Each of Mario’s genre-specific games you remember for being their own, and each one leaves you with a feeling of loss after you finish said game because you know that, from a narrative perspective, it more or less stands alone.
Mario has done a Ghibli-esque realistic fantasy (Super Mario RPG, “SMRPG”), a grand, “Lord of the Rings”-esque high fantasy adventure (Paper Mario, “PM64”), an operatic space narrative (Super Mario Galaxy, “Galaxy”), a true Odyssey/war movie (Paper Mario: The Origami King, “TOK”), a classic action-adventure story cut from the cloth of Indiana Jones (Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, “TTYD”), a multiverse-spanning weird sci-fi movie set against the end of the world (Super Paper Mario, “SPM”), and the list goes on and on (see below).
I said earlier that I felt that TTYD, Galaxy, and SPM stood above the rest in this regard, feeling that they were the examples where Nintendo fully leaned into its genre elements to the point where you can outright say “this is a great story” without adding the qualifier “for a Mario adventure.” Stories that reach beyond their bases to touch on mature themes on the same level as any story told in their respective genre in any other franchise.
But there is one extra element I have yet to touch upon, and the real reason why, from this angle, TTYD remains the king of Mario narratives.
Yup. Still the best
Chapter Five: Why Thousand-Year Door Remains King
Four years ago, I said that TTYD was the greatest Mario narrative, which isn’t that hot of a take at all, but now having replayed the game, it becomes clearer why that is beyond the standard reasons that most people posit.
Not because it has better gameplay, or better overt character development, or better mechanical-narrative balance . Other games do this in their respective genres just as well, and some of these genres require less of these components to feel whole.
What TTYD does is nestle a full half-dozen more fully-fledged genres within its own master narrative… and is able to balance (more or less) all of them.
Something no other Mario game does or even dares to do, and the main reason why, of all of Mario’s adventures, TTYD in more ways than you think is the most replayable and accessible game of his entire repertoire.
Even though I felt a little disconnected at the beginning of my TTYD replay, it was mainly because I was mentally comparing it to PM64, so I was entering the game with the mindset of wanting to play an expanded-overworld high fantasy game, so it took me a little bit to adjust to the action-adventure style of TTYD (not in gameplay, in genre). Think about it, if you’ve just watched Lord of the Rings or The Dragon Prince, you’re not necessarily likely to pop in Guardians of the Galaxy or Pirates of the Caribbean (unless you’re an Orlando Bloom fan).
But if you’re already entering TTYD from a desired headspace for adventure, or simply a neutral headspace, the game whisks you on its way with its prologue of lore, intrigue, and mystery.
But then it changes.
After settling into the feel of dealing with rogue-ish Rogueport denizens and the rugged feel of action-adventure NPCs, the game transports you to Petal Meadows and turns itself into a fantasy game again.
Now, if you’re entering this area from a PM64-mindset, it still feels somewhat limited as the epic scope of Mario’s PM64 adventure pales in comparison to a simple story of befriending a cowardly Koopa villager and helping him find his courage by slaying the encroaching dragon and saving his dad.
But that in itself is as classic a fantasy story as there ever was.
And after mining out some more of the game’s lore, teasing the location of Peach and the introduction of TEC, plus the introduction of a chaotic third party in the form of Bowser, the game whisks you away to Boggly Woods and turns itself into a game of magically realistic fantasy like SMRPG.
Whereas you aren’t really meant to think about why there is a dragon terrorizing this Koopa village in Chapter 1 (as you wouldn’t in any high fantasy story, everything there often just is), Chapter 2 makes a point to let you know just how ancient and old these woods feel, and especially The Great Boggly Tree. Unlike Chapter 1 which is meant to feel nigh-present, Chapter 2 is meant to feel like you’ve stepped into an area of hundreds of years ago.
And like many a magically realistic fantasy story (like SMRPG itself, but also something like Howl’s Moving Castle), these bastions of the natural world (the Punies) are being set upon by villains who represent technological progress, and who seek to impose their will on this natural world in order to obtain this world’s power. And only by you allying together with the locals (and a wind spirit in the form of Flurrie) will be able to stop it.
But no time to stop after that.
Because the Chapter 2 perpetrators also happen to be those who kidnapped Peach and who are challenging you for the Crystal Stars, this connects bits of the narrative’s master arc. And, through TEC, begins to touch on one of its themes such as the ability to overcome one’s own darkness (or in TEC’s case his own programming) by embracing the magics of the natural world (i.e. love, represented through Peach).
But again, no time to dilly-dally, and you can see where I’m going with this.
TTYD is the only Mario adventure to have fully-formed genres within its chapters, and I think that is a big reason why it is so beloved. Each chapter so distinct, with its own complete story, and yet the game as a whole never feels out of balance, and never feels too far away from its core center.
