Franchise Festival #101: Paper Mario

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.

This week we’ll unfold the history of Paper Mario. Cover art is from the Super Mario Wiki.

Table of Contents

Background
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996)
Paper Mario (2000/2001)
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (2004)
Super Paper Mario (2007)
Paper Mario: Sticker Star (2012)
Paper Mario: Color Splash (2016)
Paper Mario: The Origami King (2020)

Background

Japanese video game developer Square’s relationship with Nintendo began when it assembled the Disk Original Group (DOG), a union of seven like-minded studios, and spearheaded an effort to produce content for the Famicom beginning in July 1986. While its first efforts were commercial failures, 1987’s Final Fantasy reversed the studio’s seemingly dismal fortunes. The Japanese role-playing game (RPG) boom buoyed Square’s spirits and inspired it to found North American subsidiary Square Soft in March 1989.

Final Fantasy was only the first of many successful RPGs produced by the developer; others included the Super Famicom’s Romancing SaGa (1992), Secret of Mana (1993), and Chrono Trigger (1995). Square Soft’s prospects were less bright than its parent company, however, with the need for extensive localization and comparatively poor Western sales of games like Final Fantasy IV (released as Final Fantasy II in 1991) forcing Square to reconsider whether it could effectively compete outside of Japan. The formation of a new strategic partnership with Nintendo in 1994 would prove to be pivotal for the future of Square.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996)

Square’s Yusuke Hirata and Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto met in 1994 and agreed to produce a game starring Mario, Miyamoto’s most famous creation. Hirata took the role of producer when the game began production in Summer 1994. Design and programming were carried out by Square staff, under the watchful eye of Miyamoto and senior Nintendo employees, while the soundtrack was written by former Capcom composer Yoko Shimomura; as Shimomura’s second project at Square – after cult classic Live a Live (Japan-only, 1994) – the Koji Kondo-influenced score would help propel her into becoming one of the studio’s most recognizable talents by the late 1990s. Super Mario RPG co-director Chihiro Fujioka had previously worked on Square’s beginner-friendly Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (1992) and would go on to have a lengthy history with successor series Mario & Luigi after leaving Square to form AlphaDream in 2000.

The prototype that appeared in Nintendo Power superficially resembled the final game but featured Mario battling enemies through traditional platforming rather than turn-based encounters. Source: Nintendo Power

The unique presentation of the game seems to have been one of its earliest decisions, as screenshots from an October 1995 Nintendo Power reflect a prototype that visually resembles the final product; pre-rendered 3D sprites, made possible through the inclusion of an SA-1 chip on every cartridge, depict the Mushroom Kingdom from an isometric angle that hadn’t been seen in one of Nintendo’s own titles. Gameplay remained steadfastly action-oriented as late as 70% through development, however, as combat proceeded in real-time rather than in the turn-based fashion common to contemporary RPGs. This was replaced with a more traditional battle system by November 1995, though it retained time-sensitive button presses inspired by a musical children’s toy popular in Japan during the 1990s. Refinements to the game engine and a lengthy script overseen by Nintendo’s Kensuke Tanabe, written between his work on the scripts for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998), pushed its release window back to the final days of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s (SNES’) life cycle. It was finally released in Japan on March 9, 1996, and in North America on May 13, 1996.

Mario gets around using a node-based map inherited from Super Mario World (1991). Source: Longplay Archive

The player controls Mario as he travels throughout the Mushroom Kingdom and surrounding regions. Complicating this are the machinations of mysterious new enemy Smithy, leader of a nefarious group called the Smithy Gang, who usurps the role and castle of long-running series antagonist Bowser after breaking the celestial Star Road. Mario gathers a team of allies drawn from past adventures – Princess Toadstool (i.e. Peach) and Bowser – as well as a couple new characters invented entirely for this game: Mallow is a magic-wielding cloud person and fan-favorite Geno is a living doll. Their journey takes them through Rose Town, Moleville, Seaside Town, Monstro Town, and Nimbus Land as they try to restore the Star Road and rid their land of the Smithy Gang.

