In Defense of Super Paper Mario within a Series Context: An Underrated Narrative Masterpiece That Could Have Been The Greatest of Them All

Hello.  About a year ago, I constructed a design blog post maintaining that Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD) was the greatest Mario story, that it built off of the Mario structure while also combining it with a multitude of rich narrative themes and characters.  As part of this post, I compared this game to its potential successors and why none of them quite reached heights that TTYD did.

At the time, I had yet to play Super Mario Odyssey, but, having more time at home lately because of obvious reasons, I recently had the chance to do so (see an expanded section of my original post or more details).  And I was struck by the number of similarities that Odyssey drew on from not just TTYD, but its predecessor Paper Mario (PM64).  Yet, while I recognized that the game mechanically was about as sublime as a game can get, the story began to lose some steam in the second half of the narrative, with a particular fake-out at the end of Act Two irking me most, due to it promising an idea of progression in the narrative stakes, before immediately removing said progressed stakes from the story (no, this isn’t an Odyssey post, but bear with me).

From this experience, I decided to give TTYD’s immediate successor, Super Paper Mario (SPM), another try.  I had just played a game with perfect mechanics but with a storyline that lost steam overtime.  So why not replay the game that, in my mind, has the opposite problem?

For those who are unaware, the Nintendo Wii’s Super Paper Mario tells the story of a lost prophecy called the Dark Prognosticus.  At the start of the game, the villainous Count Bleck forces Bowser and Peach into marriage which unleashes the Chaos Heart.  This dark artifact powers what characters refer to as The Void, a purplish, black-hole-like mass that hovers over the worlds of the game.  Overtime, as the prophecy states, The Void grows in size until it threatens to swallow every world whole and erase them from existence.

Mario needs to collect magical MacGuffins called the Pure Hearts, which, if united, have the potential to counteract the Chaos Heart and stop the Void from ending all worlds.  Joining him in his adventure this time are Peach, Bowser, eventually Luigi, and a series of blocky “partners” known as Pixls.  The first of these Pixls is the butterfly-like Tippi, who acts as your guide like Goombario and Goombella did in the previous games.  In general, Pixls replace the standard party members from the older games.

Unlike the original two games, Super Paper Mario is entirely in 2D and does not have any turn-based RPG elements, playing instead like an action platformer.  Early on, Mario is granted the ability to “flip” into 3D, and this ability can then be utilized to solve puzzles and find other secrets as the story progresses.

I had major issues with the mechanics when I first played SPM many years ago, and upon the first few hours of my new playthrough, these mechanical flaws were still bothering me.  But at the same time, I remembered that the storyline got more complex as the game progressed, so I continued playing…

…Wow.  I somewhat remembered and knew from its reputation about how Super Paper Mario has the deepest story of the Mario lineage, but I had forgotten just how much.  Whereas Odyssey began to lose momentum in its second half, Super Paper Mario simply gained more, and more, and more, until by the last frame of the game I was crying.  What was this?  (COMPLETE SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW)

I said in my original post about TTYD that The Thousand-Year Door makes the player believe he/she is playing a standard Paper Mario sequel shuffling through familiar locations for the first chapter or two, but then by Chapter Three spreads its wings and becomes a more complex tale filled with lore, prophecy, and examinations of power and love beyond the standard Mario/Peach/Bowser conflict we would expect from a Mario game.

SPM, in truth, for the first several or so chapters, it feels the same, but even more trimmed down.  Without the turn-based RPG elements to lean on, the game feels especially minimal, and, even with the ability to switch from 2D to 3D, it feels like playing a paper version of Super Mario Bros. and, gameplay-wise, does not feel like a sequel to TTYD at all. The gameplay is trimmed, the story feels trimmed, you are not really engaging a whole lot with the blocky world around you, more so just passing through, and you fight Count Bleck’s minions once in order (like you would Bowser’s Koopalings in the older games).

Your journeys in each chapter more or less consist of you moving from point A to point B, with some discussions along the way.  There are a handful of interesting subplots, like the mischevious Mimi enslaving you into manual labor in Chapter 2 to pay off a debt, or the supernerd chameleon Francis stealing Tippi in Chapter 3 and then forcing Peach into a dating simulator in order to win her back, but overall there is a lack of worldbuilt complexity that, combined with the trimmed-down controls, makes the game feel jarring.  Even with the added draw of Bowser as a party member and a brainwashed Luigi as a boss, the game doesn’t really feel like a Paper Mario game.

Mimi’s Manual Labor (Chapters 2), and Francis’s Dating Simulator (Chapter 3)

Until it does.  More nuanced conflicts around the world are slowly explored, and hidden depth is revealed.  For example, in Chapter 5, a conflict between two races in a prehistoric world, the Cragnons and the Floro-Sapiens, is revealed to be more complex: you have been working with the Cragnons the entire chapter to rescue members of their tribe who have been kidnapped and brainwashed by the Floro-Sapiens, and their leader King Croacus IV.  But at the end, it is revealed that King Croacus IV went mad and started brainwashing Cragnons in order to protect his people because the Cragnons had been dumping waste into the Floro-Sapiens’ water supply, their most precious resource.  Neither side is inherently evil, we get to explore ideas of what turns someone cruel, and these nuances need to be acknowledged for the conflict to end.

Then, the stakes of your mission are revealed in an especially brutal way when a world called Sammer’s Kingdom is destroyed in Chapter 6, and all that is left is blank nothingness.  And you think, “okay, that got really dark.  I’m guessing that the game will return to its normal linear storytelling now.”  Nope.  In the very next scene, Count Bleck’s minion Dimentio kills you and sends you to the Mario universe’s version of Hell, the Underwhere, and you have to find your way out while simultaneously finding a way to “fix” the powerless Pure Heart you found in the destroyed world, and locate the next Pure Heart at the same time.

Dimentio sends you to the Underwhere just after you witness the end of a World

Your party is scattered and you get to know Queen Jaydes, leader of the Underwhere, King Grambi, leader of the Overthere (the universe’s version of Heaven), and their presumed spoiled daughter, Luvbi.  Not only are they instrumental in “fixing” the powerless Pure Heart, but it is revealed that Luvbi is the next Pure Heart.  And that even though her parents love her (and this is played for real), she has to return to her true Pure Heart form and thus cease to exist as Luvbi in order to further the cause of protecting the world.  Ouch.  Now the game is really bringing an idea of nuanced love being repurposed to further the cause of saving the world.

All the while, Count Bleck’s minions appear and re-appear and begin to reveal complexities that we didn’t notice at first.  For example, O’Chunks looks like a brawny idiot, but is actually just a guy who wants to be “tough” and is looking for respect.  The brainwashed Luigi, who goes by Mr. L, fights you twice and expresses a ton of “I am the best” egoism before he returns to being Luigi your ally when you meet up with him in the Underwhere.  Is this Luigi being brainwashed, or is this a side of him that he has been repressing?

On top of that, your “guide” Pixl, Tippi, begins to express repressed pain, and we realize that what appeared to be a pared down knockoff of Goombella, mechanically, actually harbors the deeper character personality.  All the while, a mysterious backstory about two people named Blumiere and Timpani is explored in text interludes, two people who were in love but where kept apart by circumstance.  Eventually, if you are paying attention, you will slowly realize that these two people were Bleck and Tippi before they became Bleck and Tippi, and that this story is more than just a simple story about defeating a demonic villain in order to save the world.

By the time the ending came along (which I will get to later), I realized what this game was about: hidden depth, the nature of what turns people “good” and “bad”, and the idea that true love can genuinely save the world.

And then I realized that that is what all of the original three Paper Mario games were about.

The subtle truth is: from PM64 to TTYD and now to SPM, this series was actually telling the arc of a complete trilogy.  Because yes – in SPM, the world seems more “alien”, and less nuanced than it does in the previous two games, and Mario and the rest of your party seem like they are passing through the worlds.  But that was the point.  Because throughout the entire series, the games had been slowly paring down the traditional narrative elements we are most familiar with, and moving Mario and his immediate allies further from their immediate comfort zone, in order to land on the thesis statement that the games were expressing all along.

From here, I will go through all three games to explore that Super Paper Mario is not just an astounding story in its own right, but that it also is the perfect “last chapter” in a trilogy of three games, paying off every established narrative thread in subtlety progressive and condensed fashion…. narratively speaking.  The mechanics of SPM still hold it back, but I don’t think we realize just how close this game was to absolute veneration.  Had the game simply changed one and only one aspect of its mechanics, we would most likely speak of SPM, not TTYD, as the greatest of them all.

NOTE: This post is about exploring Super Paper Mario from the lens of a trilogy.  For those interested in an even deeper dive on the design details of the game, please view my post here, which applies A Nature of Order to Super similarly to how it was applied to TTYD in the original post.

Before getting into this trilogy argument, I will touch about aspects that help make a complete trilogy.

Ken Miyamoto, author and produced screenwriter at ScreenCraft, discusses the tenets of great sequels in his featured article The Ten Commandments of Writing Great Sequels.  Included among these are [1]:

      • DO NOT remake the original
      • BUT DON’T reinvent the wheel either
      • Give the audiences something new but similar
      • Take the original characters FORWARD and understand that they are the franchise
      • Build on the original’s mythos
      • Know that a sequel is only as good as its villain

When looking at sequel, and especially a threequel and/or series-capper, yes, we want the themes and stakes to progress and reach their highest alongside core character development.  And we want the world to expand, bringing these characters to new adventures that also utilize a familiar structure.  But also, we want the themes to contract.  Well-renowned series like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter build on what came before but also contract their worlds, shrinking the number of characters or areas of travel to their most base elements, and, often, their most personal.

Even series like Toy Story or Planet of the Apes that are built off of more stand-alone adventures, with new characters in each adventure, progress their stakes while, overtime, shrinking the number of elements down to the core thematic elements and moments, if done well.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe is also a prime example of a series escalating its villains and giving us the most powerful and most complex, Thanos, in the last Act.

The new Planet of the Apes series in particular is good foil to Paper Mario (light spoilers to follow): in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the story is as much about the human world that helps creates both sentient apes and the Simian Flu, as it is Caesar’s rise to becoming a leader of the apes; in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the old world has been seemingly destroyed, and the ape world is rising in its place, but a shadow of the familiar human world still remains, and the conflict comes from people looking to exploit these worlds and those with good hearts looking to prevent war; by War of the Planet of the Apes (2017), we don’t see any expansive series of battles, but we see a distressed world at its most bleak, with very few additional characters outside of those already introduced, and the characters looking to escape before the world destroys itself.

With each movie, the human world contracts and the ape world expands, and the most direct human foil to Caesar’s character progresses from mild and kind to twisted and villainous with each movie, as the stakes grow higher.  You can almost read the series, tonally, as a metaphoric progression from summer, to fall, to winter.

 

Now, this series deals with far more complex themes than Paper Mario does, with issues of race, extinction, and other serious real-world problems, but this idea of having separate adventures within a progressive story, while having one world contract and another expand and grow darker alongside the character development of its main characters and stakes, is an idea that Paper Mario employs as well.  The new Planet of the Apes series works because even though each movie is stand-alone, each movie builds off of the one that came prior, in terms of its worldbuilding and its themes.  I maintain that the Paper Mario series does the same.

Now, of course, because Paper Mario is a game series and not a film/TV series, it has to do all of that from both a narrative and game design perspective to be considered fully effective, as mechanics and story should be interconnected in games.

Snoman Gaming’s video on “What Makes a Great Sequel?”, (which ironically was covering TTYD) states that, in addition to the aforementioned traits, good gaming sequels must “try out new concepts while still retaining their identity” [2].

 

A Side Note on the Father of All Mario RPGs

One last point before getting to the Paper Marios: I would remiss if I did not give a shout-out to the father of all Mario RPGs: Super Mario RPG.  I do not consider it to be part of the Paper Mario trilogy, and neither did Nintendo.  Super Mario RPG (SMRPG) is a fantastic, unique, original game that stands by itself, and introduced Mario to the RPG landscape through nuanced battle mechanics and a complex story to boot.  For more on my thoughts about SMRPG, view its section of the discussion here.

However, the original Paper Mario, which was released five years after SMRPG, does not treat itself as a true sequel to SMRPG.  While it retains a handful of stand-alone elements like the idea of shooting stars being able to grant wishes, a realm where star-based beings live in the sky, and an island full of Yoshis, the game completely repurposes its characters and the rest of the setting.

Whereas Bowser teams up with Mario and company in SMRPG, PM64 treats him as the main antagonist, which, if PM64 were viewing itself as a sequel to SMRPG, would be a character regression.  Some of the more wacky elements present in SMRPG – like talking moles, sentient frogs, and “out-there” villains like Punchinello or Booster – do not appear in Paper Mario.  Like SMRPG, the setting in Paper Mario is still the Mushroom Kingdom, but this game’s version of the Mushroom Kingdom employs more lands based on traditional Mario archetypes, like grass land and desert land from the earlier games.  Whereas Super Mario RPG’s setting feels fully novel, the setting in Paper Mario feels more familiar, which reinforces its feel of a back-to-basics storyline (see below).

This, combined the game’s reinvented aesthetics, make Paper Mario and its sequels feel especially dissimilar from SMRPG.  To paraphrase Snoman Gaming, Paper Mario wouldn’t be a true sequel to SMRPG because it does not retain its identity [2].  Nintendo saw what worked and what they liked from SMRPG, and then remade the characters and the world from the ground up for a new series: Paper Mario.  In some ways, they had no choice, because, from a business standpoint, they used a new collaborator on the series: Intelligent Systems, because of a soured relationship with their collaborator from SMRPG, whom retained the rights to the SMRPG world [3].

This is a part of what gives Super Mario RPG its mythos and position in Nintendo lore: there is no other game like it.  But as such, for the extent of this post, it will be viewed as a game outside the Paper Mario trilogy.

Now, let’s begin by diving into Paper Mario.  Keep in mind, I will not be touching on the details of PM64 and TTYD as much as Super, because I have detailed them already in my original post.

 

The Original Paper Mario: An Expanded Familiar World with a Simple Story

Paper Mario is your standard Mario story with a more developed world.  As discussed in the original post, it is already acing the “give audiences something new, but similar” tenet [1] by using the established Mario structure to tell its story.  The charm of Paper Mario in its entirety is that it is new in its expansiveness, but mostly familiar.

The first game sets up Mario as a silent hero, Luigi as the forgotten brother, Bowser as the bumbling villain that wants Peach for himself, and Peach as a distressed damsel but who has more of a mischievious side than we give her credit for.  The underlying plot is Bowser stealing the Star Rod, which leaves the Mushroom Kingdom denizens feeling like their wishes are not being granted anymore, and things feel a little more hollow.

There is a wide variety of characters in this world, from Jr. Troopa to Kolorado, who are not directly connected to the main plot of Mario vs. Bowser.  There are characters dealing with mysteries and happenings in their own lives, from the mysterious Moustafa in Dry Dry Outpost to the Shiver City Mayor who nearly dies, whom you speak with on your quest but who are mainly just going about their lives and whose plot connections are more world-related.  There are characters who want to do right by themselves and look up to Mario as a symbol in order to do so.  Even if these characters don’t shape the plot, they expand the world being created by the game.

By the end, peace is restored, Bowser’s minions have been removed from the kingdom, and Mario and Peach are happy.

Original PM64 feels and is Mario’s story.  You can make an argument that it is the only story where it actually feels like there are stakes for him /personally/ because, for Bowser, he /has/ made it personal.  Additionally, there is the fact that Mario loses to Bowser and almost/kind-of dies in the opening minutes of the game, so there is the subtle feeling of a redemption arc throughout the game, of atoning for a previous failure.

Paper Mario
World Home, Traditional/Recognizable
Connection to World Significant, you are famous and well-known
Lore / Prophecy None
Overworld Expansive
Mechanics Basic RPG Fighting Mechanics
Paper Element Purely aesthetic
Stakes Saving Peach, Restoring Peace to the Mushroom Kingdom, Restoring the Ability to Grant Wishes
Mario’s Connection to the Story Personal
Villains who are not Bowser or His Minions None
Presence of Supporting Characters Expansive
Depth of Supporting Characters Not especially so, not necessarily connected to the main plot
Idea of Love Saving the World Minimal
Death? No deaths (Twink is hurt, but he returns)
3rd Act Twist? None

 

The Thousand-Year Door: A Familiar yet Different World with a More Complex Story

TTYD shifts the story, leaving some elements of what we expect from a Mario adventure but moving it slightly farther away from tradition.  The Rogueport-hub-world where the action takes place isn’t /necessarily/ the Mushroom Kingdom, as it is not the grass/desert/ice/island worlds that we’ve come to associate with the Mushroom Kingdom.  But it is clearly still close enough where Mushroom Kingdom denizens make it their home.  The game contracts – slightly – as there is less overworld to explore, most new locations are accessible through less connected means like pipes, and pathways become more linear and left-to-right, but the storyline gets deeper.

Remember your core characters, for they are the franchise [1] – Mario, Peach, Bowser, and Luigi.  Things start out and Mario and Peach are happy.  She’s off travelling and feeling comfortable by herself but finds a treasure map and wants to share it with Mario.  Meanwhile, Luigi, left at home again, decides to go on his own adventure and we feel his confidence growing slightly, even if his story in the Waffle Kingdom is different from Mario’s.  Meanwhile, Bowser has very much officially LOST and is now looking for meaning (and spends the entire game searching for it, being one step behind the heroes and villains throughout).

