Paper Mario, the first impressions to last the game

A second Mario RPG bought while I was on the Super Mario RPG train, and one I have a bit more familiarity with and even got to play a bit on Wii U. In this case, I got myself an N64 and original cartridge to experience it the way it was meant to be played: with something that isn’t the Wii U gamepad or a GameCube controller. Let’s talk about that first, because there’s a reason I needed this.

To start off, the GameCube controller is not a bad controller, but just being hands-on with the game, you can instinctually tell it’s wrong for it. The Wii U gamepad is a bad controller, at least for my particular set of hands and wrists, and made it decidedly even less fun even if the controls weren’t quite as confusing. But no, this game was meant to be played with the trident controller and playing it with the trident controller, it finally, finally feels right.

I just wish the trident controller wasn’t so much smaller than I remembered. XD

In all fairness, my cousins were the ones with the fanciest new systems and when they were letting me and my brother play anything, we all were younger. And frankly, we mostly just got to watch. And even when "we" got to play, it was almost always my brother, because by the time any adult noticed, it was basically time to go home or else easier to just turn it off than get me involved in anything. This was neither helped by nor enough to be helpful to the fact I sucked. So being hands-on with the hardware was not a particularly strong memory.

But getting the game in your hands on the interface it was meant for makes it clear exactly why it was designed how it is, because, to compare it directly to its spiritual predecessor, compared to Super Mario RPG, it is both much simpler and much more complex despite both being introductory RPGs. What I will say is it definitely feels more refined, but to call one better than the other would be like calling scrambled eggs with chunky salsa better than a Mexican omelet. They share almost all the same ingredients; they just prioritize them differently.

Just playing with the trident controller, you get a very easy feel for how it’s supposed to work. Using the outside legs is a very big, very comfortable grip for an adult to play a traditional 2D RPG or a 6-button fighting game. Petite build I have, it’s actually a little big for me, but in a way that’s not too uncomfortable. Maybe by 5% playing in your lap, 10% playing at your chest. Get your right hand on the middle and suddenly you’re playing a space rail shooter that these days would be twin-stick. Pilot your ship with the D-pad and aim your reticle with the stick. You don’t need any buttons but the bumper and trigger for a special maneuver and to fire. Do the opposite and you have this: a game with 3D exploration and lots of buttons that are mostly easy enough to reach. Problem being either one of those is about 10% too small playing at your chest and 20% in your lap. This makes this particular game very much an "almost flat on my back propped against the pillow chair on my bed" game for the controller size to fade in the face of the experience.

Cramped hands aside, the controls feel natural in a way I’ll call an improvement in most regards, but one that maybe doesn’t make the best use of the 6-button setup by cramming maybe a few too many essential functions on A and B and rendering most of the functionality of the C-buttons largely superfluous: is used to display a status bar at the top of the screen and the only reason it needs to be hidden is because the game was designed with cathedral-tall environments that feel cramped with it there that could have otherwise just been shortened and felt natural; gets the most practical usage as the one for your partner’s field ability; lets you switch out your party member once you get more than one; and is an item quick menu. In contrast, A acts as your confirm, jump, and interact button and having the latter two in one spot feels immediately awkward; B is your cancel, hammer, and "get on with the text already," because text is not skippable otherwise and comes in a million segments. To the game’s credit, while it immediately makes jumping feel like a core part of the game, as it should, as soon as you get your introductory Hammer, that also becomes a core part of the game. Z also lets you Spin Dash and maybe avoid slower enemies in the field, but at the very least takes you fast and far. Which is good, because it’s spammable and "running" speed is effectively walking speed here (albeit a comfortable one) and "walking" speed is really just there to show off the analog stick, becuse that’s just inching along.

Refining the sugar

You can tell the game took pointers from its predecessor, but comes from a different soul entirely. Square, credit where credit is due, was asked to make a Mario RPG and came at it from the experience of Final Fantasy and what they thought should be in a Mario game from an outside perspective. In some ways, they simply could not help themselves. When you look at the way stats work in that one, you see what quickly becomes a high-power game where equipment is essential and you have high-power skills best saved for problem-solving. The platforming uses series staples, but often throws a twist on them. Damage types are used very much in the traditional style of their games, for better or worse. It’s good because it’s a Square RPG in a Mario mask and as far as introductory RPGs go, well, it’s certainly a better attempt than Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. Perhaps specifically because Nintendo was absolutely going to ensure quality control. Not without its flaws, but not fundamentally flawed.

This one comes at it from an inherently different perspective and learns from that, but is a low-power game because it’s a Mario game first and RPG second. Rather than having timed critical hits right away, you get a free hit by bonking an enemy to initiate battle, and the way you bonk them can and will actively hurt you, because if you jump on a spiny enemy in this one, it will injure you. Because that’s what spiny enemies DO in Mario games. In the same vein, while you can probably time your hammer strike to initiate battle with a flying enemy in the field, hammer attacks can’t reach them in battle, so I assume you get nothing. Ultimately, the way you interact with enemies is rooted in Mario rules. Enemies have very little HP, but you deal very little damage, because your own HP pool is about your endurance in the effort to finish the level, just like the side-scrollers. While you do get timed abilities later, they’re not inherent to battle right away and once they are, they are clearly telegraphed in most cases. In place of traditional RPG equipment you upgrade in every town, you have Badges for abilities and your basic equipment is going to carry you for much longer. Instead of a full RPG party, you have Mario as your player character and an ally who basically offers a choice between a supplemental attack or a special ability, who acts more or less as an extension of Mario rather than a full character. The way you move around the field is much more traditional in how it uses series staples, but it also innovates on the paper aspect, having enemies posing as their own mugshots on signboards, and committing to the bit 100%, because Nintendo had the idea for something novel and built the humor around it. Even in the things it does "wrong," it does something interesting, i.e. Mario initially falls out of the sky and lands hard in the woods and is comatose for days, but then the same day he wakes up, he falls down a cliff due to a collapsed balcony and in that case flutters softly to the ground exactly like a piece of paper, the differences here being 1) he’d taken damage the first time to blast him out a window and 2) not having the same thing happen again not even 10 minutes after waking up from last time is smart. And in many ways, a joke on the player, who might otherwise have expected the same thing that happened in a dramatic scene to happen in a comedic one that puts plenty of focus on his hang time in the air and the blinking missing balcony.