A minecart minigame hints at Square’s willingness to experiment with alternate perspectives in the upcoming Final Fantasy VII (1997). Source: Longplay Archive

Exploration occurs in a 3D space perceived from an isometric perspective, not dissimilar to Sonic 3D Blast (1996). In contrast with that much-maligned Sega title, Super Mario RPG features slow-paced movement and relatively limited vertical platforming outside of a few minigames. The emphasis is instead placed on talking to non-player characters (NPCs) and finding hidden areas while either avoiding or engaging roaming enemies. Towns offer the opportunity to buy new consumable items and equipment which, in the tradition of Square’s other RPG franchises, enhance characters’ stats and abilities when worn. Experience points gained from defeating enemies likewise improves characters’ attributes and grants access to new skills.

One of the consistent highlights of Super Mario RPG and its sequels is the opportunity to chat with humorous enemy NPCs rather than just stomping them underfoot. Source: Longplay Archive

Turn-based combat occurs on a discrete battle screen rather than on overworld maps after Mario either jumps onto, is struck from behind by, or runs into a roaming enemy. Those three methods of kickstarting battle respectively cause damage to the enemy, or damage to Mario, or no damage to any characters. Once the encounter gets underway, all characters in the player’s party select their actions from menus and are then attacked by the enemy party. Menu commands are nested, with a top layer of choices mapped to controller buttons X, Y, A, and B. The item command allows characters to use consumables, the special command executes powerful techniques and spells at the expense of Flower Points (this game’s stand-in for the magic points of other RPGs), the attack command inflicts physical damage that’s enhanced if the player taps a button at the moment of impact, and the etc. command offers miscellaneous defensive actions like running away and raising the associated character’s capacity to withstand harm.

Fan-favorite character Geno selects his finger shot attack from a menu. Source: Longplay Archive

Contemporary reviews of the game were positive. Its presentation was particularly celebrated, representing the culmination of Square’s work for the SNES and making the most of the hardware. More impressive is the longevity of its popularity: in spite of other pre-rendered 16-bit games like Donkey Kong Country (1994) losing their visual luster over time, Super Mario RPG maintained its reputation when re-released on the Wii Virtual Console in 2008 and was still regarded as one of the highlights of the SNES Classic Mini Edition in 2017. Perhaps most importantly for the medium more generally, it successfully drew action-oriented players into turn-based mechanics shortly before Square launched their volley of 32-bit RPGs for Sony’s PlayStation. This shift in preferred hardware would prove to be a sore spot, however, abruptly canceling the burgeoning partnership between Square and Nintendo and producing a lingering antipathy between the two Japanese juggernauts. Mario’s future prospects in the RPG genre seemed bleak.

Paper Mario (2000/2001)

With Square out of the picture, Nintendo opted to have second-party studio Intelligent Systems – then best known for its Fire Emblem franchise in Japan – develop a sequel to Super Mario RPG for the Nintendo 64. This project began in 1996 under the name Super Mario RPG 2 but was renamed Paper Mario (Mario Story in Japan) as the visual style evolved into a hybrid of 2D characters and 3D backgrounds. Though it was being planned for the Nintendo 64 Disk Drive as late as July 1997, poor sales of that peripheral eventually shifted development to the Nintendo 64.

Taro Kudo’s concept art that inspired the Paper Mario aesthetic. Source: Nintendo

In a contemporary interview with Nintendo Online Magazine, translated twenty years later by the website Game in Japanese, project manager Toshiyuki Nakamura and Nintendo liaison Hiroyuki Sasano explain that the paper-like visual style produce more colorful, cute characters than was possible using the polygonal models common on the PlayStation; they used a drawing by Super Mario RPG event designer Taro Kudo, then at boutique indie studio Love-de-Lic following his departure from Square, for reference. An IGN interview with co-producer Shigeru Miyamoto also reveals the game was designed for a younger audience than its direct predecessor in spite of its extensive script. Consequently, dialogue written by Kumiko Takeda and Kaori Aoki emphasizes comedy and abandons the dramatic elements of Super Mario RPG.

