There’s a specific tension that forms just before the release of a new Paper Mario game. It’s a weird amalgamation of excitement and fear, optimism and skepticism, a time when fans patiently wait to see if a once-dominant series has ditched its awkward experimental phase and returned to its roots. It can’t be helped.
Last week, the sixth entry into the series, “Paper Mario: The Origami King,” brought new changes to the Paper Mario formula. It’s an upgrade from some of the gimmicky mechanics of the more recent games — but it’s also not what older fans wanted. Now, fans of the original Paper Mario games are stepping up to fill the void with their own independent games.
Outside the first two games — which are revered by fans and viewed as classics — each entry into the Paper Mario line of games has done something drastically different from the last. The first two entries, “Paper Mario” on the Nintendo 64 in 2000 and “Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door” on the GameCube in 2004, married unique characters inspired by Mario lore with a turn-based battle system fueled by customizable fighting builds for Mario and his partners-in-battle. Sprinkle a charming paper-themed aesthetic over heartwarming stories that took you through imaginative new worlds, and the Paper Mario games quickly stood out against the focused, gameplay-centric nature of the rest of the Mario series.
But the 2007 release of “Super Paper Mario” on the Wii and its choice to drop encounter-based battles heralded a split in fan reception early in the series’ lifespan. The major rift came in 2012 with the release of “Paper Mario: Sticker Star” on the Nintendo 3DS. Gone were the charming personalities, the leveling system and the emotional story elements; in its place, the game featured a roster of generic characters thrown into a dumbed-down version of the original game’s combat system that was stripped of player experimentation. And although the 2016 entry “Paper Mario: Color Splash” made an effort to home in on the series’ trademark humor, the Wii U game’s remix of the series’ classic battle system ultimately fell flat.
Now, in “Paper Mario: The Origami King,” a puzzle precedes each fight. Players are tasked with rotating and sliding panels in a ring to set up optimal enemy placement. The heavy emphasis on puzzle solving requires thinking about positioning rather than attack patterns and weapon strengths.
According to a recent interview, leadership at Nintendo — from Paper Mario producer Kensuke Tanabe to the inventor of Mario himself, Shigeru Miyamoto — prioritized consistent reinvention. “The philosophy of game creation that Mr. Tanabe learned from Mr. Miyamoto, and that in turn he’s imparted to me, is to challenge yourself to create new gameplay,” said Risa Tabata, assistant producer on “Paper Mario: The Origami King.” “We can’t do exactly the same thing that’s been done before.”
But while some fans may be content to continue waiting on the series’ slow evolution, others have taken a more proactive approach.
Enter “Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling” by indie developer Moonsprout Games. It’s everything the older generation of the Paper Mario fanbase has clamored for in the last decade. The vibrant characters with individual histories, the battle system based on experience points and action command attacks, the inclusion of a flat paper-like art style, it’s all there — while staying independent of Nintendo’s popular worlds.
“At the time we were only thinking of making a fun game for ourselves,” explained Jose Fernando Gracia, the designer behind “Bug Fables.” “It kind of blew up later! And I think it’s because of people looking for that nostalgic experience again. I think people get drawn in by that itch, and then stay when Bug Fables’ own setting hooks them in its own way.”
Staying true to what made Paper Mario players fall in love with the two first games came with a few challenges. According to Gracia, implementing a classic combat system was “the easiest part.” Maintaining the sense of humor was more of a challenge. “We had such a huge developed cast in ‘Bug Fables,’ but sometimes I just didn’t know how to make a joke work,” he said.
“Born of Bread” is an upcoming indie game starring an anthropomorphic loaf of bread and a cast of colorful characters. Programmer Nicolas Lamarche and artist Gabriel Bolduc Dufour are behind the ambitious project that follows a similar plan: Adhere closely to Paper Mario’s strengths, but stand on your own.
“We’re looking at the core aspects of Paper Mario and deciding what to keep, change, or remove to realize our vision of our game,” said Lamarche. “We don’t just copy stuff, we have a goal for our game and curate our inspirations’ elements to reinforce that goal. Our inspiration is evident, and we don’t shy away from that, but we also don’t shy away from taking liberties and making this game our own.”
If there’s one continuous thread between the Paper Mario games, it’s, well, paper. The aesthetic anchors the series’ art style and narrative. The latest release is no exception, with its constant references to streamers and origami, along with the hundreds of cleverly folded Toads. For some, that’s not necessarily a positive. “We’re sad that Nintendo chose to make Paper Mario a franchise about paper rather than about what made the first two games great,” said Lamarche. “But that’s why indies like us decided to take up the torch!”
“Born of Bread” is still in development, while “Bug Fables” is already out on PC, Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. “Scrap Story” and “Seahorse Saga,” two other Paper Mario-inspired games that are also in the works, are a sign that this recent surge of passion is more than a one-time thing.
It’s hard to ignore the strength of having the Mario series’ rich history of characters and worlds to back your project. It’s part of why the games are remembered so fondly. “To me it’s just how alive it felt in the context of the Mario series,” said Gracia. “Being able to become friends with Goombas was something you could only do in Paper Mario back then,” he said.
It’s one particular area where “The Origami King” both succeeds and falters. Characters like Olivia and especially Bob-omb illustrate how Nintendo’s hilarious localization team brings these characters to life. But unfortunately, the cast of characters in Paper Mario is still mostly relegated to a limited selection from the Mario series, and the repeated designs take away from any single character’s individuality.
Ultimately, that doesn’t stop creators like Lamarche, who know that the world of Mario isn’t the only thing disappointed fans are craving. “There’s definitely an audience for fun and quirky RPGs, especially those like Paper Mario that have simple, but involved combat,” he said. “In our case, we believe people are attracted by the personality we inject in our game and by the potential of building upon Paper Mario’s combat mechanics.”
Michael Koczwara is a writer covering games and entertainment. His recent work has appeared in IGN, The Hollywood Reporter, and EGM. Follow him on Twitter @SuperZambezi.