It’s not that either game is a bad RPG, or not funny, or not engaging; they are good, funny, engaging RPGs in different ways that express the design philosophies of two different companies.

What I will say is the early game is paced better here, at least for the tutorials, though it gets off to a much slower start that had me momentarily bounce off of it. It comes at tutorials very much in the line of tutorials without really letting you figure anything out yourself first like one might expect from the IP. And there is a LOT of text that could probably have been handled better, first in the intro by giving you more time to read it, then later by not having quite so much of it. NPCs will spew 3-4 text ballons at you in one go, and most of it could have been edited down, though pressing B makes them spit it out all at once, but there’s still just a lot. And maybe you’re okay with that, but, uh, well, I actually prefer it the other way. It also makes a rather baffling decision of leading with a lot of desaturated colors that made me question if there was something wrong with my setup before things got colorful, and for some reason that’s in the logos as well. I dunno, everything in my setup seems legitimate, but there are just weird graphical issues I find it hard to believe Nintendo would have allowed if it could have been helped.

If there’s anything that is hands-down better, it’s the music, not that the music in either is bad, but if I had to put an objective score on it, the comparison is a 7-8 compared to a solid 10, because some scores really just are an instant classic and this is one of them.

But is it fun?

Like, okay, the early game? Eh… Kinda? Maybe it’s because I’m specifically in for the RPG elements, but given how little real puzzle-solving there is and how long combat takes once you’re in it, and how little control it feels like you have in combat at first, the game is really at its best when it’s either being funny or when you’re whacking random things with a hammer. Jumping isn’t so much a traversal mechanic here as it is a way to force you to slow down by placing stairs you can’t simply walk up everywhere. Dashing stops abruptly when you hit any height difference, walkable or not. Areas tend to be small and if you’re using the dash, you can blow though most of a screen pretty easily otherwise. The game is constantly trying to slow you down for no good reason.

The thing is, I know it opens up later. It’s already started opening up a tiny bit with the first few Badges you can find. I already gained a level and put the points into Mario’s Flower Points (FP), which are the MP here, though Mario is the only one who seems to have to worry about using it. You don’t otherwise seem to gain in statistics, but you do choose whether you want to pump points into HP, FP, or BP for equipping more Badges. I chose FP right away because it was either get 50% more HP, double my FP, or double my BP, but, like, only from 3 to 6 and given the FP costs in the game being efficient enough that 10 would be meaningful, especially because enemies will randomly drop hearts or flowers to heal a point of HP or FP, just having the capacity to use abilities 5 times instead of 2 at full capacity was a significant initial investment. I could probably grind myself right to my next level in a pinch given some generous boss EXP – sorry, Star Points – if not for the fact I’m pretty sure I’m about to be playing a Peach segment if only because I just got asked to save at the end of a cutscene.

Just to talk aesthetics

Before I wrap this up or inevitably start writing an "a little further in" section, to swing back to the music, yes, it is amazing. Amazing enough it was running in my head instead of the Super Mario RPG music even as I tried to remember it minutes after playing before I even had this in my hands to blame. It’s a phenominal, memorable soundtrack.

Graphically, I feel like ironically the 3D stuff aged better than the 2D assets, in that the 2D assets all seem very low-res and jagged with a lot of flaws in the outlines especially that, unless sprite rippers have made fixes, really speak toward some real problems with the scaling technology. We’re talking single pixel holes and just issues keeping a consistent line width between positions that strike me as very unsightly. That and most of the speech bubbles have unsightly notches, but not all of them, just most of the ones out in the field specifically that are 3 lines tall where the 4 line ones are fine, like the ones you see in battle had the proper handling and the ones in the field either get hidden by light colors in the background or more often don’t and the sprites for the left side just aren’t placed properly for almost the whole game. I might remind you this isn’t something that would have been hidden on a CRT, because I am playing on a CRT. All of these basic errors in important characters are there plain as day and I’m sorry, but there are not so many positions to these characters that it should be this way. Something needed to be touched up or something in the technology needed to be fixed. Maybe both. It’s not like it affects gameplay, but as a pixel artist myself, I find it very distracting. That and a bit of really obvious clipping when Mario uses certain warp pipes really just drag me out of the experience, because seeing fleshy peach suddenly poke out of green is like a surprise clap out of nowhere every single time. Normally I hold that graphics really don’t matter as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay, but there’s just such a lack of polish here, it’s hard to ignore. It’s a real shame, because there are some really nice video static and transparency effects in play together that make it clear they were doing interesting things with the tools at hand.

Everything that isn’t the outlines really benefits from the N64’s texture filtering, making sprites look quite smooth, and the animation feels very smooth in part because it leverages hand animation techniques like smear frames and keeps the frames moving at a snappy clip. The handwriting font they used for the text is also quite charming and bypasses the fact that there’s no room for descenders by simply shifting any letter that has one upward. Again, as someone who makes pixel fonts, this one is fantastic and really captures the charming sloppiness of a young person’s handwriting in the way it’s written. I won’t say a child’s, because some letters like the lowercase "w" are far too clean like that, but it’s a lot like Clayton’s in many ways, with many of the same solutions. It has the hallmarks of somone’s chicken scratch when they’re old enough to not be trying to feel out the shapes anymore and are hammering it out quickly, which can be easily mistaken for that of a child, but lacks the same errors as that of a child that would make it less legible, and is really technical to translate into a pixel font. They nailed it like Mario smashing a thumbtack with his largest mallet. A healthy helping of animated text effects really elevates this, too.

