"Even after all this time, Paper Mario is some of the most fun to be had when playing a video game."
When I review retro titles, I tend to place them into one of two categories. The first is disappointment. Many games are simply not as much fun as they used to be. Whether it's due to the graphics, story, or aging game design, retro titles do not always match our fond memories of them. Luckily, Paper Mario falls on the brighter side of the fence. Sure, the graphics have aged and the sound quality is obviously from the last decade, but it's still just as much fun as it was and hey, that's why we play games anyway, isn't it!?
Told in the form of a pop-up story book, Paper Mario begins like many other Mario games. After Mario accepts an invitation to Peach's castle for a party, and probably some delicious cake, Bowser shows up to capture the Princess and show Mario who's boss! To mix it up a little, he did some pre-planning this time and stole the Star Rod – a magical item that grants wishes – from Star Haven. After lifting the Princess' castle into the sky, he proceeds to make himself invincible using the power of the rod and promptly boots Mario from the window of the castle! The energetic plumber makes haste to rescue his fair Princess, but he will first need the power of the Star Spirits to counteract the powerful Star Rod!
Even if I try to tell the story in an exciting way and use lots of exclamation marks, it's difficult to differentiate it from any other Mario experience. It still boils down to defeating Bowser and saving the Princess. Is this a bad thing? I don't think so, nor do I think anyone plays a Mario game for a deep plot. Regardless, the story is consistently fun and, with plenty of humor thrown in, it's an extremely enjoyable experience. What makes it really memorable, though, are the characters and side-stories. There are some truly wonderful, funny, and interesting characters spread throughout the large world. Take Koopa Koot, for example – the aging Koopa who likes to send young'uns out on his errands, or Whacka – a kind, but odd, creature under constant abuse because whacking him with a hammer creates a useful item, and even Gourmet Guy – a huge
Shy Guy with a passion for food. I could go on and on. Each character has numerous lines of well written dialogue throughout the game that not only bring you into the world, but into the lives of each inhabitant as well.
I don't think anyone would disagree if I said the driving force of every Mario title is gameplay. Paper Mario goes above and beyond the call of duty with its fun turn-based battle RPG formula. Like most other traditional RPGs, your time in game is split between exploring the world and fighting off all sorts of enemies that stand in your way. Battles have you squaring off against enemies in a turn-based arena, where you can jump on your enemies, hammer them into the ground, or use items. To make things interesting you obtain an item early on that allows you to deal more damage and defend yourself by timing the A button correctly. Once you start rescuing the Star Spirits, they'll grant you new powers for battle too.
There are many different enemy types to fight during the game and many require varied strategies to defeat. Spiked Goombas or Flaming Guys, for example, hurt you if you jump on them, so you want to pound them with your hammer instead. Some enemies may be near-invulnerable until flipped over with a jump and so-on. Most enemies and bosses can be defeated in multiple ways, and some require you to be quite clever or observe carefully. There's rarely a palette swap to be seen as well, and each enemy brings a new challenge to the table. The bosses are particularly well designed.
Adding to the depth are equip-able badges to be collected throughout the adventure. These can do anything from raising Mario's attack or defense, to giving him new abilities, to changing the sound effects and everything in-between! There are 80 badges in total – many very well hidden – which can be mixed and matched for some interesting strategic results! Every time you gain a level, you choose between upgrading your HP, FP (used for special attacks) or BP (badge points). Favoring some stats above others allows for vastly different strategies, and there's no real way to mess it up either. It is quite possible, albeit extremely difficult, to play through the entire game without upgrading your HP once.
Accompanying Mario on his journey are a wide variety of companions, each with their own skill set. There are eight in total and not only do they have distinctive skills in battle, they all have a useful application in the field too. Goombario has a unique comment not only for every area in the game, but even for every single NPC! These can provide insight, secrets and tips or sometimes just some funny lines. Kooper can be kicked to pick up items in the distance and Bombette can be used to blow up walls. After acquiring a new partner you'll be keen to explore through already-visited locations again to reach previously inaccessible areas or secrets. Swapping party members in and out can be done with a simple flick of the right control stick. Between chapters you'll even get to take control of Princess Peach! She may be captive in her own castle, but she's far from useless! She picks up useful information for Mario as well as a number of exclusive items that can be passed on to him. It's this diversity in gameplay that keeps the game interesting, fresh and lots of fun.
In the field, there are a massive amount of activities and side-quests to partake in along with hundreds of characters to talk to. There are plenty of different side-quests, including two game-spanning ones that will take you all over the world. The world itself is surprisingly huge and will have you wandering across deserts, climbing snow-covered mountains, skipping through flower fields and even shrinking into a world inside a toy-box, just to name a few! Other than that you can spend time delivering lost letters, collecting all 160 star pieces, locating badges, fighting in the dojo, finding secret items and areas, cooking various items together, playing mini-games in the playroom and even sneaking a peak at Luigi's private diary! An average play straight through the game would take you somewhere between fifteen to twenty hours, but taking the time to fully experience and enjoy the game will take you to closer to thirty. There's fairly decent replay value too. Though there is no new game+, being able to upgrade your stats differently on a second play-through makes for a dramatically different experience. This was my sixth time playing through, and I still found items and dialogue I had never seen before.
Admittedly, the game is starting to show its age. Characters and environments look a little rough around the edges and sometimes a little pixely. Luckily, the game still retains its storybook charm and rarely will complaints come to mind. The bright colors and beautiful scenery still set the stage well and make the world just as interesting to explore as it was a decade ago. The animation holds up quite well and the fun, spunky nature of the game shines through. As I mentioned briefly earlier, it's really nice to see the graphical variation in characters and enemies. In recent years the frequency of recycled enemy models in RPGs has been quite frustrating, and it's refreshing to see the diversity in Paper Mario.
There's always been something about Mario music that I, and many others, have loved. It's fun, it's upbeat and it's catchy. I'm sure no other game series has made you hum along like Super Mario. The musical score for Paper Mario is absolutely brilliant and some of the best the series has seen. Whether it's the tranquility of Koopa Village, the laid-back beat of Lavalava Island, or the slightly creepy Forever Forest, the music represents each area of the game beautifully, and it's sure to stay in your head for quite some time as well. The sound effects hold up fairly well, but the aging sound quality does diminish them to a degree. Regardless, the sound of Mario jumping, or Goombas head bonking are still comically entertaining.
There are no changes at all between its original Nintendo 64 release and this downloadable version. You need either a classic controller or a Gamecube controller to play it though, so be prepared to pay for the cost of that too if you don't already own one. The only downside of zero changes is the interface reflecting the control scheme. The dialogue and menus still display Nintendo 64 controller buttons, so first-time players may find this initially confusing. It's not really a big deal though and certainly isn't enough of a problem to take any enjoyment away from playing the game.
Even after all this time, Paper Mario is some of the most fun to be had when playing a video game. The graphics and sound are starting to show their age, but with how well the game is designed, along with the amount of content available, it's easily worth the cost of downloading over the Wii Shopping Channel. This is a game easily accessible to RPG newcomers, but there's actually a lot of depth to be had for those willing to search and explore. Paper Mario is one of my favorite games of all time and after giving it a go yourself, I'm sure you will see why.