A Tale of Two RPGs
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is the fifth installment of the Mario & Luigi RPG series. The big draw of this entry is the addition of Paper Mario and a number of other “paper” characters from the Paper Mario RPG series. While this game is marketed as a crossover between both, this really only applies to the story and not the gameplay. This plays primarily like a Mario & Luigi mainline title with snippets, cameos, and calls from Paper Mario. The result is a game that overall plays well but does not necessarily live up to the potential of combining two different Mario RPG worlds.
Strengths of this entry include the fun battle system, beautiful presentation, and the addition of the crossover character, Paper Mario. This title falls short in its lackluster story, questionable filler diversions, and repetitive gameplay.
Although Mario & Luigi is an RPG series, the games are not usually known for complex plots. That said, they are still recognized for having good humor, fun characters, and a story that goes beyond the usual Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach. With a crossover being the crux of this installment, one would think that there would be ripe opportunity for all of those elements. That said, Paper Jam presents a lackluster story that does not go beyond the bare minimum of paper characters invading the Mushroom Kingdom.
The story begins with Luigi accidentally opening a book which unleashes the characters from Paper Mario, including Paper Bowser, Paper Peach, and the titular hero himself, into his world. There are some humorous portions early on in the game with each character finding their paper counterpart. However, nobody goes beyond that, questioning how people can be made of paper or how amazing it is that they are looking at 3-dimensional versions of themselves. Rather, the characters are most surprised that there is another person that is just like them. To that matter, it seems unnecessary to even have a Paper Mario crossover gimmick when a simple “attack of the clones” storyline would suffice.
In regards to the characters, the cast is as humdrum as typical Mario games go. In all previous entries of Mario & Luigi, as well as the early games of Paper Mario, there were interesting original characters that served to add personality and spice to the Mario universe. Their presence usually provided much humor (especially in the case of series mainstay, Fawful), because they were built from the ground-up as uniquely funny characters. In contrast, this game strictly uses the recognizable characters that you would find in most modern Mario games, such as your run-of-the-mill Goombas and Koopas. Presumably, this was done to account for those characters being the only ones who have paper versions. However, what this does is make the world feel limited and lack the certain charm that other games in both series had. Similarly, the setting is what you might expect from modern 2D Mario games: desert, water, and snow areas, for example.
As previously said, the series is not known for complex plots. However, since the story will be what should push you to finish the game, the game should at least have a somewhat compelling story. Unfortunately, even with the whole paper characters crossover, the story amounts to two Bowsers kidnapping two Princess Peaches. That’s right. Instead of any sort of plot involving the paper world or the paper characters, the story refuses to delve beyond the typical New Super Mario Bros. plot and otherwise feels like a missed potential. Although the story itself is uninspired and conservative, the gameplay does make up for it.
A World to Explore
Primary gameplay is performed in two ways: exploring and battling. Mario and Luigi, and later Paper Mario, can walk, run, and jump around the quasi-3D environment. As you progress, you will learn moves that allow you to use hammers, make bridges, and drill into the ground. Even though you are controlling three different brothers at once, the controls feel natural, with each button mapping to a different brother. For instance, the A button allows Mario to jump and the B button does the same for Luigi. In a wise move, the X button will allow all three brothers to jump at once, which streamlines the process of crossing the numerous platforms in this game. Another addition that streamlines the exploration of this world is the addition of running. By holding the X button, the brothers can now dash. This is required for some racing and capturing minigames, and also provides a way to speed up travel. Finally, you can use the R button or the touch screen to seamlessly switch between different field moves such as the aforementioned hammers.
RPG Battles with Action Elements
The fun action turn-based battles that the series is well-known for return in Paper Jam. Not much has changed, and the battles can get repetitive, but the few new tweaks prevent the franchise from becoming stale. While exploring, you will see various enemies that you can engage battle with. The battles are turn-based, with a simple menu interface. For the most part, your three main characters (Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario) can only use two basic attacks: Jump and Hammer. As with previous entries in both series, you can improve the effectiveness of your attacks through carefully timed-button presses. For instance, pressing the A button just as Mario lands on an enemy allows him to perform a second Jump attack. Likewise, when enemies are attacking, carefully timed-button presses will allow you to dodge which can prevent damage altogether. A new feature of Paper Jam is that you can now see which character(s) the enemy is targeting. You must still be able to time the dodge, but this allows for more accessibility for some players.
A major change to the series is the addition of a new main party member, Paper Mario. Paper Mario functions similarly to the Mario Bros. in battle but comes with some differences to make him unique. He can make copies of himself allowing him to attack enemies multiple times. These copies also take enemy damage in place of Paper Mario himself allowing him to conserve HP even when hit. The addition of a third character is a welcome change of pace that adds complexity while not being too confusing.
Bros. Attacks, or special attacks utilizing both of the Mario Bros., return in this game and are joined by the brand new, Trio Attacks. Both are special attacks that use the brothers’ strengths in fun ways. For instance, Mario and Luigi can kick shells at enemies or unleash massive fire balls with the Fire Flower. Trio Attacks make these moves stand out as Paper Mario is folded, stretched, and contorted to become tools of combat such as a giant racquet. Due to the high HP of many of the bosses, expect to be using these attacks often, which is unfortunate given how long they take to set-up and how easy it is to mess up with a wrong button press.
