Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is a crossover RPG of the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario series for the Nintendo 3DS. I’d like to acknowledge up front that while I have played Paper Mario and most of Super Paper Mario, I’ve not played any of the Mario & Luigi games so my viewpoint might be considerably different than long-time fans of both. Now the story of this game is rather simple, but let me try to explain it so that it makes sense. Basically, Luigi (from the Mario & Luigi universe) stumbles across a magical book than contains the Paper Mario universe and accidentally knocks it open. This unleashes many of the Paper Mario universe’s inhabitants to spread across the land. You can find normal and paper versions of many characters, including Peach, Bowser, and even Mario! The like-minded character clones team up to make the most of the situation. The Bowsers kidnap the Peaches and plan to take over the Mario & Luigi world while the Bowser Juniors work to keep the book safe to ensure they never have to part with one another. So it’s up to Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario to team up and take down all the baddies. Like I said, it’s a simple plot.
The gameplay, on the other hand, has a lot to be mentioned. I’ll do my best to hit it all here. The main gameplay is, of course, the RPG part of the game. You fight various bosses and minor enemies that lurk around the world as opposed to random encounters. The combat is technically turn-based as only one character can initiate an attack at a time with very few exceptions. Each of your characters (Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario) has the choice to attack with an iconic jump on the enemy’s head or by smashing them with a hammer as far as basic attacks go. If you time the attack correctly you can do extra damage. Flying enemies tend to dodge hammer swings and spiked enemies will hurt if you jump on them, so be careful. Each character also has their own special abilities that use Bros points, which are this game’s equivalent of MP in most RPGs. Mario and Luigi can perform their own special Bros Attacks which also require the other bother to be alive and well to accomplish. Paper Mario can perform Trio Attacks with the similar stipulation that both of the bros are up and at ‘em. Each of these techniques are different. They cost different amounts of BP, can focus singular targets or groups, and each one has their own set of tasks to pull off. These techniques often require various button presses and control stick movement along with precise timing to pull off flawlessly. The better you perform, the longer most attacks will last and therefore the more damage they will do. Your performance on all attacks is rated OK, good, great, or excellent to show how well you do them. You can also use items in battles at the cost of a turn. Paper Mario also has his own unique ability to turn into multiple copies of himself to deal and take extra damage in fights. Making copies also takes a turn and enemies can destroy these copies as well. Then of course there’s the time when an enemy gets to attack your party. Attacks can focus one or multiple of your characters. You can hold a button to make them all block and reduce the damage. You also have the choice to dodge and/or counter attack. Each character is assigned a button to use. A controls Mario, B controls Luigi, and Y controls Paper Mario. Again, if you’re trying to dodge or counter attack, timing is key. It might be easier to dodge than to counter attack, but counter attacks will deal damage to the enemy without it taking up your turn so it’s a risk versus reward system. On top of all of this there’s also a battle card system. You get a deck full of ten battle cards. You can collect and buy more during the game to customize a deck for all situations. To use these cards, you will need to accumulate star points during battles. You do this by executing excellent attacks. The cards will randomly be drawn, with a max of three available at a time, and can be used on your turn. You can use as many cards as your star points can afford. That’s a lot, but that’s as basic as I could make the combat sound without skipping key details. Then there’s also the stat management. By defeating enemies you gain experience. Gaining enough experience will increase your level, which will in turn increase your stats. At certain level benchmarks you’ll increase your rank. This means you get to select a perk from a pool of choices. Some of them can be selected by multiple characters, but others can only be selected by one character, thereby making it unavailable for the rest when they rank up. There are also some perks that are only available for Mario & Luigi or just Paper Mario. This is where building your characters in different ways will come into play. There’s also equipment you can give to your characters to further alter their stats and give them interesting item effects. All of this gear is split since Mario & Luigi cannot use paper equipment, nor can Paper Mario use normal equipment. All of this stuff is your more typical RPG fare. However, there’s more to this game than just that.
Another rather predictable part of the game is the exploration. There’s a big, connect world that unfolds more and more as you progress. You’ll be rather limited to a few areas and linear paths right away, but the game starts to open up more later. You can learn moves to better traverse the land, solve puzzles, and find secrets. This means you’ll want to backtrack every now and then to see what new things you’re able to access. It’s somewhat similar to using items to access new areas in Zelda games. Another major part of the game are quests to save Paper Toads. These generally consist of various minigames that test your reflexes, your puzzle solving, and your combat skills. Most of these missions, as well as harder variants of them, can be found in Lakitu Info Centers throughout the game. Completing benchmark numbers of these challenges will net you some special battle cards. The main reason for doing these minigames is to collect enough Paper Toads to help work on papercrafts. These are essentially giant cardboard robots used for fighting one another because, as you may have guessed, the baddies have been making their own. These battles are all typically the same outside of the slightly different abilities of both your own and the enemies’ papercrafts. The main idea is to move around, dodge the enemy, knock the papercrafts off of the opposing team’s base (because the need a bunch of minions or toads in your case to move the base of the papercraft around for some reason), and then throw your papercraft on top of them to do damage. You also always have a dash technique. Dashes and jumps will use up energy, which can be replenished on special pads while completing a quick, real-time rhythm minigame before heading back into battle. You can also find mushrooms in item blocks to replenish your health if you get too roughed up. Completing these papercraft battles will net you some neat gear. Eventually you’ll also open up the arcade in the Lakitu Info Centers. There are three machines to try out with multiple challenges for you to try and master. You can even get ranked on them, with the best rank being S. One machine lets you fight powered up versions of previous bosses. Another machine lets you replay papercraft battles. And the last machine lets you try out harder versions of your special attacks. Most of these, along with various other tasks within normal exploration and combat, can net you some special currency. You can check your expert challenge guide from the menu to see what you need to accomplish next. There are lots of these. The special currency can be used to purchase unique items in the gear shop. So, there’s plenty to do in the game.