The Mushroom Kingdom’s inhabitants are sillier than ever. Source: Longplay Archive

There is no direct narrative continuity between Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario, and none of the characters created for the former return in the latter; Paper Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom is instead largely inhabited by Toads, Goombas, and other NPCs that had appeared in earlier core Mario titles. Mario’s quest is likewise more akin to his platforming adventures, as he travels visually-distinctive regions in an effort to save Peach from Bowser and restore seven fading Star Spirits to full health. The player also has the opportunity to control Peach for the first time since Super Mario Bros. 2 (1992/1988) as she tries to escape Bowser’s castle alongside young Star Spirit Twink during brief interstitial sequences.

One Peach sequence introduces players to the game show, which would become a surprising staple of the franchise in later titles. Source: Longplay Archive

Unlike its tone and presentation, Paper Mario retains much of the last game’s mechanics. Mario explores map locations and towns, interacting with NPCs, and enters combat by coming into contact with roaming enemies. Turn-based battles occur on a distinct screen and are set against a deliberately artificial backdrop that resembles the surrounding explorable area. As in Super Mario RPG, Mario can jump on foes or use a hammer to bop enemies resistant to jump damage. Tapping a button during actions often enhances damage to enemies or reduces damage sustained from enemy attacks, while flower points again serve to power Mario’s special moves.

Not even the mighty General Guy can cut through Mario’s defenses if the player taps a button when the attack lands. Source: Longplay Archive

Rather than equip weapons and armor, as in traditional RPGs, Mario collects badges that enhance his attributes (e.g. health and flower points) or confer new combat techniques (e.g. stomping an enemy multiple times). Each badge has an associated badge point value, so Mario can only equip so many before he reaches an upper limit; more powerful badges bear higher badge point values. When he accumulates enough experience points, Mario levels up and the player is presented with the choice to increase available health points, flower points, or badge points. This system offers a surprising amount of depth, as the player is consistently met with meaningful decisions about how to grow his or her version of Nintendo’s mascot.

While most badges are found through exploration, an illicit pop-up shop offers them for sale in Toad Town. Source: Longplay Archive

Party members function differently here than they had in the last title. While multiple allies join Mario during his quest – including Goombario (a Goomba), Kooper (a Koopa Troopa), Bombette (a Bob-Omb), Parakarry (a Parakoopa), Lady Bow (a Boo), Watt (a Li’l Sparky), Sushie (a Cheep-Cheep), and Lakilester (a Lakitu) – only one can actively assist Mario at a time. Though this could feel like a step backwards for the franchise, each partner has unique combat and exploration abilities that make them more distinctive than the party members of Super Mario RPG. Goombario, for example, offers tips about the surrounding area and can analyze enemies to improve the player’s strategies. Sushie, on the other hand, gives Mario the ability to swim. Access to tantalizingly inaccessible areas often depends on the recruitment of another amusing companion.

Sushie is crucial for getting around waterlogged jungles and sewers. Source: MobyGames

Paper Mario was well-received upon its launch in Japan on August 11, 2000 and in North America on February 5, 2001. As with other major releases on the Nintendo 64, it then made its way to China via the iQue Player in 2004. Critics lauded its impressive visual style while conceding that its gameplay was simplistic, reflecting an issue that had become pronounced over the preceding generation. The CD-based PlayStation had become a natural home for RPG epics while a steadfast adherence to the cartridge format prevented games of similar narrative or mechanical complexity from appearing on the Nintendo 64. Happily, Nintendo was already exploring how Paper Mario’s iconic style might be infused with greater complexity on next-generation hardware.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (2004)

Little is known about the development of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. A prototype Mario sprite lurking within the Gamecube disc’s unused data and working title Paper Mario 2, along with an NGC Magazine interview with several key staff members (Chief Director Ryota Kawade, Chief Script Director Hironobu Suzuki, and Coordinator Kenshiro Ueda) indicates that the project changed little during development. Even Nintendo Treehouse’s characteristically excellent localization efforts deviated as little as possible from the Japanese version’s humorous tone, aside from the removal of a chalk outline suggesting a dead Toad NPC. By the time that Nintendo publicly unveiled the game, with a playable demo at E3 2004 following an announcement at the 2003 Game Developers Conference (GDC), it was clearly in its final form. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door was released on the Gamecube in Japan on July 22, 2004, and then around the world four months later.