- A Straight fantasy in Chapter 1
- A Ghibli-esque industry vs. nature story in Chapter 2
- A white collar, political intrigue-and-mystery story like JFK or The Insider in Chapter 3
- A true horror narrative in Chapter 4
- A Lost-esque shipwreck tale in Chapter 5 (this Chapter I think brings the action-adventure core of TTYD back to the front as well)
- A fully-fledged whodunit in Chapter 6
All the while balancing:
- Its master arc of an Indiana Jones-style action-adventure story between Mario, the X-Nauts, and Bowser, that exists in the background for the bulk of the story until it takes center-stage again once you blast off to the Moon (and the story’s endgame) beginning in Chapter 7
- This tension between the age-old story of scientific progress pitted against the present day, which in itself is pitted against the magic of the ancients and how that magic can either be used to heal (i.e. Peach + TEC) or to destroy
- Subtext of high vs. low class sprinkled across both Rogueport and the middle chapters
- And even some “mob movie” elements when it comes to the Don Pianta arcs in-between chapters
This almost begins to feel like Sense8, which has 8 fully-fledged subgenres nestled within a main master genre that connects them all together.
This is an extremely delicate and difficult balance to pull off, and the fact is that, outside of a few gameplay hiccups (see below), TTYD not only does it, but does it to near-perfection.
You can see that, if you are an avid fan of any of the above genres, you can find something within the game for you, thereby giving you an in towards connecting with the characters and master story, thereby allowing a wider array of people to appreciate the story at large.
And I think other Mario adventures touch on pieces of different subgenres to make up one large one, but the Chapters in both PM64 and SPM don’t feel fully-formed enough, or separate enough from the main story, to stand alone. Threads are there, like the overarching Boo’s Mansion mystery in Chapter 3 of PM64, or the space-faring quest in Chapter 4 of SPM, but overall these Chapters exist as expanded adventure building blocks that maintain focus on the story’s “A plot”.
And other Mario stories like those in the Mario + Luigi series (see below), or those in Luigi’s Mansion or Super Mario Sunshine primarily focus on one location, so therefore maintain at least some level of connective tissue for their main genre, but they do not hold fully-formed mini-genres within them.
I think this is also why I became so disappointed in Odyssey in the end, as I thought that Odyssey was doing what TTYD did so well first – giving us a Soul-esque ethereal purgatory in the Cap Kingdom, then some baseline adventures to ease us into familiarity, but THEN giving us some magical realism in the Wooded Kingdom and the struggle between the natural world and the tech, then a horror-esque vibe in the Lost Kingdom, and an overtly noir-esque feel (something Mario hasn’t done before) in the Metro Kingdom. All while maintaining a grand “A plot” in the form of a chase movie.
But then the game doesn’t follow up on either of these (its would-be master arc nor its potential mini-arcs), and simply then settles into being a barebones Mario adventure without much connective tissue in the second half.
And aforementioned, Origami King indeed feels like a war movie or a real odyssey because the places you go to feel like you’re passing through rather than having fully-fleshed out plots. You visit them long enough to get a taste, but you pass through rather than stay. The “whodunit” in Shogun Studios is minimal, the horror-mystery in the Sandpaper Desert ties back into the main plot, and the straight sea adventure for the Purple Streamer ends up answering questions about “the Gods” before leading into full Gods + war movie territory for the final Streamer. And there is excellent use of body horror sprinkled throughout the game and especially with the Scissors arc, the game doing this element much better than Color Splash. Still, I would argue that though it pulls from different genres and does so well, its stories are not fully-formed nor self-contained like in TTYD.
This is therefore evidence that Mario has tackled even more genres than you think (especially when you include those in TTYD and the strands of those present in Odyssey and TOK), even though there are still plenty more (i.e. disaster story, post-apocalyptic, true superhero genre, western and/or space western, dark fantasy like Castlevania or Attack on Titan, psychological thriller where you enter people’s minds, true cypberpunk, etc.) that it hasn’t.
And again, this opens Mario up to plenty of fans who enjoy one or more of these genres. Sometimes you are in a mood to just play through an adventure where a group of good people come together to fight evil, so therefore play the original Paper Mario. Sometimes you want to engage with a multiverse-hopping end-of-the-world epic with love at its center, so you can play Super Paper Mario. If any of the genres that Thousand-Year-Door tackles interest you, pop in the game primarily to play that particular genre, but pause to see if any of the others give you a new experience that you enjoy. If you want to see a majestic odyssey story, meeting and losing friends along the way, play the most recent of these types of Mario games, The Origami King.
And again, while I respect Origami King for at the very least trying a new angle, the game is the only one of the past sixteen years now to even fully attempt to do so. In the meantime, Nintendo could be doing so much more than simply repurposing old games for nostalgia-based purposes.
I’m going to be really sad if this movie isn’t good
Chapter Six: I’m Not Sure Where We Go Next, but Maybe a Movie
One could argue that Nintendo’s current focus is less on coming up with new Mario genre stories or even repurposing old games, but actually primarily on releasing and marketing the upcoming Super Mario Bros. movie.
I remain cautiously optimistic that this movie will actually be able to tell a full-fledged Mario story in also a new-ish style, for a multitude of reasons.