However, there is more world out there than the Mushroom Kingdom and we are introduced to the idea of prophecies and lore.  Hidden treasures abound and there are theories of an ancient evil existing long ago.  Additionally, it becomes clear that the people that are our main characters, specifically Mario and Peach, can be exploited.  Mario is the great hero that the villains plan to manipulate into collecting all of the Crystal Stars to open the TTYD for them.  And Peach, pure of heart, is used to open the chest containing the map and be a vessel for the demon.

The X-Naut villains have more depth, not necessarily beyond their roles in their evil plans (Grodus is not redeemed in any way, and neither is Crump), but in terms of the larger world.  It is confirmed that even if there is “peace” among the Mario/Bowser/Peach faction temporarily, there are still other forces out there that are perpetuating nefarious activities.

The demon proves too powerful for Grodus so he cannot manipulate it, and the love that Mario got from helping all of these towns, as well as Peach, is used to quell the Shadow Queen from plunging the world into darkness.  So there is a connection to the world as well as the main story plot, which moves slightly farther from the Mushroom Kingdom.  Keep in mind, the Shadow Queen never mentions destroying worlds completely, she just wants everyone to be her slaves in darkness from a more elemental purpose.  Not “lives will end,” but “lives will be far worse,” and this fear is greater than “oh no, the Princess is gone and wishes can’t be granted” from the original.

TTYD is somewhat Mario’s story, as his kindness towards Vivian and developing reputation in the worlds he visits shapes the A plot around him.  Also, TTYD feels the most like Peach’s story, given her sideplot with TEC reflecting the themes and her pure-of-heart-ness trying to be exploited.

In general, in TTYD, the main characters (Mario, Peach, Bowser, Luigi) are at their most separated, with the game sending each one off on their own plotline, with these main characters barely sharing any scenes together, before bringing them all back together in SPM.

Supporting characters in the game like TEC, Vivian, and Bobbery have more in-depth character arcs and are more directly related to shaping the narrative plot, but there are still a lot of supporting characters like Pennington or Jolene or King K who have their own characterizations and arcs independent of the TTYD plot itself.  In many ways, there are less named NPCs in TTYD than in PM64 (i.e. slightly less party members, less characters with repeated side quests), but the ones that are present typically have more character depth than the original.

Jolene’s completed arc (left), Pennington speaking aboard the Excess Express (right)

Gameplay-wise, though there is less overworld to explore in a connected way compared to the original, the battle mechanics at the base level are more advanced, with more choices to make in terms of partner strategy, more action commands to utilize when it comes to Special Moves, and more wild cards to think about in battle like the “audience” participation.

NOTE: In the following, red indicates a reduction, and green indicates an increase.

Paper Mario Paper Mario: TTYD
World Home, Traditional/Recognizable Farther from Home, not fully the Mushroom Kingdom but with some Mushroom Kingdom denizens
Connection to World Significant, you are famous and well-known Somewhat, you are less well-known but come to be appreciated by the world
Lore / Prophecy None Yes – You have to stop the Shadow Queen from awakening
Overworld Expansive in all directions, extremely connected 3D but somewhat linear in terms of play space, less connected
Mechanics Basic RPG Fighting Mechanics More Advanced RPG Fighting Mechanics
Paper Element Purely aesthetic Aesthetic, but now with abilities to turn into different types of paper
Stakes Saving Peach, Restoring Peace to the Mushroom Kingdom, Restoring the Ability to Grant Wishes Higher – Saving Peach, but also Stopping the Shadow Queen from plunging the world into darkness
Mario’s Connection to the Story Personal Direct (Peach connection), but Impersonal (the villains are not after you in particular)
Villains who are not Bowser or His Minions None Yes (Grodus, Shadow Queen), but basic
Presence of Supporting Characters Expansive Slightly Less Expansive
Depth of Supporting Characters Not especially so, not necessarily connected to the main plot Many connected to main plot, slightly more depth
Idea of Love Saving the World Minimal Yes, on the fringes (Vivian-Mario, TEC-Peach, Bobbery-Scarlette, world’s love represented in the Crystal Stars against the Shadow Queen)
Death? No deaths (Twink is hurt, but he returns) Yes, on the fringes (Bobbery-Scarlette backstory, TEC is “shut down” and villain Grodus is killed by Shadow Queen, although both return in the post-game)
3rd Act Twist? None Yes, Beldam was the mastermind.  You don’t fight her after this reveal, but Peach is possessed and you do fight her

 

Super Paper Mario: A Contracted, Unfamiliar World with the Deepest, Character-Driven Story

Then comes Super.  Our core characters have now been very much established, and the action begins immediately with our characters thrust together.  Bowser has reestablished his forces and wants to mount a new attack, but Count Bleck beats him to it.  He forces Bowser and Peach into marriage (with Bowser gleefully accepting) and unleashes the Chaos Heart.  Luigi, clearly far more confident than he was in the original, rushes to stop it, but it is too late, everyone is captured, and the Void begins to grow.

Oh dear – just like the X-Nauts, there are more beings out there who want to manipulate our characters and old prophecies to create harm on the world.  Just like Grodus, who had Crump and the Shadow Sirens as his minions, here Count Bleck has Nastasia, O’Chunks, Mimi, and Dimentio.  We can already see the game playing with established familiar tropes, but then shifting them.

Unlike TTYD, our heroes didn’t STOP the bad guys in unleashing an old prophecy in its infancy, like Mario defeating the Shadow Queen before she can wreck havoc on the world.  The prophecy is well underway by the time the action starts.

Mario is sent to Flipside to find the Pure Hearts and reverse the prophecy, and Flipside feels far farther from the Mushroom Kingdom than we’ve ever been, at this dimensional nexus of worlds.  There are no Toads to be found, no partners to obtain except for some thinly-drawn Pixls, no Mushroom Kingdom denizens who recognize you.  This is true with the enemies you fight as well.  Although some Goombas and Koopas exist, there are a lot of wacky, multi-colored enemies composed of arrays of creatively-drawn aesthetics, which only ever appear in this game.  You are as far from home as you’ve ever been, and the stakes are at their highest.  A world literally is erased in front of you in Chapter 6, so more than other game in the series, it is very clear on what will happen if Count Bleck wins.

The world in SPM is smaller in terms of its space and characters, but expansive in its scope.  On top of that, the game is less interconnected than TTYD was, which in turn was less connected than PM64 was.  Chapters are divided into four sections, and you frequently teleport in location from the end of one section to the start of the next section.  Whereas PM64 had you accessing new locations using connected means like walking or train level, and TTYD often had you using pipes to do so with a handful of more connected means like trains, you access all new locations in SPM through interdimensional doors.

But this lack of physical connection ends up mattering less because of the way that the characters and themes begin to show hidden depth, connecting everything in a different way.  By moving the action farther from the Mushroom Kingdom, SPM is satisfying multiple sequel tenets of not remaking the original and honing the focus onto the series’ main characters.  New, but familiar [1].

As such in the game, traditional expectations get subverted.  There is an inter-Peach chapter after Chapter 1, and you wonder “oh my, just like the first two, I see a pattern repeating.”  Nope, she gets mysteriously saved immediately and joins your party.  This game isn’t about saving Peach.  Bowser?  You find him at the beginning of Chapter 3 and Peach convinces him, playing on their history that has now been built up, to join the party.  Okay, this game isn’t about fighting Bowser.  Luigi?  He gets brainwashed into Mr. L, who you meet in Chapter 4, far from the hapless brother from PM64 and far from the trepidatious hero trying to have his own adventure in TTYD.  Now, he’s your enemy.  You need to save him, but the story isn’t about saving him, because it’s bigger than that.

In many ways, the first four chapters of the game explore the most traditional Mario archetypes (i.e. saving Peach, defeating Bowser, fighting each of the Big Bad’s minions) to tell you that this is game is about more than that.  The first chapter itself combines the “traditional” Mario worlds (grass land and desert land) into one chapter to basically say “we are going to burn through what you expect from this game really quickly, to then explore what you do not.”  And then after Chapter 4, the game starts subverting the high-level stakes themselves.  The game first tells you what it isn’t, before revealing what it is.

The world reaches farther than ever in terms of unique locations, but has also shrunk in terms of its characters (and literally in terms of 2D space).  Over time, more aspects begin to show depth.  This is true of the Cragnon-Floro Sapien subplot in Chapter 5 and the Luvbi subplot in Chapter 7.

But most especially, this is true with the backstory between Blumiere and Timpani, and the realization that Blumiere was Bleck and Timpani is Tippi, your “guide” Pixl.

So, not only is there a progression across the three games from Goombario (more or less just a fan of you), to Goombella (someone connected to your guide on all of the lore), to Tippi (someone connected to your guide on all the lore – a.k.a. Merlon – but who also is the key to the plot’s backstory and theme), but now this deepens Bleck and removes any comparisons to Grodus.

You thought he was just another Grodus, leading a bunch of dark minions intent on exploiting prophecies and our characters to (this time) literally erase all worlds?  Nope.  He’s a man with a broken heart because Timpani was taken from him.  The series’ most complex villain nailed at the very end, but there’s more!

In TTYD, Beldam (Grodus’s minion) is revealed to be the true mastermind and true servant to the Shadow Queen.  In SPM, Dimentio is revealed to be the true mastermind and the true evil towards the Dark Prognosticus.  In TTYD, these machinations release the Shadow Queen, who possesses Peach and becomes the final boss.  In SPM, as Count Bleck is resigning himself to his own death in order to stop the prophecy, Dimentio takes command of the Chaos Heart and Luigi and literally merges with them both, becoming the final boss.

In the end, remaining villains AND heroes combine forces to defeat Dimentio.  Unlike the previous two games, it is not the world’s love that restores the main MacGuffins (in this case the Pure Hearts) in the final fight – it is your party’s love for you and then the love/respect between Count Bleck and his minions that does the trick (which is also emblematic of the world contracting but deepening).  The story is these 8 or so characters.

Afterward, with Dimentio defeated but the Chaos Heart still threatening to destroy all worlds, Bleck and Tippi renew their love, using love to banish the Chaos Heart and all those connected to the prophecy… including themselves.  They thus sacrifice themselves to stop the prophecy and save all worlds.

So, in PM64, the story is Mario vs. Bowser.  In TTYD, our main core characters are present fighting an old prophecy.  In SPM, in truth, though our heroes are there fighting an old prophecy, it is really Count Bleck and Tippi who, in the end, are the ones shaping the story.  The game uses Mario and the others to tell their story, getting closer to this central theme as the game progresses, and using the hidden complexities of both its main characters and thematic foils like Luvbi in order to do so.

The last chapter, Chapter 8, even feels like it has “curtain call” moments for these main characters of the story.  Each section within the chapter ends with a member of your party (Bowser, then Peach, then Luigi) seemingly sacrificing himself or herself to save the rest of the party, and the game uses these moments to showcase the core character elements of both your party and the villains they fight.

Bowser fights O’Chunks to prove that he is the toughest guy around, and then, with a cave-in threatening everyone, continues to hold up the ceiling to prove that he is the toughest guy around.  But he also is adamant about getting Peach out of the room safe, so we can see that Bowser, at his core, is a wannabe tough guy who hopelessly loves Peach.  O’Chunks is also a wannabe tough guy, but he respects the “code” and therefore wants the heroes to succeed if they have beaten him.

Peach fights Mimi because Mimi insults her neediness of “boys.”  But the Peach of the Paper Mario series is far more competent, so she has to fight for her dignity.  But, even after winning, she can’t leave Mimi to die, because she is pure of heart, and lingers for too long, putting her life in danger when the floor collapses.  So, Peach is a competent princess whose pure heart gets her into trouble.  Mimi is a spoiled girl, but one capable of more than just tricks and who doesn’t necessarily know a whole lot of kindness, so is therefore surprised by Peach’s act of sacrifice.

Luigi fights Dimentio so that the others won’t be lost in vain, but also because Dimentio insults his mustache, meaning that he also has an ego and a sense of worth that he feels he needs to prove.  And, unfortunately, he doesn’t win, because Dimentio tricks him into getting close enough to knock both of them out.  This suggests that someone like Luigi, who is naturally good-natured but has cripplingly low self-esteem and a need to prove himself, can be easily manipulated by someone like Nastasia, or especially by Dimentio who is a master manipulator without a heart at all.

There is a line in the final battle where Dimentio says that Luigi is, according to the prophecy, the “ideal host for the Chaos Heart,” and I’ve always thought about this line’s inclusion in the game.  It could be just a throwaway line about prophecy, but it could speak to those hidden depths.  Is the reason because he is a good person, but who also harbors a lot of repressed hurt and anger?  Is this a warning to all of us on our potential to turn cruel, like Bleck did?

Luigi’s Nuanced Character Arc in Super Paper Mario

Again, though the last act sets up Mario to have a curtain call against Count Bleck, he… doesn’t.  We already know who Mario is, he proved himself back in the first game.  But the other characters are less clear.  As the fight with Count Bleck progresses, your party returns, and the conflict becomes more about Tippi and Bleck than about Mario or anyone else.  And after Dimentio’s attempt to take control, it is Tippi and Count Bleck’s sacrifice that is front and center.

Finally, in the game’s denoument, the last two key characters, Merlon and Nastasia, get their “curtain call” moments, and who also serve as the closest audience surrogates for feeling the losses of Tippi and Bleck.  Merlon, who saved the then-Timpani long ago when she was near death by turning her into a Pixl and then cared for her for some time, appears visibly distraught and gets a chance to make a speech about what loss means in a greater prophesied world.  And Nastasia, who came to genuinely love Count Bleck over her time serving him, even though she knew he could never return it, cries over this loss while still attempting to remain hopeful for the future.

Additionally, it is worth noting that Merlon himself has a role in all three Paper Mario games.  Though it is never confirmed if it is the same Merlon or multiple Merlons with the same name, this case of progression across the games is true with him as well.  The Merlon in PM64 can give you directions in exchange for coins and serves as one key story beat, but mostly is a flavorful NPC who serves as comic relief due to his overlong stories.  The Merlon in TTYD can power up your partners, and thus is more important to your progress and is someone you will visit far more than just once.  The Merlon in SPM, who is the most important of these Merlon incarnations, serves as both your guide who knows about the game’s lore and as Tippi’s caretaker.  He is a side character who, as early as PM64, is clearly not from Mario’s world and comes from somewhere far more ancient.  And by SPM, he is at his most complex from a character perspective and most important from a game perspective.  This speaks to a larger theme at play.

The progression of the Merlon character

As the three games progress, Mario’s world contracts and the larger world, filled with more lore, lore-related characters, and complex villains, expands and deepens.  We’re not fighting for our home world anymore, we’re fighting for something greater.  Unlike PM64, we are not going to get a parade.  And unlike TTYD, it is likely that much of this universe will not even know that it was us who saved them.  But that’s not what matters here.  We’re not fighting for known denizens, we’re fighting for something more thematic and elemental.  In the end, it is the complexities and conflicts of this world not familiar/known to us that determine the fates against the highest stakes of the series.  That the resolutions to these complexities strike such an emotional chord speak of proof to how well-done the story was/is.

The game plays the resolutions for real.  Yes, the series played with death in TTYD, first by having the TEC subplot, wherein he learns to love Peach and then is “shut down”.  You do feel his death, but he is a side character.  Though he does serve a thematic and plot-related purpose (i.e. echoing the nature of love as well as informing Peach that the villains plan to have the demon posses her), he is not playing a central role.  The same is true with Admiral Bobbery’s backstory, where it is discovered that he turned his back on the sea because of his wife Scarlette’s ultimely death.  This is backstory that isn’t impacting the central plot, but is touching on themes.

TEC’s shutdown (left), and Scarlette’s letter (right)

In SPM, Count Bleck and Tippi disappear and it feels like they genuinely died.  And they are not side characters.  Like TEC/Peach in TTYD, it is a love story.  But the “deaths” here are the main center of the plot, which happen at the climax/denouement of the game, and it is far deeper.

Merlon’s quote in the last scene of the game- “To feel sadness is to live… But as long as you are alive, the future is a blank page” feels like a series thesis statement.  Bad things happen to all of us – we lose people, we can be underappreciated like Luigi and feel sad as a result, we can feel heartbreak like Bleck has felt – but as long as we are alive, it is up to us whether we give in to our pain like Bleck did, or whether we get up and fight for each other and the world (like Mario did in the prologue of PM64, and like Bleck and Tippi do at the end of SPM).

The last frame of the story, after the credits, and the trilogy, is Blumiere and Timpani, in true form, walking down a hill together somewhere.  Is it heaven?  Is it a world they escaped to?  Are they alive or dead?  Who knows.  We realize that this entire trilogy was a story of love.  In PM64, it’s Mario’s love for Peach, Bowser’s twisted love for Peach, her love for Mario and the world, and the world’s love for the Star Spirits.  In TTYD, there is love (and we see it form) between TEC/Peach, between Vivian towards Mario, or the past love between Bobbery and his wife, but there is also a love from the world towards you that helps save the day.  In SPM, though all of these other loves are present, it is the love of these two seemingly “side” characters, your most advanced “guide” character, Tippi, and your most advanced villain, Count Bleck, that end up being the Strong Center of not just SPM but the entire series.  It’s the frame the series chooses to end on after all.

