This article is the exclusive opinion of its writer and his views do not represent the views of Source Gaming as a whole. This also means it is merely an opinion and not a fact.
I’ve got my Fire Shield badge equipped, my opinion hammer primed and ready, and an article that is long overdue. Now I love the Paper Mario series. The Thousand Year Door was one of the best JRPGs of all time, and the first one is pretty neat, too. I enjoyed Super Paper Mario’s plot and ideas, was let down by Sticker Star (but didn’t despise it), and if you read my review you’ll already know that my thoughts on Color Splash were positive. Over time, this series has gotten a lot of complaints due to its change of direction and some of these are fair, it is hard to top the Gamecube masterpiece. Yet, in my opinion, while a call back to the RPG days of old would be nice I don’t think that’s what makes the Paper Mario series special or unique. It’s not partners, turn-based combat and experience points that makes Paper Mario so pleasant.
It’s the paper.
A quick history lesson for the uninformed. Paper Mario originally started off as a sequel to the SNES Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, but the team were struggling to find a way to present the game. It needed to look different from Super Mario 64 so it could stand on its own, but it still needed to look like Mario. This was when Naohiko Aoyama, a newbie at Intelligent System, created a mock-up with 2D Mario sprites in a 3D realm and the team loved the idea. Thus, Paper Mario (a.k.a. Mario Story in Japan) was born!
Thanks to the way this style was created, the first game failed to really capitalise on the ‘paper’ aspect. It was more about the storybook look. It wasn’t until the sequel on the Gamecube where the series took off on its paper style. Mario now had a ‘curse’ that made him act like paper and gave him a lot of moves and ways of travel that were based on the fact he was made of paper. They really began to embrace this style and it was at a good time as well. At this time the Mario & Luigi series began, another take on the Mario RPG formula that looked more like traditional Mario than Paper Mario did. This was the catalyst to begin focusing on what made Paper Mario stand out from the other Marios. This was when the paper mechanic became the core focus.
With the history lesson over it’s time to get into the big focus of this article. Let’s start with a bombshell. The partners are not important to the Paper Mario series. I’ll wait for those blind with fury to leave the room, and we can begin our discussion on this. What brought it about was, and to pretty much nobody’s shock on this site, Super Smash Bros. After Color Splash I was curious how Paper Mario might play as a fighter and my research lead me to various fan mock-ups, all with one thing in common. They all used the partners in some way. I’m not trying to be mean but that will never happen. See, nearly every character in Smash is tied around a core, often based around their character. And for Paper Mario that is the paper, not the partners.
There was also another point of debate I saw with fans perceptions of partners. Many forums I went to when discussing Color Splash refused to play the game due to its lack of playable partners, and that was it. It was as if to them, the partners were more important than gameplay, design, story, music and writing. To them, partners are the clear focus and Paper Mario without them is just instantly not Paper Mario. People are free to have their own opinions but this is something I fundamentally disagree with. The partners were just one part of the Paper Mario series and a part that was leftover from the original Super Mario RPG. It’s not even an original idea, unlike the paper.
That last sentence is a really a key aspect in all of this. While the first two titles began the Paper Mario series they don’t feel like Paper Mario games. They don’t fit in with the other 3 and a half games. They are in the minority now. And when you look at the series history it makes sense. They aren’t Paper Mario games. They are Super Mario RPG 2 & 3. Super Paper Mario and onwards are the true Paper Mario games, action-adventures based around the concept of Paper. Whether it’s dimension hopping, stickers, color or everything in Paper Jam, the series decided to make that the primary focus because this was the new thing that Paper Mario brought to the table. This is what made it not only unique from other Mario games but also most other games in general, in a similar way that Good-Feel did for themselves with Epic Yarn and Woolly World.
Now, all this isn’t to say the partner mechanic can’t return in some function. The same goes for turn-based combat and other RPG elements. Heck, Intelligent Systems never really dropped all these ideas. We had experience on the Wii, turn-based combat in the latest 2 ½, and partners in all of them. They may be different but the Pixls, Kersti, and Huey just function differently, and not in a bad way. The partners have gone from being just additional moves for Mario to use to being fundamental parts of the game. They allow Mario more abilities on their own than any of the previous partners did individually (except Pixls) and they tie into the overarching story in major ways. This can also help them to be better than previous partners. Partners have always helped to add personality to the game and this is one factor that hasn’t changed as the series evolved. Huey is far more charismatic than a lot of characters from the first two games.
Going forward with the Paper Mario series, Kensuke Tanabe has expressed that they want to focus on new systems in the future. For me, this sounds like they want to see what new directions they can take the paper mechanic. Maybe a game focused around origami or scissors, for example. As I said above there are still ways for multiple partners to play a key role in this as well but they should be tied to the paper in some way. The Pixl’s, in my opinion, are how to do it right. The only issue with the Pixl’s is that they didn’t feel fleshed out except Tippi but I would argue a reason for that is because of the increased role of Peach, Bowser and Luigi in that game. They took the spotlight away. Hopefully, in the next title they can come back, but if they don’t it won’t ruin the game. It didn’t for Color Splash which is still my second favourite Paper Mario game.
Now, this isn’t to say that all they need is a unique paper mechanic and that’s fine. This was the issue with Sticker Star. The stickers were an interesting idea but the game suffered in nearly every other category. Gameplay was alright and I can deal with the level-based system but the writing was mediocre, the battles were pointless and the story was awful. Color Splash fixes nearly all of this and it did without having to go backwards in its design. Hopefully, the next Paper Mario can fix the pointless combat (which to be honest is easy. A better reward and more options) and make the characters more than just Toad. Those are the only real criticisms I can make of that game. If they can do that along with a new paper mechanic then we could get the best Paper Mario game to date, easily.
Everyone is allowed their own opinions though. If you really do play Paper Mario for the characters only and the individual partners play a role in that then that is fine. It’s an opinion after all, but I really needed to get mine off my chest. I’m not trying to make you feel bad for liking what you like and I hope you won’t destroy me for my opinions. We can have a civil debate about this in the comments, or on our discord. Going forward though, Paper Mario is not likely to return to the style found in The Thousand Year Door and I just want to let you know that it is ok. The world and characters are not something exclusively tied to the RPG gameplay of that game. It’s very easy to have an action-adventure game with great worldbuilding and characters, Color Splash proves this. So, when the next Paper Mario comes out let’s not instantly jump on the hate train, alright? Otherwise, you may miss out on a game that is truly colorful.