Otherwise, there’s a lot of joy in the details. When you go through a door, your partner will close it behind you. When Goombario attacks, he clenches his eyes in anticipation and this doesn’t change all throughout his second pass even though he’s spinning through the air. Maybe his head isn’t quite as hard as his sister indicated, but he’s taking it like a champ. Some enemies take time to celebrate getting a hit on you. Going into any building pulls a pop-up book transition to make the wall fold, fall, or turn away and the door to fall to the outer ground so you can still see where it is to leave. Battle areas are presented with "floating" clouds very obviously held up by strips from the ceiling and the like because Mario hasn’t been in any real danger since Super Mario Bros. 3 with very few exceptions. Some enemies are cockeyed for no other reason than it’s funny. When Mario hits something harder than his hammer, a little shiver runs down his whole sprite. Goombario has something unique to say about literally every NPC and area you enter.

A little further in…

I feel almost ridiculous saying this, but no sooner did I start the game back up after that interlude than suddenly I have a cutscene leading into timed criticals, and those would have been nice in the game up to this point since my fingers were trying to do them anyway. It certainly would have made it feel like battles were more than taking turns whacking each other until Mario’s superior HP pool meant the enemy lost. Where battles felt most fun to initiate and like a chore in most other ways, the system has opened up into one quite a bit more like its predecessor, though in some ways simplified.

To elaborate on that, everyone still shares the same FP pool, but Mario is the only one who levels up. There don’t appear to be other stats than HP, FP, and BP and the game remains one where you need to manage your own low-power basic attacks and mildly-powered specials to make the best use of your partner.

I also found that yes, your partner is held to some of the same standards Mario is, in that Goombario has the diving headbutt attack typical of his species in this game and this does, in fact, act exactly like Mario’s jump attack, meaning if he dives onto a spike, he’s going to suffer an injury right to his noggin and be out for a number of turns matching the damage he took or the end of battle.

There’s also a Badge fairly early on that lets you ram into enemies doing your Spin Dash to Dizzy the first one in line. Just to talk about that a bit more, interacting with enemies in the field can get you an advantage or it can put you at a disadvantage and while the latter doesn’t come up until the training wheels are off, getting a free hit in is always of benefit (unless you jump on a spike) and enemies can be goaded into charging to let you time an appropriate attack. The enemy in the field is always the first enemy in line and while jumping attacks can hit any enemy, hammer and other basic physical attacks can only hit the first enemy in line. It’s this that really makes Goombario your MVP in the early game because his attack is a jump attack and has all the same benefits Mario’s does, meaning he can focus on enemies that he can handle while Mario handles ones that need a hammer to the crown. In contrast, Kooper is a Koopa and can only hit enemies on the ground, and some enemies just don’t take much damage from his attacks, even the one that hits all enemies on the ground. It makes him an immediately less useful character in early areas because his shell attack is not equivalent to Mario’s hammer and he can fail to deal any more than 1 damage to enemies that Mario can handle just fine. Which is to say he has some very obvious uses and the area you get him in does manage to make its enemy groups manageable with either one, but the play style Goombario facilitates tends to be more flexible and offers an ability that lets you see enemy HP for free forever after one use. You’re always going to want Goombario to Tattle on an enemy once just for that.

By the time you get Bombette as your third party member, the game more or less expects you to be switching and using your abilities and especially your partners’ abilities. Switching in battle becomes its own tactical decision as conditions change and even though it spends that character’s whole turn, sometimes you need to do that, even spending Mario’s. Battle quickly becomes very methodical and knowing what enemy is in the lead no longer prepares you for the whole enemy group beyond rote memorization. You will have to switch partners and do nothing for a turn sometimes to avoid getting damaged. If I have any real criticism of the dungeon, it’s that Bombette’s abilities as a fighter don’t really get shown off until the boss, and even then, her use is optional, even sub-optimal. Having to traipse back means the game desperately tries to find ways to make her useful outside of combat because the enemy groups just aren’t designed for her. Actually, one might argue her best usage is specifically for boss battles because she can simply out-damage either of the others fairly reliably, though it does come at the cost of being a relatively expensive attack, which only hits one enemy, no less, making it much less useful for normal battles.

There’s a bigger elephant in the room, though. This game prevents you from grinding, which means the same battles you have to keep slogging through quickly become very unrewarding. Money is an absolute bear to amass in the first place because so little of it drops after each encounter early on and without Stars to justify the encounter, it’s easiest to try to avoid them. The game makes a fairly big deal of saying it’s always 100 Star Points to your next level, but what it doesn’t tell you is each level makes you more resistant to Star Points. It’s like you build up a tolerance. I don’t know if it’s simple subtraction or what, but while your first few levels come fast enough, beyond that, your advancement comes to a screeching halt. This wouldn’t be so unforgivable if the game didn’t keep finding ways to make you trek back to various towns all without a fast travel system. Sometimes this comes in the form of quests to make you trek, I kid you not, almost all the way across the available world at the time, or the fact that Star Pieces can come from a quiz show that’s always set up two towns behind where you’re supposed to go next, or the fact that systems unlock that make certain items highly desirable for your continued survival. One of the showpieces of this is Goomnuts, which are exclusively available from one (1) tree at the very start of the game, which has the decency to immediately respawn whenever you leave the screen to make it farmable enough, but getting there is a matter of walking a mile each way to collect them past enemies that are mercifully mostly avoidable, but it certainly doesn’t respect your TIME. In contrast, the relatively shorter and marginally more remunerative path to the Koopas might produce a handful of Koopa Leaf items, which while "raw" are equally good items and much more farmable, get cooked into an inferior item. Seeing as the inventory is only 10 slots and only 32 slots can be reserved to hold onto your junk in the shops, you definitely want quality over quantity. Maybe you might make bank selling the cooked items from them, which would certainly make for an income stream.