Notice the progression of affection between the main series characters (i.e. Mario/Peach, Bowser/Peach in PM64), then to affection between main series characters and supporting characters (i.e. Peach/TEC in TTYD), and then to love between supporting characters (i.e. Blumiere/Timpani in SPM), but with each progression becoming more fleshed out, dynamic, and developed.

SPM isn’t really Mario’s story (save for a handful of moments when you save Tippi in the aforementioned Chapter 3 and she develops an affection for you).  It isn’t really Peach’s story either, as she gets rescued early and then isn’t a driving force of the plot.  However, it /is/ the culmination of Bowser and Luigi’s character arcs.  And truthfully – the game isn’t meant to be Mario’s story.  The game is Tippi and Count Bleck’s story, who personify the theme of the trilogy, and that’s ok.

And in the end, the series closes with an image of their love, and you realize that that is what all three games were about all along.

Paper Mario Paper Mario: TTYD Super Paper Mario
World Home, Traditional, Recognizable Farther from Home, not fully the Mushroom Kingdom but with some Mushroom Kingdom denizens Farthest from Home, Very Unfamiliar
Connection to World Significant, you are famous and well-known Somewhat, you are less well-known but come to be appreciated by the world Not especially, feels like you are passing through except for a few moments
Lore / Prophecy None Yes – You have to stop the Shadow Queen from awakening Yes, already set in motion, character-driven – you have to undo the Dark Prognosticus set in motion by Count Bleck
Overworld Expansive in all directions, extremely connected 3D but somewhat linear in terms of play space, less connected 2D with some 3D elements, blocky, not connected at all
Mechanics Basic RPG Fighting Mechanics More Advanced RPG Fighting Mechanics Platformer, no Battle System
Paper Element Purely aesthetic Aesthetic, but now with abilities to turn into different types of paper Aesthetic, and now with paper becoming a core mechanic of the 2D/3D flip, finding sides of the paper world you didn’t see at first
Stakes Saving Peach, Restoring Peace to the Mushroom Kingdom, Restoring the Ability to Grant Wishes Higher – Saving Peach, but also Stopping the Shadow Queen from plunging the world into darkness Highest – Stopping the End of the World, Saving a brainwashed Luigi, and Restoring Count Bleck’s soul
Mario’s Connection to the Story Personal Direct (Peach connection), but Impersonal (the villains are not after you in particular) Indirect (barely through Tippi), and Impersonal (the villains know of you only through lore)
Villains who are not Bowser or His Minions None Yes (Grodus, Shadow Queen), but basic Yes (Count Bleck, Dimentio, Mimi, O’Chunks, Mr. L), and Complex
Presence of Supporting Characters Expansive Slightly Less Expansive Significantly Contracted
Depth of Supporting Characters Not especially so, not necessarily connected to the main plot Many connected to main plot, slightly more depth Almost all connected to main plot, significant and thematic depth
Idea of Love Saving the World Minimal Yes, on the fringes (Vivian-Mario, TEC-Peach, Bobbery-Scarlette, world’s love represented in the Crystal Stars against the Shadow Queen) Yes, Literally
Death? No deaths (Twink is hurt, but he returns) Yes, on the fringes (Bobbery-Scarlette backstory, TEC is “shut down” and villain Grodus is killed by Shadow Queen, although both return in the post-game) Yes, both existentially (destruction of Sammer’s Kingdom) and personally (death of Luvbi, and then Tippi and Count Bleck) – Central to plot and themes
3rd Act Twist? None Yes, Beldam was the mastermind.  You don’t fight her after this reveal, but Peach is possessed and you do fight her Yes, Dimentio is the true mastermind, and you must fight him after he uses a brainwashed Luigi to take control

 

Conclusion: What Could Have Been

Most people know that Super Paper Mario has one of the greatest Mario stories but has some mechanically flaws, but its nuances go deeper than that.

Are the overworld mechanics still a little irksome in SPM?  Kind of.  Until you realize that this entire story was slowly shrinking the play space from PM64 on to SPM in order to deepen the themes.

All three games “feel” like you are fighting to save the world, but only in the last game is the end of the world actually literal.  The series’ mythos [1], as it is, is to collect MacGuffins that are based in lore and connected to a feeling of love, and to use them to defeat the Big Bad, but the series builds on it with each game.  All three games “feel” like you need love to save the world, but only in the last game is that phrase absolutely and directly true.

While I still probably would hail TTYD as the best on its own, as that perfect blend of an expanded but familiar narrative along with that perfect blend of expanded mechanics… SPM is a gem in its own right and as part of a greater whole.

Once you realize the story it is trying to tell, once you see it as the culmination of a trilogy that deepens existing narrative and thematic threads, and once you can forgive it for its mechanics, you realize that SPM actually is an underrated masterpiece.

But again – to love the story, you have to forgive it for its mechanics.

If the entire series is shrinking the overworld space but expanding the details below, then, in going with that progression, Super Paper Mario should have the most advanced battle system.  TTYD has a more condensed overworld space but a more advanced fighting system, so if that progression were to continue, SPM should be even more advanced.  If the details at the basest level are at their most complex, narratively speaking, in SPM, then so should the mechanical system.

And because TTYD didn’t shrink PM64’s battle system, it feels jarring that SPM doubles back on that apparent progression set in motion by its predecessor.  These mechanics are trying to “reinvent the wheel” when they did not need to [1].

The mechanics are not deeper, the gameplay action is not deeper.  But everything else is.

I have read some reviews about how, if Super Paper Mario had been the first entry of a series, people would have been more forgiving of its mechanics, and that is probably true.  There wouldn’t be a “this doesn’t feel like a Paper Mario game” feeling in terms of mechanics.  However, in that scenario, the narrative elements of the game would feel like less of a pay-off, and the idea of Mario not being the driving force of the plot could have bothered some players.  That’s the issue. Mechanically, the game feels like it should be the first entry of the series because of how trimmed down it is, or at least an entry of a series that isn’t Paper Mario.  But narratively, it not only feels like Paper Mario, but feels like the climactic, culminating entry of the series.

Had this problem been fixed, people would have stayed with the game through the first few chapters before the characters’ (and worlds’) hidden depth is revealed.  The first half of SPM is showing us our expectations of the game, before eventually subverting them, which is clever in its own right.  Then, once this subversion takes place, you realize that all of the elements are there, just hidden at first.  It’s just hindered by that initial feel of “wait… this isn’t a Paper Mario game.”  And even after, when SPM’s story is at its greatest, there is still a somewhat jarring feel that the deepest story of the trilogy has the most simplistic fighting mechanics.

Super Dimentio is a climactic, narratively satisfying villain undone by fairly easy final boss mechanics

The game could keep everything else.  Keep the 2D structure.  Keep the ability for Mario to switch from 2D to 3D.  Keep the somewhat simplistic Wii remote controls.  Keep the Pixls as your party, because the story isn’t about 12 or so underdeveloped characters, it is about one very developed character in Tippi, and let the player figure that out.

But bring back the turn-based battle mechanics and make them advanced.

Have each Pixl be a mechanic that you can utilize.  Allow the player to have two main characters (Mario, Peach, Bowser, or Luigi) out at the same time (or maybe even three, like Super Mario RPG did all those years ago, or even all four like Mario + Luigi: Partners in Time does).  Maybe have different main characters utilize different special moves that they can use between each other, like the Mario + Luigi series does with the Bros. attacks.  Make items require action commands in order to use them (which the game already employs), but have them be done so in a true RPG format.

Examples of more advanced RPG Battle Mechanics used in other Mario RPGs

Snoman Gaming’s video on the mixed elements of Super‘s design adds to this idea, suggesting the possibility that the 2D-to-3D flip be an in-battle mechanic, with some enemies’ defenses and weak points only being visible in 3D [4].

This way, there wouldn’t be any instances of a narratively rich boss character being defeated without any time to breathe.  The theme of deepening the most micro-elements of the story would carry over to the gameplay.  The game would start off marginally simplistic, but at least feel like Paper Mario, and grow more emergently complex in tune with the rest of the narrative themes.  Every sequel tenet would be fulfilled [1], and all of the progressions built up in the first two games would pay off.

In my original post on TTYD, I stated that I was still waiting for that one Mario game that combined every one of its narrative elements to create the perfect story.  Rumor has it that a new Paper Mario game is in the works for the Nintendo Switch, and, according to these rumors, it is being based off of the original two games.  Though I am ecstatic about these rumors of a new Paper Mario that will be, in theory, more akin to the original, Nintendo doesn’t need a new game for that story to exist, because it already does.  All Nintendo has to do is remaster Super Paper Mario with deeper, turn-based mechanics, and the rest would be history.  It already could have been.

NOTE (Updated 5/17/2020): These rumors have since become crystallized, with the newly released trailer of Paper Mario: The Origami King, and, first thoughts on the game feel… mixed.  The game looks like it has the first original plot since Super, and it indeed carries the potential of a deeper, darker story.  However, it’s hard to call it “based off of the originals,” because the mechanics and battle system still seem experimental.  In this case, it very much feels closer to Super than it does PM64 or TTYD: it feels like a game with a potentially deep story and experimental mechanics.

This further speaks of Super‘s role in the Paper Mario lineage.  Had Super had the mechanics to fully support its story, it is likely that fans would feel like the original trilogy was paid off in full, and would be more accepting of more experimental titles in the series, but that is not the case.  Fans have been clamoring for that new game that returns the series to its roots, because the series never got that third entry that followed-up TTYD and paid off the progressions set up by the series.  Super could have, and did, from a story perspective, but it didn’t from a gameplay perspective.  That is why fans are still fervently waiting for a game that does.

Super Paper Mario not only could have been the deepest game-supported story of the Mario lineage in its own right, it also could have been the perfect culminating entry in a trilogy of game narratives, and that is not a chance that Nintendo will get to utilize anytime soon.  Even if Nintendo releases the perfect next Paper Mario game with all of the restored gameplay elements discussed above and a deep story in its own right, it cannot pay off all of the progressive narrative elements that Super Paper Mario already paid off perfectly thirteen years ago.

I read another pro-Super Paper Mario article written by Caroline Delbert stating that the world of SPM is “huge and ambitious,” and that, by this point, “the world had stretched until its parts no longer hold” [5].  And this is true.  SPM is an extraordinarily ambitious game with genuine, heavy stakes, with its world and narrative complexities condensed but stretched to their limits.  She asks, “Where could Nintendo and Intelligent Systems have taken this series next?”

The answer – they really couldn’t.  They couldn’t expand the world, stretch its characters, and condense its narrative to its core any more than SPM does.  On top of that, upon release, many fans were quick to disregard the entire game because of the mechanics, thus subliminally telling Nintendo that they didn’t want game-mechanic experiments interfering with a Paper Mario story.  So, Nintendo jettisoned story wholeheartedly in Sticker Star and Color Splash, gave fans what they wanted (turn-based battles), but left room for their own creative experimentations (remember: one cannot ask game designers to not experiment at all).  If you look at Sticker Star and Color Splash like this – as creative, spin-off experiments – and not as series canon, you can appreciate them a little more.

See, SPM is not a perfect game.  But by being overly critical of what we got, Nintendo stopped trying to blend story with mechanical tweaks.  There wasn’t a whole lot of longform story left to tell anyway, but it is likely that Nintendo would have tried to incorporate some sort of shortform story into subsequent Paper Mario games had fans been less vitriolic of SPM.

The fact remains, however.  Any new Paper Mario game likely will stand alone.  Any new Paper Mario cannot increase the stakes any higher than SPM.  Any new Paper Mario cannot condense its narrative to its base theme (true, sacrificial love can save the world) any more than SPM.  A new Paper Mario can tell its own shortform story, blend the Mario structure with some clever dialogue and a deep plot, but it cannot be the series-capper that SPM is.

And like SPM itself asks us to do with its themes, one has to look at the game with a nuanced lens.  It is far better to accept SPM for what it is than to dismiss it.

But the basic conclusion, simply stated, is this: Super Paper Mario is a great game… that could have been perfect.

If the gameplay mechanics had supported its deepening progression, SPM would simultaneously have the best interconnected game narrative from both a short form and a long form perspective.

And SPM, not TTYD, would be the one we’d all still be talking about.

[1] Ken Miyamoto, The Ten Commandments of Writing Great Sequels, Screencraft 2015, https://screencraft.org/2015/10/02/the-ten-commandments-of-writing-a-great-sequel/

[2] Snoman Gaming, Good Game Design – What Makes a Great Sequel? (Paper Mario TTYD), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPvEGVL0ouI

[3] Resonant Arc, Paper Mario 64 Review, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lxy1-8ZXUo&t=3s

[4] Snoman Gaming, Bad Game Design – Super Paper Mario & Color Splash, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvjmgnLTKKQ

[5] Caroline Delbert, Super Paper Mario is a Flawed Masterpiece, Dec 3 2018, https://medium.com/@cdelbert/super-paper-mario-is-a-flawed-masterpiece-e749da54b604

 

The Rest of My Mario Narrative Series

The Greatest Mario Story Ever Told (and Why It Still Isn’t Perfect)

Challengers to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Expanded)

Deep Analysis of Super Paper Mario: A Nature of Order Applied to a Complicated Narrative

 

Additional Analysis

The Controversy of Super Paper Mario – Nintendrew, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euZscfTm1qU

What Makes Super Paper Mario A Paper Mario – SuperMarioT, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7LZ9jamwFg&t=415s

Super Paper Mario: The Best Story in the Mario Franchise? – ZoopTheRat, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lMhp6Toh0Y

 

For Fun

Super Paper Mario Musical Bytes – Complete Package – Man on the Internet, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Fm1Teu2cY&t=8s

 

Deep Analysis of Super Paper Mario: A Nature of Order Applied to a Complicated Narrative

For my post on Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD), I used Christopher Alexander’s A Nature of Order as the lens by which to analyze both that game, its predecessor Paper Mario (PM64), and the basic Mario structure.  Of all the games that I then touched on as challengers to TTYD, one game stood out to me as worthy of deeper analysis, especially after playing it again recently.  Super Paper Mario (SPM), the sequel to TTYD, is known as a game was a fantastic story, but also a game that has clear flaws.  As the immediate successor to TTYD, it is only fair that I apply the same lens to Super Paper Mario.

Note: This post concerns an advanced, design-based analysis of SPM by itself, but this analysis is part of a greater discussion on Super Paper Mario within the context of Paper Mario as a series.  View my analysis of SPM in terms of the Paper Mario series as a whole here.

For the uninitiated, these patterns that Christopher Alexander explores in A Nature of Order can be described as such, in which he posits that there are inherent patterns in architectures, games, life, that, when employed and noticed, create a pleasurable feeling that things are balanced, comfortable, all right [1]:

  1. Levels of Scale: We are constantly interacting with things small, medium, and big, and changes in these scales can be seen and felt.
  2. Strong Centers: We are interested in things, like the solar system or atoms, that are centered.
  3. Boundaries: Boundaries create centers, and there are also physical and thematic boundaries that need to be crossed in order for change to occur.
  4. Alternating Repetition: We like going back and forth, like falling/rising tension flow in a story, or checkerboard patterns.  They are pleasing.
  5. Positive Space: There is an interplay between positive and negative space.  Sometimes negative space can enhance positive space.
  6. Good Shape: We like shapes that are not trying to be pretty but, through their inherent purposes, make pleasing shapes, like sails catching the wind.
  7. Local Symmetries: Our brains are programmed to spot tiny symmetries (i.e. in our bodies, between characters in a story) that feel connected, even if, globally, they are not.
  8. Deep Interlock: We like the feeling that things are interconnected, that things which happened ages ago, that felt meaningless at the time, have some significance.  Characters, stories, mechanics, themes, must feel connected or the feeling starts to fall apart.
  9. Contrast: We can perceive two things brought together in unexpected ways, or one thing (like comedy) enhancing another thing (like tragedy).
  10. Graded Variation: This regards things changing overtime; things we can’t spot instantaneously but when we look back at them, we realize the change that happened between now and then.
  11. Roughness: We don’t want characters and things that are 100% smooth, because imperfect things feel human, real, and natural in their messiness.
  12. Echoes: One thing echoes another, like game mechanics or characters echoing the central theme of a story.
  13. The Void: Oftentimes the most important things are in empty spaces.
  14. Inner Calm: We are not given all the information at once, so that emergent complexities can come out through natural tension.
  15. Not-Separateness: We like the feeling that pieces, even if they are physically separate, are not, and that if you take one piece away, the other suffers.  The world is connected.

A brief summary on Super Paper Mario‘s story: Mario and his immediate companions travel through dimensions to collect the eight Pure Hearts to counteract the Chaos Heart, and thus stop the villain, Count Bleck, from erasing all worlds using the Void.  The Void itself is being powered by the Chaos Heart, as is foretold in the Dark Prognosticus.  As the game states in its opening cutscene: “This is a love story.”  Outside of some flaws in its mechanics, most of its narrative elements support this story.  Further analysis reveals more about how the game’s narrative complexity reveals its core themes of: hidden depth, true love saving the world, and balance between Light and Darkness.

 

1 – Levels of Scale: From the beginning, we can see how SPM is inconsistent from its predecessors.  The small-scaled battle screen is gone, as is the larger overworld map to look at (although you can look at pictures of the worlds you visit, and, since the worlds are not connected away, can at least see a larger structure of your journey).  And yes, the 2D can switch to 3D, but this feels like a flip between two POVs on the same level of scale, rather than different levels of scale.

