Paper Mario


Review by · May 14, 2024

Whenever fans discuss the Paper Mario series, it seems inevitable that the discussion will quickly shift to how moving away from the series’ RPG roots following the release of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door ruined it. Many other game series have changed over time, and while the changes will never please everyone, I am not sure I have ever encountered another set of fans who seem so deeply upset by an evolution of design over twenty years. What made that original design so special that fans are still upset that Intelligent Systems changed it?

I played Paper Mario when it was new, and I enjoyed it. Super Mario RPG was the first RPG I played, so I was very excited when they announced a follow-up. I remember spending a lot of time collecting extra items and exploring the world, but I did not revisit the game on Nintendo 64. I also have limited experience with the other Paper Mario games. When the game came to Nintendo Switch, it was the ideal time to revisit it.

Mario games are generally not praised for their storytelling, and Paper Mario follows the series’ familiar formula. Bowser has taken the Star Rod and captured the Star Spirits who guarded it. He uses his new powers to defeat Mario and kidnap the princess. Mario has to rescue the Star Spirits to defeat Bowser and rescue Princess Peach. The basic setup isn’t anything fancy, but the story itself gets a lot of mileage out of its characters and locations.

The places you visit and the characters you meet make the story memorable. Some locations feel expected, like a spooky forest, a desert, and a mountain. But most of them have an unexpected twist. It’s hard to forget the spooky forest where the ghosts are the victims of evil instead of the source of it. Some locations are less predictable, the most notable being the inside of a toy box.

Exploring the areas introduces new mechanics and keeps the minute-to-minute gameplay feeling fresh the entire time. None of the different worlds feel like repeats with a different background. However, the game gets a little long toward the end. There are seven worlds before the finale at Bowser’s Castle, but five worlds would have been the sweet spot. The final worlds continued to surprise me with memorable characters and creative design, but the rest of the game did not evolve enough to keep the combat interesting for the entire game, and those final worlds suffered because of it.

Paper Mario combat menu displaying Mario's Jump and Hammer abilities. Mario is preparing to jump on a Koopa.
Mario has multiple attack options from which to choose. Jumping on Koopas is just classic Mario.

Paper Mario is a turn-based RPG that uses timed action commands to increase attack power and reduce damage taken. Learning to time every command correctly goes a long way toward making the game easier to complete.

Mario is your primary controllable character, and he can attack enemies by jumping or striking with a hammer. There is some simple strategy in choosing which attack to use, but it’s all superficial. Mario can’t jump on enemies with spikes on their heads. His hammer cannot strike enemies that fly. It is always obvious which attack you need to choose, and there are only two choices. The lack of variety in battle quickly makes it tedious to fight so many of Bowser’s minions in between the more meaningful boss fights. You can find and purchase Badges to alter some of your abilities or add new abilities, but they all tie into the same jumping and hammer abilities (though you might find a Badge that lets you jump on spiky enemies). It’s a welcome customization option in a game that has very little.

A variety of partners accompany you during the adventure. These partners act as second party members but only partially because they do not have their own health meter. Instead, a single attack will knock out your partner for a few turns and severely limit your combat options. Each partner has a unique set of abilities that allow for more interesting combat choices than Mario, and losing them for even a moment removes most of what makes the combat fun. You can swap between partners during combat, but, unfortunately, swapping consumes your turn, so the game works hard to discourage you from swapping too much. Entering combat with the wrong partner is frustrating because it means you have to waste a turn to switch to someone who can actually hurt the enemies, and you take unavoidable damage in the process.

Paper Mario‘s combat is simple. The turns are not based on any stats. Mario attacks, then Mario’s partner attacks, then all of the enemies attack, and then it repeats. In addition, attacks deal a predictable amount of damage, and the damage numbers are all very small (frequently less than 5 damage points per strike). It is easy to solve the combat of Paper Mario permanently, especially when combined with one of your partner’s abilities to display enemy health meters. You will repeatedly encounter the same groups of enemies, and you can defeat them in the exact same ways by doing a bit of simple math.