Firstly, let’s be honest. The previous Super Mario Bros. movie of 1993 was a disaster, a box office bomb, and despite having a minor level of cult status, has remained a black eye not just on Mario as a potential movie franchise but on video game movies as a whole – for the better part of thirty years. I find it hard to believe that Nintendo would risk such a cataclysm again without taking the utmost care to do it differently.
Secondly, all things considered, when it comes to transitioning to a different kind of mechanical genre or media, Nintendo’s track record with Mario is actually pretty good. SMRPG is a little all over the place, but tells a coherent-enough story with enough emotional pathos whilst also showcasing very well-balanced mechanics to augment its RPG style. The JRPG-style of Paper Mario allowed Nintendo to focus on worldbuilding whilst allowing its more pare-downed mechanics to grow over-time. Despite having a minimal story, Super Mario 64 remains a classic for the 3D platformer genre, and is one of those games where you can actually say that the lack of story isn’t a major issue. Even the Mario + Rabbids series manages to work despite having a completely bonkers premise.
So I have a level of faith that, with a first go-around with a truly animated, linear movie with its core characters, Nintendo will have put care into it.
And lastly, well… preliminary observations of what the movie is so far actually look promising . The fact that Luigi seems to have been the one kidnapped this time around changes things up a bit, but I can envision it working for a movie. This will then allow Peach to be the one to formally provide exposition and introduce Mario to the Mushroom Kingdom without it feeling bland, whilst still having a core emotional drive in Mario wanting to save his brother. And based on the trailers, it very much seems that the movie will be going for some Guardians of the Galaxy / Mummy-style banter with at least a touch of a rugged edge, like the captured Luma in trailer talking semi-seriously about death.
I can easily see a scenario where the movie is indeed able to balanced the action-adventure vibe that TTYD perfected, whilst using the novelty of a kidnapped Luigi to tweak the main plot enough to fit the genre balance.
However, that’s the good scenario.
Because on another hand, I remain quietly concerned.
Mainly, because the past instances when Mario goes beyond the most standard of genre adventures, it is utilizing a larger multitude of “special sauces.” It was able to at least partially make the crime drama feel of Super Mario Sunshine work by setting it wholly on a tropical island. With Super Mario Galaxy, it utilized fully the concept of the space opera and planet hopping. TTYD, SPM, TOK, and every Mario + Luigi game feature villains that are not Bowser, and uses these new villains to help craft the balanced stories they are trying to tell.
Basically, my concern is that the standard Mario story of simply moving through his worlds, with Bowser as the villain, is not large enough to shoulder the needed mystery and intrigue of the action-adventure genre, and that the haphazard moments and elements of banter will just end up making the movie feel like it is pulling itself too much at the seams, and then ultimately make it feel too chaotic to come together. Especially because the movie appears like it is also going to be pulling elements from Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart in addition to the core Mario elements .
But again, we’ll have to wait and see to find out which one of these scenarios pans out (or maybe there is one in between that I haven’t thought of).
Still, though, the fact that the things we know about the movie make it apparent that Nintendo is at least trying something new with the Mario franchise should feel like a bresh of fresh air, regardless of whether it is able to make all these elements be coherent in the end.
Because from a gaming perspective, I honestly do not know where Nintendo goes from here without at least a modicum of innovation (both narrative and mechanical).
Sure, they could do a Super Mario All-Stars and package these more mature games just with a Switch skin? For Galaxy and Sunshine, this has already been done. And I think fans of TTYD and SPM would absolutely love this, because it almost feels like Nintendo is trying to forget them. Even the Mario + Luigi series, which Nintendo seemed to redirect its focus towards after 2007, transitioned away from its potential for maturity into more standard Mario adventures, last seen in Paper Jam, before Alphadream itself went bankrupt. So it’s not a lie that both series could be ripe for a re-skin or a re-package. The same with their mutual grandfather, Super Mario RPG.
But such a direction is limited.
Because the truth of the matter is that, if we’re basing Nintendo’s style the last 15 years on this Nostalgia model, it is running out of games to use it on. It’s now already done the 1980s classic Mario games and most of its Nintendo 64 library. It could start retreading some of these GameCube-era, early Wii, GameBoy Advance, or early Nintendo DS games if it wants, make a kind of similar-to-Galaxy-in-space-but-its-not-Galaxy kind of game (i.e. Super Mario Galaxy 2), or grab a little one of Mario’s disparate worlds and set a story there like it did with Sunshine.
But the more obvious answer… it could simply branch out and start tackling the aforementioned original genres it hasn’t tackled yet, which is what it felt like Mario games were doing in the late 1990s / early 2000s before they seemingly pulled the plug on such matters after 2007. I think that’s why I got intrigued by Odyssey at first, because at first, yes it was a love letter to SM64, but it also felt new. A “Mario does a road/chase movie” kind of feel, before the nostalgia side of the game overpowered the portion of it that was new.
But again, the presence of Paper Mario: The Origami King and the preliminary details of the Super Mario Bros. movie do suggest at least a modicum of promise.
Because I want to see Mario tackle other classical genres, games that are new or even base their mechanics on games that came before, but that stick to a single genre, like a PM64, Sunshine, SPM, or Galaxy; or better yet, nestled additional sub-genres into its main genre like TTYD – and never lose sight of its core elements.