However, SPM does have chapters (medium levels of scale) made up of sections (small levels of scale), which all together make up the greater narrative (large levels of scale).

 

2 – Strong Centers: Like its predecessors, SPM has two physical Strong Centers: Flipside/Flopside, and Count Bleck’s dark realm… but also one key addition.  The opening pre-credits screen has you viewing the Dark Prognosticus set against a black screen, so you are set up be thinking about these dark spaces before the game even starts.

The game teases past central areas like Mario’s House and Bowser’s Castle before settling in on Flipside.  Flipside as a town feels like less of Strong Center than the previous two games, as the town itself isn’t necessarily rooted in lore or feeling the effects of the prologue in a strong manner.  It feels like you are passing through it.

However, Flipside is important because it is where Merlon resides, the one of the Ancients parsing through the Light Prognosticus.  Flipside is important because it is the representation of that light – the worlds you are trying to save.  In the same way Count Bleck’s realm, which you visit in between each chapters in cutscenes, represents the darkness surrounding the Dark Prognosticus.

But more than that – you realize that Flipside represents Tippi, who is closest with Merlon and who calls Flipside home, at least now.  In the same way Bleck’s realm is representative of Count Bleck.  It is no accident that, in addition to visiting Bleck’s realm and Flipside in between each chapter, you get a text-backstory scene from Blumiere and Timpani.

The game is telling us that its true Strong Center is Bleck and Tippi (a.k.a. Blumiere and Timpani) together.  And at the start of the game, they are split into two different centers, one of light and one of darkness.  Compared to the end of the game, that closes with the two of them walking away together, these centers unified as one.

In this sense, SPM has the strongest Strong Center of the trilogy.

 

3 – Boundaries: The game employs boundaries more similarly to earlier Mario games.  Each world can be accessed by walking through one of the multi-colored doors on the Flipside Tower (with the last door accessible on the Flopside Tower).  Throughout the game, you are unlocking new boundaries/thresholds to different worlds to find more Pure Hearts.  There is less of a main boundary in this game (compared to boundary between you and Peach’s Castle in PM64, and the recurring boundary of the Thousand-Year Door itself that reinforces its theme in TTYD), and more several smaller ones.

The last door, which appears on the Flopside Tower and leads to Castle Bleck, is treated as significant, but because the boundary hasn’t been reinforced the same way that the Thousand-Year Door was, it doesn’t feel as significant in a physical sense.  It does so though in a thematic sense because we’re finally reaching Castle Bleck which we’ve seen in the interlude and because of the intense stakes.

This is one of the categories that indeed makes the game feel like a Mario game, with the chapters and the boundaries to reach them, but also makes the game feel more trimmed down compared to its predecessors, especially in the beginning before you realize the depth of the Strong Center.

 

4 – Alternating Repetition: It says something that, on a macro level, the game employs as strong of an Alternating Repetition as there is, as we come to realize the pattern of completing a world and then Pure Heart, then followed by a small scene taking place at Count Bleck’s domain, and then followed by a Blumiere-Timpani cutscene, and then followed by a reprieve at Flipside.  So there is World / Castle Bleck / Blumiere-Timpani / Flipside / World.  We can see from the beginning that the game is hiding its Strong Center with this repetitive sequence.

Also, I think that it is clever that, in terms of these Count Bleck cutscenes, they first play out as interludes featuring Peach and then Luigi, making you think that the game is allowing you to play as other characters in the same way as PM64 and TTYD.  But no.  Peach and Luigi feature in the first two Castle Bleck cutaways, but the setting itself (and by association Count Bleck and those connected to him) is more important than the familiar characters.

However, on a micro level, SPM is weaker compared to its predecessors.

I mentioned in both PM64 and TTYD that each chapter employs an overworld, a dungeon, and a hub, and then over time plays around with the order of these areas.  Unfortunately, in SPM, there are no great hub spaces, or no great spaces that feel like hub spaces, beyond Flipside – areas where there are no enemies and you spend time meeting characters, resting, buying items, and finding clues.  There are chapters where there are some spaces where you can do so, but these areas don’t take up enough space to feel like true hubs.  They are not sprawling that much with NPCs.  The item shops in particular are often small reprieves in the middle of overworlds filled with enemies.  Let’s take a look:

      • Chapter 1: Lineland Road ⇒ Yold Town (mini-hub) ⇒ Yold Desert ⇒ Yold Ruins (dungeon)
      • Chapter 2: Gloam Valley ⇒ Merlee’s Mansion (mini-hub/dungeon)
      • Chapter 3: The Bitlands ⇒ The Tile Pool ⇒ The Dotwood Tree ⇒ Fort Francis (dungeon)
      • Chapter 4: Outer Space ⇒ Planet Blobule (mini-hub) ⇒ Outer Limits ⇒ Whoa Zone (dungeon)
      • Chapter 5: Downtown of Crag (mini-hub) ⇒ Gap of Crag ⇒ Floro Caverns (dungeon)
      • Chapter 6: Sammer’s Kingdom ⇒ World of Nothing
      • Chapter 7: The Underwhere (mini-hub) ⇒ Underwhere Road ⇒ Overthere Stair ⇒ The Overthere (mini-hub/dungeon)
      • Chapter 8: Castle Bleck (dungeon)

Although Chapter 1 almost seems like a direct symmetry to the earlier games, employing an overworld, a mini-hub, and then a dungeon, this pattern for the most part then goes away.  Merlee’s Mansion has some NPCs to speak to, but mostly serves as Mimi’s extensive dungeon filled with traps.  Chapters 3 and 4 more or less are adventure chapters moving from point A to point B.  The later chapters employ a sense of fantastic Contrast (see below) in their locations and themes, but there is less a pattern to the chapter design.  You can expect a four-part chapter, and you know that there is a dungeon with a boss at the end, but outside of that, you do not know what to expect.

Maybe this is the point.  The “villages”/mini-hubs all are very much close to darker/combat regions, which feels like, once you are in a Chapter, there is no real space to catch a breather.  Then again, not all dungeons feel like true dungeons either.  Although the Floro Caverns is the final area in Chapter 5, it is also just where the Floro Sapiens live.  And the Overthere has been taken over by Bonechill’s minions, but is actually meant to be a place of peace.  Blurring that line between what is dark and what is “good.”

If anything, the only “pattern” that gets exploited is in Chapters 6 and 7, when at this point you have gotten used to the four-part structure of the Chapters.  But Chapter 6 is cut short when the world is destroyed, so this direct feeling of “offness” to this pattern mirrors the gut-punch of the destroyed world.  And then Chapter 7 begins with you having to escape the Underwhere rather than with a traditional beginning, leaving you feeling scattered and needing to pick up the pieces.  Then Chapter 7 is about picking up those pieces (a.k.a. restoring your party) before Chapter 8 introduces the danger of losing them.

The key here is that, for the most part, the world-building patterns employed in the earlier games are gone, outside of the macro level, and there is very little in terms of knowing what to expect next.  Once you realize it, it is not inherently a bad thing, as it means other, larger-scale thematic elements can take focus.  But early on, before that realization takes place, it’s a bit scattershot as you’re not sure what the focus is.

 

5 – Positive Space: This is employed very well, especially in the final level when everything is dark and black.  The bright reds and greens and pinks and yellows of our heroes stand out so much compared to this setting, it very much feels like we come from a different world, and we do.  We are the people of light here in this completely black setting here to save the world.  This is also true when we see our heroes set against the World of Nothing.

Also, it’s worth a thought that there is no Positive Space in the Blumiere/Timpani interludes, just text, perhaps saying that this love story only exists as a memory, not a reality, but it still exists, and the game is all about bringing it back to the Positive Space.

 

6 – Good Shape: There are a lot of interesting shapes in Super Paper Mario, as the game employs a lot of wonky aesthetics that make the world feel blocky and paper-y, but in a very creative way, like some of the enemies that are just composed of a handful of multi-colored lines.  And yes, it can be immediately interesting to find yourself fighting with an enemy that is basically a stick figure, which wouldn’t be threatening except for the fact that it is attacking you.  But not much beyond that.

This is also true of the Pixls as well, as the shape of each Pixl is a clever indication of the type of ability that they provide.  Thoreau, which allows you to throw things, is a hand.  Thudley, which allows you to ground pound, is a weight.  It leaves you wondering about how this connection between aesthetic and ability works, especially for the more creatively drawn Pixls like Dottie or Dashell.

But none more so than Tippi.  At first glance, she appears to be the most basic of all of the characters, including the other Pixls.  She has no eyes, is just four triangles drawn together and animated to move like a butterfly.  But this lack of standout features allows her deeper personality to grow and grow and grow.

It allows us to, overtime, slowly project more and more of her backstory onto how we view her.  And this is reinforced by the game because there are periods of time when her backstory becomes too heavy for her and she needs to rest and be revitalized.  And we begin to realize how much history, and pain, and love are all present in this tiny, fragile creature.

If there is any example of a good shape harboring hidden depth, Tippi is a better example than pretty much anything or anyone else in the entire series.

Tippi isn’t trying to be a butterfly, as the shape indicates.  But as her personality becomes deeper, we realize that she is in spirit.

Additionally, as you open more worlds, you add more different-colored doors to the Flipside Tower, and overtime, it creates this beautiful, rainbow-esque palette that culminates in a symmetrically balanced shape as well.  So, your progress in the game is reinforced by the creation of this beautiful shape.

 

7 – Local Symmetries: Like the first two games, there are plenty of local symmetries between some enemies.  Not as much, as there is little symmetry between a creature (like a Koopa) being both your friend and your enemy in the same game.  But, just like the first two games, enemies you meet in the earlier chapters then are reestablished as dark echoes in later chapters, like Wracktail, a more difficult mirror of the Chapter 1 boss Fracktail, appearing in the Flipside Pit of 100 Trials; or the uber-strong Mega Muth appearing in the final chapter of the game after the original, prehistoric Muth was introduced in Chapter 5.

The biggest world-related symmetry is between Flipside and Flopside, the town that exists behind a 3D mirror, and thus acts as a mirror image of Flipside, both in tone and space.  Denizens you meet on Flipside are present as complete mirror images in Flopside, and these denizens speak the opposite of what their Flipside denizens speak about.  In Flipside, there is a writer hanging out struggling to make ends meet just before the Flopside entrance.  On the Flopside side of this area, there is a similar writer character, only this one has intense confidence and is very successful.

These towns are not presented as rivals, or as one as “good” or one as “evil.”  These towns are two sides of the same coin: life.  So, the game is telling us that, even if there are people literally saying and doing opposite things on the opposite side of town, we are all on the same side.  Outside of the main storyline, this might be the most impressive aspect about SPM’s world-building.

In addition to visual symmetries between the recipes you cook and the previously mentioned symmetry that becomes present on the Flipside Tower, the biggest in-game symmetries are those present in the final chapter.

With each major fight at the end of each Chapter 8 section (i.e. Bowser-O’Chunks, Peach-Mimi, Luigi-Dimentio), the game invites you to think more about symmetries (and contrasts) between their character personalities as well.  Bowser and O’Chunks are both tough guys with hidden depth.  Peach and Mimi can both be a bit spoiled, but go about their lives in different ways.  Luigi, unfortunately, can be as egoistic as Dimentio if he wants to be, but for the most part he doesn’t, and that is what makes him a good guy different from Dimentio… but also susceptible to him.

The final battle then teases a furthered pattern of potential symmetrical comparison between Mario and Count Bleck, but in truth the real symmetrical comparison is the aforementioned one between Bleck and Tippi.

 

8 – Deep Interlock: Yes, especially so on a character/thematic level, but less so on a world level.  I mentioned in the TTYD post that TTYD strikes a fairly perfect balance of mining out emergent, interlocked mysteries as the game progresses, while also including self-contained in-chapter mysteries, with things becoming more important overtime as the chapter progresses (which prior to TTYD was what PM64 did).

SPM has the larger scale mysteries down sublimely, especially given their connections to the themes.  As part of this section, I will also touch on SPM’s effort to make Deep Interlock across its Mario canon and especially the Paper Mario series.  Even though the in-chapter mysteries were somewhat lacking, especially at first.  Let’s see:

