Mario & Luigi show Paper Mario how it’s done
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is an obvious crossover in many ways. Intelligent Systems’ collection of Paper Mario games could be seen as Mario & Luigi’s sister series, so it makes sense that AlphaDream would take a stab at converging each of the series’ unique traits into one title. Both have a strong emphasis on humor in particular, and that’s been applied in droves to Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam.
The story begins with Luigi inadvertently stumbling upon the book that houses the entire Paper Mushroom Kingdom, and in true Luigi fashion, accidentally spreads its contents across the real Mushroom Kingdom. Paper Toads, Paper Goombas, Paper Peach and even Paper Bowser all find themselves in a world populated by three-dimensional doppelgängers. This is the basis for the crossover, and it’s implemented with care and a great deal of attention. The dialogue between beloved Super Mario characters and their Paper counterparts is a joy to read, and the two series’ staple character designs are stark and striking in comparison, yet don’t look out of place in the vibrant overworld.
Paper Jam is the fifth game in AlphaDream’s Mario & Luigi series. While the addition of Paper characters keeps things fresh, the gameplay is refined to the point of near-perfection. The game respects players’ time in an admirable manner, and this is demonstrated from the get-go. Players familiar with the series have the option to skip talkative tutorials, while newcomers will be made more than welcome with a variety of optional extras which make the game more accessible than ever before.
An Easy mode makes enemies easier to defeat and the Mario Bros. more formidable and difficult to conquer, but it feels irrelevant unless you plan on passing your 3DS to a five-year-old player. But this serves to remind us of the impeccable balancing found within. It’s paced wonderfully as an RPG; you rarely need to grind in order to progress, and the enemies you encounter are consistently well-matched.
Perhaps most importantly, the battle system is engaging to the point that you’ll never tire of running into the Mushroom Kingdom’s critters. Your party will consist of Mario, Luigi and Paper Mario — each capable of attacking by themselves or performing a number of “Bros.” or “Trio” attacks. To say that Paper Jam is a turn-based RPG would be a disservice. While the three heroes and up to three foes all take turns to land attacks, you’re never without something to do. In fact, each attack serves up a micro-game of sorts; you’re tasked with timing button presses to land more powerful moves or completely avoid attacks. When it’s your enemy’s turn, you can still control your characters, and you are encouraged to not only dodge, but counter-attack by leaping onto the attacking adversary’s head, or landing a blow with a timely swing of the hammer.
Battles are certainly interactive and playful by nature, yet many new mechanisms are hard at work behind the scenes. Buying and equipping new equipment naturally powers up your characters. For example, Paper Mario can produce five copies of himself, with each acting as a pseudo-shield. Battle Cards are perhaps the most interesting new addition; three are dealt at random onto the Nintendo 3DS’s touch-screen during battles. You can purchase these cards from the Toad shop in each town. Providing you have enough Star Points — earned by completing basic activities during battles — you can play one into the battle for one of various power-ups. Battle Cards can boost your XP, deal a certain amount of damage to your foes, or replenish some of your HP. More powerful cards are unlocked as you progress through the game, yet these consume more Star Points when you decide to take advantage of their benefits. With so much to think about, you’ll never once find yourself sitting and waiting for it to be your turn. This is one area in which AlphaDream excels and easily puts Pokémon’s battle system to shame with its engaging mechanics.
And just when you think you’ve mastered the battle system, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam goes and throws in all-new Papercraft Battles. Those hard-working Toads (and Bowser’s evil minions) find themselves somewhat inspired by the Mushroom Kingdom’s new Paper residents, and build huge papercraft figures based on Mario and company — as well as a number of infamous foes. These battles completely throw all RPG elements out of the window, focusing entirely on a real-time combat system. The surprising part? They work so well. If they weren’t in here, nobody would say “this game is missing something,” but their presence just goes to show much thought has gone into providing a unique and worthwhile experience that, again, respects you for every second that you spend with it.
Even outside of battle you’re always kept on your toes with new toys to play with and new mechanics to work with. Despite its linearity, Paper Jam’s story often leaves what feels like the beaten path and takes you on a wild ride full of surprises. At times, it almost feels like a 3D platformer of years gone by. You’ll also get thrown into missions to progress the story, although these often feel like filler. The game will lock you into a small area and ask you to find all the scared Paper Toads — sometimes against a time limit. Occasionally, other well-known characters are leveraged in; Yoshi will challenge you to a race and Wiggler will refuse to let you pass until you gather up a load of fruit, but these often feel like a simple game of hide-and-seek. But everyone loves hide-and-seek, right!?
It’s fair to say these don’t appear so often as to detract from the overall experience, and it’s a general pleasure to traverse the overworld to see everything AlphaDream’s latest rendition of the Mushroom Kingdom has to offer. The presentation isn’t quite as polished as, say, Super Mario 3D Land’s, but the colorful art style is easy on the eye; corrugated cardboard artifacts from the Paper Mushroom Kingdom serve as platforms and obstacles, subtly reminding the player that this is actually a crossover.
In some ways, I was reminded of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Paper Jam’s dialogue and Nintendo’s localization efforts are astounding, and its sense of humor is executed with finesse. I feel that everything flows so naturally, in a way that finally gives Square’s SNES classic a run for its money.
Nintendo is publishing two RPGs this week. Xenoblade Chronicles X will be turning heads for its technical accomplishments, while Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam deserves to be picked up by fans looking for something a little more lighthearted, witty, fun, and a pure joy to play. Paper Jam doesn’t look like anything new on the surface, but it’s one of the most engaging games I’ve played this year. There’s no denying that AlphaDream has finally nailed its RPG formula — and brings Paper Mario along for the ride.
Editor’s note: Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam supports amiibo from the Super Mario series and equivalents from the Super Smash Bros. series. Unfortunately, I don’t have a compatible figure so I was unable to test this functionality. However, I never felt that I needed to purchase a figure to fully enjoy the game. The added functionality merely serves as a small diversion for amiibo aficionados.
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam debuts in Japan on December 3, 2015. It will launch in Europe and North America on December 4, 2015 and January 22, 2016, respectively.
Review copy provided by Nintendo