Paper Mario combat dialogue explaining that the analog stick needs to be held to the left until a star icon lights up to deal maximum damage. Kooper the Koopa is preparing to strike a group of Goombas with a special attack.
Kooper’s ability simultaneously strikes all enemies.

There are other elements to the combat that help mix it up, like items and the Star Spirit’s abilities, but they mostly serve to make combat even easier, so they did not improve the experience for me. The Star Spirits are an essential part of the game, and learning to leverage their powers is all but required to win, but it all fits into the same predictable combat scenarios. By the end of the game, I was mostly bored with fighting and wished I could avoid it. However, Paper Mario uses an experience point-based leveling system, so avoiding all combat is a bad idea. I never found that any grinding was required as long as I fought most of the enemies the first time I encountered them.

Paper Mario is much more fun when you are not in combat. There is some simple platforming, and you can use Mario’s hammer to strike objects to find secrets. Each of Mario’s partners can use an ability on the overworld to traverse each stage. Notable abilities let you temporarily become invisible, blow up cracked walls (just like a Zelda game), and grab distant objects. Each of the stages—which include multiple areas and are not exclusively dungeon-like—are full of puzzles to solve with your abilities, and I found them to be the most fun parts of the game.

In between stages, you can explore Toad Town and hunt for secrets. There are several optional places to explore and items to find. I enjoyed hunting down some of the hidden Star Pieces—the primary collectible—but I stopped spending extra effort to find them after learning that the rewards were mostly combat Badges that were situational or required extra grinding to use properly. In addition, you often get to control Princess Peach briefly after defeating a boss. These sections are a neat touch and help give Princess Peach a more active role in her rescue as she finds information to send back to Mario without Bowser realizing that his plans are being thwarted from within.

Twink, a Star Kid, reading the recipe to bake a cake to Princess Peach inside a kitchen.
Princess Peach is playable in a handful of brief side chapters where you spy on Bowser and participate in random activities like baking a cake.

Of course, we cannot talk about Paper Mario without talking about its paper-inspired design.

The style still holds up after more than 20 years. It’s a great showcase for how great 2D games would have looked if the industry had not been so enamored with 3D polygons at the time. Paper Mario does not do much to lean into the flat paper style of its characters, but it’s a nice style that is hard to fault. I do wonder why the developers settled on this style for the game without also planning for puzzles or combat scenarios that take advantage of paper’s flat and foldable properties (though they do in later Paper Mario games).

Mario games are also known for their music, and Paper Mario fits in with the rest of the Super Mario series. You will recognize some of the songs, others will be new to you, and most will be playing in your head for days after finishing the game.

I’m left feeling conflicted about Paper Mario. I thought I might be missing something, so I began playing it a second time a few months after finishing it to re-review my thoughts, and the boring combat stuck out to me even more. That’s confusing because I usually enjoy turn-based combat systems, and fans are most upset about Paper Mario‘s combat changing in later entries. But my experience is that the best parts of Paper Mario happen outside of combat. The characters, puzzles, writing, general silliness, and interaction with the world make the game special.

Paper Mario holds up to modern standards, but not for the reasons other people led me to believe. The RPG elements of the game are lackluster. The core Super Mario design elements kept me playing, and I recommend the game to any Mario fan.


Memorable characters, great writing, interesting locations, fun puzzle solving.


Too many stages, lack of customization, predictable combat, very low difficulty.

Bottom Line

Paper Mario is a fun Super Mario game with some lackluster RPG elements tacked on.

Overall Score 78
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Joshua Lindquist

Joshua Lindquist

Joshua is a video game enthusiast with a passion for niche The Legend of Zelda. When he's not writing articles, he's probably writing code, hunting down more games to add to his collection (backlog?), or pestering someone to play Ogre Battle 64 (you totally should).