      • Prologue: Bowser and Peach (two people of great Contrast who will later end up on the same team) are forced into marriage. We are introduced to the wedding chapel locale (which will return in the game’s climax), Luigi as a character that wants to help but is unsuccessful, as well as the initial character personalities of Bleck, who wants worlds to end, as well as Nastasia, his devoted servant.  Later so, Tippi and Merlon are introduced when Mario is brought to Flipside.
        • In terms of the larger series expectations, this prologue gives you the expected (Peach is kidnapped and Mario has to start from scratch in a faraway place), but also the unexpected:
        • The prophecy is already set in motion by the time the prologue ends (as opposed to TTYD), Bowser is portrayed as a major player, but not the Big Bad, and Luigi is immediately telegraphed as important, unlike previous games when he exists in the background.
      • Chapter 1: There is very little mystery to this chapter beyond getting to the end, defeating Fracktail, and obtaining the Pure Heart from the Ancients. Bestovius and Yold Town exist here but do not reappear again.  However, here is your first encounter with O’Chunks and Dimentio.  O’Chunks comes off as a tough guy who isn’t that tough.  Dimentio, who brainwashes Fracktail into fighting you, comes off as a guy who has fun causing mischief.
        • What Chapter 1 does well is powering through the expected introductory Mario worlds (grass land and desert land) in one chapter, complete with an entry-world boss in the form of a dragon (like Hooktail was), existing as “the chapter of the expected” before expectations start being subverted.
      • Chapter 2: Although there is a mini-mystery of uncovering the machinations behind the forced labor workers in Merlee’s Mansion, this doesn’t get much deeper than finding a cheat to pay off Mimi’s rubee depth. The chapter more or less introduces Mimi as a character that likes to set traps for you and play with the people she has captured, and who can also turn into a twisted spider.
        • Chapter 2 is also the first chapter you can play with Peach, so it also exists as an introduction to the “new normal” of SPM, where saving Peach is not the mission, and where there are bigger stakes at play.
        • Chapter 2 also is a “light” return to Paper Mario series expectations.  Whereas Chapter 1 feels very much like a level out of the older Mario games, Chapter 2, with a slightly deeper mystery and at least some NPCs to speak to in order to help solve it, feels closer in tone to the first two Paper Mario games.  It even touches on some higher-level themes of forced labor.  It not on the exact same level as the earlier games in terms of worldbuilding, but it’s at least close.
      • Chapter 3: There is the bonus of getting Bowser to join the party, and though this does feel like a payoff to wondering where he was, it is less an in-chapter mystery (you hear some NPCs talking about a monster at the end of Chapter 3-1, and it turns out to be Bowser, but that is about it).  It is more another subversion in telling you that Bowser is firmly not the villain in this story.  Afterward, the plot is mainly about getting to Fort Francis to get Tippi back.  Francis is a very unique character, so even though the world around this chapter isn’t especially deep, at least Francis brings some immediate wacky flavor to the game.  Along the way, some moments do stand out:
        • The first fight with Dimentio comes off as very interesting. Whereas O’Chunks genuinely feels like he is not tough enough to beat you, Dimentio more or less states that he is fighting you to size you up and see if you can take on Count Bleck.  This is the first instance of seeing Dimentio as a potential traitor.
        • In addition, you feel the brief loss of Tippi (mechanically speaking, see below) and, after you save her, the burgeoning affection she feels for you reveals the next Pure Heart. This twist that Tippi’s affection is more important than just finding a Pure Heart hidden somewhere suggests that the Pure Hearts are more than just MacGuffins, they can be representative of genuine love and affection.  Plus, this reveal illustrates that Tippi is far more important than it first seemed.  Lastly, the affection that Tippi feels here is contrasted with the forced affection that Francis wants from Peach.  So the game has shown us a “love” that is twisted before showing us a love that is genuine, using the thematic Echo of both the past games (Peach) and the current game (Tippi).  In a way, the game transfers its thematic symbolism from Peach to Tippi in this scene.
        • Again, we see the more macro-level mysteries and themes having some nice foreshadowing moments, but with the in-chapter story beats feeling straightforward.
      • Chapter 4: Like Chapters 1 and 3 where it was an adventure from point A to point B, the chapter plays out with you more or less following Squirps to get to Point B.
        • The reveal that Squirps is actually the prince of a space kingdom is a… reveal, but because Squirps’s identity isn’t treated as a mystery that is that important makes the reveal feel a little basic.  What is more interesting is that Squirps’s family hid the Pure Heart in the Whoa Zone 1,500 years ago, and that Squirps was awakened from hibernation to bring the heroes to it.  Thus, this introduces the idea of people around the worlds (not just Merlon’s people) existing as protectors of the Pure Hearts.  While this reveal would have been stronger if we had seen more bits of Squirps’s long-lost kingdom along the journey, the reveal itself does carry interesting macro-level themes.
        • More important is the first arrival of Mr. L, which answers the question of “what happened to Luigi” and illustrates the capability of brainwashing in this universe.
        • Overall, Chapter 4 is very unique, “out there” chapter that leaves few comparisons to the original games, but Mr. L further showcases the elevation of Luigi in this game’s narrative, and Squirps, while not harboring as much of an in-chapter mystery as some would have liked, does carry more thematic weight than we initially expected.
      • Chapter 5: Here we go. Now, in-chapter events start happening that create some interlocked tension.
        • The chapter begins with a handful of Cragnons being kidnapped by Floro-Sapiens, and, unlike the previous chapters in which you are told where you need to go and then you just need to get there, here you spend a lot of time following these Floro-Sapiens, so a buildup is created of wondering where the Cragnons are being taken, what the Floro-Sapiens are doing with them, and where they are leading you.
        • You fight O’Chunks again, which doesn’t reveal a whole lot more about him, but it becomes very important when you run into Dimentio again. In the Floro Caverns, you discover that Floro-Sapiens are brainwashing the Cragnons by planting Floro Sprouts in their heads.  Dimentio appears with O’Chunks, and, after some playful barbs, snaps his fingers and a Floro Sprout appears on O’Chunks.  Dimentio then sets him on you.  He is still beatable, but it is important to notice that Dimentio is now experimenting with brainwashing techniques, as this is what he will do to Luigi in the game’s climax.  What’s more, the Floro Sprout that O’Chunks drops after you beat him turns into the Important Thing you need to use to get past the Floro-Sapien scanning mechanism to reach their leader, King Croacus IV.
        • So, here we have a moment that not only answers an in-chapter mystery (the Floro-Sapiens are using Floro Sprouts to brainwash Cragnons), but gives you the item you need to reach the next part of the game (the Floro Sprout), and sets up the story beat for the final act.  It took until Chapter 5, but Super is genuinely off and running now.  Though the world is unique to SPM, it feels like the older Paper Mario games, with Flint Cragley feeling like a new incarnation of a wacky Kolorado-like archaeologist character, as well as the inner depth revealed later on.
        • And there’s even more. After you fight and beat King Croacus IV, the Floro-Sapiens rush in and bemoan their king wilting.  They exclaim that he thought of his people first, but went mad because the Cragnons were polluting their water supply (which is a plot point set up by a small line of dialogue from a Cragnon in Chapter 5-1).  After peace is negotiated with some help with Flint Cragley, you receive the Pure Heart.  This theme of rival, Contrasting factions being more nuanced than they first appeared and then finding common ground, set against the appearance of another Pure Heart and thus connected to the Pure Heart’s symbolism of love, which is in itself connected to Tippi, is now set in motion.
      • Chapter 6: This chapter is clever in terms of playing with player expectations. The set-up appears especially simple, a fight-your-way-through-100-battles world, drawing initial comparisons to the Glitzville-based Chapter 3 in TTYD.  Which feels like a step-down in two ways – comparatively in-game after the more nuanced plot and story beats of Chapter 5, and comparatively from the more mystery-laden Chapter 3 from TTYD.  But things start to change.
        • First, Count Bleck arrives in the world to taunt the party as he watches the Void consume the world. It is no coincidence that Bleck’s first appearance in an in-game world is the world that the Void is about to destroy, further linking the symbolism of the Void with his character.  And then he has his first argument with Tippi, who at this point is already linked to the Pure Hearts thanks to Chapter 3.  This discussion is the first to reveal that Tippi and Bleck know each other, and is the moment where a player can genuinely say “I knew it!!  Tippi is Timpani and Bleck is Blumiere.”  The game plays it as such.  From this point on, the characters more or less figure it out too and begin having discussions on what this reveal means, so you the player genuinely feel like you are processing your realizations along with the cast.
        • Mimi serves as more of an obstacle than a story reveal, but the game uses her character here correctly, with her saying that she is not trying to beat you, she is trying to stall you.
        • Then, as we know, it turns out that you are too late and the Void consumes the world. Upon re-entry, there is nothing left.  Of all the Contrasts the game has set-up at this point, this one is the most stark, and the most bleak, the true personification of the stakes at hand, which themselves are a payoff to the stakes of the entire series.  The potential of Grodus unleashing the demon felt cataclysmic in TTYD, but here the game is literally showing you “this is what will happen if Count Bleck wins.  These stakes are real.”  That you fight Mr. L again, here in this World of Nothing, is a suggestion towards an interlock between the brainwashed Luigi and the danger of this Nothing.
      • Chapter 7: You finally find Luigi at the beginning of this chapter after Dimentio sends you to the Underwhere, and afterwards you have to restore your party by finding Bowser and Peach. Outside of these moments between our well-known characters, and the simple thematic draw of literally playing in the Mario universe’s version of Hell, the chapter actually is a straightforward trek from A to B.  But because of the setting, and one key twist, the chapter gets enhanced.
        • It is worth mentioning that, of the four heroes, Peach is the only one initially sent to the Overthere, whereas Mario, Luigi, and Bowser all end up in the Underwhere.  Though the heroes are all on the same side in this game, it does further the series-long plot of Peach being the one who is truly pure of heart, whereas the others are all atoning for at least something.
        • The chapter mission is about getting from the Underwhere to the Overthere, which adds the theme of getting from Hell to Heaven, and is reinforced mechanically because you start out having lost most of your party and, as you journey upward, slowly restore them. Just the settings themselves add a Contrasting element.  Also, it is interesting that the Overthere, when it is finally revealed, isn’t an area of immediate peace, due the Skellobit invasion.  This suggests that a place of absolute bliss doesn’t exist, and that danger can always be around the corner.
        • The twist: While playing, I noticed that, compared to the earlier games, there are far less Important Items to acquire within chapters. There are less instances of items you find on your way, outside of the Pure Hearts, that then turn out to be significant in solving mysteries.  But then there is Luvbi.  She is introduced as the spoiled daughter to Jaydes and Grambi, so there already is an interesting setup of wondering how the leaders of Hell and Heaven came to create her.  The payoff?  That she is actually a Pure Heart, and the Luvbi personality was created in order to protect it.  So, she is connected to this merging of two Contrasts, having come together for the greater good of protecting the Pure Heart, but, because Jaydes and Grambi came to love her as their daughter, it suggests that this merging is connected to love as well.  Because Luvbi ceases to exist once she returns to her Pure Heart form, it also suggests that love can be sacrificial in order to save the world.  All of this not only builds off of fringe themes from TTYD, but also foreshadows the end of the game.
        • It is interesting that Chapter 7 doesn’t have any appearances of Count Bleck’s minions, choosing instead to focus on the heroes and the themes connected to them before sending them off for Chapter 8’s climax.
      • Chapter 8: Chapter 8 is all about payoffs, mainly thanks to the aforementioned moments of local symmetries, which also serve as Interlocked characters.
        • Comparisons between Bowser and O’Chunks, and then Peach and Mimi, only work because the personalities of the minion characters have been set up and reinforced well enough.
        • Then comes the moment when Dimentio offers to side with you in defeating Count Bleck, claiming that he was helping your mission the whole time in terms of finding someone to stop him. At first glance, this is believable, and you more or less have to trust your instinct that Dimentio does not have a wholesome personality.  This works as a good red-herring, because it gives us an answer to possible suspicions about Dimentio’s motivations, but leaves you wondering that there are more to his plans than just one battle with Luigi.
        • The final battle with Count Bleck gives you the payoff of seeing our heroes come together (which we expect), and Count Bleck being defeated (which we expect).  Every game in the series has featured a climactic moment like this, where the magical MacGuffins, revived by the heroes, defeat the Big Bad’s invincibility and help aid in the Big Bad’s defeat.  But then, by giving us what we expect, Dimentio’s final reveal and his use of a brainwashed Luigi (using a hidden Floro Sprout no less, set up by Chapter 5) comes across as a genuine twist on top of what we expect.  Like any good mystery, the reveal doesn’t come across as a left-field cheat, given that there are enough foreshadowing moments to back it up, but with the information hidden just enough to be a surprise.
        • It is then a nice payoff that the Pure Hearts are revived twice during this sequence, first by your party and then again by Count Bleck and his minions. Suggesting that love and respect can be found both on the side of Light and the side of Darkness, and that siding together for the greater good is very much possible.
        • Lastly, after being set up character-wise by the Blumiere/Timpani interludes, and thematically by Luvbi’s story, Count Bleck and Tippi need to use love to merge their two Contrasts and sacrifice themselves to save all worlds. The payoff to the series theme, and these two characters that personify far more than what initially met the eye.

Notice how, even more so compared to TTYD, these interlocked moments enhance both plot reveals and thematic depth.  Even more so because the Blumiere/Timpani interludes in-between chapters set up their characters through a slow thematic story that takes its time to play out.

But also notice how comparatively simplistic the first few chapters are, before the payoffs to the macro-level set-ups begin to be revealed, and before the game starts merging its macro-level characterizations with deeper in-chapter mysteries, plots, and Contrasts.  This combination of straightforward early levels with the mechanics that feel jarring for enthusiasts of the series is what makes the first half of the game drag more than the second.

Keep in mind: in the early levels, the mechanics are jarring only when SPM is placed as a sequel to the earlier games.  For the most part, if a boss is easy, there is often a narrative reason to it, being O’Chunks genuinely being weaker than he believes in Chapter 1, or Dimentio sizing you up rather than fighting you in Chapter 3.  The issue of the non-RPG mechanics diminishing the characters in boss fights actually comes up later, first with the two Mr. L fights, and then especially with the last two chapter bosses, Bonechill and Super Dimentio.

Again, this is the issue of the game.  As strong as the Deep Interlock becomes, the early chapters are so straightforward that it feels jarring for fans of the series.  The later chapters have a story that deepens greatly, but then when the mechanics don’t match this depth, it hurts.

 

9 – Contrast: YES.  As stated in Positive Space, our main heroes feel and look different from the rest of the worlds we visit (i.e. bright colors on blacker shapes).  Even when we’re not in Castle Bleck, the growing Void behind us almost always contrasting our shape and color with the dark purple it emanates.  Thematically, there is less Contrast in-world…. UNTIL you reach the later Chapters, as discussed above.

In Chapter 5, the Cragnons vs. Floro-Sapiens plotline invites conflict but at the end wants us to see a bridge between them.  Sammer’s Kingdom at first seems very basic, but it’s still a world brimming with life, and the Contrast is between this lively environment and the nothingness that follows after the Void destroys it.  The Underwhere is in direct Contrast to the Overthere… but again – we are meant to see these two factions coming together to love personified of Jaydes/Grambi creating Luvbi at the center.

Then, there is the macro Contrast between Flipside and Castle Bleck.  Flipside could be contrasted with Flopside… and it kind of is in a very direct way, with characters on opposite ends saying opposite things… but from a thematic level, Flipside/Flopside are one and the same (they are more of a symmetry), and the true contrast is between your hub vs. Castle Bleck.  Flipside/Flopside are both very well lit with a lot of light, white colors, while Castle Bleck’s background is almost all black with specks of white and Void purple.

Then there are more mini-contrasts, such as Bowser vs. the rest of the party (who starts off as an easy Contrast given your history with him but then joins you), as well as Luigi vs. Mr. L, inviting us to see differences in their personalities.  See a pattern?  The only contrasts present are the ones we especially need to be paying attention to.

And the fact that there is no true pattern with regards to Alternating Repetition suggests that we are meant to be looking at these Contrasts and Patterns from a more macro level, which do not become evident until later in the game.

But they do become evident, as the game speaks a lot about finding that sense of peace and love at the center of what appear to be Contrasts, even if it means being sacrificial.

 

10 – Graded Variation: There is some evidence to change overtime, as the Flipside denizens have dialogue that changes, though far less in between chapters compared to their Toad Town and Rogueport predecessors.  Still, they do experience mini-changes and indeed express fears regarding the end of the world if you speak to them before the final chapter.  Additionally, and most especially you feel graded variation of the Void growing overtime.  Lastly, as you piece the backstory together, you can feel the sense of time growing in the Blumiere/Timpani backstories, especially when contrasted with the present day.

 

11 – Roughness: Though the chapter settings are more unique compared to the Mario canon, these worlds feel more black-and-white, less rough, with very few NPCs echoing the landscape.  Initially, you thus feel like the game is lacking here.  In-world characters like Francis are exactly as they seem, same with Squirps (yes, you find out that he’s the prince of a space kingdom, but it doesn’t signify a deeper personality or a character arc).  Unique, yes.  Complex, no.

But again, as the Chapters increase, the Roughness in the thematic and character areas that matter become apparent.  Bowser goes from villain to joining you (which reflects a coming-together of him and Mario/Peach, who have always been his major Contrast).  Roughness.  Luigi has more Roughness than you’ll ever see – hero, brainwashed villain, hero, villain again.  There is Roughness in the Cragnon/Floro-Sapien plot.  Roughness in the true meaning of Luvbi’s origins.  Roughness in O’Chunks and Mimi.  Roughness, kind of, in Dimentio in that you slowly learn that he is more cunning/evil than he seems.

And, of course, sublime Roughness from both Bleck and Tippi.  Again, Bleck at first feels like a standard “wants to end the world” villain.  And Tippi is a basic “guide” character.  They’re not.

But notice that I also talked about the same examples in the Contrast section, as the game is all about looking at what appear to be major Contrasts and seeing the union between them.  Because there are less gradations in the worlds, the game at first FEELS very black-and-white until time passes and you see the Contrasts and the thematic Roughness the game is trying to talk about.

One can argue that the theme of hidden depth is reinforced by the mechanics because the 2D/3D switch does reveal hidden depth that you didn’t initially see.  However, this doesn’t carry over to the battle system, and again, it is sad when characters like Bonechill or Super Dimentio appear to have hidden depth but then, when mechanically fighting them, they don’t.

 

12 – Echoes: As stated earlier, the game is about Light and Darkness coming together in the end, and this theme is Echoed in all of the examples mentioned above.  And with each Echo, we get closer and closer to the Strong Center, thematically.

Unlike previous Paper Mario games (above), Peach isn’t the echo of the theme.  We might initially think that she is, due to the set-up of the game, but once she escapes before Chapter 2, even though we know she can indeed be an echo of what the Pure Heart is, someone else can be as well.  It is no coincidence that, not long after Peach joins your party, Tippi is kidnapped and reveals a Pure Heart from her affection when you save her, suggesting that Tippi is an Echo of the Pure Heart.

This is reinforced again when Luvbi is revealed to be a Pure Heart, and then reinforces the game’s core themes of union between Contrasts, and sacrificial love at the center.

Already at this point, we have seen the Cragnons and Floro-Sapiens (factions that appear to hate each other) find a way towards nuanced peace that is followed by you receiving a Pure Heart, which suggests that finding this peace is necessary.  Jaydes and Grambi then appear to be another case of Contrasting settings.  So it is no coincidence that the location of the Pure Heart exists at the center of their union, personified by Luvbi, as this payoff has already been foreshadowed.

What is more prevalent in terms of Luvbi is that, in addition to echoing the Cragnon/Floro-Sapien theme of coming together towards peace, with Luvbi there is the element of love.  Because while her parents constructed her in order to protect the Pure Heart and fight for peace, they grew to love her.  And with her ceasing to exist by returning to Pure Heart form, the game is suggesting that love sometimes needs to be sacrificial in order to save worlds.

At this point, you can see where the game is going simply through the echoes the game has set up.

Because we know that Tippi is connected to the Pure Hearts, and represents this sense of love, light, and affection that is not especially dissimilar to Peach.  She is connected to the setting where you first meet her, Flipside, which is your hub world that is whitely lit and is the world you that has the most pathos to it.  It is the world most directly associated with, well, life in this universe at its most basic, and it is connected to Tippi.

At the same time, Count Bleck is connected to the Chaos Heart.  He broods in a blackly-lit, dark room that has barely any elements of light.  He is connected to the Void and the threat of all worlds being destroyed, echoed by his appearance in Chapter 6 that precedes the destruction of Sammer’s Kingdom.  If Tippi is the echo of light, Bleck is the echo of dark.

But wait.  We’ve already seen echoes of light and dark come together already in this game.  Peach and Bowser (the most basic echoes of light and dark) came together early on.  Then the Cragnons, whom we thought were the good guys, had to make peace with the Floro-Sapiens, whom we thought were the bad guys, with nuance in between.  Then Jaydes and Grambi came together to create Luvbi in order to protect the world, and then their love was echoed when she allowed herself to disappear in order to help.

Because by the start of Chapter 8, we know who Bleck and Tippi are, we know that that possibility of a union exists and can exist, and though we may think we need to defeat Darkness as Light (which is what we had to do in TTYD), the game has been telling us that it is really about finding a union between the two – the Strong Center.

I read another pro-Super Paper Mario article that talks about how, yes, Bleck and Tippi exist at the center of the story, but the game, which presents itself as “a tale of love” from the beginning, is paying just as much attention to the love that exists surrounding Bleck and Tippi [2].  That their sacrifice, an epitome of romantic love, is painful for the other characters to witness (and thus painful for us) because these characters lose people whom they consider true friends.  That love of friendship, and all the other kinds in between, may not be as front-and-center as Bleck and Tippi, but is just as nuanced and important considering the rest of the game’s themes.

Then who is the true evil?  Nothingness, and this is echoed by both Mr. L and Dimentio.  When Dimentio has his battles with you, he transports you to a pure green realm.  And the enemy you fight in the World of Nothing is Mr. L, your green adversary who represents the potential for egoistic apathy, like Dimentio.  Except that Dimentio, unlike Luigi/Mr. L, doesn’t have his kinder and darker personalities as separate entities.  With Dimentio, there is no love hidden underneath, just nothingness.

