Games

Beyond Pen and Paper: Ranking the ‘Paper Mario’ Series

What is the best Paper Mario game?

Often praised for their quality, as well as their spectacular writing, the Paper Mario games have provided some of the best stories within the Mario universe and within the entirety of Nintendo’s canon, only rivaled by the Mario and Luigi series or the occasional paradigm-shifting JRPGQuality is the language spoken by Intelligent Systems, the developer of the series, and to date, the Paper Mario series has been beloved by fans of all ages as a truly great story-focused Mario experience.

When a series of such pedigree is discussed, it can be important to cross-examine each game in the series with other games in the franchise as a reference to demonstrate how the series has evolved during its tenure. Each game in the Paper Mario series has its strengths and weaknesses which construct a unique experience, and yet each entry is not perfect. There is a clear hierarchy that dominates the series. This hierarchy creates an optimal playing order for the gamer new to the Paper Mario series, allowing them to savor its best moments and the best moments of each game while avoiding the pitfalls of comparing a series’ first entry with follow-up games.

5.) Paper Mario: Sticker Star– Nintendo 3DS- 2012

Rarely does Nintendo swing and miss as hard as they did with Color Splash. With fan expectations riding high after the controversy of Super Paper Mario, Nintendo announced a new entry in the series for their then-new handheld. When it released on 3DS, the reaction was…muted. Courtesy of Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto’s insistenceSticker Star ditched most of what made the series’ entries on previous Nintendo consoles so memorable.

RPG system? Gone. Replaced with items that, after a single use, were gone forever.

Interesting partners? Gone. Though present in early builds of the game, they disappeared before release.

Good story? Gone. Replaced with a traditional “Bowser kidnaps Peach” shtick that just doesn’t work.

In the end, there isn’t much to say about Sticker Star. It wasn’t actively bad, most Nintendo games aren’t, but it tore the heart out of a memorable series, making fans worry that Nintendo had forgotten the success they had before.

4.) Paper Mario: Color Splash- Nintendo Wii U- 2016

Despite being much better than Sticker StarColor Splash comes with the distinction of being in the same series as earlier, greater games. Gorgeous visual design, beautiful graphics, and funny dialogue weren’t enough to make the game as interesting as it could have been.

Still without partners, a serviceable story, or a decent battle system, Color Splash didn’t change the very aspects of the series that were needed, instead creating a tired and uninteresting experience that quickly wore out its welcome. While, much like Sticker Star, not a bad game, it lacked the creativity and imagination that had defined previous titles.

Now, on to the heavy hitters…

3.) Paper Mario– Nintendo 64- 2001

The original Paper Mario was vastly ahead of its time. Living on the paper-thin (pun fully intended) end of the N64’s lifespan, this game helped provide direction for a Mario RPG series that had been left rudderless by the souring of relations between Final Fantasy creator Square and Nintendo. With a small hope of producing a true sequel to the critically acclaimed and Square co-developed Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Nintendo decided to break the mold and introduce a Mario RPG with an entirely new aesthetic.

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As the first game in the series, the original Paper Mario has some rough edges that are more evident today than when the game was originally released. Occasionally unappealing sprite work, a merely good story, and Bowser as the main villain all contribute to this game being the least great of the Paper Mario series. Although it is still an amazing game, especially when compared to contemporary RPGs on the N64, it still struggles with the one quality which makes the Paper Mario games so great: their writing. The writing lacks wit, an element of the series which would develop given time. Whether this was due to an average localization (compared to the spectacular localization that later games would receive) or from a lack of good source material, it is still a disappointment to notice.

Despite this, the game’s combat and environments show that this is a true classic, and one of the best games on the N64, possibly behind only The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64 in terms of sheer quality. However, it has certainly aged better than the previous two. Good looking, if not great, sprites make Paper Mario one the most visually appealing games on the N64. The calm, leisurely pace of combat, combined with simplistic and intuitive RPG elements make it an amazing game for the RPG neophyte. A family-friendly and cutesy demeanor construct as charming a game as Nintendo has ever produced, and the paper aesthetic is easily as fascinating as the yarn aesthetic in Yoshi’s Woolly World or claymation in Kirby and the Rainbow Curse.

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This game is currently on the Wii U eShop for $9.99, and for that price, it’s a steal. For anyone looking to get into the series, this is the best place to start. The mechanics are easy to digest, even for players new to RPGs, and the combat system in Paper Mario is a good compliment to later developments in the series.