Now for the goodbye section
Epilogue: Farewell, for Now
I said before. Mario doing different genres is akin to choosing your favorite movie across Lord of the Rings, Guardians of the Galaxy, Everything Everywhere All at Once, the list goes on. And that depends more than anything else on your taste, and that’s a good thing.
Don’t try to cater to everyone by doing nothing with Mario’s potential. Pick a specificity, but do different specificities in different ways each time, and this way, probably the same amount of people can be reached (or at least close), but you’ll unlock the far greater depths that this franchise can do.
And I think that’s why I always return and think about what Mario can be. Legend of Zelda has to be high-level fantasy. Donkey Kong has to be a jungle adventure. Yoshi has to pull on tropical vibes. Metroid and Star Fox have to be space epics. But Mario, conceptually, with its multi-varied worlds, out there methods of connective transportation, and dimension-hopping vibes, can literally pull on an infinite number of genres and sub-genres if it wants to.
Which is why watching Mario play it safe the last 16 years is comforting from a nostalgic perspective, but also makes this gamer yearn for more.
Personally, this is likely going to be my final “Mario narrative” article in this series, unless I decide to do a deep analysis on the movie or decide to fuly replay the games of the Mario + Luigi series and discover something new that can apply to these concepts.
But until a chink arrives that upends the current Nintendo direction, I genuinely do believe that I have said everything I feel I’ve needed to say. I might try to port these kind of analyses to YouTube or maybe apply them to different franchises, but, maybe like Nintendo too, I am not completely sure where I will go next with this, but hopefully we can figure it all out together. For any of us that have ideals of what Mario (or any narrative) can be, let’s not forget to lose our voices, and keep being vocal until we see our ideals realized.
Thank you to all of those who read this series. I’ll see you on the other side.
 Lowart, Super Mario 64 – The Problem with Nostalgia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jB_QLSb2Yi0
 The Geek Critique, SUPER MARIO RPG: The Lost Legacy of the Legend, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-X9bHursFE4
 The Geek Critique, PAPER MARIO: The Dark Side of Nostalgia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCfvEITOz18
 Lowart, Paper Mario VS The Thousand Year Door | Comparing Paper Mario 64 and TTYD, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NhElqiOIAQ
 The Red Guy, Super Paper Mario | Review, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOIwiUkF1Ks
 The Red Guy, Paper Mario The Thousand Year Door | Review, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VkfRPFoj4Y
 GameSpot Trailers, The Super Mario Bros. Movie Clip | The Game Awards 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OO_Dby7G48E
 Illumination, The Super Mario Bros. Movie | Final Trailer, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjNcTBXTk4I
More videos to watch if you want
Nintendo’s Nostalgia Problem – HauntRants, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCe7w-pBa6w
The Decline of Mario RPGS – ThrillingDuck, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O89Bd1dIlCY
The Problem with Super Mario Odyssey – Nintendrew, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNiOCMVw0wE
Everything Wrong With Nintendo’s Design Philosophy and Why Paper Mario had to Die – Ceave Gaming, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQrZX1lEKnc
Why Paper Mario Changed: A Look at Nintendo’s Design Philosophy – Retro & Chill, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbdK_lzSax0
What Makes Paper Mario Special – A Retrospective (Paper Mario N64) – Zillennial Dissonance, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2lB_lBi4AI
Paper Mario Retrospective – Cloud Connection, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DjoO-PJGZW0&list=PLUadlyYdIn0XZrLh59nlICYStie1vJ2cg
Paper Mario is Wonderful – Lute, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cL4RpmtreEU
Extra stuff, like a postgame
The Role of the Mario + Luigi Series
Of note is the fact that I have not talked much about the Mario + Luigi series in as much depth as the aforementioned games.
This is partly because, outside of the first game in the series, Superstar Saga, I have only played their respective games once, and not recently either, so it is harder for me to make concrete judgments on the series. In addition, though, this is because, in the little I have gleamed, unlike their peers, it is harder to nail down specific genre elements for the series (or at the very least the first three or four games before Paper Jam simply acted as a hodgepodge hybrid), and yet at the same time that is not to say that the Mario + Luigi does not have any identity at all.
If I remember correctly, the Mario + Luigi series are more of road stors in which their areas really blend together as opposed to the Paper Marios or the mainline games, and yet at the same time have elements of weird components that the mainline games do not have. The middle three games (Partners in Time, Bowser’s Inside Story, and Dream Team) in a way then act as expansions of this baseline formula, as these games have elements of deeper genre identities than Superstar Saga does, at least on the surface.
Partners in Time plays out like a Terminator-esque, time-travel adventure in which, yes, the time-travel conceit is more of a concept and not necessarily used fully in the way an Interstellar or a Looper uses it, but this concept does give the game stakes in the same way the first three Terminator movies do.