Finally, it is worth touching upon the game’s music as echoes of its narrative themes.

Count Bleck’s theme music (and later his interlude theme and final battle theme) reflects a dark undertone.  These themes, especially the last one, reflect a dark, choral feel reminiscent of other dark themes like the Shadow Queen’s.  Contrastingly, the theme of the Pure Hearts is a theme of light and hope, reminiscent of the Crystal Stars.  And, as stated earlier, the peaceful theme “Memory” which details Blumiere and Timpani’s is one of utmost peace.  Flipside/Flopside, though pitched differently, are also themes of going about your life in a peaceful way; different from each other, but still daily living.

The most menacing themes, those of the World of Nothing, Mr. L, and Dimentio are more atonal and dissonant, and, when these themes are extrapolated into boss fights, like the Brobot Battle or the climactic Ultimate Show, they become chaotic, fast-paced, and messy.  This links these symbols of nothingness and malice with a sound-related feel of chaos.

 

13 – The Void: Well, this one is literal.  That’s a physical representation in this game, which we think is representative of the Dark echoes that we see in the game, but what the Void actually represents is the nothingness behind it, because that is what we see in Chapter 6.  Because the presumed “dark” characters are not the enemy, as we see.  Nothingness is.  Dimentio, the true enemy, is dangerous because he doesn’t have a heart and believes that his aspirations for world destruction is part of a fun time.  Characters that feel too deeply and do bad things as a result can at least be reasoned with, and brought back.  The Void spends the entire time of gameplay growing in size, in the same way the void inside Count Bleck’s heart has been growing in size ever since Timpani was taken away.

But, as long as it hasn’t erased what came before it, the Void can be reversed, in the same way Count Bleck’s pain and hatred can be reversed.  Like Merlon says, “To feel sadness is to live… But as long as you are alive, the future is a blank page.”  The sadness doesn’t have to consume you.

 

14 – Inner Calm: There is a TON of emergent narrative complexity.  Again, it says something that the key moments when the narrative is meant to be at it most emergent and revealing (the Blumiere-Timpani interludes) come with the most calming music.  Which both reflects that inner calm between dark and light that we want to feel and the inner calm we’re fighting for in-game.

It says something that, in terms of the world and the basic plot, it is not as emergently complex as TTYD.  Unlike TTYD, in which the lore about the Shadow Queen and the nuances of the X-Naut plot are mined out slowly (i.e. outside of rescuing Peach, at first, you don’t know what will necessarily happen if you love), in SPM, the stakes are very clear from the beginning.  Get the Pure Hearts to stop the Chaos Heart and save all worlds.

Where the emergent complexity comes in this game is in the characters.  Which, again, is harder to see initially.  In a sense, this curve is almost too steep.  In the beginning, there is a lack of complexity that is almost unnerving.  But as the story progresses, the character complexity becomes so great that it becomes almost too strong for the game’s mechanics to shoulder.

 

15 – Not-Separateness: Like TTYD, the worlds are not all physically interconnected (even less so here), and are much more bounded, but they are connected by this theme of saving worlds by bringing what appear to be Contrasts together.  And, this is an area where the mechanics do support the game, at least somewhat, in playing around with the status of your party.  After Sammer’s Kingdom is destroyed and then Dimentio sends you to the Underwhere immediately afterward, your party is scattered and thus all of the mechanics you had gotten used to (like using Peach to fly and Bowser to deliver massive damage) are taken away.  So, at the main narrative point where things feel the most scattered, so do the mechanics.  Then, in Chapter 8, when you lose party members as you progress deeper into Castle Bleck, you also feel the loss of the mechanics again, and the stakes then feel higher.

But most especially, the game plays around with having Tippi be separated from you on multiple occasions, first when Francis kidnaps her, then when she falls to the ground and has to be revived by Merlon for a time after Chapter 4, and then when you are lost in the Underwhere.  Here, the mechanic of being able to look around for clues is lost, so the game is reinforcing the importance of Tippi’s presence in your party by briefly taking her away at times, which is clever given her role as half of the game’s Strong Center.

 

Final Thoughts

So there we have Super Paper Mario.  Let’s give it credit.  It tackled a new RPG subgenre combining platforming and RPG elements, and managed to showcase an impressively deep story in the process, while allowing series-long thematic arcs to reach their apex.  Most people know that the story in this game is sublime and that the mechanics needed a little work.  Heck, even with just some tweaking with the difficulty levels of the later bosses, the platforming mechanics could still work without genuinely harming the narrative stakes.  One just can’t help wanting more after finishing the story.

For more analysis on Super Paper Mario, please read my analysis of the game in the direct context of the Paper Mario series as a whole.

All things considered, I am glad that I replayed this game again.  Hopefully you can find something out of it too.  If you have, thanks for playing!

[1] Jesse Schell, The Nature of Order in Game Narrative, GDC 2018, https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1025006/The-Nature-of-Order-in

[2] Altermentality, The Tale of Love: A Super Paper Analysis, Deviant Art, https://www.deviantart.com/altermentality/art/The-Tale-of-Love-A-Super-Paper-Analysis-295194808

 

The Rest of My Mario Narrative Series

The Greatest Mario Story Ever Told (and Why It Still Isn’t Perfect)

Challengers to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Expanded)

In Defense of Super Paper Mario within a Series Context: An Underrated Narrative Masterpiece That Could Have Been the Greatest of Them All

 

Additional Analysis

The Controversy of Super Paper Mario – Nintendrew, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euZscfTm1qU

What Makes Super Paper Mario A Paper Mario – SuperMarioT, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7LZ9jamwFg&t=415s

The Lore-Axe: Super Paper Mario Complete Lore – Game Domain, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fu3p0w3lLDA

Foils in Super Paper Mario – Alison, http://sheesania.com/foils-in-super-paper-mario/

Bad Game Design – Super Paper Mario & Color Splash – Snoman Gaming, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvjmgnLTKKQ

 

For Fun

Super Paper Mario Musical Bytes – Complete Package – Man on the Internet, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Fm1Teu2cY&t=8s

Challengers to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Expanded)

This is an expanded section that was a part of my original post on Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD).  For more details about my thoughts on TTYD, please read this original post.  The bottom line is that, for me, TTYD is the greatest Mario story ever told, which builds off of its IP’s rich history, combines it with iconic archetypes of light vs. dark, and reinforces all of it through its mechanics and characters.  It is the greatest interconnected, complex, thematic Mario narrative.

Basically, TTYD takes Mario characters + Mario structure + RPG Mario mechanics and builds on it.

But what about other Mario games?  I just recently played the most recent Mario title, Super Mario Odyssey, for the first time, and its narrative is not nearly as strong as TTYD’s, but other Mario games and other Mario RPGs over the years have come close. Let’s go through a few of them:

 

Super Paper Mario (Nintendo Wii, 2007):

Narratively Sublime, Mechanically Flawed

This is the most obvious counter-example. Because, on a pure story and plot basis, the main narrative is arguably more powerful than TTYD’s.

The story is about a LITERAL VOID (called the Void) that is opened up by the game’s main villain, Count Bleck, that threatens to destroy all universes and you have to collect all of the Pure Hearts in order to counter the Chaos Heart, which is powering the Void, and thus save all worlds.  At one point we actually see a world destroyed by the Void and reduced to nothingness, which might be the darkest  moment of the entire Mario canon.

The story employs Peach NOT as a damsel but as a playable character, as well as Bowser too! Luigi goes from captured hostage to brainwashed villain to party member to brainwashed villain again.

At one point, your party LITERALLY DIES and is sent to the Mario universe’s
version of Hell, and are forced to traverse towards Heaven, only to realize that one of the NPCs who was helping you, Luvbi, is actually a Pure Heart and must die in order for the Pure Hearts (and, by extension, you) to live (Like TTYD, however, if you look for her in the post-game, she has been miraculously revived).

In the final chapter, it is teased that members of your party (starting with Bowser, Peach, then Luigi) sacrifice themselves for Mario to continue (though they eventually survive and return in the tick of time to fight Count Bleck).

Finally, just as you defeat Count Bleck, the de facto main villain, the TRUE Villain, Dimentio, reveals himself having manipulated everyone to take control of the Void and remake the world in his image.

Dimentio himself is a fascinating character.  Every time he is on screen, he oozes charisma and the feeling that he is having fun with everything he is doing.  But behind his words, you can feel his manipulation and the joy he feels in tricking everyone around him.  Like Grodus, you begin to genuinely fear him, but are also mesmerized by his presence.

Most importantly with this game, however, Count Bleck’s backstory is teased out emergently in text interludes between chapters, and you eventually learn that he was a member of an ancient race, the Tribe of Darkness, who fell in love with a girl, Timpani, and when his father refused their union and erased her from their world, Count Bleck turned to hate, destroyed his race, and eventually used the hate to precipitate the universe’s destruction.

Then, it is revealed that the Pixl Tippi, who has been with you from the beginning and acts as your source of information (like Goombella did in TTYD), is actually Timpani – after she was erased/banished by Count Bleck’s father, she was found close to death by Merlon, your guide in the game, and was turned into a Pixl in order to save her life.

Finally reunited at the end, Count Bleck (whose real name is Blumiere) and his true love unite, destroy the Void, and save the universe. They presumably die, but the ending shot of the game is of the two of them off somewhere in the distance, suggesting that maybe they got their happy-ever-after after all.

It is a beautiful story.  It employs the tried-and-true Mario structure of chapters and collecting valuable objects, and employs light vs. dark again to great effect.

And the mechanics betray it.

The game tried to be a platformer and an RPG at the same time, and it just… honestly doesn’t work. Some of the niche moments of switching from 2D to 3D to unlock puzzles is mildly entertaining, but only Mario has the ability to switch from 2D to 3D, which then dilutes the joys of playing as  Peach, Bowser, and Luigi (i.e. it makes them feel less equal).

But especially, it becomes increasingly frustrating when a boss fight gets built up for hours and then, with a couple of nifty bounces (or using Bowser, who does 2x damage, as your main attacker), said boss is defeated in less than a minute.

This is most grating during the final boss fight. Dimentio, at this point, has been built up as a master villain, and has just spent a 2-3 minute cutscene revealing his plan gloriously and setting you up for a grand climax (with one of the greatest Mario villain songs put to reality).  And you can literally defeat him using Bowser in less than two minutes without breaking a sweat. So… basically… the cutscene that reveals the villain is longer than the final fight against the villain.  What?

The Paper Mario series often gets flack for a somewhat minimal difficulty curve, but at least some of the later chapters in the earlier games take strategy and time.

In TTYD, Shadow Queen is legitimately time-consuming and difficult.  She has 150 HP, attacks multiple times, and can restore her health easily.  You feel like you are Mario, tired, wanting to stop, but you can’t… because Peach and the fate of the world depends on it. Now, sure, there are badges in TTYD that, if used as cheats, can give you massive attack power, allowing you to power through the final fights. But these are for players TRYING to break the game.

In Super, just being an average player means defeating the final boss in less than two minutes.

One can argue that, in TTYD, the fighting is the climax of the story, whereas in Super Paper Mario (SPM), the climax is deeper in the connecting tissue around the fighting, but in-game it still feels cheap.

Also, the Pixls are a huge step down from partners with basically no personality at all (except for Tippi). And the rest of the overworld, outside of the most significant, named NPCs like Luvbi, feels less rich, with blocky characters replacing lovable Mushroom Kingdom denizens for the most part.

So, yeah – Super has a great main plot, great villain in Count Bleck, great twists, and great arcs for characters such as Luigi or Dimentio. But the rest of the game fails to support these elements.

NOTE: I have since replayed Super Paper Mario and, upon further review, felt that it was worthy of a deeper analysis, so I have constructed two new posts reviewing the game.  The first post applies A Nature of Order, as seen in the original TTYD post, to SPM, exploring its thematic depth and complications.  The second post explores SPM as the culminating entry of the Paper Mario trilogyand serves as a retrospective on the series as a whole.

 

Mario + Luigi Series (GBA/DS/3DS, 2003-15):

Nuanced Plots and Nuanced Villains Existing Outside the Mario Structure

This is actually a series that I like very much.  I am combining them here into one category to save some space, and also because these games, especially the first three, are similarly structured, with Mario and Luigi partnering together to explore an open world.  At a later time, I will be writing a post exploring the deeper differences between the Mario + Luigi series and the Paper Mario series.

In short, Mario has more of a personality (that of a somewhat annoyed, frustrated individual that keeps having to be the one to save everything and everyone, including his brother) in this series, and Luigi’s rich personality is always a wonderful addition to the narrative.  There has always been a case of Status usually used between Mario and Luigi, which gives Luigi low status and a colorful personality.  But in this game, we actually see what is it like, somewhat, to be the “high status” person.

Mechanically, the games are very sound.  Mario and Luigi have a lot of special moves that they can utilize, and each special move has a very precise action command.  Each iteration of the series then adds additional elements for you to play as.  Partners in Time adds Baby Mario and Baby Luigi, and Bowser’s Inside Story allows you to play as Bowser.  All very unique elements, but elements that feel connected to the game.

The main plots of these games, particularly the original, Superstar Saga, are  quite strong.  In the original, there are strong central mysteries regarding the witch, Cackletta, who is stealing people’s voices, and then you have a whole kingdom (the Beanbean Kingdom) to save from her.  The sequel, Partners in Time, tells the story of an alien race called the Shroobs that invade the Mushroom Kingdom in the past, so you have to go back in time and team up with younger versions of yourself (Baby Mario and Baby Luigi) to stop them.

Devastation seen in Superstar Saga

In both of these games, you see the effects of the villains on the world.  In Superstar Saga, you see the devastation that Cackletta’s plans have brought to Beanbean Castle Town, for example.  In Partners in Time, you see the Shroobs slowly populating the Mushroom Kingdom more and more in the past, and the fear in the voices of Toads that you speak to.  In both of these cases, this helps make the world more of a character in the story.  This is similar to the original Paper Mario (PM64) and TTYD, which show the effects of Bowser’s minions and the X-Nauts on the world, respectively.

The Fear of the Shroobs

The last of the three original games, Bowser’s Inside Story, features less intense worldbuilding and shows less of the effects of its villain, Fawful, on the world at large.  However, Fawful makes up for it due to his charisma and manipulative tactics directed at the heroes themselves.  Fawful very much is the Dimentio of the Mario + Luigi universe, someone who will answer every retort with a smile and a witty comment, but is actually a very skilled manipulator who knows how to play the long game to get what he wants.  But even more so, Fawful takes the fight to you in a very personal manner.  Having been a side villain from Superstar Saga, he knows Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Bowser quite well.  And as such, his threats, while harmful to the world, are more personally directed and focused.

In general, the original three Mario + Luigi games succeed very well in the villain department.  The original’s Cackletta is aided a lot by the plot.  Midway through the story, Cackletta is defeated and you’re thinking “Wait, I just killed the main villain… now what?”  But she is then able to return having been used to possess Bowser’s body, which keeps you very much on your toes in wondering how she will use any means at her disposal to keep her plans, and thus the narrative momentum, going.

The Shroobs, as well as their leader Princess Shroob, are great villains particularly because of the devastation they cause.  They speak only one, alien phrase repeatedly throughout the game, which is revealed later on to mean “Destroy!”  The grim way that they take over the Mushroom Kingdom (in terms of brainwashing common enemies, possessing Toads to turn them into Shroobs, and later sucking out their essences to produce energy) creates a very visceral feel to how dangerous they are.  Even though it’s not personal, the effects create the stakes.

And then the aforementioned Fawful is the villain at the most personal.  In the original, he is Cackletta’s servant.  By Bowser’s Inside Story, he is the main antagonist.  His effects on the world do not feel as dangerous as Grodus or the Shroobs, but his screen presence carries him very far here.

Fawful in Superstar Saga (left) and Bowser’s Inside Story (right)

In general, the games in this series mix up the narrative arguably even more than the Paper Mario games do.  Although each game indeed involves the collection of star-shaped MacGuffins, this collection process is not chapter-based, and you often get sent around an open world on more nuanced missions.

However, while this makes these games very interesting from a plot perspective, it actually makes them feel less like “Mario” games.  Remember, the original structure going all the way back to the original platformers employs direct chapter boundaries.  Whereas the Paper Mario series expands creatively within this structure (and also employs Strong Center “hubs” like the 3D Mario games do), the Mario + Luigi series plays it much more loosely.

Additionally, the Mario + Luigi series has more ridiculous characters than the Paper Mario series does.  This is not to say that PM64 and TTYD doesn’t have ridiculous characters, but the characters and enemies in these games are typically echoed by the worlds surrounding them.  In the Mario + Luigi games, extremely wacky characters like Jojo, Trunkle, or Broque Monsieur show up more or less out of nowhere and feel like they are just passing through in order for you to fight them or talk.

Also, the characters themselves, outside of a handful like Bowser, do not feel as rich, especially compared to those of TTYD. The games often reuse canon Mario characters like E. Gadd or Petey Piranha that are nice callbacks to the main series, but actually make the story feel less original honestly.  These characters feel like they showed up in the game, instead of feeling like they are part of the game reinforced by everything else.