The fact the game increasingly disrespects your time, though, really gets to me, because time is the one thing you can never get back and after all my years of having an hour commute, I am still hyper-aware of mine when it’s being wasted. There IS a Badge that allows you to instantly win "weaker" battles by whacking the enemies in the field like usual, but it penalizes you for it by cutting your rewards in roughly half. Maybe you get nothing at all sometimes, but that’s still far more efficient for your time. But I say this out of frustration: Chapter 2’s enemies are immediately so damage-spongy without giving you a way to compensate without burning through your FP with abilities that it very much adds to the frustration of the area. Running away from battles is possible, but makes you drop Coins, and doesn’t get rid of the enemy in the field, meaning you can end up right back in battle with them and poorer for it.

The game feels like it sends you off to a new area under-leveled by 2 levels with no immediate way back to stock up on items and normal enemies absolutely cream you no matter what because the world you came from simply doesn’t have the EXP available to properly grind yourself to a point you’re not just scraping by. Even when enemies aren’t completely immune to all attacks other than Bombette’s relatively expensive explosion spell and whatever damage boost Mario can apply to his hammer, they often come in groups of three or four just to make sure you’re forced to use abilities to handle them quickly, especially the larcenous ones that each steal 10 Coins each in a mug attack that you need to damage them to avoid them absconding with it. Losing up to 40 coins in a battle is like losing the effort of 13 battles in earlier areas all in one fell swoop. Burning through your FP with Kooper to damage them all just to get it back each round is FP expensive, but they only give maybe 10 Coins themselves and that’s really all just insulting.

Cooking can be a blessing and a curse, because it can very easily downgrade an item, so you always want to save beforehand. It’s also rather amusing what can and can’t be cooked, because mostly things you’d expect can, but then so can Fire Flowers. I tried cooking a Sleepy Sheep just to see what would happen and got a Mistake rather than some sort of mutton chop and tried a POW Block just for giggles and got a Mistake from that, too. I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe a peanut butter sandwich? Isn’t the "POW" for "Peanuts Or Whatever?" You just unscrew it like a jar? I kid, though they do look suspiciously round in this game. And the Sleepy Sheep I’ll chalk up to the language of the time, because "sleepy sheep" was definitely something everyone of a certain age said at time of release. I still say it on rare occasion to this day!

Mostly my frustration comes in the form of having to deal with this being a low-power game in theory that fails to balance around it in practice as soon as Chapter 2 rolls around. It’s not that the game should be easy (though the beginning is absolutely easy despite its creativity), it’s that the ways it tries to be hard amount to making you the victim of introductory math. 3FP abilities may not seem like much, but are very expensive when you only have 15 FP after a couple upgrades. If your own HP and FP pools represent your ability to clear an area, then the enemy HP pools should be balanced against the sum across the area, not yours in a single battle. If you increase your HP to a level you can squeak by an area, that’s one thing, and you’re going to need Badges that keep a steady trickle of points coming over time to supplement that. And probably Badges that increase your totals, too, if you can swing them. Ultimately, your aggressively small inventory fills up incredibly quickly and if you haven’t nearly filled up your equally aggressive storage by the end of the second chapter, I’d be shocked. The Legend of Dragoon is notorious for only giving you 32 item slots and that’s what storage is here, plus another 10 to truck around, and let me say that even kitted out with the best items available at the end of Chapter 1, going into Chapter 2 unable to reconfigure anything felt rather scary. The game does give you one (1) "out" by letting you whack a mole creature for an extravagant healing item, but while I did it out of instinct as soon as it popped up, the thing screaming at me for it made me afraid to do it again, because I had no idea whether it would just plain stop appearing. Navigating the whole area with a sense of desperation was less than fun. Having to return to free healing from whatever direction I explored just barely squeaking by even with using my precious limited stock wasn’t fun. Understanding the area was BUILT for that and ultimately the way out is one of the shortest paths IN the place once you’ve clawed your way through the extended fetch quest by the skin of your teeth was… actually kind of demoralizing, really. And the idea that if they’d just given you the partner you "win" by having to travel every inch of the place in three passes to backtrack beaten and bloody to the beginning to hand off each MacGuffin and heal back up, you could have just more or less walked to the right like literally everywhere else in the game, well, that just felt insulting, because it really felt like there was no reason for all of this other than to not only waste your time, but also railroad you with death instead of walls. If the idea of the place was to tutorialize exploration, all it taught me was to absolutely dread it, because while some of the puzzles were at least a little fun, they may as well have been random portals, because without any ability to see where you were going or any map to have any indication where you’d end up, it was all trial and error. The whole area felt like it was quick to punish the smallest mistake, the timing of the enemy attacks made some of them impossible to defend against, those same enemies simply don’t take damage unless you spend FP because their defense is equal to your maximum normal damage, and as the first area that really needed to be explored rather than being totally linear while punishing you for it every step of the way made the whole experience feel desperate and uncertain and it takes a VERY good excuse to do that to a player. Games are art and art makes you feel things, but games are also generally escapism and/or a power fantasy and you as the designer have to justify taking that away. Taking it away along with any hope of scurrying off to come better prepared takes away the player’s feeling of agency. I came as best prepared as I could think of and not being able to go back to restock on items made me feel like there WAS no way to adequately prepare for the area, because even though I understood I was heading into the unknown, and that I’d need the best items I could think of, they simply didn’t feel like enough. And then, after ALL of that, and a boss battle, the game had the audacity to put a whole second dungeon between you and the next town, with large groups of enemies that force you to blow through your FP because they can reduce your HP by up to half every round of combat with essentially unblockable attacks, never mind threatening to rob you of several grueling minutes of progress each, and to close the item shop as soon as you got to what should have been the reprieve of civilization. Being a game designer of sorts myself, I understood that just getting there would probably unlock the way back "home" and I was right, and my desire to explore was thoroughly expended, so rather than go one screen to the right to get the shop back open, I trucked myself all the way back through two dungeons on the off chance that I could get back to my only known point of safety. Because it had punished exploration so thoroughly, I didn’t even want to do it in town. And because once you know you can avoid the biggest threats by running your ass off and simply breeze your way left through only a handful of tough battles and understand you’ll squeak by, the enemy you know doesn’t seem that scary compared to the threat of whatever B.S. they cooked up for you next.