This Toad chalk outline is cut from the game’s North American localization. Source: The Cutting Room Floor

Its gameplay is nearly identical to that of the preceding series entry. Mario and allies explore 3D environments, engage in turn-based combat with opponents on a discrete battle screen, and gain new abilities by accumulating experience points or equipping badges. Its biggest mechanical departures, transformations, are acquired at specific points in the story and allow Mario to access new areas by changing into a plane, thin paper, boat, or tube. While this aesthetically echoes the Yoshi franchise, its application has more in common with the Metroidvania sub-genre of platformers.

Mario transforms into a paper airplane to carry himself and Madame Flurrie across a chasm. Source: Longplay Archive

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door primarily sets itself apart from its Nintendo 64 predecessor through a dramatically expanded scope and emotional palette. The game opens with Peach, in the gritty seaside town of Rogueport, discovering and sending a mysterious map to Mario shortly before her capture by new antagonist Sir Grodus. Grodus and his crew of X-Nauts are working to find and capture seven crystal stars needed to access the titular door, behind which lies a rumored treasure. Mario picks up her trail in Rogueport with the aid of two Goomba scholars, Goombella and Dr. Frankly, who deduce that the map will lead Mario to each of the crystal stars and eventually Peach. While the bulk of the story is depicted from Mario’s perspective, playable sequences featuring Peach exploring the X-Naut hideout and Bowser navigating 2D stages on his own quest to capture the crystal stars offer humor and gameplay variety in equal measure.

Bowser’s stages provide a whimsical look at how classic Super Mario Bros. stages might have played out from the villain’s perspective. Source: MobyGames

Though less pronounced than its improvements in story, The Thousand-Year Door’s greater emphasis on the artificiality of its world foreshadows changes to come in Nintendo’s strangest RPG franchise. Battle screens are set on a stage with an audience that reacts to, and sometimes directly engages with, the player’s decisions. Where interiors had opened up diorama-style in Paper Mario, entire areas in The Thousand-Year Door unfurl and shift using lush animations made possible by the Gamecube’s impressive hardware; modern PCs using console emulation still struggle to recreate these with the elegance present in their original appearance. Mario and his allies are not literally understood to be paper, as they would be from Paper Mario: Sticker Star (2012) onward, but his ability to transform into paper objects certainly suggests a growing interest in this concept among the development team.

All battles feature an interactive audience, but a memorable chapter set at a wrestling arena is the only area that narratively justifies their presence. Source: Longplay Archive

Given The Thousand-Year Door’s rapturous critical reception, which noted improvements on every aspect of its predecessor outside of the slow-paced backtracking sequences common to first-party Nintendo games of the era, it is surprising that it represents something of a dead-end for the franchise. The abandonment of many RPG tropes after 2004 has become a point of contention among long-term fans who believe The Thousand-Year Door is still the series’ high-water mark. Unfortunately, at the time of writing in late 2020, The Thousand-Year Door inexplicably remains the only Paper Mario game unavailable on Nintendo’s digital distribution services.