Funnily enough, this makes the Mario + Luigi games feel more like advanced, tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, where you traverse back and forth through an open world, and fight a series of dangerous creatures as you go.  Where there are set Mario characters to interact with in the world, plus otherworldly creative characters that may not 100% “fit” with the world, but that that’s ok given the genre.  This feel, which is passed down from Super Mario RPG (see below), makes the Mario + Luigi games the more difficult games mechanically, but make them feel more like “RPGs in a Mario world with Mario characters,” whereas the Paper Marios feel like “Mario games that are RPGs.”  It is a very slight difference, but a significant one.

This is why I see that the plots of the Mario + Luigi series are more nuanced than the Paper Marios, but the Paper Marios have stories that are more connected by theme, character, world, and the Mario structure.

Again, I enjoy these games very much, mainly because Mario & Luigi probably have the MOST personality in them compared to any of the other games. And the plots are intricate enough to satiate. But somehow the world around our protagonists and plots feel less developed, and, well, less “Mario.”

 

Super Mario RPG (SNES, 1996):

The Original that Had Everything, Literally

I played this game long after playing the original Paper Mario series, so whereas a lot of other people use this game as a lens through which to view its successors, I had its successors in mind while playing this game, their predecessor.

Regardless of its successes and flaws, I give this game a lot of credit.  It was Nintendo’s first Mario RPG, and its success directly led to the Paper Mario series as well as the Mario + Luigi series.  Without this game, the rest would not be possible, and the game is extremely ambitious to boot.

For the uninitiated, the story is set up as a basic Mario adventure, with Bowser kidnapping Peach in the opening cutscene.  Mario rushes to save her, but while he and Bowser are fighting, a giant, sentient sword named Exor falls from the sky and crashes into Bowser’s Keep, sending Mario, Bowser, and Peach flying away to different points of the kingdom.  The sword is revealed to be a member of the Smithy Gang, an evil group of pseudo-mechanized people (not dissimilar from the X-Nauts in TTYD) who begin to wreck havoc on Mario’s world.

It is later revealed that Exor broke the Star Road above the clouds into seven pieces, which have scattered around the lands.  Mario now must collect these seven pieces to restore the Star Road, or else the power of wishes will not exist anymore (not dissimilar from the main hook in PM64).  Soon after, Smithy’s minions learn of this, and begin looking for the pieces themselves for their own nefarious purposes.

In this game, you eventually team up with Bowser and Peach (like you do in SPM), as well as two original characters – Mallow and Geno.  Mallow is a cloud prince who has his own mini-arc of learning that he was raised by frogs, and now must find his true parents among the clouds.  Geno is a doll brought to life by a literal shooting star that is on the direct mission of collecting the star pieces to save the Star Road.

You can see the aspects that the rest of the Mario RPGs draw on – Mallow and Geno very much represent the “original characters” from the story world who get drawn into Mario’s party due to their own missions and arcs, and then help in saving the world, a precursor to the Paper Mario party members.  While Bowser and Peach become precursors to the Mario + Luigi series, in which well-known Mario characters join your party whom have unique abilities that you can utilize.

Also, SMRPG has the overarching plot of collecting seven star-shaped MacGuffins in order to restore a magical artifact and prevent chaos, which every Paper Mario game employs in some form afterward.

The world itself you see shades of in the future games, especially the Mario + Luigi series, as SMRPG has more of an open-world than the Paper Mario series does.  But, whereas the Mario + Luigi games move around a lot in their open worlds, SMRPG has a fairly linear progression.  The areas are not strictly bounded like the Paper Mario chapters, and there is no true hub world, but you do move through them one-by-one, which feels more akin to the traditional Mario structure.  In this sense, it is closest to Mario + Luigi: Partners in Time, which is the most linear of its series.

World-wise, it is not as strong as the Paper Marios, as many of the towns that you access over the course of the adventure very much blend together.  At one point, in the town of Marryme, for a split-second I thought I was in the Mushroom Kingdom.  As opposed to the towns in Paper Mario which are more aesthetically and tonally distinct.

From left to right: Mushroom Kingdom, Marryme, and Seaside Town

Also, once you access a town once, you then can hop along on the world map to get from town to town to save time.  I am… mixed on this device.  On one hand, it saves a lot of time from a mechanical perspective, and keeps the game’s momentum moving swimmingly even during lulls in the narrative.  But it also makes the game feel very much like a game and less like a lived-in place.  This device betters the pace of the gameplay, but weakens the worldbuilding.

If there is a Strong Center to SMRPG, it is Bowser’s Keep, which is the first area you explore, is the area where you first come in contact with a Smithy Gang member (Exor), and is the area that you are separated from (because Exor destroys the bridge to Bowser’s Keep) and need to return to.  It is later revealed that Exor is acting as a portal that the creatures from Smithy’s dimension are using to travel to Mario’s world, so thus Exor (and thus Bowser’s Keep) is acting as a nexus to the main villain too.

If anything, this speaks to the fact that, of all of its successors, TTYD is actually the most similar to it.  Like TTYD, SMRPG involves an alien-esque race invading a Mario-esque world.  Like TTYD, the villains’ plan changes over the course of the story.  Smithy’s minions at first are in the game at first just to cause chaos, but later, after they find out about the Star Pieces, begin battling you to collect them.  Additionally, the final chapter involves you crossing a threshold to a dark area held beyond the game’s Strong Center, where the final villain is waiting for you.

Of the two main villains, Grodus is slightly more fleshed out than Smithy, comparatively.  In TTYD, Grodus is characterized as cruel and manipulative, and has a lot of agency in trying to direct the plot in awakening the spectre that is the Shadow Queen.  In SMRPG, Smithy is the dark spectre that looms over the plot and isn’t seen (only mentioned) until the final battle.

Grodus (TTYD) vs. Smithy (SMRPG)

You almost can feel that, when Nintendo made TTYD, they deepened the skeleton of a complex plot they already had worked on in SMRPG.

Because, make no question, TTYD is the deeper game of the two, which is why SMRPG is one of those games that comes close to TTYD’s brilliance, but doesn’t fully capture it.  Because TTYD connects its characters, villains, and world to a more singular, deeper theme.

Yes, in SMRPG, Geno represents the ideal of the Star Road needing to be repaired, and he represents the power that the stars can have on the world if the world is at peace.  This feels like the game’s central message, especially because Geno is the character that “leaves” the group after the final battle, mission complete and at peace (also, he is centralized during this resolute moment).

But then, it can seem that there are other plots vying for control of the game’s central message:

      • Mallow, whom you meet before meeting Geno and finding about his mission, needs to find his birth parents, and is connected to the character who seems to be your guide, his adopted grandfather Frogfucius.
      • Peach is set up to be the central damsel we all know and love, but continually subverts this expectation.  By the time she joins you for real, it’s clear that she is more than just a damsel (an idea that each RPG following SMRPG will employ).  But again, Peach is not connected to the theme like she is PM64 or TTYD, more a plot-based red herring.
      • Bowser is the villain you fight first, it is his castle that gets overrun, and under that ideal, he could be the Strong Center.  He undergoes the most character growth at least, willing to put differences aside in order to help.
      • There is the Smithy Gang plotline itself, which, independent of Geno’s mission, is endangering the Mushroom Kingdom by having mechanized cause havoc in the villages they reach.  Also, keep in mind, Smithy’s minions are not the only strong bosses you fight in SMRPG, so sometimes there is a disconnect over who is more dangerous – Smithy’s Gang, or the ordinary villains that make up Mario’s world.  Is there evil everywhere?

As one can see, there are a lot of plots in SMRPG that need to be resolved.  But notice – these feel like plots moving together in parallel, less unified together.  Other than ridding the world of mechanized evil, Smithy’s forces maybe being worse than the standard enemies of the kingdom, and the threat of star-wish magic being erased, these plots are not 100% cohesive.  By the end, Geno’s mission feels the most centralized, but not at first.  Like the games in the Mario + Luigi series, this makes the game indeed feel somewhat cinematic with an element of exploration, but again – makes them feel less like “Mario” games.

One can see that the Paper Mario games are more unified thematically.

PM64 takes the core of the SMRPG plots – the threat of star-wish magic being erased – and expands it to the entire Mushroom Kingdom, making an entire game about this threat in an expanded Mario world, and connecting it to Peach in the process.  Most of the characters you meet reinforce this theme, whereas SMRPG has it as one of many.  Its smaller plots then become more self-contained as well, and thus become less distracting to the main plot.

TTYD does this as well, linking its themes of Roughness and light vs. darkness through its characters, and subverting the traditional villain in Grodus by separating Grodus from the game’s central mystery and true villain.  While maintaining the back-and-forth complexity present in SMRPG.

The bottom line is that almost all of the elements that Nintendo would deepen in later games are present in SMRPG, and the game feels as such – the game has so much in it, it is bursting at the seams.  The game has so much in it, it is almost too much.  The gameplay and battle system are fantastic (which Nintendo would expand on with the Mario + Luigi games), arguably the most challenging of the series right from the start (this isn’t a joke, the boss fights in the later chapters are some of most strategically difficult battles in the Mario RPG canon).  I am also a fan of the music, especially the battle themes, which progress from basic fights to minor boss fights to major boss fights to the final fight with increasing intensity.  The A plot is complex with a handful of nice subversions, but the characters are not as deep as later installments.

Also, some of the boss fights in SMRPG can be very ridiculous (like some in Mario + Luigi), with an enemy showing up with little explanation and then never reappearing again, like Punchinello or the Czar Dragon.  Whereas every boss in TTYD (except maybe Smorg) has a deeper explanation as to why they exist.  This speaks to the fact that there is a lot happening in SMRPG, and the game indeed leans into its zany, chaotic tone, but that sometimes the game can be all over the place.

Who knows?  Maybe if I grew up with SMRPG instead of Paper Mario, I would be hailing this game as the king of Mario narratives.  Its plot is certainly as complex as TTYD, and there are indeed enough character-driven and thematic elements to satisfy.  Even with its sometimes-scattershot elements, the game is fantastic.

And given when it came out, it deserves a lot of praise.  We’re talking about a game that precedes all other Mario RPGs, and it tried a lot of ambitious, nuanced, challenging gameplay and story elements that still hold up all these years later.  In a way, SMRPG had to run so PM64 could walk, so that then TTYD could jog in balance.

 

Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo Wii, 2007):

A Simple Game with a Simple, Cosmic Message, and One Perfect Character

These next games being discussed here are not RPGs, and their stories are simpler, but they deserve to be discussed.  Especially Galaxy.  Because, for me, this game actually comes to closest, narratively speaking, to the thematic depth of the original two Paper Marios. Firstly, it employs a mechanic that, at its time, was wholly original: planet-hopping and using gravity in nifty ways.

Bowser, like in the original Paper Mario, feels menacing. Like in Paper Mario, he lifts Peach’s Castle from the sky and disappears into space, leaving (you guessed it) a thematic void that you have to go and save.

And the theme – that of the cosmos themselves being in danger – is reinforced by Rosalina. If Count Bleck is the richest Mario villain put to the screen, Rosalina is maybe the richest supporting Mario character put to screen, and especially the richest female supporting character.

In slow, emergent side-readings, you learn how Rosalina became connected to the cosmos and the Lumas, for whom she now cares for. She comes to represent a “Mother of all the Cosmos” type of character – basically, she cares for space itself. And, from the very beginning, she has been kind to you in your own journey.

So, yes, you need to rescue Peach because you need to rescue Peach. And you need to save the world because, well, it’s a Mario game. But additionally, you’re also doing it for Rosalina. The story becomes as much about repaying her kindness with your own heroism.  And through her, the game becomes about fighting for the essence of all cosmic life in its calm, spiritual beauty.

Also, I’ll be honest: it is refreshing to see a female Mario character used in an elegant way – a woman who represents knowledge, love, wisdom, and knowledge without a HINT of romantic overtones. She represents love on a grander, much more powerful level that in some ways is hard to put to words. But you feel it when you play the game. Her backstory surrounds the game’s hub (its Strong Center) – the Comet Observatory. So, if Rosalina’s backstory bounds the game’s Strong Center, then, in truth – SHE is the true center of the game.

Also, like the Paper Marios, the music is practically perfect, arguably the best Mario score ever created, reaching a level of grandeur that’s hard to compare it to. You literally feel like you’re flying through the sky. And when you fight Bowser, you feel like you’re fighting for the state of the world.

The plot in Galaxy is not as complex as TTYD, SMRPG, or any of the Mario + Luigi games.  But like the original Paper Mario, it employs a simple story structure at the beginning that is reinforced by original mechanics and powerful music.  What elevates it above PM64 is that Galaxy has one supporting character that transcends everything else.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 doesn’t hold a candle to its predecessor, as it sacrifices Galaxy 1’s Strong Center of the Comet Observatory for simplistic level-by-level design.  Mechanically brilliant?  Yes.  Narratively driven?  No.  And it loses Rosalina.  Galaxy is the best traditional Mario game, and it is not even close.

 

Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch, 2017):

Mechanically Sublime, Narratively Flawed

The last game on this list I am including due to it being the most recent mainstream Mario game.  Again, the traditional Mario games don’t usually have narratives as deep as RPGs but, then again, Galaxy, while simpler by comparison, was able to touch on a similar level of depth.  So, why not Odyssey?

Funnily enough, upon playing it, the game reminded me of PM64 at first.  Like PM64, Odyssey has your favourite “Mario” worlds but with some twists thrown in.  A grass land, desert land, water land, forest land, and ice land are all present, but then there is a food land… and a metropolitan land too!  If we’re making comparisons to TTYD as well, the Metro Kingdom comes around at a similar time in the narrative as the Glitz Pit, in which you feel like you are in store for expected Mario worlds and then get subverted.

Also, like the Paper Marios, each chapter has a world or town that has been overrun with Bowser’s minions and you need to defeat these bad guys to restore order to the town.  The towns don’t necessarily build on each other, but tell interesting mini-stories in and of themselves.

Also, like PM64 and somewhat TTYD, the story involves the nuance of playing as traditional Mario “enemies.”  PM64 gives these “enemies” personalities, turns them into your friends, and has them join forces with you.  Odyssey involves you using a magical hat named Cappy to take control of these enemies to then be able to play as them mechanically.  Take note of that sentence.  In PM64, this is a psychological twist.  In Odyssey, it is mechanical.

Taking control of Goombas

The plot, in general, of Odyssey involves you running after Bowser across these kingdoms onboard your hat-shaped ship The Odyssey before he can marry Peach.  Like PM64, you start off by losing to Bowser with him escaping to the sky with Peach – but with a key difference.  In PM64, you play as Mario before and during the initial fight, whereas Odyssey opens with the initial fight.  Thus, PM64 feels like you taking the loss to Bowser.  You have enough time to nuzzle into Mario’s skin to feel like you get the gut-punch of a loss.  Whereas Odyssey feels like watching a cutscene.

Take note of that sentence as well, because this “being somewhat removed” then carries over to the main action, especially compared to Paper Mario.

Paper Mario is an epic with intense world building, in which, by the end of the prologue, Bowser has won.  He has the Star Rod.  He has Peach.  He has the castle.  The town is in the ruins.  Mario is close to death.  The horrible event has happened.  It’s over.  And the game is all about REPAIRING the world that has been gutted by Bowser’s actions.  Talking with the Toad Town denizens that FEEL the loss of Peach’s Castle, and the loss of the Star Spirits and the ability to wish, to an extent, then reinforces that loss.

The game is all about fixing the world that has been broken, symbolized through Peach and the Star Spirits. So therefore seeing all of these worlds, the NPCs, and exploring their stories and wishes is immensely connected to the theme.

Odyssey, by contrast, is a chase story – a story in which you are trying to PREVENT the horrible event from occurring.

I give the game tremendous props for making you LOSE in your attempts to beat Bowser to the various MacGuffins – wedding accoutrements like special dresses and flowers that he steals from the various worlds.  But while you feel that Paper Mario takes place over many weeks or months of time, Odyssey just feels like days, if not just one day. You’re on the bad guy’s tail. But he’s getting away.  The main plot is more important than the worlds.

I enjoyed the first act of Odyssey the most, which had the most momentum regarding this aspect – being on the bad guy’s tail and being a step behind, which climaxes in your first battle with Bowser in the Cloud Kingdom.  I loved the first battle where even though you “win,” Bowser fires on your ship and leaves you further behind.  So the entire first act, it feels like you’re getting closer to Bowser, and then you finally get there…. and you lose.

In this first act, the fact that the main plot seemed more narratively important than the worlds was ok for me, and then the fact that the game mixed up this narrative at the end of the first act was very satisfying.

Immediately after losing, you have to repair The Odyssey, which takes time, and then you feel even further behind from Bowser.  It then is especially brilliant that the first kingdom after this is the Metro Kingdom, which is the kingdom with the most nuanced mini-plot, in restoring the city from rainy dystopia to sunlit metropolis, among the game’s worlds.  It is the kingdom that is the most expansive, and is the kingdom that has the NPC that most connects to you – Mayor Pauline.

This is not just because you can recognize her from Donkey Kong, the very first Mario game in existence (which is brilliant in its own right), but because she personally expresses a need to help save her city.  The Metro Kingdom unifies its mini-plot around one central NPC who bonds with you, unlike other worlds in which the NPCs that speak with you are more or less nameless.

In this kingdom, you feel more than any others the effects of Bowser’s actions on it.  And it is the kingdom you are most motivated to save even though you still have to chase Bowser.

Unfortunately, the game peaks with the Metro Kingdom.