I do like quite a bit about this game. The main RPG stuff is where this game really shines for me. I like the basic stuff of leveling up to get stronger and getting new gear to better my party. I like the rank up bonuses that give you some customization option and allow you to build your party in interesting ways. The combat system is great. Instead of just navigating your menu to the strongest attack and then watching it happen you have to actually be active during all phases of the fight. Your only downtime is picking attacks, which at least allows you time to think and properly strategize. Many times I ended up picking moves that did less damage because I was much better at pulling them off than the harder hitters. It made me actually decide if I wanted to risk little to no damage with the possibility of the most damage, or to settle for a consistent amount of decent damage. This is what makes the system great. The risk versus reward also extends well to defense. Using the block is consistently less damage. Dodging is more difficult, but it has the chance to avoid all damage entirely. And counter attacking is the riskiest because it can both avoid damage to yourself while hurting the enemy in the process. Not to mention the strategy in building your characters with perks, equipment, and battle cards that will all synergize in a satisfying way. Lots of simple depth and risk versus reward make this a lot of fun. The variety of other things to do is nice as well. Tired of combat? Take a break with some exploration or Paper Toad missions. Maybe work on those expert challenges to spice up your combat. Check out the arcade some. There’s good variety and a good length of a game here. I also like how colorful the game is and music is nice too. There’s no mistaking that this is the general Mario universe. However, this brings that universe into question.
I thought that the Paper Mario universe was just a stylized version of the normal Mario universe and that the characters were all the same. In Paper Jam we see that this universe and the Mario & Luigi universe are clearly different. So what of the main series Mario games? Are those part of the Paper Mario universe or the Mario & Luigi universe or another universe entirely? At any rate, this game tends to feel like it focuses more on the Mario & Luigi universe with just same scattered implementation of Paper Mario universe pieces for aesthetics. A lot of the characters do the very predictable thing of meeting their paper counterparts and mirroring the things they say and do. It’s cute at first, but it happens to often that it feels more like lazy writing after a while. Not to mention that nearly all of the characters in this game feel like they’re the same. They all talk in a similar manner, making goofy comments along with terrible actual attempts at humor. It’s probably not a good sign when Luigi, a character that doesn’t even have any written dialogue, is the most interesting and unique character in the game. Even if everyone in this universe decides to shit on him every chance they get. You leave the ‘Uig Man alone! Ahem, anyways. The fourth wall breaking and hand holding stuff, mainly from your guide character, is the same way. It’s cute at first, but after a while you just want the game to let go and let you breathe. The world and characters aren’t terribly interesting, nor is the story very compelling, so this game is really hinging on its gameplay, which many people will look down on for RPGs. The reward of exploring the world is fun when it’s a direct consequence of your progression, but there are times when you just have to wait until randomly there are more paper landscapes thrown on top of previous areas so that you can access the rest of the secrets. It’s not satisfying to just wait for the game to arbitrarily decide when you can go there rather than making it related to your abilities as a character. The minigames are nice for variety, but almost none of them have anything to do with your combat skills. And some are built on sloppy mechanics that are awkward to use skillfully in your favor. The papercraft battles are at least functional and you get some nice gear for doing them, but they’re a bit long sometimes and also have no relation on your progression in the RPG section of the game. The variety is nice, in theory. I just greatly preferred the actual RPG elements and interesting combat far more and wish they would’ve focused on that instead.
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is alright. The combat and RPG elements in general are great. I was willing to forgive the handholding, the basic characters, and the simple plot because the combat was so engaging. However, the frustrating minigames and extra challenges to pad the play time were too much for me to stand going through a second time. I’m glad I experienced this, and it’s a decent RPG for your 3DS, but I could only really recommend it for twenty bucks or less. If you like RPGs with engaging combat and the Mario universe, then give it a shot. Otherwise, maybe just stick to titles in the separate series to better quench your thirst for a Mario RPG. And no, that’s not a hint at a future review. I don’t own Super Mario RPG, nor do I have any plans to seek it out whatsoever. Come at me, Mario Bro!