Super Paper Mario (2007)

From early in Super Paper Mario’s development, which began on the Gamecube before shifting to the Wii by the end of 2006, Intelligent Systems intended to move away from turn-based RPG mechanics in an effort to keep the series from growing stale. Inspired by a sidescrolling sequence in The Thousand-Year Door and a daydream he had while riding a train, chief director Kawade centered the game design on switching between 2D and 3D perspectives. Intelligent Systems sought the input of Nintendo’s Kensuke Tanabe (Super Paper Mario’s producer) and was encouraged to emphasize action-adventure elements while retaining a lengthy script. Coordinator Masani Uedo simultaneously began working with the Nintendo Treehouse localization team early in development to ensure that the writing would be laugh-out loud funny to Eastern and Western audiences alike. The game, released in Japan and North America in April 2007 and worldwide in September 2007, constitutes Paper Mario’s first major stylistic revision.

Count Bleck is a lot of fun. Source: Project Longplay

Super Paper Mario is initially presented from a side perspective rather than the slightly overhead 3D camera of prior titles. In an opening cutscene, Peach, Bowser, and Luigi are whisked away to an alternate dimension by a campy villain named Count Bleck. Mario is joined by Tippi, a fluorescent fairy known as a Pixl, and immediately chases Bleck to the hub world of Flipside. The ensuing adventure sees Mario rescuing his captured friends and attempting to avert an apocalyptic ritual prophesied by the Dark Prognosticus.

The same area as seen using Mario’s perspective flip ability. Source: Project Longplay

Freeing Mario’s friends is not purely a narrative exercise. Each can be controlled by the player and offers a unique way to interact with the world. Mario can flip the perspective from 2D to 3D, Peach can float across gaps or shield herself using a parasol, Bowser can breathe fire, and Luigi can leap to high platforms. In a nod to Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy series, the protagonists are known as the Heroes of Light. Pixls acquired throughout the game replace party member exploration and combat skills from earlier Paper Mario titles, granting any hero the ability to activate distant switches, blow open cracks in walls, and so on. These characters can’t be directly controlled but instead enhance the player’s moveset in the style of a Metroidvania.

Mario uses the hammer pixl to break open a wall. Source: Project Longplay

Though experience points and leveling up remain present in the form of a score system, Super Paper Mario strips nearly all other RPG elements from the series. Enemies are battled in real-time during exploration sequences as they would be in a core Mario platforming adventure. Mario can chat with NPCs but can no longer augment his abilities with equipment or badges. Aside from some surreal visual flourishes designed to surprise the player, Chie Kawabe’s clean art style evokes the simple landscapes of classic 2D Mario titles rather than the rough-hewn regions of The Thousand-Year Door. One of the only returning elements from the series’ last entry is the in-game audience, which consists of Toads and Bowser’s minions; these characters pop in at the edge of the screen to encourage the player when he or she shakes their controller while defeating an enemy and speed up the player’s accumulation of experience points.

Thank goodness the audience returned, though they don’t hurl items at Mario anymore. Source: Project Longplay

Positive contemporary reviews identified the strength of the game’s script – which offered humor tinged with more pathos than had been present in previous Paper Mario titles – while generally conceding that its gameplay was more simplistic than what had come before. Even potentially ambitious mechanics like flipping between 2D and 3D perspectives were left underexplored. Though the game’s reputation diminished precipitously over time among fans, its delivery of the series’ strongest sales so far ensured that Intelligent Systems and Nintendo had little cause to return to earlier designs.

Paper Mario: Sticker Star (2012)

Intelligent Systems Paper Mario: Sticker Star represents the ascent of Paper Mario character designer and art director Naohiko Aoyama to the position of project co-director. Vanpool’s Taro Kudo, representing a studio he’d co-founded with ex-Square employees, returned as Aoyama’s co-director more than a decade after he’d worked as event designer on Super Mario RPG. It is also the first series entry since Super Mario RPG to experience heavy executive involvement from supervisor Shigeru Miyamoto, as he insisted that Intelligent Systems slim down their planned narrative and exclusively use characters from core Mario adventures. This rather surprising decision was based on a Club Nintendo survey that indicated fewer than 1% of Super Paper Mario players cared about the story. Unable to create new characters, producer Tanabe and the development team opted to increase the number of color-coded Toad NPCs.