I don’t normally hit the guides too hard on a first playthrough, but I have been LIVING on them throughout Chapter 2, and it’s only because of an NPC who gives you directions to the promise of special items that I got back to exploring at all. And even then, there’s another NPC you can feed your whole dang inventory not understanding what the heck he actually wants. Again, I looked it up rather than experiment, just to save myself the TIME.

If I had felt any modicum of agency in all of this, I would not be vomiting up this amount of bile onto a page, but agency is the one thing that felt lacking throughout the whole chapter. If I could have just gone back to Toad Town to kit myself out with more items, I would have had a sense of safety and control to kick the chapter off, and I might have actually ENJOYED the exploration, even if the enemies absolutely were kicking my butt the whole time. I’m not against hard games. I quite enjoy some of what are considered the harder Final Fantasy games, because those games are hard with informed consent and handsomely reward your efforts when they put a challenge in front of you. I’m also not against exploration; it’s one of the things I DO quite enjoy about most games, but I was playing this one instead of Super Mario RPG because that one had put me into my first real dungeon and while the dungeon itself is designed well FOR exploration, it ran into the same issue where you often had to just blindly warp somewhere and figure out how it all connected from what you could see, and ultimately the solution to getting back was jumping in the water and slowly swimming all the way back to the start. But honestly, after everything it took to get to what looks to be a very quick end to this chapter after a meatier Chapter 1, and the exploration making you wander the whole desert I was mostly avoiding leaving the linear beaten path in to play "hot and cold," and making a final dungeon that’s just more exploration plus the fear of potentially permanently messing something up, I… really, just before coming back to write on this again, I thought I would take my mind off an incredibly stressful day by booting the game up, realized where I’d saved, and immediately just turned it off again, because the whole chapter has just felt a special kind of awful and I’m considering just going back to Super Mario RPG because THAT dungeon somehow doesn’t feel quite as tiresome now, and the enemies feel less unfair, and bless the game for this, you can at least grind yourself stupid and not have to really worry about the enemies being a trial.

After a short break

I ultimately vented enough after that last paragraph that I went in, got a hammer upgrade (which was sorely needed), powered up another party member (there are special boxes with blue discs in them that do this), fought a miniboss and felt properly empowered, got a MacGuffin, and just tapped out to go wander the desert looking for anything I missed, even if some of that would be "stupidly well-guarded screens" because some screens simply have so many enemy groups that there’s basically no hope of collecting your rewards for all of them given how fast they fade out on you, which is something that never felt like an issue before, but watching your boosted rewards that you paid a whopping 50 Coins for vanish into thin air because the enemies just keep slamming into you and each little bit before you can react wears down the counter a little bit more… Well, I mean it’s a little frustrating, but when you look at your Coin count and see it’s over 500, suddenly missing out on 20 of them seems like it’s not actually the end of the world, even though it certainly would have been nice.

I then went to access some places that had been cut off to me previously and powered up the rest of my partners because frankly it had opened up to me and I wanted to make sure I had all the utility I could garner for the upcoming boss, which involved defeating a miniboss in the process, but you know what? I had fun! All this tooling around can be FUN! Having an upgraded hammer makes going back through Mt. Rugged actually feel manageable because you can actually bonk the Cleft enemies and not have it glance right off. It totally fixes the balance of the area even if having gained a level or two means that there are basically no rewards for it. I went back to Merluvlee just outside of Toad Town to figure out my next Badge and wouldn’t you know it, I paid for a solution to an otherwise unsolvable (or stumble-only solution) puzzle and it gave me a Badge that lets me kill weak enemies by spin-dashing into them and you know what that means? I don’t even have to be careful about TIMING trying to whack enemies in the field, just blow my way through. The sewers also ended up giving me warp pipes to the few towns I’ve found so far, so I don’t even have to go through the hassle of a dozen screens anymore! I knew there were suspicious panels on the ground and had no idea how to activate the, but lo and behold! Better late than never, but still, it let me buzz through several letters that constitute Parakarry’s quest line.

Also, seriously, Goombario remains my MVP because powering him up not only doubles his damage in its own right, it also gives him a very cost-effective 1FP Charge ability that one use effectively doubles it AGAIN and is STACKABLE INDEFINITELY (or at least "high enough" given reasonable turn and likely boss HP limits) for an extra 2 damage per hit each time. Ya boy can use it once and do a whopping 8 damage before defense, use it twice and knock an unhealthy chunk off basically any boss’ HP with 12 damage before defense, use it 3 times and make it 16, etc. Granted, since it’s 2 hits, defenses take this down fast, but 12 damage is ridiculous in this game by basically any metric. That’s more than high-level BOSSES do in a single attack. The last boss had "only" 50 HP and went down pretty quickly. It’s made him easily the most useful partner for anything that doesn’t have a spike on its head. And yes, technically, this is just more or less having him save a turn to spend a turn if a boss has no defense rating, but for bosses that do, the more damage you can pile on each attack, the less your damage is reduced over time. It’s also perfect for bosses who do stuff like electrify themselves since it means he’s saving up the damage that he otherwise would have done for when he can attack again. There are strategic benefits to this that mean he can be doing more damage to a boss than any other character because offsetting the damage to a later turn can mean he can ignore the defenses shaving it off over time where the others just can’t.

