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A critical analysis of the new Paper Mario formula


The Paper Mario series is something special to me. There's no denying that the following analysis of the game design shortcomings of the two latest entries, Paper Mario Sticker Star and Paper Mario Color Splash, will be tainted by my own expectations. Despite me playing the original Paper Mario on an emulator due to not owning the original system, with all the resulting seizure-inducing graphical glitches that came with it, I still wouldn't hesitate to call it and its first sequel my favorite games of all time. And yet, I'll try to explain my thoughts as objectively as possible, in order to shed some light on why exactly they have failed to reach the standard of previous entries. For these two games have clear issues that would make them subpar experiences no matter the IP attached, both narratively and mechanically.

Sense of progression in the new Paper Mario formula

First of all, let's begin with a quick overview of the Paper Mario franchise's gameplay mechanics over time, in order to see how they fundamentally affect the flow of their respective games. The original Paper Mario, being a sequel to Square Enix's Super Mario RPG, had a similar philosophy of taking the traditional RPG genre and making it more streamlined and exciting at the same time. To do so, they kept two fundamental elements from the previous game: Action Commands, and limited equipment. Both of those also remained in the second Paper Mario game, The Thousand Year Door.

The former is a method of rewarding mechanical skill during battles, by allowing additional damage when button inputs are done correctly. Attacks can require a button to be held for a certain amount of time, or a press at the right moment, for example. Similarly, it's possible to reduce the damage of incoming attacks by pressing a button at the right time. The equipment system also allows Mario's team to become more powerful via badges, improved boots and hammers that deal more damage or allow for new special moves, and via special blocks in the environment that allow you to improve the strength of your allies. This system allows progression to happen on multiple fronts at the system. Action Commands reward the player for progressively mastering the combat system. Badges, special trinkets that power you up, are limited by your badge points which you can decide to improve when levelling up. This rewards regular encounter with a tangible feeling of progression, and also rewards riskier play for those who avoid "safer" upgrades like health in order to equip more badges. Finally, collecting badges, boots, hammers and partner upgrades is done on the overworld, which gives a strong reason to explore in order to get these permanent upgrades.

While we'll not touch upon Super Paper Mario a lot due to its completely different, platforming focused gameplay, it is worth mentioning here. The simpler battle system does not require equipment and the like, but different systems were implemented that do enhance the player's feel of progression. For starters, the point system also doubles as an experience system, with level ups improving your team's health and damage. This rewards the player for mastering the mechanics, since bouncing on multiple enemies successively results in more points. This also makes the defeat of regular enemies relevant thanks to the juicy points they give you, especially when coupled with the rare collectible card drops from enemies. As such, Super Paper Mario managed to handle its sense of progression well despite the total shift in gameplay.

The new Paper Mario formula, however, doesn't fare so well in this regard. Action Commands are back, true, but we'll talk more about them in a later section. For starters, let's talk about the sticker and battle card system. In the new Paper Mario formula, every attack or recovery move is a consumable item. From the basic jump to the very powerful fan of doom, every attack can be used once... or none, since attacks you prepare to use but don't end up needing also disappear from your inventory when a battle ends. These consumable attacks are found littered everywhere in the environment, and you can also buy some in the central town. The only permanent upgrades in Sticker Star are health upgrades, found by exploring the environment, and capacity upgrades for stickers, naturally given to the player during the course of the story. As such, there is no feeling of progression when fighting regular enemies: Your only reward is coins, which you can already get more than enough even when skipping every encounter, and you lose precious consumable attacks. Seriously, you typically end up over a 1000 coins close to the start of the game in both Sticker Star and Color Splash, and most coin drains are inexpensive. As such, battling goes beyond uselessness and actually hinder the player. Color Splash attempts to correct this fundamental issue with regular encounters, but doesn't quite nail the landing. By using an additional resource on top of battle cards, paint, you can power up your attacks to deal more damage. Said paint can be restored after completing battles, smashing things in the environment, or completing a level. By rewarding hammer scraps after battle, which can eventually lead to an increase in paint capacity, there is finally a permanent upgrade related to regular enemy encounters. Unfortunately, paint capacity quickly becomes a useless upgrade, since you never need that much paint to begin with. Regular enemies then once again feel like they hinder progression rather than help the player feel more powerful.

