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‘Paper Mario’ On Paper: The Inception, Refinement, and Genre Transformation of a Beloved Series




Chances are, if you are a fan of role playing games and have taken even a passing interest in the Mario universe over the past couple of decades, you probably have some degree of familiarity with Nintendo’s highly acclaimed Paper Mario series.

This niche franchise made its debut in North America with Paper Mario 64 in 2001 and has spawned various sequels over the years of varying reception. Of course, the now 15+ year period that Paper Mario has been around has not passed without intrigue – coming in the flavors of multiple developers, copyright issues and (most recently) controversial branding decisions.
From the history-making inception of the series itself, to the contentious path it has recently taken, Paper Mario on Paper aims to take you, the reader, on the wild rollercoaster ride that comprises the timeline of this charming franchise.

From 1-UP to Level-Up: The Royal Parentage of the Paper Mario Games

The Paper Mario franchise is considered by many to be a refreshing breakaway from the beaten path that is the traditional Mario platformer title. This spin-off series is the perfect foil to the standard-issue Mario game – placing our popular platforming plumber in an aesthetically charming RPG world saturated with witty, comedic dialogue and immersive (well, at least present) plotlines.

Lesser known perhaps, is the fact that the conceptual framework for the Paper Mario series was first laid out by one of the most revolutionary gems of the SNES – Super Mario RPG Legend of the Seven Stars.

PaperMarioSeriesSuper Mario RPG was an experimental masterpiece that resulted from the collaboration of two game industry juggernauts of the time – Square and Nintendo. Both of these gaming monoliths had much to bring to the table: Square, largely thanks to the overwhelming success of their Final Fantasy games, was regarded as the industry expert in all things RPG, while Nintendo had already become a household name due to their iconic Mario IP. In theory, this alliance was a match made in gaming heaven – but what would a product resulting from the collaboration of these two superstar companies actually look like? Imagine a Nintendo themed sports car covered with Square decals, powered by a jointly created engine.

A Sword and a Horse? Try a Hammer and a Yoshi: Striking a Balance

Research shows that Super Mario RPG could have gone in a few drastically different stylistic directions. In a revealing Iwata Asks interview in 2012, Kensuke Tanabe (writer for Super Mario RPG) states that during the first meeting, Square pitched a conceptual image of Mario. In the spirit of a Final Fantasy-esque protagonist, the image portrayed a cape-wearing Mario on horseback wielding a sword.

This probably raised a few eyebrows.

Including producer Shigeru Miyamoto’s – who rejected the concept, and, in what Tanabe called Miyamoto’s “only specific request”, suggested that Mario have a hammer instead. Other Final Fantasy influenced ideas did not make the cut either, such as a top-down world map. In the end, the decision was made to build upon the Mario universe while keeping signs of external influences to a minimum.

Putting the “RP” in a Mario RPG: A Legacy of Revolutionary Concepts

Stylistic decisions weren’t the only balancing act performed during the production of the game – the team had the difficult task of striking the proper finesse between both RPG and Platformer genres. Branding confusion was a real risk because of the potential that Mario fans had not yet been exposed to RPG’s, much less unprecedented RPG elements in a Mario game. A bridge between the two genres was needed, and that bridge appeared in the form of what director Chihiro Fujioko called “action events”. Action events gave the RPG player platformer-inspired control over their character during times in which they would traditionally have little to no control, such as cut scenes or turn-based battles. Here is an excerpt of an interview with director Yoshihiko Maekawa, in which he recalls the inspiration for action events (also known as action commands):

“…That [action event concept] was very much inspired by a children’s toy that was available in Japan at the time. It was like a large laptop with these buttons that would play music. You had to press the buttons with good timing to the music. It was that idea, having gameplay built around timing button presses, that inspired me to hybridize these two genres of game, to get a little bit of action and RPG into the same game.”

Super Mario RPG’s contribution to the RPG world in the form of action events cannot be overstated. The concept was so well received by gamers that it is a staple in mainstream RPG’s to this day.

Another concept pioneered by the game was the addition of dialogue – providing an element of depth never before seen in the Mario universe. With Nintendo’s unprecedented shifting of the storyline closer to the foreground, players were able to see a splash of color and detail blended into the traditionally bland, minimalist canvass comprising Mario’s world. This creative breath of life helped fulfill a desire for detail and flavor text that, for many fans, had not been quenched by playing spinoff games such as Hotel Mario or Mario’s Time Machine. There is simply something endearing about a Toad saying more than “BUT OUR PRINCESS IS IN ANOTHER CASTLE!” or a Goomba – traditionally just stomping fodder – verbally expressing vulnerability and fear towards Bowser. Fleshing out once mundane, static characters into characters that interact in a comical and comparatively immersive world created a whole new reason to value and enjoy a Mario game.

Considering all of this bundled-up awesomeness, one would naturally expect the game to sell like sweet, steamy hotcakes. If only that were actually the case.

Too Late or Too Soon? Theories Why Mario RPG Didn’t Win the West

Although the game enjoyed a decent measure of monetary success in Japan, the Western crowd didn’t really bite. Reader, meet graph:


As you can see, this chart made from VGchartz data indicates that Super Mario RPG barely made a dent in the North American market – especially when compared to how much the last AAA Mario title, Yoshi’s Island (1995), raked in.

