue, timed attacks, unique visuals, etc.

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Some time later, I got the original Paper Mario on Wii VC and later, Wii U VC. It was also a great game and I could see where many ideas and things from the Thousand Year Door came from. In some ways, I even liked 64 over TTYD, such as the environments.

Honestly, I could discuss these games at great lengths. But I just wanted to give a lead-in to my personal experience with the series and how I feel about it. I’m not some bandwagoner or troll; I have put time into this series and don’t regret it.

Yes, including Sticker Star…

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Sticker Star: Is It Really That Bad?

I first heard about the ‘atrocity’ of Sticker Star before I even played the series myself. Upon it’s release in 2012, it was talked to great lengths about how different it was, the removal of characters, story, personality into some bland game. I didn’t know the series well by then but after I heard about how you could run away from battles, even the final boss, I just believed it was as bad as everyone said it was.

But then a few years later upon playing the first two Paper Mario games myself, I got curious: Was it really that bad? I’m already a skeptic when it comes to criticism since there are a lot of things I like that many dislike (the Super Mario Bros. movie, for example). Overall, I try very much to be objective enough to recognize quality. So when I looked at Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the intrigue initially came from its “bad” reputation but the actual purchase came from it looking, dare I say it, fun?

I’m just going to say this upfront: Yes, the game is different from previous entries in the series. Does that make it the best? No. But does that make it horrendous? No.
The game does lack things from earlier in the series: Partners, Original characters, RPG elements, deep stories, to name the notable ones. But it also keeps certain elements: turn-based battles, witty dialogue, random events, puzzles, all the while adding new ones.

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I’ve put a good chunk of time playing Sticker Star and a decent portion of it was played while on the bus or train going towards school. The dialogue was fun to read, events were entertaining to watch, puzzle could be quite difficult and managing one huge finite resource is more challenging than you think.
The best game I can compare it to is Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon. Both games have differences from their established first entry, leading to a fresh playstyle while retaining the feeling of the series.

Here’s what I suggest: go watch gameplay of Sticker Star or Color Splash for at least 10-15 minutes. But you must be open-minded; allow yourself to possibly enjoy it or be amused. And if there isn’t anything that interests you at all, then go ahead and continue to hate the game, the series, Miyamoto and Nintendo. If you do become entertained, however, take a deeper look into the game and consider that just maybe…it isn’t that bad.

Paper Mario Origins: From Paper to…Paper

So far, there is only two real points that give insight into Sticker Star’s development. One comes from an Iwata Asks segment where the late Nintendo president, Satoru Iwata, talked with Sticker Star’s developers. The other bits of info comes from recent interviews with Color Splash’s assistant producer, Risa Tabata.

In the Iwata Asks, the game’s developers discussed about the mindset behind Sticker Star’s development. The whole interview is quite interesting, as many Iwata Asks interviews are. But I will point out some key points of discussion:

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Back in 1997, there was a bit discussion about what direction to take the next Mario RPG in. Like HAL Laboratory (known for the Kirby series), the team at Intelligent Systems wanted to make a product good enough to stand beside Super Mario 64. So while waiting around, Naohiko Aoyama created the rough image above in an attempt to serve as a kickoff point. And when a planning meeting was held, they called in Aoyama asking him to ‘bring back that picture’.

Made from 3D polygons, it’s reminiscent of a picture book with it’s “paper-thin” 2D backgrounds and characters. According to Aoyama, “I think about that time there was a trend of going for realistic 3D in home consoles, but I thought it might be an interesting twist to make use of those capabilities to use 3D in emphasizing a 2D appearance.” In their words, the style felt very ‘Super Mario’. And apparently, it made a strong impression on Shigeru Miyamoto.

Fast forward to about twelve years later, it was evident that a Paper Mario game on the 3DS would work well. Miyamoto wanted there to be a big change in the atmosphere of Paper Mario so Aoyama was appointed ‘Project Director’, presumably because it was his original design that started the whole series. To further follow that idea, there was a complete renewal of the staff. For many, this was their first time working on a Paper Mario game.

Sticker Star went through a number of changes in development. Starting with the first demo (which ‘felt like a port of TTYD’), each advancement shed off aspects of the former games, for one reason or another; the biggest of them being original characters, deep story and traditional RPG elements. So, then the question now comes down to: why the changes?

Why the Changes?

Miyamoto did play a big part in the development of Sticker Star. In fact, it looks like he was the one that put together the main parts of the development team as well as the one spearheading for a certain direction. It was a different direction, but this wasn’t the first time the series took a new direction since the main director of the first three Paper Mario games, Ryota Kawade, was the one who came up with the idea of the drastic shift from RPG to platformer with Super Paper Mario. He and producer Kensuke Tanabe agreed upon making it an ‘action-adventure’ game, in hopes to make it more “accessible” to a wider audience.

With the idea of making the series more ‘accessible’, Sticker Star definitely took inspiration from the parent ‘Super Mario’ series: using established characters, distinguishable locations and emphasis on gameplay rather than story. In fact, it looks like the direction Miyamoto and the team looked towards was the original drawing that inspired the style of the series.

