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

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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.

papermarioseries2
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:

PaperMarioSales

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.

Paper

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.

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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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PAX South Hands On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation

Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation

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Streets of Rage 4

From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.

Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.

Streets of Rage 4

That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.

Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century

The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.

Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.

Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.

That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.

“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.

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An In-Depth Analysis of Fifa’s Career Mode

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Fifa’s Career Mode

It’s a well-known fact that career mode on Fifa has been a long-neglected element of the best selling sports games series of all time. But for soccer fans who want to pretend to be a football manager, but also want to personally play the game, Fifa is currently the main option.

The problem is: for a 60 dollar game, almost nothing about Fifa career mode works properly. 

Two of the most game-breaking bugs in Fifa career mode are so bad that it fundamentally makes the game unplayable for those who want to feel any sort of immersion. 

The first is a bug that makes it so that top teams will sign many more players for a position than they could possibly need. 

For example, Bayern might end up signing 6 or 7 great center backs, and then only play three or four of them, while what they really need to sign might be a winger or a fullback. 

This leads into the second huge issue: even when a team like Bayern HAS 6 or 7 great center-backs, they will STILL often choose to start second or third-string center backs! This often leads to top teams languishing at 12th or 13th in the tables by the end of the season, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Everything about this image is wrong. Everything. The top three teams in this table shouldn’t finish higher than 7th more than once every ten seasons between them, and teams that should finish first and second aren’t even in the top eight. 64 points near the end of the season for first place is also a very low number. 

There’s been plenty of other issues as well. Even on the highest difficulties, AI on both defense and ESPECIALLY offense ranges from poor to horrible, with the AI on offense rarely actually running at the defense (making defending boring and unrewarding), leaving players like Messi or Hazard to not even try to use their incredible dribbling ability and speed and instead pass away the ball as soon as they get it. 

Instead, the most common way the AI scores are by performing a janky, unrealistic and clearly scripted pinball, with impossibly precise passes between 4 or 5 players before the ball ends up in the back of the net. 

Another major problem with the game (though some might call it simply a feature in presenting a more arcade-like, less realistic take on soccer) is your ability (if you’re a big club) to buy multiple huge players and bring them to your club easily in your first season, making the game an absolute cakewalk. 

After years of incompetence and the ignoring of career mode’s many issues, however, EA finally faced serious backlash with the release of Fifa 20–the most broken iteration in the series yet. 

For a while, #fixcareermode was trending on twitter, and reviews blasted Fifa for its litany of issues, like players going on precipitous declines in stats right when they reach the age of 30.

Yet these bugs were treated by some in the media as a first time thing, issues that had only appeared in the latest iteration. They weren’t.

As one Reddit user noted to Eurogamer: “In the last few years, every FIFA game released has had bugs that ruin the immersion. Teams not starting their strongest lineups and unrealistic tables have been an issue not just for FIFA 20 but earlier editions. Our cries for patches and change have fallen on deaf ears. The community has been grossly neglected.”

The linked article by the Independent above wasn’t accurate in other ways, either. It claims that only simulated matches suffered from the bug of teams not playing their best players, and other articles have claimed that this bug only occurs when a big team plays against a small team. 

But neither of these claims is accurate. 

Fifa’s Career Mode

You could play against a top team like Barcelona, and you could also be a top team like Real Madrid, and Barcelona would still consistently field third or fourth-string players over the likes of Messi against your team. 

This wasn’t an occasional thing, either. At least three or four top players were benched for players 20 or more points below them every game. Every. Single. Game. 

I haven’t even mentioned the commentary in Fifa, which is so buggy and so immersion-breaking in its disconnection from reality that its more immersive to just turn it off entirely. 

What is so infuriating is that that many of the bugs seem like fairly minor fixes (commentary issues aside), something that seems like it would take no more than a few hours of rooting around in the code to figure out whatever misplaced number value was causing the issue.

The fact that these major issues have existed for at least no less than SIX years (Fifa 14 was the first game I played) indicates definitively how little EA cares about its products, and how little the designers care about actual football or delivering an enjoyable experience out of Ultimate Team. 

Of course, Ultimate Team alone in 2017 accounted for almost a third of all of EA’s revenue from sports titles, so it’s somewhat understandable why Ea focuses most of its attention on that element of Fifa.

FIFA

But with the amount of effort put into the new “futsal” mode in Fifa 2020, or the three campaign-like “Journey” modes from Fifa 17 to Fifa 19, one wonders why the developers couldn’t have spent just a little more effort to fix a mode that was in many ways fundamentally broken.

Fifa HAVE made certain changes to career mode over this period, so it’s not like they’ve ignored it entirely. But the changes made to career mode in the six years I’ve played it have all either made the game much worse, slightly worse or had no great effect. 

The major changes over this period have included: 

A slightly updated youth system, which has suffered from its own serious bugs over the years, such as youth prospects never gaining stats in sprint speed or acceleration so that you end up getting stuck with players with 50 to 70 speed for eternity; a widely disliked training system for players that is utterly broken and unfair, allowing you to train players to abilities well beyond what is even vaguely realistic within a matter of a year or two; a new display screen for your team; the removal of form; the slight modification of morale; adding the ability to talk with your players; and, last but not least, transfer cut scenes which are the most incredibly pointless wastes of time in any sports game, both for the player and for the developers–at least they’re skippable. There is the ability to customize your manager–perhaps the most positive change made in this six-year period. But that’s still stunningly sad given that you will very rarely actually see your manager at all. 

None of these modifications, you may have noticed, go any way towards fixing the fundamental issues with the game, issues which have been pointed out to EA year after year.

It’s fair to say that one of the main reasons that FIFA got away with what it did for so long was not thanks to the players, but the media. 

Year after year, reviews for FIFA received solid scores (hovering around the low to mid 80’s), whereas user reviews were usually much lower. It was only this year that media reviews seriously pointed out issues with the career mode. 

The fact that FIFA received so much better reviews from reviewers as compared to players is easily explained away by the fact that the former usually play the game for comparatively shorter times, and therefore tends to miss a lot of the details. 

In response to the recent outrage which had finally reached a degree of publicity that EA could no longer ignore, EA finally patched some of FIFA’s issues, like the problem of teams not fielding their strongest lineups at least semi-frequently. This was a huge step towards making career mode not fundamentally broken, but whether or not the other most glaring issue of teams like Juventus signing 9 80+rated strikers (yes, that happened in my game once) has been solved remains to be seen. Given that I mostly gave up on the series after Fifa 19 continued the same problems of its predecessors, I don’t think it’ll be me that finds out.

  • Evan Lindeman
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‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season

Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.

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atelier ryza

The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.

Ryza starting her alchemy journey.

Like a Warm Blanket

Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.

The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.

The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.

The titular Atelier Ryza.

An Intimate Take on Storytelling

Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.

It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.

The town drunk and Lent's father, Samuel.

Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.

The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.

Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.

Atelier Ryza

Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.

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