So, why did this happen?

Well, it was definitely not due to a lack of quality – Super Mario RPG was highly rated in the States and is firmly entrenched in many top 10 and top 25 SNES game lists. The game was also a graphics powerhouse thanks to the expensive Rareware technology Square used in its development.


Here are a couple of theories – steeped in conjecture – that could explain the lackluster Western sales of this genre-defining masterpiece:

Theory: Released Too Late

There is certainly a possibility that the release of Super Mario RPG Legend of the Seven Stars so late to the SNES’s life cycle hampered its visibility and thus stunted sales. Some facts:

Super Mario RPG was released for the NA region on May 13th 1996, and it happened to be one of the only AAA titles – along with Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! – released so late in the SNES console cycle. Both games did relatively poorly as AAA titles.

• The game’s debut into the 16-bit generation was quickly overshadowed by the dawn of the 64-bit generation: The Nintendo 64 came out in Japan in June ‘96, and hit US shelves later that September.

• The N64 was not backwards compatible.

Theory: Too Soon?

Looking back on the Western gaming climate during the time period of Super Mario RPG, there are indications that the West had not yet developed an appetite for RPG gaming. Future titles, such as Final Fantasy VII (1997) and the first generation of Pokemon games (1998) generally take the credit for acquainting Western markets with the RPG genre en-masse. Perhaps Super Mario RPG was a game before its time, the unsung hero sacrificed to pave the way for the snowballing Western interest in role playing that occurred thereafter.

A Foundation for the Future: Closing Thoughts

Setting the creation of precedents and gold standards aside, the creative risks taken in Super Mario RPG not only provided the Mario world the depth it needed, but also blazed a trail for future Mario RPG descendants – the Paper Mario series and Mario & Luigi series – both of which will be discussed in upcoming articles of ‘Paper Mario’ on Paper.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Michael Dean

    July 30, 2016 at 1:45 am

    Great article!

    Actually, I remember thinking oh God here comes the Mario franchise trying to ruin my beloved RPGs!

    Bare in mind that the greatest games ever made, games like FF4 & 6 and ChronoTrigger, Secret of Mana and Link to The Past had come out on this same platform during this same time period.

    It felt to my 12-year-old information-lacking self like this was just more grossly irresponsible Mario franchising bull shit. So naturally I was mad and refused to buy or even rent the game from blockbuster (oh the 90s). I guess I wasn’t alone either in thinking that Mario was for children and didn’t belong in the RPG world – based on your graph.

    Yet as fate would have it and unfortunately for my 12 year old self and apparently many other preteens, Mario RPG as you pointed out, is considered one of the top 10 SNES games of all time. That’s like being one of the best basketball players on the 95′ Chicago Bulls – the 90s were truly an age of legends…and yo-yo’s…legends and yo-yo’s. I still have yet to play the game but it’s on my bucket list.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Dark Souls’

Despite the difficulty and learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the Dark Souls series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers.



Dark Souls Remastered Review Nintendo Switch

Over the course of the last decade a lot of games have made large and influential impacts on the medium of gaming but few have done so as significantly or triumphantly as Dark Souls

The pseudo-sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls took the framework of the original title and altered it considerably. Gone were the many individual stages and hub area, replaced by a massive open world that continuously unfolded, via shortcuts and environmental changes, like a massive metroidvania style map. 

Dark Souls also doubled down on nearly every aspect of the original. The lore and world-building were elaborated on considerably, making the land of Lordran feel more lived in and expansive. An entire backstory for the game, one that went back thousands of years, was created and unfolded through small environmental details and item descriptions. 


The bosses were bigger, meaner and more challenging, with some of them ranking right up there with the best of all time. Even standard enemies seemed to grow more deadly as the game went on, with many of them actually being bosses you’d faced at an earlier time in the game. Tiny details like this didn’t just make the player feel more powerful, they added to the outright scale of the entire game.

Still, if we’re here to talk about the biggest influence Dark Souls had on the gaming world, we have to talk about the online system. While the abilities to write messages and summon help were available in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls improved on and enhanced these features to the point where they changed the game considerably. 

The wider player base made the online components work more consistently as well. Rarely were players left standing around for 15-20 minutes waiting to summon or be summoned for a boss fight. There were more messages on the ground to lead (or mislead) players, and the animated spirits of dead players warned of the hundreds of ways you might die while playing through the game. 

Dark Souls

The addictive nature of the game and its rewarding gameplay loop would lead to the establishment of the Souls-like genre. Like with metroidvania, there are few compliments a game can receive that are as rewarding as having an entire genre named for them.

Since 2011, the year of Dark Souls’ release, dozens of Souls-likes have emerged from the ether, each with their own little tweaks on the formula. Salt and Sanctuary went 2D,The Surge added a sci-fi angle, and Nioh went for a feudal Japanese aesthetic, to name just a few. 

Either way, Dark Souls’ influence has been long felt in the gaming industry ever since. Despite the hardcore difficulty and intense learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers. For this reason alone, Dark Souls will live on forever in the annals of gaming history. 

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos



Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.




In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

“[Earthnight is] an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”


Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.


At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.


Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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