Just to note a couple other items of amusement: there’s a "stingy" old man called Koopa Koot who has you collect stuff for him, usually for one Coin, but otherwise sometimes for a Star Piece, and you end up getting him porn not once, but twice. I mean they don’t call it that, but OMG, yes, it’s absolutely porn, one a magazine behind a bookcase with "lots of stretching," another a borrowed tape with "fun" contents that cannot be disclosed. The fact something like that is in here TWICE because they know it’s going to fly over kids’ heads is just *chef kiss*. Otherwise, just having the second major boss pull an "oh, crap" moment when he realizes you’re about to find the hammer upgrade and say "please not that way, please not that way" in his normal voice before realizing you heard it and trying to make up something about a curse in his spooky floaty letters voice was funnier than it had any right to be, which, I mean, this is a funny game, and one with bits of fairly deep lore while it’s at it, and ignoring there’s no reasonable way the villain should have gotten into a buried ruin in the first place without the help you’ve been fielded (I mean other than Bowser just wishing him there with the Star Rod; he can totally do that, I suppose), having him constantly hassling you, and really having all of the dungeon bosses so far hassle you at least a little while you’re in their dungeons, whether that’s actively obstructing you with traps or just trying to scare and/or warn you away, all of that lends personality to the villains, maybe allows them to be a little successful, and makes for good villains. Maybe it’s just because I had my standard set early by playing Lands of Lore as a tyke, but I have always appreciated a good villain who takes a personal hand in obstructing the heroes. This is what separates the likes of Scotia as a powerful sorceress with little to fear from you until you start being successful, or Lynx from Chrono Cross as someone who is constantly finding ironic and very personal ways to screw you over, from really most villains, who are typically content to throw mooks at you from their stronghold until you show up at the front door. Even if that’s exactly what Bowser himself is doing in this game, all of the minor villains are proactive and packed with personality. You’re showing up to THEIR strongholds, but they’re not above messing with you outside of them, or inside of them, and even send you hate mail after you win. Strong minor villains can make or break a game and this game HAS them.

Having more or less blazed through Chapter 3 (and consulted a guide to make sure I wasn’t missing anything (this chapter has some serious Guide Dang It where yes, you would absolutely miss things without one)), all I’ll really say is that while it doesn’t feel like an apology for Chapter 2, it absolutely feels better to play for a few reasons: 1) you are given reasonable safety between dungeons, 2) it doesn’t make the mistake of cutting you off, and 3) the enemies absolutely have the power to wreck or even wipe you, but you have tools and FP enough to mitigate that so you don’t feel so helpless. It also ends incredibly well by reminding you that your "allies" gained in the chapter don’t actually have the moral high ground, which is something more games could manage, honestly.

Chapter 4 adds in some fresh ideas by taking away your advanced facilities, but does it right by leaving your basic facilities and in one case letting you enhance one of the advanced facilities to make it even better than before once you’ve earned it back. It’s also just meatier and more creative than Chapter 3. Maybe that involves a lot of backtracking, but the backtracking feels incentivized. If there’s any drawback at all to the chapter it’s that by this point you have so many badges you need a crystal ball to predict what you might need for a given area much less boss, but the answer ultimately seems to be "whatever lets you dish out high amounts of damage and don’t sweat it otherwise." You’ll want to keep your damage dealers around if only because stumbling into a boss battle is quite easy. But there’s just… so much of everything by this point. So many party members; so many item types; so many Badges; so much enemy variety. That’s not necessarily a bad thing to a certain extent, but there’s a fine line between "spoiled for choice" and "overloaded and overwhelmed." I ended up increasing my BP twice in a row, too, because Badges are just plain starting to get more expensive. I would argue that some of them are severely overvalued for the benefit they provide. Mostly what some of them provide is expediency, but you shouldn’t have to drop 10 BP on "expediency" when the game maximum is apparently 30.

Chapter 5 is where things really break down, because by this point it’s clear you just have too many party members to manage and too many badges and the badges are too expensive to equip even if you have nearly the maximum BP in the game. It’s also clear that the game is going to keep doing its best to waste your precious time and the biggest slap in the face was a trip tile right after a boss battle. It’s some serious BS to watch like 30 Coins disappear in a screen transition because you made the mistake of moving right, not even far enough to be in the hall to the next room, and watch Mario exit stage left leaving it all behind. Not that my wallet isn’t heavy enough as it is; it’s just the insult of it all. Chapter 5 is really where you start to realize that the time-wasting is intentional, because they throw a completely unskippable swim cinematic at you and pressing A to skip it makes the whale you’re riding blow Mario into the air on his blowhole instead. Which is cute and all, but not the best use of a minute of my life. The entire area is so rife with swimming at an achingly slow speed with no ability to dash that it’s draining just moving through the area. And the normal enemies of the area only give you EXP until your next level.

Finishing up for now

I don’t think Paper Mario is a bad game, but the more of it I play, the less of it I like. I quite enjoyed Chapter 1 and I appreciate everything it did in that chapter even though there wasn’t much exploration to be had. I enjoyed the exploration there was and while I felt it was a bit shallow at first, keeping it light actually ended up being what I was in the mood for. Chapter 2, though, makes some pretty egregious mistakes right out the gate trying to tutorialize exploration by forcing it while also making it feel patently unsafe, and that made the game feel a lot less fun. Let me be clear, these are mistakes. Seemingly small ones with far-reaching ramifications. I feel like given a little time away from the game, that feeling of being unsafe exploring will go away, because even just before finding the final dungeon of the chapter, I was getting some of my curiosity back, but the final dungeon just feels like more mistakes were made by threatening me with permanently missable items (which was not the case once I actually got in there, but I still made a point to explore everything bottom-up).