Bowser’s Inside Story sets itself up to be a kind of Last of Us / post-apocalyptic adventure in which a contagion has infected the vast majority of the Mushroom Kingdom’s population, and a would-be fascistic villain is moving through the lands, scooping up the scraps in order to build himself his own empire, but at the same time, I have thought that the game’s aggressive focus just on Fawful’s weird personality and some of the completely bonkers characters in this game like Broque Monsieur undermine this would-be tone, and move the feel more towards a straight-forward adventure from point A to point B (in which outside of Fawful’s personal vendetta against you, you also don’t necessarily feel his effects on the world enough), rather than its peers it could have stood up next to.
And then similarly, Dream Team is the franchise’s would-be Inception story, in which you navigate through different areas of Luigi’s mind in order to fight a greater threat. But again, I found many of the locations a bit scattershot, as opposed to the aforementioned Inception that has fully-formed environments to ground its dream-based concept. So again, I felt the execution left a little to be desired.
Also, these games need to lean on their worldbuilding and concepts, because unlike the Paper Marios or a game like Galaxy in which you have a core NPC who changes, I can’t argue that there is much in terms of character arcs in these games.
The titular bros are absolutely personable, but I can’t think of any real “theme” that gets explored like in PM64 (which again, doesn’t either have a ton of whole character arcs, but the fantasy-based theme of good people coming together to restore a broken world is expanded upon with each chapter).
You really feel an IMPACT of your adventure in PM64 and TTYD (PM64 with regards to the world, and TTYD with regards to the characters (every chapter and each of your partners has a mini-arc, pretty much) and aspects of the world as well). And though SPM doesn’t necessarily include you much in an impact on the world (beyond the macro level), the abject character arcs of Bleck, Tippi, Dimentio, Nastasia, and even Bowser/Luigi in some aspects carry it.
Origami King has a true character arc for Olivia, augmented by Bobby’s, Kamek’s, and Bowser Jr’s (even though there aren’t much more than that, though Olly has a little). In Superstar Saga, there is no arc for Cackletta, or the bros, and though you feel the hurt of Cackletta on the Beanbean Kingdom, restoring isn’t fully reinforced. Partners in Time the horror aspect of the world building is extreme, and in Bowser’s Inside Story the threat is personal, but I can’t think of any real character change or arc in any of these.
Also, going back to the ideas of my original post, what is the Strong Center in Mario + Luigi?
Take Superstar Saga.
After the Bros. reach Beanbean Castle Town around the 1/3rd mark of the adventure, this area in turn becomes your would-be Strong Center, which you then have to help repair (literally, at first, in terms of helping Queen Bean) and then in terms of aiding the town’s recovery. However, the town never fully feels like yours, and the lack of any fully-developed NPCs who ground the town to its thematic stakes doesn’t help either. Also, unlike Super Mario RPG, at no point in the game’s endgame does this Strong Center really evolve beyond this except that Cackletta-turned-Bowletta starts firing at it again. I think with a little more character work on Beanbean Castle Town or on Bowser actually (Bowser’s Cruiser feels like you initial Strong Center, and it would have been interesting to carry this element forward through Bowser and then have it clash with your new Strong Center in the endgame, but after the prologue, Bowser either has no memory or is possessed Cackletta, thereby diminishing this potential) – there was definitely something here to work with.
The Beanbean Kingdom itself feels real and lived in (I think Popple also gives a lot of color to this world), but this game really could have done more when it came to either Queen Bean and Prince Peasley. You find them each in a state of distress, with Queen Bean’s mind in peril and Prince Peasley captured in an egg, but once you save them, they more or less each simply become your patrons who try to help you. Instead, the game could have made Queen Bean fearful and ineffective even after rescuing her mind (similar to how Lord of the Rings does with Theoden), thus giving her an arc to find the strength again for the sake of her people, and also contrasting her more with Peach. Alternatively, the game could have made Prince Peasley into an initial asshole instead of a Big Damn Hero, and could have had him gradually learn humility and the fight to help others as a result of your actions. Either one of these (especially since this would have given character-based stakes to the world and heretofore Strong Center) would have pushed this component – as well as the game – I think into the upper-high echelon of Mario narratives.
So what is Superstar Saga then from a genre perspective, beyond just an RPG?
In some ways I could argue simply that Superstar Saga is simply an action movie, in which our heroes are navigating from threat to threat, fight to fight, and the action doesn’t let up akin to Mission: Impossible, especially because the central MacGuffin feels almost like a tactical weapon as opposed to some mythical, spiritual center. And action movies can indeed be open-world, as the game indeed almost feels more like a Zelda game in its expansion than a Mario game, but at the same time doesn’t feel like open-world fantasy easier since the plot is zippier and more straightforward.
But given the action genre is such a wide range, it’s best to try to narrow it down, and given the introduction of the Beanbean Kingdom and your connection to its monarchy, I’d also wager to say that the bros’ first adventure has the bones of a political thriller. It also has aspects of political scheming and negotiations between Peach and Queen Bean, some levels of mystery, and decent twists like the fact that Peach tricked Cackletta with a fake Peach. But the best of these movies, like Casino Royale or Jason Bourne, give their titular protagonists something serious to chew over, or an NPC that either changes or seriously affects the psyches of said protagonists. And Superstar Saga doesn’t really have this.
