CRUMPLED AND FOLDED
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is the type of game that leaves you with a worse impression than you think it deserves. At its foundation, Paper Jam is a solid if simple turn-based RPG much like the rest of the Mario & Luigi series whose charming comedic quips can appeal to both children and fans of the Mario series. For the most part, that foundation keeps the game engaging enough throughout its 25-30 hour run time. However, what’s built on that foundation drags the overall experience down with its creatively pisspoor implementation of the Paper Mario world, constant backtracking, and fruitless busy work. By the time I saw the credits roll, Paper Jam had long worn out its welcome.
It starts off well enough with a simple but promising plot. Luigi accidentally releases all of the citizens of the Paper Mario universe from a book into the 3D Mario & Luigi world. The whole kingdom freaks out and before too long, both versions of Bowser and his minions team up to take over the Mushroom Kingdom. You know the drill by this point: both Peach’s are kidnapped and it’s up to Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario (Paper Luigi is conspicuously missing for the entire adventure) to save everyone.
It’s a typical premise for a Mario game and I didn’t expect anything more. However, I did expect the paper world to be more integrated with the plot. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen, as it amounts to whether or not the two versions of everyone get along. Luckily, the banter between the 3D and paper versions of everyone can be funny and charming. The dialogue is filled with funny commentaries on its own tropes, child-like arguments, and fourth wall breaking quips, such as the princesses lamenting over always being kidnapped, Luigi perceived as a put-upon loser, and numerous physical gags.
The charm is further enhanced with the visuals. The colorful, cartoony environments fit the tone of the story well and the slightly muted palette keeps the game from being too bright aesthetically. There’s one thing I need to mention as I kept thinking this throughout my playthrough: the paper characters look a lot better than their 3D counterparts. Maybe I just prefer the paper aesthetic but the paper characters looked much more crisp and clean looking compared to the 3D characters. It’s all the more disappointing that this game takes place entirely in the 3D world, never going into the paper world, which seems like a missed opportunity.
Sound is no less endearing. There’s no spoken dialogue in the game but Mario and Luigi speak at times in garbled syllables that could be interpreted as Italian, Bowser and his minions roar and cackle, and the princesses will call out for Mario. This suits the game perfectly as dialogue in these voices would probably grow tiresome after some time yet they fit their characters perfectly. Effects all sound cartoony yet impactful when needed and the noise palette fits the world well. Music has that familiar Nintendo sound, which I have grown tired of over time, but is solid regardless thanks to the extensive use of the xylophone that gives the soundtrack a childish but exciting feel.
A turn-based RPG is only as good as its battle system and Paper Jam’s is solid, if predictable. The action command-based system is back and it’s just as enjoyable as before. Timed and mashed button commands are essential to do well in the game and the system keeps you engaged in every fight. Hitting each action command perfectly resulting in huge damage while also perfectly defending yourself to the point it results in a counterattack is this battle system at its finest. It’s especially gratifying when using the challenging but spectacle Bros. Attacks or the more involved evasion sequences, even more so during one of the great boss fights.
It’s a shame that once again, the paper theme is squandered here. Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario all have the same basic offense and defense commands but Paper Mario can also make copies of himself. This results in slightly higher damage, attacking multiple times, and sacrificing one or more copies when hit. However, damage is scaled depending on how many copies you have and is about on par with Mario and Luigi since Paper Mario is noticeably weaker than them. Furthermore, the new Battle Card system is poorly implemented. You create a deck with cards you buy and find. In battle, you use them after accruing enough star points to buff and debuff your team and enemies respectively. It’s not terrible and it can be useful, but I’ve seen this idea utilized much better elsewhere and with more options.
An idea that truly falls flat on its face is the special Papercraft battles. These real-time fights have you control a platform held by numerous Toads holding a giant statue made of paper. You then fight other paper statues in what feels like Nintendo’s attempt at mech battles. However, the statues don’t actually move their limbs, meaning all the fights can be described as a kid hitting two action figures together. All the fights are dull affairs that break the pacing of the game and are unappealing thanks to the clunky controls. Add in a rhythm-based minigame required to refill your attack meter that’s utterly pointless, and the Papercraft battles are the first of three aspects of this game that serve no purpose other than to waste your time. I’ll get to the other two soon.
Outside of battles, you’ll trek across the Mushroom Kingdom to save the princesses, collecting new moves along the way that’ll help you reach new areas. There’s no random battles as enemies all show up on the field. You’ll run into towns to heal and buy new gear like most RPGs. However, in the field and in towns are Lakitu huts, where you will partake in Paper Toad hunts. These are minigames where you search, complete environmental puzzles, and battle for Paper Toads that you need to rescue. These wouldn’t be so bad except there’s a lot of them, they get old quickly, and are REQUIRED to continue the story since the Paper Toads are used to create the Papercrafts.
But that’s not the end of it. Paper Jam is littered, and I mean piled, with mini-games like these. Catching enemies that have important items, destroying something in your way, sneaking around areas for arbitrary reasons; they are numerous, tedious, and pointless. Worse is your reward for completing them is being able to continue the story. No experience, no money. You’ll begin groaning in frustration when you have to complete a minigame for the 14th time when all you wanted was to get to town. In the final area alone, there are six minigames you have to complete. They serve only to pad out the game’s length in superficial and tiresome ways.
But the padding doesn’t end there. There are roughly eight areas in the game but you’ll have seen essentially all of them by hour 16. For even more arbitrary reasons, the story will have you backtracking to all of them at least once. The design of the environments are fairly simple as they can all be described as plains, desert, caves, island, etc. So coming back to them feels like regression rather than progress. Sometimes you’ll backtrack to earlier parts of the area you’re in now for arbitrary reasons, or even worse, for a minigame. To give you an example to how bad the backtracking can get, after I reached the final area, I still had over four hours left in the game. Remember that the paper world is not in the game at all, making this all the more excruciating.
The Verdict: 6.5 out of 10
If I had to describe Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam in one word, it would be padded. There’s way too much nonsense and busy work included in the game to allow the fun battle system and charming presentation to shine. You’ll enjoy your time with Paper Jam at first, but a little goes a long way and you’ll tire of the game before you finish it. If you play the game in small chunks over the course of a long period of time, you could stave off the tedium and enjoy yourself. However, there are other, better Mario RPGs that don’t require you to do that.
Review copy bought by the reviewer. For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.
Esteban Cuevas is an Associate Editor for Middle of Nowhere Gaming and while this was his first time fully playing a Mario & Luigi title, he has played the first Paper Mario to completion and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is his favorite GameCube game ever. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and check out his other work on WordPress.