Freshly Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland sees players collecting rupees and then expending them to defeat wandering enemies in a similar way to Sticker Star‘s stickers. Source: Japancommercials4U2

Miyamoto also criticized a 2009 prototype for resembling The Thousand-Year Door. To resolve this issue, Tanabe and Kudo drew on their experience working on Nintendo DS RPG Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland (2006) to build exploration and combat around consumable resources; the team settled on stickers that Mario could employ against enemies, making combat feel fresh in spite of the series’ return to turn-based battles. Tanabe next doubled down on the papercraft style of the game to make it visually distinctive while remaining true to the broader 2D/3D hybrid presentation of earlier titles. Paper Mario: Sticker Star was published in North America for the Nintendo 3DS on November 11, 2012, two years after its E3 2010 debut, and then worldwide the following month.

The Mushroom Kingdom is both more paper-y and more filled with Toads than ever. Source: Ninbanyan

During an introductory cutscene, Peach is kidnapped by Bowser as she presides over an annual festival in the town of Decalburg. The Sticker Comet, a celestial body that lands every year to grant wishes, has been split into six Royal Stickers by Bowser and scattered in various regions. Mario is tasked by sticker assistant Kersti with reassembling the Royal Stickers as he works to save Peach from his longtime nemesis in the series’ first return to the Mushroom Kingdom since its Nintendo 64 entry twelve years earlier. 

Battles may look similar to Thousand-Year Door, but the absence of companions and the inclusion of consumable attacks make them quite different. Source: Ninbanyan

The presentation is superficially similar to Paper Mario and The Thousand-Year Door, in that Mario explores a 3D landscape and enters discrete turn-based battle sequences when he encounters enemies around the map, but it is differentiated by an emphasis on environmental puzzles. The latter are obstacles that can only be overcome by finding a specific ‘Thing,’ a 3D-rendered real-world item dropped incongruously into the papercraft world of the game. These Things can be transformed into stickers and then used once on the overworld or during battle.

Ah, a mummy’s tomb. Just where you’d expect to find a baseball bat. Source: Ninbanyan

While Thing Stickers generally resolve environmental obstacles that are related to their real-world use, sticker battle mechanics are more complex. Mario’s attacks entirely consist of general stickers – including jumps, hammer bashes, fireballs, and more – that can be found in the field or purchased from NPCs. Unfortunately, boss fights that hinge on the deployment of a specific Thing Sticker to counter an attack or strike a decisive blow become unwinnable roadblocks if the player fails to understand an idiosyncratic Thing application or hasn’t brought the relevant Thing to the encounter.

The game show serves as a full minigame rather than the plot device that it was in Paper Mario. Source: Ninbanyan

Intelligent Systems’ first portable-exclusive Paper Mario title remains the series’ nadir. Its uniformly strong visual design and soundtrack fail to make up for the absence of distinctive new characters, and its lack of narrative specificity precludes the inclusion of emotional moments like those of The Thousand-Year Door and Super Paper Mario. Consumable attacks and a reliance on single-use Thing Stickers simultaneously render its combat exceedingly punitive. Negative critical reception and middling sales, however, would not keep Nintendo and Intelligent Systems from moving forward with this approach to the series on home consoles.

Paper Mario: Color Splash (2016)

While a cursory glance might suggest that Paper Mario: Color Splash represents a tone-deaf recapitulation of Sticker Star’s design mistakes, a contemporary USGamer interview with Nintendo co-producer Risa Tabata reveals how Intelligent Systems carefully refined the series’ new Miyamoto-dictated direction. The team decided to jettison RPG mechanics entirely, concluding that Alpha Dream’s sister series Mario & Luigi had staked out a more legitimate claim to the concepts pioneered by Super Mario RPG, and conceptualized their project as a pure puzzle-platformer. Puzzles were oriented around scouring environments and painting desaturated objects using various colors rather than collecting items. Things remain present in the game – and are often the source of its biggest visual gags – but they are de-emphasized as puzzle-solving components. 

