Paper Mario is a role-playing game for the Nintendo 64. You’ll notice this is a rarity as the N64 has very few RPGs. The basic plot is that Bowser has stolen a magical item, the Star Rod, which grants wishes. He uses it to make himself invincible and kidnaps Princess Peach. Mario is unable to stop him, and Bowser takes the princess, along with her entire castle, and brings them up to float in space. Mario must set out on a journey to rescue the stars of Star Haven and become powerful enough to save Peach and defeat Bowser. Typical Mario stuff. The thing that makes this game interesting, as an RPG, is that it keeps you involved. You have encounters with enemies, but you will see them on the overworld. If you attack them there, you will get a free hit in battle, and vice versa. To fight, you can use your standard jumping, or attack with a hammer. You can also get more abilities from the stars you rescue, known as focus abilities, or special abilities from your current ally. Focus abilities use up your focus meter, which slowly regenerates during battle. Special abilities use up flower points, which are essentially the same as magic points from other games. Mario can use abilities that require using these flower points as well, but they must be available from the current badges you have equipped. From the badges you can also get stat boosts, passive abilities, and other perks. Each badge requires badge points to equip, so your combination of badges cannot exceed your badge points. You can also carry items along with you for attacking and defending yourself. Upon defeating enemies you will receive star points, which act like experience points from other games. Every 100 star points makes you level up, allowing you to choose to upgrade either your hit points, your flower points, or your badge points. All of this gives you tons of customization options.
To avoid the common issue of grinding, as you level up you will receive less and less star points from weaker foes, eventually gaining none at all on the weaker ones. This is to keep the difficulty curve moving and to emphasize smart planning over level grinding. They’ve also taken care to make sure you stay involved in the battles. When you select a move to use, there’s always some action you need to do to execute the move or to give it more strength. It may be timing a button press, doing a motion in rhythm, or hitting a sequence of commands. All types of things pop up here to keep you from picking the strongest move every time and just watching it blankly. You have to stay active in every part of the battles, which makes them more intense. Perhaps you have a move that’s very effective, but you don’t want to risk it because you’re bad at the button command, so you pick a weaker move you can more effectively execute. It’s an interesting twist reflecting your own personal skills. All of the mechanics and characters are introduced slowly, giving you time to learn and adjust while keeping a good pace of freedom and progress. Your allies all have interesting abilities inside and outside of battle, so you’ll need them for the overworld as well. Make sure you take advantage of their strengths.
The amount of detail in Paper Mario is wonderful. There’s not only lots of customization and strategy going on, but lots of little things to pick up on. The art is very colorful and pretty for Nintendo 64. The paper aesthetic is a fun way to keep the designs simple yet effective. The music, with nods to other Mario titles, is lively and interesting with a good number of themes to go around. The backgrounds when fighting enemies reflects the areas you’re in, right down to little details of the currents screen to make each fight seem like it’s happening right there instead of a general area. The special effects are pretty flashy too. The characterization is where the game really shines. There are so many characters that all say new things every time the story progresses. It’s so fun to go around and talk to everyone. Some you have to talk to, others will give you tips and tell you secrets, but even the ones that are just there for world building are a delight to talk to. It makes the world feel very alive and rewards you for your interest. Plus, for fans of the Mario series and Super Mario RPG, there are some references in here that might make you smirk. There’s just so much to do and it’s all executed beautifully.
There are few things I can complain about in this game. If you don’t like reading, then you probably will be quite bored for a lot of this game. There’s lots of dialogue text to drive the story. Some of the extras and puzzles can be annoying and not all of them are worth doing unless you’re just curious to see what they do. Sometimes the perspective can be difficult to judge with the angle of the camera you can’t control and just that fact that you’re a flat piece of paper moving around a 3D environment. The level cap is hard to get to without grinding in a very specific place. Sometimes you need to grind for money to get certain items or do specific things. Admittedly, fans of the more traditional style of RPGs will probably be annoyed at the differences in playstyle and lack of more complex elements. There are the small things like this, but most of them get lost in the mix of a great game.
When it comes down to it, Paper Mario is a game that has such good pace, involvement, attention to detail, polish, and charm that it’s hard not to fall in love with it. I feel bad that I never got to play it before. It was well worth the 40 dollars I paid to get it. Paper Mario is a brilliantly designed game that is now one of my favorite RPGs, not to mention one of my favorite Mario games, of all time.