2.) Super Paper Mario– Nintendo Wii- 2007

As the most divisive game in the Paper Mario series outside of Sticker Star, opinions regarding Super Paper Mario vary wildly, the main point of contention being the elimination of turn-based battles. The battles are instead a hybrid of RPG and platformer elements with the ability to change characters, as well as this game’s equivalent of partners, Pixls, in the middle of battle. Unfortunately, the battle system in Super Paper Mario is, quite noticeably, the weakest in the series, lacking most of the elements which made battling in the previous games such a joy. The battle system and boss battles take a serious demerit in quality, and the simplistic nature of combat, coupled with very limited RPG elements, make it oftentimes boring, sleepy, and out of touch with the Paper Mario series’ pedigree.

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Despite the languid battle system, the gameplay is incredibly solid. For an RPG-laced platformer, the game controls remarkably, and the buttery-smooth platforming feels almost as good as a traditional 2D Mario game. Adding to the strength of the gameplay are the unique abilities that belong to each member of the party, including Mario’s ability to change the perspective of the world from a flat, two-dimensional surface to a world of 3D, where Mario can move around two-dimensional obstacles and enemies with ease. Many of the game’s puzzles involve using each party member’s abilities in unique ways. This aspect of the gameplay, while interesting, never evolves much past its initial difficulty.

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The story and writing, however, are where this game truly shines; Super Paper Mario has the best story in the Paper Mario franchise. The main villain, Count Bleck, is as complicated a villain as Mario has ever seen, and his moral ambiguity presents an interesting contrast to Bowser as a villain in the original Paper Mario, a villain whose paper-thin characterization make him lovable and hardly a threat. Bleck’s main purpose is to use the Void, an enormous black hole, to destroy the entire universe as a salve for his own personal suffering. Villains in Super Paper Mario, such as Bleck, possess complex ideologies with philosophies such as nihilism taking center stage. Add in a few flashbacks, writing as quick and witty as has ever been seen in the Mario RPGs, and Super Paper Mario crafts a story which is a true Mario classic; it is a story not to be missed by anyone who is a fan of the plumber’s RPG outings.

1.) Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door– Nintendo GameCube- 2004

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is far and away the best Paper Mario game to ever be released. Combining the best elements of the original Paper Mario and Super Paper MarioThe Thousand Year Door never fails to provide one of the most joyous experiences ever crafted, and in every aspect The Thousand Year Door stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of the Paper Mario games. Locales are much more interesting, the story is better than the original, and the combat is the best in the series.

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While the story may not be as well-constructed as Super Paper Mario’s, the dialogue is much quicker and wittier than its successor. Partners, while never advancing much beyond their paper-thin personalities, still present more character to the player than the partners in the original Paper Mario and are a thankful break from the mostly-mute Pixels in Super Paper Mario. The story is simple and linear, rarely straying away from the pace set in the original; however, it still manages to get more done in its brisk twenty-five hours than most games do in forty hours. The excellent localization, coupled with hilarious pop-culture references, truly shows the range and creativity that the writers at Intelligent Systems and the localizers at Nintendo of America were capable of producing.

Combat, molded in the image of the original Paper Mario, expands on that system and provides mechanics interesting enough to create a truly unique experience which still stands the test of time. With a plethora of badges, the main way of customizing Mario and Co.’s abilities, and new mechanics, including an audience which watches Mario during battle, the game’s battle system is the best of any in the Paper Mario series. The bevy of customization that comes with badges produces a battle system which is easily digested by relatively new RPG players and yet customizable by veteran players.

Beautiful art direction also carries the game in more ways than one. Gameplay mechanics involving paper unfold beautifully on the screen, while Mario and the various NPCs that he meets show comical emotion, are artfully animated, and are truly full of life.  The world of The Thousand Year Door is quite striking as well. From the seedy town of Rogueport to the spectator-filled arenas in the floating town of Glitzville, the game’s various locales ooze infectious personality, even when presented in lackluster 480i. It is evident that in every aspect of the world’s construction there is love and care infused from the developer. This game is a passion project, a shocking departure from the cold, sterile manner in which most AAA games are produced today.

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Despite the fact that it is only available on the Nintendo GameCube and cannot be played in HD, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door  is better than the other Paper Mario games. One must not misunderstand, however, as all of the main Paper Mario games are true classics; each title is one of the best games on its respective system. Each of these three games is crafted with the same love and care that is seen in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door and they are worth playing in their own right. Every game in the franchise deserves the praise it garners, and ultimately they are among some of the finest RPGs to ever be produced by Nintendo, and some of the best RPGs in gaming.

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4 comments

RD July 18, 2020 at 3:39 am

I really can’t agree with Super Paper Mario. The game was a chore to get though, and having to constantly open your menu to switch pixls was annoying. There was also backtracking that got real annoying too.

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