Mario’s trusty hammer has a major new application in Color Splash. Source: Beardbear

Combat, which again takes the form of a turn-based card battler that hinges on the execution of consumable attacks, was designed from the start to be a brief obstacle rather than a central game mechanic. This has the inadvertent effect of making Intelligent Systems’ novel integration of the Wii U hardware by giving players the option to fling cards from the handheld Gamepad to the TV screen largely inconsequential. The Gamepad is more successfully deployed as a complement to Masahiko Nagaya’s staggeringly detailed papercraft art design, allowing players to manually chop out and rearrange portions of the scenery to access new areas.

Nintendo of America’s consistently hilarious Toad Rescue Squad shorts were designed to resemble over-the-top 1970s television shows. Source: Nintendo

Its story steadfastly adheres to Miyamoto’s request not to incorporate any major new characters, but Kudo’s script (and its sympathetic adaptation into English by Nintendo Treehouse) is much livelier than that of Sticker Star. A memorable ad campaign focused on the distinctive members of the game’s Toad Rescue Squad confirms that even the Mushroom Kingdom’s most generic NPCs can be suffused with personality when a project isn’t upended by executive interference midway through development. The relative simplicity of its plot, which centers on Mario and sentient paint can Huey restoring color to Prism Island following an attack by Bowser and his Koopalings, likewise fails to undermine the strength of its writing.

Most boss battles are fought against the Koopalings. Source: Beardbear

Regions of Prism Island are accessed using a node-based world map, as had been the case in Sticker Star. Even so, the generic forests and deserts of Sticker Star are replaced here by haunted hotels, industrialized canyons, and gladiator arenas. All are enhanced with a fully orchestrated jazz soundtrack composed by Takeru Kanazaki, Shigemitsu Goto, and Fumihiro Isobe.

A late-game chapter set aboard the Sunset Express includes many of the most amusing interactions with Bowser’s minions. This wistful Shy Guy is among my favorites. Source: Beardbear

Though its middling combat and lack of experience points failed to accommodate long-time series fans who still hoped for a return to the design principles of The Thousand-Year Door over a decade after that game’s release, the critical reception to Color Splash was largely positive. It resolved most of its direct predecessor’s problems while offering the franchise’s funniest script and most lushly rendered world to date when it launched on the Wii U worldwide in October 2016. Nintendo’s abandonment of the unpopular platform only months later with the launch of the Switch, however, would make this entry in the increasingly controversial Paper Mario series the Wii U’s last piece of exclusive software.

Paper Mario: The Origami King (2020)

Reflecting the growing awareness that Paper Mario is defined by a common aesthetic sensibility rather than any specific gameplay mechanics, Color Splash art director Nagaya was selected to direct the franchise’s seventh release. Miyamoto was largely uninvolved with the project, but Nintendo suggested the origami theme and required Intelligent Systems to run its character designs past a strict internal IP team for approval. The team was otherwise left to its own devices under the oversight of returning co-producer Tanabe and new co-producer Atsushi Ikuno.

Peach has… changed. Source: Krow’s Graveyard

The Origami King’s story is, like every other series entry, entirely removed from anything that came before. An eerie origami cult led by King Olly has invaded the Mushroom Kingdom and crashed Toad Town’s Origami Festival, transforming Peach into a despotic folded version of herself. When Mario and Luigi are summoned to town, Mario is imprisoned by the cult but breaks out with the aid of Olly’s sister Olivia. The heroes set out on a journey to free the kingdom from Olly’s influence and remove five massive streamers physically encircling Peach’s Castle.

If the player is able to line up enemies in groups of four within a limited number of moves, Mario’s attack power is enhanced. Source: Nintendo

Overworld navigation remains unchanged, but the battle system has undergone its first major revision since Sticker Star. Turn-based combat, inspired by the Rubik’s Cube toy and art coordinator Naoyama’s request to have Mario “surrounded by his opponents,” sees the player rotating concentric circles and sliding radial slots on which enemies are waiting. Once the player has repositioned enemies, Mario can execute standard jump and hammer attacks or use consumable items to inflict additional damage. A background audience of Toads, who increase in number as Mario rescues them during exploration sequences, can be called in to aid Mario if needed.