Still, however, despite its genre components being fairly backbone, from a plot-based perspective alone, Superstar Saga is a very well-done game.
And while I think gameplay-wise, Partners in Time is a little more un-centered, it might be the most coherent of the series in its Terminator-esque genre, which I give I give it credit for.
And then Bowser’s Inside Story and Dream Team did at least try both novel genres with original gameplay mechanics (and in many ways exist as the only two games Nintendo released in between 2007 and 2017 that even tried), but at the same time I think the execution of both of these games left a little to be desired.
Paper Jam, like Paper Mario: Color Splash and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, I don’t necessarily think was trying.
Remember, I have only partially played both of them
Full List of Mario Genre Games
This article has talked a lot about the different genres that Mario has tried, so it feel right to list them all here in one place:
–Super Mario RPG (SMRPG, 1996): Magical realism / immersive realism / contemporary fantasy, in which our normal world is set against by villains that represent the spectre of industry, and our heroes have to find and embrace the symbols of true nature in order to find peace, like many a Studio Ghibli movie like Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, or Castle in the Sky (even though SMRPG feels like it has other narrative threads that pull attention away from this in a haphazard way)
–Paper Mario (PM64, 2000): Straight, classic, high fantasy like Lord of the Rings or The Dragon Prince, in which the magical stakes of the adventure are revealed in prologue straight away, and a follow a group of thin-in-personality, but grand-in-adventure “good” people as they come together to fight evil and restore the world.
–Luigi’s Mansion (2001): Straight horror through and through like The Haunting of Hill House or even The Shining. Though one can argue this game is not part of the Mario canon and is Luigi’s genre in the same way the jungle and the tropics belong to Donkey Kong and Yoshi, respectively, I do think this game counts, given that elements of this game, like E. Gadd and King Boo, have since become staples in Mario’s mainline games. (even though I’d be down to see a mainline Mario game full-on tackle this genre as well)
–Super Mario Sunshine (Sunshine, 2002): The skins of a crime drama / noir-lite story like The Long Goodbye, in which our hero is being threatened by the law, and needs to uncover a culprit whilst also aiding in a strange world, complete with a second-act twist of the culprit revealed and an outright weird connection to our protagonist’s love interest (this is the closest that Chinatown’s “she’s my sister and my daughter” found its way into a Mario game, but I still think that this is a genre that Mario could push more)
–Mario + Luigi: Superstar Saga (2003): The first game in the series in many ways exist outside any genre, but looking more closely reveals at least the skin of an action story, along with that of the spy/thriller genre akin to the Mission: Impossible or Jason Bourne series. This game could have pushed it a LOT more by giving Queen Bean or Prince Peasley a character arc or making the locations more lived-in or political – in these kinds of thrillers, YOU are often working within a regime, which you are in working for Queen Bean’s kingdom, and whatever tension could have been mined from this could have been increased a lot.
–Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD, 2004): Brings together the elements of the action-adventure/historical/mystery genres that tend to play with ideas of some long-dormant supernatural – series like The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean, OG Indiana Jones, and Guardians of the Galaxy come to mind, as our hero must uncover the secrets of long-lost MacGuffins in order to, yes, save the world, but also those he/she cares about.
-Chapter 1: Classic medieval fantasy where you help a cowardly villager defeat a dragon and save his dad
-Chapter 2: Magically realistic fantasy, like Ghibli again, in which you have to ally with the locals most connected to the natural world in order to beat back an encroaching threat that represents the dangers of technology/industry
-Chapter 3: White collar thriller/mystery akin to JFK or The Insider in which your mission is to expose a deep cover-up at the center of “civilized” society
-Chapter 4: True horror, and maybe the closest a non-Luigi Mario game has ever gotten to it, complete with body snatching and a deeply spooky environment
-Chapter 5: Elements of the parent action-adventure genre, but also elements of a Lost-esque “group of misfits are shipwrecked and need to get along” motif
-Chapter 6: A straight Agatha Christie-style whodunit, complete a train like Murder on the Orient Express.
–Mario + Luigi: Partners in Time (2005): Time-travel-y action sci-fi like The Terminator , in which time travel is used more directionally and as an omnipresent threat than the super-cerebral translations of time-travel like Interstellar or Looper. Though this game is maybe the most coherent in its genre within the Mario + Luigi series, the game still could have pushed the time travel aspect more, like somehow being around the baby versions of certain characters changes present characters, same with making the present more potentially damaged as you see the past version of the Mushroom Kingdom become more and more subjugated.
–Super Mario Galaxy (Galaxy, 2007): Full-on space opera sci-fi like Star Wars, and even though the mainline characters of Mario, Peach, Bowser, and Luigi are not given a ton more depth, their core elements are able to shine through, and Rosalina connects them all through this theme of ever-present, spiritual love.