Sharp eyes will notice that no permanent upgrades to damage have been mentioned. Indeed, a regular jump does as much damage at the start at the game as it does at the very end. As such, Mario never feels like he grows stronger as you progress through the game. Not only that, but as soon as you can find stickers (cards) that are powerful enough (infinijumps can be found as early as 1-1 in Sticker Star, and they have the highest possible damage!) you can repeat the level where you can find that attack multiple times to eventually reach the strongest state you'll ever be in without much effort, and very early in the game too. With a lack of equipment, partners, statistics outside health (and a paint meter), or other ways to show Mario's improved ability, the result is a game that makes it too easy for the player to feel like they're never progressing. While Color Splash attempts to hide that by removing damage numbers from Mario's attacks entirely, it's not enough to provide a real incentive to do anything other than abuse the game by avoiding regular encounters and repeatedly getting the best cards. 

Challenge in the new Paper Mario formula

I will be the first to admit the Paper Mario series has never been very difficult. But the new Paper Mario formula not only goes further into making the game easier, but it also entirely removed optional difficulty for more experienced players. One of the consequences of the aforementioned lack of progression in the new Paper Mario games is that damage is mostly static. Unfortunately, in an attempt to counter-balance to that, regular enemies never really progress in difficulty either. Late-game enemies can easily fall in one turn with arsenal widely available at any point in the game. Sure, enemies start doing more damage, but their own health stays low through the entire game. Thus, the perceived risk of regular battles is very low. Now, this is just talking from personal experience, but perception of risk has been typically nearly as good as actual danger in order to make a game more engaging. Games like Undertale, with its scalable health, and Kingdom Hearts, with its 1HP survival abilities, make low health scenarios feel more dangerous than they actually are to great effect. Despite loss being entirely possible against bosses, especially if you don't have the Thing sticker that works especially well against them, the lack of progression in enemy survivability and the sheer strength of Things make that feeling of danger very difficult to perceive in the new formula. Things are, by the way, very powerful stickers or cards made to look like real life object. Using them against regular encounters is a waste, so you'll ever use them to solve simple environmental puzzles or to deal very, very large amounts of damage to bosses.

Another element that is to blame for the lack of perceived challenge is the lack in strategy in the new Paper Mario formula. Indeed, with no partner to synergize with nor with any way to customize your play style to work well against a specific enemy, there's little need to rethink your fighting style after a loss. The player might be convinced to go back and grab some Things, but that's about as far as the thought process goes. Unfortunately, actual actions during combat fail to be stimulating either. While the Action Command system was a neat way of making turn-based battles more engaging, the new Paper Mario games removed all different input mini-games except for timed presses. On top of that, a lot less time in combat is spent actually fighting. The animations of Thing attacks are very lengthy to reflect their power, and while this has some appeal at first their unskippable animation can quickly grow tiring. On top of that, attacks being consumable means there's a lot of scrolling over duplicates of the same attack to find the one you want... And there are also other unnecessary actions added to combat like spinning the lottery to increase your number of actions, or flicking painted cards to start a turn (which serves no purpose other than to waste the player's time). The resulting busywork take the edge off potentially tense situations. 

One might argue that the challenge of regular encounters isn't so much fighting them, as it is to avoid them. Indeed, platformers rarely reward the player for defeating enemies except with mostly meaningless points. Unfortunately, avoiding battles is rarely an issue in the three dimensional Paper Mario games, with platforms being large and easy to navigate and enemies fairly spread out. This isn't necessarily a flaw of the game, as the other way around would discourage backtracking and generally attempting to explore every level. What it does mean, though, is that it's very easy to avoid fighting in the new Paper Mario formula.