Mario’s 1,000-Fold Arms functions similarly to the Cutout ability from Color Splash, allowing him to manipulate his environment at specific locations. Source: Nintendo

Bosses consist of mythical ‘vellumental’ animals who have been corrupted through the origami folding process and Olly’s Legion of Stationary. The former function similarly to partners from Paper Mario and The Thousand-Year Door, as they confer environment-alteration abilities on Mario and powerful combat techniques on Olivia, while the latter consists of sentient office supplies who defend the origin points of each streamer. Though partner characters join Mario intermittently throughout his adventure for the first time since The Thousand-Year Door, they serve primarily as plot devices and offer little assistance in combat.

Corrupted vellumentals can often only be defeated by summoning rescued vellumentals – Final Fantasy style – into combat. Source: Krow’s Graveyard

Tanabe’s commitment to surprising players with experimental gameplay manifests here in the prominence of one-off minigames. Most game chapters contain at least one major diversion, including a river canoe expedition and ninja shooting gallery. As in Color Splash, completing these minigames and rescuing Toads around the overworld contribute to a central museum that unlocks concept art and other bonuses in Toad Town. Regional theming likewise remains as quirky as it had been in Color Splash, in spite of the return to an interconnected overworld, as Mario visits areas as diverse as a Las Vegas-esque casino resort built atop ancient ruins and an amusement park based on feudal Japan.

Origami King includes the series’ first player-directed vehicle navigation, turning one mid-game sequence into an unexpected Wind Waker (2002/2003) homage. Source: Krow’s Graveyard

The Origami King was Paper Mario’s most critically successful title since The Thousand-Year Door and its most commercially successful entry ever. Fans remain divided over the series’ apparently-permanent shift away from RPG mechanics, but those who had made peace with this fact or first encountered the franchise since 2004 were broadly thrilled with its unique blend of puzzle, strategy, and action. Of course, as has always been the case for this franchise, The Origami King’s strongest elements remain its laugh-out-loud script and unimpeachable presentation.

Conclusion

Paper Mario has inexplicably become one of Nintendo’s most controversial properties. Much of this is down to its inconsistency: though all titles but the first have been developed by Intelligent Systems, the design ethos has changed radically over time. What began as a straightforward attempt to marry the Mario world with RPG elements under the direction of Square eventually became a vehicle for Intelligent Systems to show off increasingly lush graphics and surprise players with unexpected gameplay. Unfortunately, the potential joy of discovering new ways to interact with these worlds has often been undermined by disappointment that Intelligent Systems broke what didn’t need fixing.

Nintendo has increasingly positioned Mario & Luigi, a sister series also descended from Super Mario RPG, as the destination for fans seeking crunchier RPG mechanics. Even so, the 2020 bankruptcy of Mario & Luigi creator Alpha Dream throws this historic division into uncertainty. Will Intelligent Systems continue to produce puzzle-platformers featuring paper versions of Mushroom Kingdom regulars while Nintendo assigns Mario & Luigi to another second-party studio or will the latter be abandoned, allowing Paper Mario to regain its role as the RPG spinoff of Nintendo’s flagship platformer? Given the reliable speed with which new entries in Paper Mario are released, we won’t be waiting long to find out.


What do you think about Paper Mario? Which is your favorite entry? How about your favorite ally character? Do you think it works better as an RPG or puzzle-platformer? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

You can find me here at The Avocado or on Twitter as @SinginBrakeman. You can also tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series; Season One: The Legend of Zelda is wrapping up in June and then we’ll be moving right along to Season Two: Resident Evil on July 1!

As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #102: Mario & Luigi – June 11
  • #103: Thief – June 25
  • #104: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater – July 9
  • #105: Shenmue – July 23
  • #106: Spider-Man (Part 1) – August 6