–Super Paper Mario (SPM, 2007): Weird, multiverse-hopping sci-fi like Everything Everywhere All at Once, or certain elements of Rick and Morty, in which you can access multiple dimensions, versions of characters are side characters become weird or nonsensical (but this is the point), and we are meant to think about the fact that despite this weirdness, love connects us all anyway, and we wouldn’t want to see these worlds destroyed. Of note, the multiverse-y tag as a subgenre wasn’t as omnipresent in 2007 as it is now, and even now Multiverse of Madness or Everything are themselves hodgepodges of different genres, so it says something that SPM nails many of these genre elements before it was popular (and sad that this expertly-crafted and legitimately balanced genre story is undermined by its mechanics)
–Mario + Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story (2009): Has the skin elements of a post-apocalytpic/Contagion-style story in which a disease is beset amongst the public (in this game’s case being The Blorbs), and as you try to find a way to fix it, you realize that would-be fascistic figure is scooping up that which remains of the public and has his/her eye set on taking you down. The game absolutely could have leaned into some kind of Last of Us / Walking Dead-ish narrative more, making The Blorbs feel more menacing, making Fawful intent on not just defeating you but defeating what remains of society, and making it seem more and more hopeless that the illness can be cured.
–Mario + Luigi: Dream Team (2013): Has the elements of Inception-esque dream-hopping across different worlds within someone’s mind, but in order to nail this concept more fully, they REALLY should have pushed this aspect of distinct, fully-formed dream-like environments and put EXPANSIVE worlds into Luigi’s mind rather than focusing on more humorous conceits to use it for.
–Paper Mario: Color Splash (2016): I’m highlighting this one because, with the concept of you having to go to some strange, abandoned island, plus the concepts of Toads being drained of color, this had the potential to go for a more isolated horror story or another try at a post-apocalyptic story, but the game devolves more into simply “go to this world and do stuff.” It says something that The Origami King ended up doing this concept of spooky, body-horror-esque isolation better with the Scissors arc (and the Hole Punch arc too) than this game, even though this game, with its deserted island setting and colorless Toads concept, made it ripe for at least trying.
–Super Mario Odyssey (Odyssey, 2017): As aforementioned, this game had the potential to pull a TTYD and do double duty. It master arc is a would-be road/chase story, like Duel or Mad Max: Fury Road, and even after Bowser gets away at the 1/3 mark, the game had the potential to shift gears a little before bringing itself back to center for the endgame, but the game never does this, and from this point forward, the momentum stalls, and its one chance to get the momentum back (introducing the conceit of Bowser on a dragon) is never pushed to the fullest. Still, the game does pull from a handful of other genres for a handful of moments.
-Cap Kingdom: Purgatorial, ethereal fantasy, like Soul, Heaven Can Wait, or The Good Place, in which you have been defeated, and are stuck in a “waiting phase” alongside other sprite-like creatures.
-Wooded Kingdom: Again magically realistic fantasy, as the natural wooded world is being beset upon by an aggressive use of technology.
-Lost Kingdom: Abandoned, isolationist horror, the kind of concept that Color Splash could have pushed more, as you have lost your ship and lost to Bowser, and feel especially alone
-Metro Kingdom: Straight noir, and the Mario franchise’s best use of it, complete with a femme fatale (Pauline), a decrepid, rainy setting, and a metropolitan city to restore.
-Ruined Kingdom: Dark fantasy, like Dracula, Castlevania, or even Attack on Titan, in which you have a wild creature out there that can kill you easily. Still, I would have been okay sacrificing this moment of mini-genre pull instead for having the game utilize the concept of the dragon for a true endgame.
-Bowser’s Kingdom: The game wants you to feel the elements of the samurai genre in this kingdom, but for this to work, you would have had to face more sublimely strong enemies, or Bowser’s immediate lackies would have needed to be more personable and threatening beyond just the Broodles.
–Paper Mario: The Origami King (TOK, 2020): The feels like a true, epic war movie and/or actual odyssey/saga done better than Odyssey (and even gets some of the horror elements in there that Color Splash didn’t deliver on), as you go on a large-scale quest through environments that, through lore, are meant to be inscribed with certain God-like qualities (utilized through the Vellumentals). And along the way, you meet and lose friends, and ultimately have to join forces with not just one, but all of your enemies in a genuinely cinematically epic final battle, with all of the pathos and grandiosity that this kind of story needs. Some of its micro-aspects could have been fleshed out more, but when its core moments land, they land hard. Just ask Bobby.
How dark do you think Mario could realistically get?
My Notes and Final Thoughts for The Thousand-Year Door
As aforementioned, I have again stated that based on the logic of this thesis, TTYD remains the king of Mario narratives. That’s not to say any one of us can’t have favorites, as sometimes you don’t want to play through multiple subgenres alongside an action-adventure story. Sometimes you just want to take on the role of good people and save the world, and other times you want to go on an epic adventure on the scale of an odyssey, or help remember the majesty of the natural world and save it from industry.
But based on these logical components of genre, balance, and scope of trying out multiple different subgenres at the same time, TTYD is only one that does it truly to such a successful extent.
And yet, it still has its flaws, which I would like to address here .
In general, the areas of TTYD that most people hate (i.e. Chapter 2, Chapter 4’s backtracking, Chapter 5’s backtracking, the lack of replayability of Chapter 6, and the General White mission in Chapter 7) either didn’t bother me or made me realize that the game could have pared even one element back to make these areas more palatable.