At least I THOUGHT they were mistakes, but now I’m not so sure.

Chapter 2 is just such an unfair, time-wasting, often directionless, punishing experience that only gets mitigated after you’re well on your way to the end, provided you tap out to backtrack and do literally anything else but finish it out, it’s like cracked pepper slowly sprinkled all over a dish at a fancy restaurant by a waiter who’s too distracted to hear you say "when." You’re left to try to gobble what’s there as quickly as you can until what’s left is inedible and then you really have no recourse but to watch it happen. At the end of it all, you have a plate piled high with the stuff and it’s absolutely buried what it could have flavored in moderation. And it doesn’t leave you anticipating the next course very much. But when the next course actually comes, it’s everything it should be! That’s the problem! After you get an upgraded hammer, the battles on Mt. Rugged suddenly get manageable! After you gain a couple levels, you feel like you have appropriate stats to survive a few battles! After you upgrade your companions, Kooper specifically, suddenly you don’t have to burn through your FP as quickly because even a single extra point of damage means you’re reducing the number of times you need to use abilities! All of this also means that the enemies that totally wrecked you every battle give you nothing for being able to manage them, though. It doesn’t make the enemies more fair; it just means they don’t have to be for you to kill them faster than they kill you. The enemies are still 100% unfair, giving you zero window to figure out the timing to block them, and even if you manage, it’s a total accident, because you have, I don’t know, a frame or something to actually do it in because the animation just runs so fast, and a large group of them can still burn through a chunk of your HP in a single round, but at least you don’t have them doing it for as many rounds.

The thing is, everything Chapter 2 attempts is done better in the next 2 chapters! And what it did would have been SO easy to fix with only tiny adjustments!

The problem is after Chapter 3 opens everything up and makes you feel like you earned a reprieve, you only have through Chapter 4 to enjoy it before you realize that you’re halfway through the game and have already seen the high water mark. The problems of the game never actually go away; you’re just so thankful for solutions after Chapter 2 that all the pressure releases and you’re back to thinking it’s a GREAT game because its standard background static of B.S. is so much less than what you just dealt with. Paper Mario is not a great game. It’s far too disrespectful for that. I will say it’s a GOOD game, because it has so much going for it. But it’s a perpetually frustrating game that takes every opportunity it can to artificially inflate its length and even then it’s not a very long game if I had to take a guess. So much of it is extraneous text that NPCs barf several screens of at you, or unskippable transition screens that one might excuse as being loading screens if this wasn’t a cartridge game that’s perfectly capable of doing that basically instantly, or just your limited ability to get around quickly. The way battles drag on because enemies keep getting more HP and you the player are limited in your ability to deal more damage always keeps them to a minimum length. The game gives you ways to auto-win them, but even that fails to make it snappy. What is snappy is your rewards blinking out. Frustration of frustrations, you only have a few seconds to snap up everything that drops and if there’s a Badge to suck it all to you, I have yet to find it. The more rewards you earn, the farther apart they’re blown into a ring, so collecting all of them becomes literally impossible.

The game has many virtues. Its writing is good, and major bits can be great. As much of it as there is, it’s all worth reading. Moment-to-moment play is mostly fun. Combat finds ways to keep you engaged. A lot of the abilities are fun to play with. The problem is that the game is chock full of hard limits. Mario can only move so fast without Speedy Spin equipped and there are just places where you can’t Spin Dash. You only have so many Badge Points in the game and being 3 shy of the maximum, I really have to say it’s only with the last 3 BP I picked up that it feels like I have any room for convenience. Badges are often woefully overvalued for the benefit. Most importantly, Mario and his crew have a hard limit of how much damage they can do where enemies simply don’t.

Somehow nearing the end

Looking back on this review, after a few more chapters, it’s hard to believe the frustration I’d encountered. I will say this: I have 30 BP and it’s still not enough, but the game finally gave me a few methods of increasing my defenses and those have been essential for facing the enemies because enemy HP in the ice world is hefty and the best way of mitigating it is with Kooper’s Fire Shell and Fire Flowers, which are easy enough to grab in literally the first shop for relatively cheap and which might even drop in the area. But even that’s not enough for the enemies that hit the hardest. What you’re supposed to do is attack and break their ammo, but there’s no way to do that in bulk and they’re going to nail you for a ton regardless, so it’s probably best to debilitate them somehow and Kooper’s Dizzy Shell works wonders for this. By this point in the game, all of your party members are able to be fully upgraded and I have to laugh about where I thought there were too many back in Chapter 5, because there were more after that and they start getting very redundant. And I want to talk about this, because I’ve had time to reflect on it.

A bit of game design

A major problem with this game is that it locks upgrades behind upgrades and your party members are absolutely treated as upgrades. You never stop getting party members because you never stop getting new hazards to stymy your progress and to say that some of them are artificially engineered is an understatement.

The problem is most apparent when you look at how much overlap there is in everyone’s abilities. Parakarry feels like the red-headed stepchild of the party in that it’s rare that you’d choose him over anyone else when all is said and done outside of his field abilities, which remain sporadically useful throughout the game and are really the only ones to do so. His ultimate attack is more or less Bombette’s ultimate attack, just 2FP cheaper and a damage point weaker. His one uniquely useful attack is really his ability to inflict some hefty damage to one enemy with Shell Shot and it’s almost exactly the same as Bombette’s with better range, but by the end of the game, it’s rare that you’re going to want to damage only one enemy and both Mario and Goombario both do just a point shy of that with their regular attacks. It would be different if it had an attribute that made it do extra damage to some enemy, like a flying one, but it really doesn’t despite being introduced that way. Despite being billed as a "flying specialist," he has no inherent bonuses or damage types to his attacks that might render them more or less effective against anything but normal defense. They just happen to reach flying enemies early in the game.