 While the series as a whole isn't very difficult, the first three entries in the series still managed to allow more experienced players to feel challenged with optional battles. Indeed, starting from the original Paper Mario's optional battles such as Anti Guys and the Dojo members, The Thousand Year Door and Super Paper Mario added difficult, lengthy dungeons known as the pits of 100 trials. To succeed, the player has to survive a 100-floor deep descent only to face a boss battle at the end. These challenges are entirely optional, but can provide tenser gameplay for those that desire it. Unfortunately, these optional challenges have been entirely removed from both Sticker Star and Color Splash, leaving experienced player with no way to test their mettle... At least, as long as there aren't any mods for either game. 

Narrative and world building in the new Paper Mario formula

I've already written about the reasons why I feel like the original two Paper Mario games are very, very successful at world building while remaining in the Mario universe. The third entry, Super Paper Mario, goes even further by mostly featuring new characters and races, on top of relatively untapped level themes like the underworld, space and an eerie manual labor facility. Unfortunately, the new Paper Mario dials down the narrative and world building to the level of most Mario titles, which takes away one of the few defining elements of the series before that point. This is felt both in their handling of the overworld, of character designs and in the lack of story hooks.

The world of Paper Mario games is sprawling, taking place over many different environments. Both Paper Mario 64 and The Thousand Year Door handled this large environment in the same way: Every chapter in the game took place in a different, interconnected portion of the map. To access this area you typically used a method of transportation (ship, airship, feet) or a warp pipe from the main hub. There was no level selection, nor was there any instant transportation. And while some might agree that The Thousand Year Door had a bit too much backtracking as a result, this did allow the player to immerse in the act of traversing the world, like an actual adventurer. No section of the environment felt left behind as a result, since nothing is skipped over. Sticker Star and Color Splash gets rid of that concept, substituting it by the traditional Mario world map found in Super Mario Bros 3, New Super Mario Bros, Mario Galaxy 2 and other titles. As such, once you exit a level, you have every unlocked level equally as accessible to you, which does lead to faster backtracking. On the other end, there is no real connection between the levels, and the end goals in the new Paper Mario formula don't seem to lead to a different area either. Areas in the background are glossed over, and the world map feels very incohesive and arbitrary as a result.

Probably one of the most mentioned aspects of the new Paper Mario formula is its lack of original characters, the total opposite of Super Paper Mario's philosophy. Indeed, enemies and allies alike stick to their standard look, which fails to make the world varied or natural. While Paper Mario 64 and The Thousand Year Door had a lot of classic Mario races, they usually used different colors, hairstyles, names and clothing accessories to make them stand apart. Here, they're simply their basic design with no alteration in the vast majority of cases. Nearly all NPCs are unnamed Toads with no special characteristics at all, and while the developers assure you're able to tell them apart by virtue of their dialogue alone... The reality is that the lot mostly follows the same two archetypes: terrorized then happy when Mario helps, or joking around. In fact, few are the characters that ever say anything beyond a couple sentences outside of Mario's partner, which coupled with the lack of variety in character designs and the fact that most characters are unnamed makes the new Paper Mario games feel like a "no name" branded product. 

The lack of story in these recent installments is also an issue. While Paper Mario 64 followed a mostly traditional Mario formula, side stories like the invincible Tubba Blubba or Peach's attempts at escaping or gathering information were fairly fleshed out and motivating to the player. Then, The Thousand Year Door and Super Paper Mario had much more complex, sprawling story lines that involved foreign villains, treason, hurt, all the good stuff. Super Paper Mario's ending was surprisingly powerful for a Paper Mario game, let me tell you that much! Unfortunately, both Sticker Star and Color Splash return to the most basics of the basics, with the bosses you end up fighting being Bowser and his traditional underlings (Sticker Star) and Bowser and the Koopalings (Color Splash). Areas don't have much in the way of unique storytelling either, which leaves the player with little reason to care about progressing through the game narratively. While many games can get by with little storytelling, the fact that gameplay here isn't motivating either (as explained earlier) is really what brings the experience down. These fundamental issues with the new Paper Mario formula are what make them so disappointing, not only as sequels but as video games in general.