–Chapter 2: Overall the chapter does it job from a worldbuilding perspective, but to make the gameplay aspect of this chapter more balanced, it should have allowed you to lose a few Punies. That way, if a little guy or two doesn’t fall down the needed hole or gets scared by a Pider, you can keep going, and only need to return to the Elder if something really catastrophic happens.
–Chapter 4: The game should have introduced some secret path to get back to Creepy Steeple after you find out Doopliss’s name. This is because every other trek has a narrative purpose (first you are with your party, second you feel the loss, third you get the positive feedback of having Vivian, fourth you feel a rush to get back to Doopliss because you’ve figured out his name). It is JUST that last one that feels redundant, and that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back for a lot of gamers. If Doopliss had cut through some forest path right there outside Twilight Town to get to Creepy Steeple faster and then you simply have to follow him through such a proverbial shortcut without having to worry about the enemies on the main route, I think it would have been fine.
–Chapter 5: With regards to the battle you fight against the Embers where Bobbery has been hurt, the game should have given the player a Coconut as a reward for winning. It’s this extra step of the backtracking that could have been avoided. The others, going to Flavio and getting the Cola, and then going back again now with Bobbery to get the door open, again either have a sense of urgency or you have a new partner to try out, plus the added element of exploring Flavio’s hypocritical nature affecting you in gameplay form. But the back-and-forth on the Coconut should have had a handheld moment to avoid, like how the game more or less gives you a POW Block in Chapter 1 before you fight the Bristles. Sure, the Coconuts are below the bridge, but it’s not a guarantee you will find them, as your focus in these moments is heavily on Bobbery. And the player shouldn’t be punished with more backtracking for that.
–Chapter 6: This actually didn’t bother me, since there is narrative weight to the mystery and the reveal that Doopliss is now with the Shadow Sirens is a genuine twist. Maybe there could have been a timer on you to make it more tense, or maybe there could have been a large-scale timer that is impossible to beat in order to try to get to Poshley Sanctum before the Shadow Sirens, but of the typical TTYD sour points, this one bothered me the least. It’s also not that long.
–Chapter 7: I get that the General White mission is annoying, and (more than anything else) the Glitzville part of the “chase” should have been FIRST so you only have to leave the underground pipes once before the rest of them. Otherwise, solely using the pipes to move through the old worlds you’ve visited would have felt like a gameplay reward for you having found them, and mainly it doesn’t bother me because this gives you a chance to see all of the locations you’ve been to before the game pushes into the endgame. The Moon and the Palace of Shadow in many ways feel connected, like you are not expected to pause and visit Rogueport during the Chapter 7-8 Interlude, whereas in between Chapter 6 and 7, Frankly directly tells you to wander around while he figures out a way to get you to the Moon, so this is the area where the game is telling you to reconnect with the world you’ve travelled before trekking off for your final battles. BUT having said this, the Glitzville portion being in the middle and the having to wake General White up, like, 10 times, is where it gets excessive. The game could have made it be two or three jumps to the head, and honestly by itself it is a funny gag. But tagged on to an extended quest that sacrifices player enjoyment for worldbuilt coherence, having THIS at the end of it is where it feels like you are torturing the player.
–The Epilogue: Probably the only area of TTYD that genuinely annoys me, and often in my replays I pretend that some of these elements don’t exist in my headcanon, but… they do . It’s not Game of Thrones or Dexter. Like the ending of How I Met Your Mother that only becomes damaging in the last ten minutes, for me it isn’t enough to undo the rest of the game, but it still hurts. The game should have kept TEC, Grodus, and Lord Crump dead, and (most of all) should have had Vivian either working with Goombella as her assistant, or maybe acting simply as a kind of caretaker for the Twilighters, the area where Mario saved her, and where people in depression can maybe climb out of it. In my perfect headcanon, Beldam and Marilyn are trying to get Vivian to speak to them again, but Vivian has stated repeatedly that she needs more time before she does. Given that the character of Vivian means a lot to a lot of people, giving her a more just ending should be a given, if and when Nintendo decides to do a “similar but different” reboot of TTYD. Until then, we’ll keep pondering. And hoping.
As part of this past replay of TTYD, I did something a little different than how I usually finish the game. This time, after beating the Pit of 100 Trials and reaching 100% completion, I wondered around to very area I visited, tattled those that I could with Goombella, and then stood outside at the Rogueport dock with each of my partners in succession as if I were actually leaving. While listening to the “Return to the Mushroom Kingdom” soundtrack.
And then, after turning off the cartridge, listened to the end credits on YouTube as a final goodbye.
Sort of like this series, that’s because I don’t know exactly when I will play TTYD next. This cartridge has held fast for 19 years, as has my 17-year-old Wii. Something could easily happen to it. And maybe, like what happened to me this past year, I won’t feel like I am in a changed-enough headspace to play through it again. My last replay before this one was in 2017, and who knows where I will be in five years. Or ten.
But as for right now, thank you for all the memories.
This is mefloyd signing off.
Until the adventure continues again.