The newest mechanic to join Paper Jam is the Battle Cards system, which allows players to make battle decks consisting of 10 cards. These cards appear on the bottom screen and can change the flow of the battle, making enemies weaker, brothers’ attacks stronger, or otherwise providing additional bonuses to experience points and coins. By attacking enemies, you gain Star Points which can be used to activate the cards. Due to the slow nature of gaining Star Points and the fact that the cards you are dealt in battle are random and remain there until used or skipped over, these cards usually will not change gameplay drastically aside from boss battles. Regardless, they are fun little additions and act as an extra collectible. Certain Amiibo can be used to gain special new cards related to the Amiibo character. These Amiibo Cards are not necessary for completion, but can sometimes be overpowered providing effects beyond the strength of ordinary battle Cards. It is the player’s choice to use these Amiibo, but be forewarned that this game writes to the Amiibo meaning that any data on the Amiibo must be erased in order to use it with this game.
All of these elements considered, the game does skew on the easier side, which is appropriate for this series. Some bosses may be considered harder and require careful use of Bros. Attacks and Battle Cards. For younger or less experienced gamers, the game does have Easy Modes, which can make the bosses weaker or Bros. Attacks easier to perform. For those seeking higher difficulty, Expert Challenges act as achievements asking players to do harder tasks like perfectly timing button presses consistently or not sustaining any battle damage. As such, this game provides appropriate difficulty for all types of gamers.
Diversions: Paper Toad Missions and Papercraft Battles
The two biggest changes to the overall pacing of this game lie in two new features: Paper Toad Missions and Papercraft Battles. The former is comprised of multiple minigames, quite a few of which are slow and dull. The latter is an interesting idea built around clumsy and questionable mechanics.
In Paper Toad Missions, the Mario Bros. are sent on mandatory tasks requiring you to find cowardly Paper Toads. For the most part, these involve slow hide-and-seek missions which break the flow of the actual storyline and gameplay. Some may take over a ½ hour to complete, which is excessive for a diversionary minigame. Some faster missions have you do actual twitch-based games such as catching Toads as they fall or racing to get them. However, these make up a small percentage of the many missions you will have to complete. Its inclusion is questionable. Storywise, there really is little reason to be doing this other than Toadette needs Paper Toads to make Papercrafts. Gameplay-wise, these missions merely serve as filler and occasional tutorials.
The other new gameplay mechanic does not fare any better. Papercraft Battles pit a giant “paper robot” against others in a battlefield brawl. These might have been considered fun, had the controls been better. Papercrafts control like a slow tank and struggle to move beyond simple forward and reverse controls. The object is to bash other Papercrafts and pounce on them. This is easier said than done. Once you bash, you have to carefully aim a jump in which your army of Toads literally throws your Papercraft onto your enemy. The Toads must then run and grab the Papercraft before your enemy can do anything to it. It is a slow and clunky design that plays worse than it sounds. In a move that breaks even the Papercraft Battles’ pacing, you must charge energy by playing a slow, boring rhythm minigame. Any time you run out of energy, you will need to find a charging station and repeat the minigame over again.
Graphics and Sound
The graphics for this game are beautiful, with an art style that echoes the older 2D entries as well as matches the style of the previous game, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team. Employing a quasi-3D art style with fluidly animated characters, the game impresses on a visual level. The Paper characters fit seamlessly and even come with a paper white outline to distinguish it from other enemies. The little quirks that come with the paper characters such as folds, creases, and blows stand out thanks to the detailed graphics. The settings are also vibrantly detailed, matching one’s expectation to how a 3DS game should look. Some of the paper-mache settings that show up in the game stand out as creative ways of presenting a background. Using the 3D will allow the characters to really pop-up as well, though it is not required to have 3D on at all.
The music, composed by the wonderful Yoko Shimomura, is beautiful as well. Although the music is not catchy, they certainly fit the tone of the game. Battles have a fast playful rhythm. Fields are bubbly and bouncy. The snowy mountaintop has a slow ambient tune, perfectly representing the mood of that area. The sound is also what you would expect from a Mario game, with that all-familiar jump sound, fireball sound, and coin pick-up sound that Mario fans have come to love. Charles Martinet also continues to provide excellent voices for Mario and Luigi, despite sounding like gibberish. Overall, the presentation of Paper Jam is impressive.
Paper Jam has an approximate length of 25-30 hours for just beating the story, which matches other Mario & Luigi games and is not too far off from typical Japanese RPGs. There is some extra fun to be had in the arcade in which you can play minigames and replay boss battles. Even the Paper Toad Missions can be replayed at higher difficulties. Those seeking to make the best party members can level them up and search the world for special beans that increase their stats. All of these add replay value, but most players will probably find little reason to return to the world after beating the story as it can certainly get repetitive to do these additional and not terribly fun tasks.
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is certainly a decent game, with a fun battle system and wonderful presentation. The story has some missed potential, which is unfortunate considering how cool it would have otherwise been for a plot involving two different Mario RPG franchises. The lackluster story is broken up with numerous dull Paper Toad Missions and clumsy Papercraft Battles. There are better choices if you are looking for a Mario RPG, including any of the previous more original entries of the Mario & Luigi series and the early entries of the Paper Mario series. Nevertheless, if you have played everything else that Mario has to offer or are looking for a simple, nice-looking portable RPG, then Paper Jam is not a bad choice.