But say you prefer to have Parakarry over Bombette because the extra point of damage is less of a concern than the two extra FP plus the marginally more difficult minigame. Bombette can otherwise deal more damage to all grounded enemies for a bit more FP than Kooper can by default. On one hand, yay damage, and it even comes with the Explosion element on it, but then Kooper gets Fire Shell that costs 1 less FP for 1 less damage and has better end-game utility for less. His will wreck Ice enemies and instakill Dry Bones; hers will be effective against Fire enemies and instakill Dry Bones. Which you end up needing depends on what point of the game you’re in. There’s ultimately no reason to revisit the areas where Fire enemies live once you’re through with them. So then between the two turtles, you’re more or less set. As powerful as Bombette is early on, her Explosion abilities all end up doing the same damage, just to an increasing number of targets, but that also means that she’s more expensive for marginal benefit by the time everyone else tops out. I personally never quite found a spot where Bombette felt necessary except during the initial run of Mt. Rugged as the only party member who could actually do damage there, and even then, the FP costs were just part of what made each grueling exploratory outing unsustainable. Her field abilities never stop being useful, at least. But finding a place for her in a battle party is difficult after you find other means of overcoming defenses than just sheer damage.

With how late Lakilester joins the party, he really feels the least necessary of anyone, because I can get that Sushie could be used to swim and dive, which are things that Mario can’t do or that would otherwise require flippers like in Zelda. Sushie also has an elemental component to her attacks, serving as your access to Water for Fire enemies if you didn’t collect the Ice-elemental Badge for that purpose. Lakilester’s only real unique ability is to increase Mario’s evasion, but by the time you get him, you already have multiple Badges for that, which at least stack with it, but it’s never reliable even so and you’re better off using Bow’s Outta Sight or a Repel Gel to take the guesswork out. His field ability is to float over spikes and lava, but spikes and lava themselves are just another flavor of water hazards that frankly didn’t need to be there other than to justify his existence, because while it makes for exactly one good puzzle, the only other time so far it’s been an issue has been to hoard away a reward. You get him after the volcano dungeon where floating over lava would actually matter, because there’s zero reason to go back. And maybe it’s just because they wanted to give you one of each classic Mario enemy in your party, other than the football players, but, like, by the time you get him, you already have everything you need and more. All of his attacks are some flavor of things you already have in the party, better elsewhere. It almost feels like he could have been given a fishing pole to replace Sushie’s dive and had a more unique moveset cobbled out of Sushie and Watt’s. Watt’s ability to show hidden objects could have just been a function of Bow’s invisibility. It really does feel like Sushie and Watt have the least to do in the story anyway; Lakilester more like the others actually has someone outside of Mario to interact with.

At any rate, you have 8 party members who could have very easily been condensed down to 6 with different design decisions, which would have made those who remain more meaningful. The thing is, it doesn’t feel much like the devs cared about that because, again, this is a matter of locking away progress. The game never stops the drip feed of upgrades until literally Chapter 7 of 8, and by that point it more or less hands you completion without so much as a puzzle or battle to do it; you just need to explore up an unguarded staircase.

But I will say this: it does at least let you do a couple small things early. This has little to no real effect; it just means you backtrack to Toad Town as soon as you get the next puzzle-solving object and you can maybe carry something into a boss battle to chisel away a few extra points per round. Nothing extravagant, but really the only things that could be considered "extravagant" are high-damage abilities and there may be a couple times when you could actually get something like that from a Super Block.

Otherwise, you’re really kind of stuck getting upgrades to solve the issue immediately in front of you, so Mario gets a new pair of shoes and that’s basically your key to what is otherwise conceptually a door, or he gets a new hammer that can break a fancier kind of block, which is absolutely just a key to a door by another name, or someone joins the party and acts as a key to some other fancy abstraction of a door, whatever it is that you can’t otherwise get past. Really, your first order of business after picking up anything that isn’t an enemy drop or Badge is to run all the way back to Toad Town and dive into the sewers to see what you unlocked. Chances are your new ability is going to lead to some important treasure or another, or straight into another upgrade.

It’s not without its merits. In Chapter 7, you need to use an key to open a door, use another key to open another conceptual door, and collect another literal key to a door that you then unlock to solve a simple jumping puzzle to continue the story. This is actually a really GOOD example of how this works, because you’re presented with a clear problem and already know you have all the tools for the solution, and you’re likely to see it before you even know there’s a "quest" for it. Environmental storytelling works and a little curiosity goes a long way. Even if not, and in absence of the ability to go back to Toad Town and have Merlon outright tell you what to do, Goombario as your local hint system has the goods. But you do have to bear in mind that by this point, you have all the upgrades you’re going to get. You rarely get to combine powers like this. Most challenges are really a means of highlighting your newest power in the chapter you get them. And some of them are great! No lie, it’s not like they didn’t know how to design a puzzle. The problem is they really don’t keep designing puzzles for every character.

Final word

I’ll say this: I want more of Paper Mario. What I ultimately feel approaching the end of the game is unsatisfied. The game is really good at padding itself, but very bad at offering meaningful content. What’s there is good! It is overall a good game. But there’s so much itchy, scratchy chaff in the linen that it cannot be considered a great game. And there are absolutely places that just feel like a rock in your shoe. I have an objective review in the works and won’t write any more on this one (I’m posting this directly after I finish this bit up to hold myself to it), but I’m doing it not because I don’t feel my impressions here don’t hold up, but because I want to organize my thoughts better than this more journal-like "first impressions" that somehow took longer to write than the game took to play. I guess be on the lookout for that and Super Mario RPG.