Proposed improvements over the new Paper Mario formula

And yet, not all hope is lost. There are many ways that hypothetical future Paper Mario releases would actually be enjoyable, without necessarily going back to the formula of the first three entries in the series. Some elements from Sticker Star and Color Splash don't have to change at all! For starters, the fully realized paper aesthetic is one of the most loved elements about these new games, so there's no reason to go back to traditional polygonal environments. The soundtrack, just like the first three games, has also been excellent. As for the rest, I feel like significant changes that target the issues I went over in this blog would go a long way. Here are a couple suggestions from me to you, Nintendo, to help the next title reach the heights of a previously pristine series.

  • Bring back the more traditional level design structure, but with the possibility of using fast travel using a SMB3-styled world map at certain points

This isn't exactly reinventing the wheel. The Mario & Luigi series has already used fast travel in the past to great effect. This would allow the current game to feel less formulaic while also removing the frustration of lengthy backtracking.

  • Adequately compensate the player for the consumables lost when fighting regular enemies

By simply reintroducing an experience system that actually powers Mario up, battles wouldn't feel like a hindrance. Games like Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, despite using a card system, allowed the main character to power up their health, card capacity or damage with regular encounters.

  • Focus more on puzzles

The new Paper Mario games orient themselves as adventure games over being role-playing games. While that's not necessarily a bad idea, the current mixed feels a bit lacking in that regard. Puzzles largely amount to nothing more than using the right Thing at the right place. By adding more puzzles that can be solved at any point, but are necessary to progress, the game can accentuate this new identity. For example, in a mansion area, you might find yourself accompanied by three butlers. Each of them tell you that the correct way forward is different... So by asking questions, you might be able to figure out which of the three butlers tells the truth. Failing would activate a trap that sends Mario back, hurting him in the process... And the questions you are allowed to ask the butlers change next time you try! Adding more puzzles like that, as well as more traditional puzzles that require object manipulation or some light maths, can help future Paper Mario games carve out their own identity as adventure games without hurting the other aspects of game design.

  • Make combat more dynamic

I knew combat isn't quite the main focus anymore, but it's still possible to make battles more enjoyable than they currently are by giving a bit more freedom and strategy in the hands of the player. How is this possible? Well, the return of party members could help. Even when using a card structure, it's possible to make this work either by giving partners set desks (in which case the customization would be picking the right partners), or giving you the ability to create an individual deck for your partner from a shared pool of cards. The latter fits the current structure better, as it would allow the game's main partner buddy to actually be useful in battle. Equipment that would make Mario tailored more towards certain types of battle could also go a long way towards giving the tools of combat back to the player. 

  • Avoid useless scrolling in your inventory

If I have 9 jumps please show me a single jump card with "x9" next to it, not 9 individual cards that do the same exact thing ok thank you.

  • Add optional challenge to the game

I know the current formula of Paper Mario games could be more oriented to kids. But people who are looking for a challenge would be grateful if either optional battles, or just an optional harder game difficulty, were to make an appearance in future titles. I know I'd personally be very interested.

  • Please let world building make a return!

Please use new races or characters. Please show us new environments. Please allow a villain that isn't Bowser. Please have more than one city area. Please make us care about the characters. Please make me cry. Please make me angry. Please make me feel something. Please.

I beg of you.

A few final words

Thanks for reading my critical analysis of the new Paper Mario games! I know it's quite the lengthy one, but I feel like this blog was important to write. Not only to structure the game design flaws that I see in the new Paper Mario games, but also to try to understand what other people find in these games. For, you see, Sticker Star and Color Splash are currently sitting at 75 and 77 critic averages as of the time of this write-up, which means a lot of people are finding these games fun in some way. If you liked them, please share what you did enjoy from the game, and why these good parts were more important than the game design flaws listed above. I'm very interested in that sort of conversation!

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About TheBlondeBassone of us since 11:32 PM on 12.03.2015

Everything's going to be okay. Take a deep breath, you got this.