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In case you forgot.

If anything, Paper Mario went back to the drawing board. Literally.

In regards to the games’ removal of traditional RPG elements, I’ll refer to the interview with Color Splash’s associate producer, Risa Tabata. To paraphrase, “…Since we have [the] established Mario & Luigi RPG series, in order to differentiate these two series that we have running concurrently, we’ve tried to focus more on the non-RPG elements for the Paper Mario games.”
Now, this quote and similar ones have left fans bothered since they believe the games are ‘different enough’ to coexist. In fact, this and the removal of story and characters is baffling to some, since Paper Mario did start out as ‘Super Mario RPG 2‘ and was called ‘Mario Story‘ in Japan.

They’re valid points but officially, this is pretty much all there is as to why the changes to the games.

My Theory on the Shift in Style

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To get a full grasp on why things changed, we have to look at how things came to be in the first place. The first Mario RPG was Super Mario RPG for the Super Nintendo. This game was made with Square (makers of Final Fantasy) in an effort to benefit each other: Square wanted to a wider demographic with their RPGs and Nintendo was interested in making an RPG. Due to this collaboration, an incredibly unique game was created with the intricacies of an RPG combined with the action gameplay of platformers set in a familiar and different world.

To the surprise of no one, Super Mario RPG was largely developed by Square with Nintendo’s assistance. When it came time for Nintendo to develop an RPG on their own (Paper Mario), they took heavy inspiration from Super Mario RPG: unique characters, utilizing a magic source (FP, in this instance), far off lands, intricate story, etc. The only real development they brought to the table WAS the ‘paper’ art style. When Thousand Year Door came around, they essentially doubled down on that formula. But by the time of Super Paper Mario, a big shift moved it away from being an RPG to more of an ‘action’ based game.

Meanwhile, during Paper Mario’s series development, there was an RPG developed by second-party company, AlphaDream, called Tomato Adventure. This game was initially created for the Game Boy Color but shifted over to the Game Boy Advance once that system was released. Tomato Adventure went on to serve as a big inspiration to the Mario & Luigi series, the OTHER Mario RPG series. This series would go on to be very successful and as stated by Color Splash’s producer Risa Tabata, the “established RPG series”. So what makes Mario & Luigi more worthy of having that distinction?

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AlphaDream happens to include prominent staff members from Square Co., including one such man named Chihiro Fujioka. And Fujioka just happens to be the director of Super Mario RPG and has been involved with every entry of the Mario & Luigi games.
If that doesn’t prove that Mario & Luigi can fill the shoes left by Super Mario RPG then I don’t know what will.

And one might say, “But why does Mario & Luigi play so different then?” Consider this: outside of characters, what makes Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario a Mario game? If you remove the traces of Mario, the game is largely the same; it’s a very basic RPG framework. The most unique thing was the timed hits, which was carried over into all other Mario RPGs. It may seem like Nintendo was in the wrong here from moving away from Super Mario RPG but you have to remember who Nintendo is: They prioritize gameplay over all else. They didn’t want an “RPG with Mario characters”, they wanted a “Mario RPG”. A game that doesn’t just looks like Mario but ‘plays’ like it; a unique experience that only Nintendo can do.

With all that said and done, where did that leave Paper Mario? Well, Super Paper Mario showed that the series could survive change and innovation. So between Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi, the choice became clear. The hardcore fan base may be into the original way of the games but the paper artstyle is visually enticing to newcomers and allows for unique gameplay. Rather than make two Mario RPGs to satisfy the same audience, why not make two different games to appeal to a wider spread?

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Floating in a blue abyss playing Paper Mario doesn’t seem THAT bad, really.

Conclusion

In the end, it’s not simply that Nintendo is ignorant to their fans. Nintendo, for the most part, has always made the games they want to make. They make the trail, they don’t follow it. Game development takes a long time so more often than not, it’s fruitless to make a game to cash in on a trend. Remember how many zombie games there were after Nazi Zombies? They’re still coming.

Besides, Nintendo still manages well with their IPs, especially taking Pokemon into account. Sure, they’re not always making the most amount they could but considering their properties are reaching thirty years old and still making money says something. Ask Rovio how Angry Birds is treating them still. Or Blizzard about World of Warcraft. Or Activision about Guitar Hero.

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Remaking the same stuff only works for so long. Nintendo knows that better than anyone. It may look like they’re heading towards a bad direction but in reality, they’re doing what they’ve always done: innovating. Creating new ways to play and pushing out new ideas. I remember as a kid on the Nintendo 64, seeing them do things that haven’t been done before. That trend started with the NES and carried on with the Super Nintendo, the Gamecube, the Wii, the Wii U and I’m confident it will continue with the NX and beyond.

For Nintendo, the status quo is always changing. Give it some time and you’ll see these games play differently again in the future. Perhaps even Paper Mario will go through another gameplay change, causing people to rise in outrage due to it changing from an ‘action-adventure’ game to a…puzzle game or something.

So wish Nintendo luck in regards to the future, to Paper Mario as well as all their other franchises. Actually, scratch that: it’s probably best to leave luck to heaven.

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