As stated previously, the worlds feel less significant to the main plot.  Odyssey is a chase story at heart, and because the fear of being too far behind Bowser is too great, it’s like “okay, that’s great, NPCs, saving you is one thing, but I have to collect Power Moons quickly and chase Bowser.” So the plights of the mini-worlds feel less connected to the main plot, and therefore makes the time you spend in them feel like “breaks before the action” as opposed to “the action itself.”

The Metro Kingdom is an exception because you feel connected to wanting to help Mayor Pauline in particular, and Odyssey would have worked well if the worlds that follow the Metro Kingdom had NPCs as strong as her, but they do not.  After the Metro Kingdom, the NPCs are just as nameless as those you meet before the Metro Kingdom.  However, in the first half pre-Metro Kingdom, you are hooked by the tension of the chase.  By the second half, this momentum feels stalled.

If the back half of the narrative had given you more named NPCs to feel pain with as a result of Bowser’s actions, then the first half would have been the chase movie that you lose, and then the second half, now that you’re well behind Bowser, would have been all about feeling the effects of his actions on the worlds, and spending time in those worlds.

Because the worlds are gorgeous.  The colors sparkle, each one is distinct.  Each one carries a unique musical score to truly stand apart.  And each world is filled with content and things to do.  The Mario structure beams in color and beauty.  It just would have been a bonus if this part of the story (exploring the worlds) wasn’t clashing with the driving momentum of the main story (chasing Bowser).

Odyssey could have leaned into its namesake, and created a Homer-esque story in which the theme of the story is the exploration of different worlds while trying to reach a specific destination, and the vivid worlds that the games creates gets it halfway there.  But what it needed were more vivid characters in those worlds to leave an imprint, and therefore make the idea of stopping the chase to spend time in the worlds more appealing.  Again, from an aesthetic and mechanical perspective, it is appealing simply to get to spend more time in the worlds exploring the creativity the game has to offer.  But less so narrative-wise.

But again, Odyssey is not focused on a worldbuilt theme like PM64 is.  So, when the momentum of the chase stalls, there is less of a narrative to lean on.

However, the worst narrative culprit in Odyssey comes just before the climax.  If you look at the pre-Metro Kingdom as the chase movie, and the middle worlds as a lull in which you are collecting Power Moons but with less momentum, there then needs to be a kick to jumpstart the narrative into the third act, and, for a moment, it appears like there is.

After the post-Metro Kingdom worlds, you reach Bowser again on the way to Bowser’s Kingdom, but he doesn’t let you fight him.  Instead, he harnesses the power of a literal dragon, wrecks your ship again in one shot, and then flies away.  For a moment, I was floored, because it seemed like the game had introduced a new level of high stakes (Bowser on a dragon) that would pay off in the game’s climax.  Instead of being a repeat of the first Bowser fight, it was progressing the stakes of the narrative.

But this doesn’t happen.  Immediately afterward, you fight the dragon alone whilst repairing the ship for a second time in the Ruined Kingdom, defeat it, and then chase after Bowser some more before fighting him finally just before the wedding.

The dragon wasn’t a major threat.  Just a plot device and an obstacle.

As cool as it is to fight the dragon mechanically, imagine how cool it would have been if fighting the dragon and Bowser together had been the game’s final boss?

This hurt.  Because instead of feeling like the stakes progressed, it felt like the potential for higher stakes were teased, but then immediately removed so that the game could comfortably return to a traditional chase-and-fight-Bowser pattern.  Why is Bowser dangerous now if you’ve already defeated the seemingly stronger foe?

It would be like if Grodus reawakened the Shadow Queen at the end of Chapter 7 in TTYD, and then you killed her first, but then had to continue chasing Grodus to get Peach back.

Notice that I haven’t really been comparing Odyssey to TTYD, and that is, unfortunately, because it doesn’t really come close.  It is on the same level as PM64, at first, but not TTYD.  TTYD is all about complex, progressed stakes on top of expanded, echoed worldbuilding along with a subverted main Mario plot.  Odyssey seems like it is harnessing at least one of those (an interesting Mario plot with some twists), but then chooses to ignore progressed narrative stakes.

Now, the gameplay is excellent, if not perfect.  Odyssey might be the most mechanically sublime game I’ve ever played, and the nuances of the different enemies you play as are fantastic.  Many people have written about how smooth the controls are, how perfect the aesthetics are, how the sound effects have small, light touches (like the music getting a touch muffled when you go underwater) that make the landscape feel truly real.  The worlds are vibrant, the pace is very brisk, and, even with these narrative criticisms, it was a very rewarding experience.

And the true climax, in which you get to play as Bowser to escape a collapsing underground lair and save Peach, is a wonderful culmination, mechanically-speaking, of the game’s core elements.

But story-wise, it is not in the same ballpark as other Mario games like Galaxy or the RPGs.

 

The Elephants in the Room

Lastly, in mentioning the last two elephants in the room, Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Paper Mario: Color Splash, I’m not even going to talk that much about them, because enough people have. Nintendo sacrificed its story completely in these games in favor of gimmicks that actually harm the traditional mechanics.  Of the two, Color Splash is the stronger game.  It has the better soundtrack, Huey the paint can is somewhat less annoying than Kersti the sticker fairy, and he has a mild character arc.  The game, admittedly, is as humorous as the other RPGs that preceded it, and the worlds – while veering very close to completely basic – at least have touches in ingenuity.  I also give it credit for just how gorgeous its aesthetics are.

But the core mechanics, and the story that surrounds it, are not on the same level as its RPG predecessors.

 

Final Thoughts

I still retain hope that a Paper Mario 3 will eventually come into the world that actually honors its predecessors, though with the direction Nintendo is moving in (favoring more “fun” party games or reboots with twists on them, instead of more mature content), I also have my doubts that this will ever come to pass.

It struck me that, of all of the games I have played, the game that genuinely came the closest to TTYD’s brilliance is the original itself, Super Mario RPG.  Galaxy and Super Paper Mario had more of an emotional effect on me, yes, but Galaxy isn’t trying to be as complex as TTYD or the other RPGs.  And Super Paper Mario, for all of its powerful, emotional storytelling, has more clear-cut mechanical flaws that keep it from rising above its predecessor.

Super Mario RPG, like TTYD, tells a more emergently complex story.  Like TTYD and the games of the Mario + Luigi series, its story is complemented by its core gameplay mechanics, a true difficulty curve, and its features almost all of the core Mario RPG elements that we’ve come to love over the years.  Additionally, it adheres to the chapter-based Mario structure slightly more so than its Mario + Luigi successors, and features characters like Geno that leave a legitimate imprint on you.  Is it as thematically cohesive as TTYD?  No, but it is close.  And given that it was the first game of all them, that is saying a lot.

All of the other games mentioned here have one thing that stands tall among the others.  Super Paper Mario has the series’ deepest villain, Count Bleck, as well as maybe the most emotional story.  Galaxy has the series’ deepest female character (i.e. maybe its deepest supporting character), and has the best storytelling of any traditional Mario game.  Every game in the Mario + Luigi series showcases its titular protagonists at their most personable.  And, even though I highlighted its narrative flaws, Odyssey might be the most mechanically sublime game of all of them, from a purely game design perspective.

But, having said that, it is slightly troubling that the trend is moving backward from a narrative perspective.  SMRPG tells a complex, mechanically-supported story, an ideal that TTYD perfected.  Since then, Nintendo has yet to capture this magic with all of the elements in place.  As of now, my order of Mario narratives in terms of ranking are:

      1. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
      2. Super Mario RPG
      3. Super Mario Galaxy
      4. Super Paper Mario
      5. Paper Mario
      6. Mario + Luigi: Superstar Saga

Most of these games were long time ago, and Odyssey is the only recent Mario game that even has the skin of a new story.  Even with Odyssey‘s flaws, it at seems that Nintendo is at least experimenting with some story elements, which it hasn’t seemed like it has wanted to in the past ten years.  Maybe this is a harbinger of better Mario narratives to come in the future.  And rumor has it, a new Paper Mario is in the works that is going to be the spiritual successor to the original two games of the series.  These are rumors, so we can simply hope a little until these rumors become more crystallized.

NOTE (Updated 5/17/2020): These rumors have since become crystallized, with the newly released trailer of Paper Mario: The Origami King, and, first thoughts on the game feel… mixed.  The game looks like it has the first original Paper Mario plot since Super, and it indeed carries the potential of a deeper, darker story.  However, it’s hard to call it “based off of the originals,” because the mechanics and battle system still seem experimental.  In this case, it very much feels closer to Super than it does PM64 or TTYD: it feels like a game with a potentially deep story and experimental mechanics.

I am remaining optimistic, but it is unlikely to match TTYD‘s combined brilliance.  However, if it ends up feeling like a spiritual successor to Super, I will be ok with that, as I have come to very much appreciate that game in its own right.  Please see my Super Paper Mario post for a deeper explanation on what this represents for fans of the series.

Until then, it is comforting to know that there are a lot of Mario games to choose from when we want to don the red cap and the blue overalls, but also want a good story to experience too.

 

The Rest of My Mario Narrative Series

The Greatest Mario Story Ever Told (and Why It Still Isn’t Perfect)

Deep Analysis of Super Paper Mario: A Nature of Order Applied to a Complicated Narrative

In Defense of Super Paper Mario within a Series Context: An Underrated Narrative Masterpiece That Could Have Been the Greatest of Them All

 

Additional Analysis

The Controversy of Super Paper Mario – Nintendrew, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euZscfTm1qU

The Decline of Mario RPGs – ThrillingDuck, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O89Bd1dIlCY

Why Super Mario RPG Is Still the Best – Daniel Kurland, ScreenRant, https://screenrant.com/super-mario-rpg-nintendo-square-enix-best-rpg/

Super Mario RPG Review – Resonant Arc, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOVrNz3v6ic

The Quiet Sadness of Mario Galaxy – Jacob Geller, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZ1y75vxO0o

Good Game Design – Super Mario Odyssey – Snoman Gaming, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3LQ0pAGHqk

Super Mario Odyssey Surpasses Super Mario Galaxy in Every Area… Except One – Nadia Oxford, USgamer, https://www.usgamer.net/articles/super-mario-odyssey-surpasses-super-mario-galaxy-in-every-area-except-one

 

High-Risk Storytelling: Betrayal at House on the Hill

18 months ago, I played the story-driven board game Betrayal at House on the Hill for the first time with new friends and fell in love with the sheer scope of its storytelling capabilities.  The fact that no one game can ever be the same appealed to me, as well as the role-playing that ends up coming to play with the characters you inhabit.

First is the premise – it is an easy premise to get: a bunch of characters go into a haunted house and a bunch of mischief ensues, as you have to move around the house not knowing which room card will be placed in front of you or what objects you’ll run in to.  These are easy grounding mechanisms so there is not any inherent complexity.  The game is completely emergent.

Second is the world-building, which is different every time – the first half of the game is just you and the other characters moving around the house and unlocking randomly placed room cards, which are shuffled in a deck and are thus different each time.  The first half is all about getting the feel of the world and the characters, but it isn’t boring because the inherent focus of exploration is powerful enough.

Third is the betrayal itself, which can be triggered depending on the size of a die roll after each time a player encounters a haunted object.  If the betrayal (or the “haunt”) is triggered, the type of monster/event that happens is determined by the object that triggered it AND the room in which it was triggered.  There are 50-some-odd possibilities of this, which means that, in theory, you could play the game 50 different times can get a different type of haunt event.

BUT the premise remains inherently simple.  The player that just triggered the object is now the traitor, and thus inherently brings tension into the play space.  The traitor himself/herself feels confused and may not necessarily want to be the traitor, but can give in to the role very easily.  The other players may be wondering what the traitor has planned.  At this point in the game, the traitor gets a different passage than the other players with regards to what to do to win the game.

So, now the board is set and the characters have been established (but, again, inherently simply, with a “bad” guy in the traitor vs. the “good” other characters).  And now, the story can play out.

By having the first half occur rather than just starting on a given board with a die roll to determine the type of haunt, it feels that the players determined both the world itself and the type of haunt they find themselves in.  So, therefore, the story follows feels connected to everyone.  There are stakes.

And, the interesting part here is that, even still, the story can fall flat.

The first time I played Betrayal, I was the traitor and ended up summoning Death who needing to be “playing chess” (i.e. rolling dice) against the other players at all times, or else the traitor/Death team would win.  If the other players could defeat Death before they were defeated or before a turn went by without a fight happening, the “good” team would win.  The “traitor” player could help Death in rolling, but didn’t need to be fought or defeated for the “good” team to win.

This played out with Death taking out one player easily, making this player drop her items.  Then, the second player battled long enough until the third player arrived.  The third player battled Death while the second player went to go collect the items that the first player dropped.  But then Death rolled an outrageously high number and wiped out the third player in one move.  So then the second player had to roll a high enough number to run across the house just to make it to Death in order to keep fighting and keep the game going.  He succeeded, and in doing so picked up the dropped items of the third player.  Now evenly matched with Death, dices were rolled, but Death rolled the higher number and the game ended.

This was fantastic.  Twists, a race to a final fight, downed characters giving their “essences” in the form of items to the remaining player in order to continue the fight.  It was easy to visualize a movie that contained this story.

However, the second time I played Betrayal, it felt very different.  We all explored the house, but due to a freaky die roll, the haunt was triggered by I think the fourth turn.  You see, each time a haunted object is encountered, the person who encountered it must roll two dice and “beat” a certain counter number, which increases with each object encountered.  If the player fails, the haunt begins, the player becomes the traitor, and the monster is summoned.  In theory, this is very easy in the beginning because the numbers to beat start out very small.

But in this playthrough, the player rolled a bad roll, and the haunt was triggered with very little of the house explored.  This type of haunt trigger was an angry, demon kid that could kill other players with one shot.  The goal for the other players was to find certain MacGuffins scattered around to give them powers to defeat the kid.  However, with so little of the house explored, it was easy for the kid to move around the limited rooms, find the other players, and kill them very quickly.  By the time just one of the three needed MacGuffins was found, the game was over and the kid/traitor team won.

Not a great story.  No tension.  No heroism.  No buildup at all.

But I didn’t mind.  Because that’s what the game is.  Because the players are in control of so many of the world elements that trigger the story, it remains randomly possible that certain events triggered at a certain time with a certain board structure lead to a limited, flat story.

And other times, other events can be triggered that lead to a story that almost feels cinematic.

High-risk, high-reward storytelling.  So I didn’t mind experiencing the flat story.  Because I knew that I could play the game again, given its vast possibilities, and potential experience a fantastic, player-driven story that I hadn’t even thought of.

The lesson: If the players are in control of all of the elements that make up the game story, and if there are a large number of possibilities given the combination of these elements, then even if the story ends up not landing, it ends up feeling okay.  Because you can always play again.

The Greatest Mario Story Ever Told (and Why It Still Isn’t Perfect)

I’ll be honest, I have been looking forward to this design blog post for a long time.  After learning more about narrative and specifically how it is interconnected with the level design and mechanics of a game, it is time to tackle what is arguably my favorite game of all time – Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, for the Nintendo GameCube, which can be abbreviated as TTYD.

In this post, I will explore how all traditional Mario games employ certain structures that make the games pleasing from a level design and mechanical perspective.  Then, I will analyze how Nintendo expanded on the “Mario” structure already in place to create the original Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64 (PM64), and, from there, created TTYD – a game that retains this structure that makes it still feel like a “Mario” game, yet also a game that connects its structure to a multitude of rich narrative themes and characters, a combination of successes that had not been reached yet in a Mario game.

I will then compare TTYD to its potential successors that came after it, and explain why I still believe TTYD stands above them all.  And then, finally, I will discuss why TTYD, the greatest Mario story ever told, still has flaws at its core.

The lens within which I intend to do this is through Christopher Alexander’s A Nature of Order, where he posits on how there are inherent patterns in architectures, games, life, etc. that, when employed and noticed, create a pleasurable feeling that things are balanced, comfortable, all right:

For the uninitiated, these patterns can be described as such [1]:

  1. Levels of Scale: We are constantly interacting with things small, medium, and big, and changes in these scales can be seen and felt.
  2. Strong Centers: We are interested in things, like the solar system or atoms, that are centered.
  3. Boundaries: Boundaries create centers, and there are also physical and thematic boundaries that need to be crossed in order for change to occur.
  4. Alternating Repetition: We like going back and forth, like falling/rising tension flow in a story, or checkerboard patterns.  They are pleasing.
  5. Positive Space: There is an interplay between positive and negative space.  Sometimes negative space can enhance positive space.
  6. Good Shape: We like shapes that are not trying to be pretty but, through their inherent purposes, make pleasing shapes, like sails catching the wind.
  7. Local Symmetries: Our brains are programmed to spot tiny symmetries (i.e. in our bodies, between characters in a story) that feel connected, even if, globally, they are not.
  8. Deep Interlock: We like the feeling that things are interconnected, that things which happened ages ago, that felt meaningless at the time, have some significance.  Characters, stories, mechanics, themes, must feel connected or the feeling starts to fall apart.
  9. Contrast: We can perceive two things brought together in unexpected ways, or one thing (like comedy) enhancing another thing (like tragedy).
  10. Graded Variation: This regards things changing overtime; things we can’t spot instantaneously but when we look back at them, we realize the change that happened between now and then.
  11. Roughness: We don’t want characters and things that are 100% smooth, because imperfect things feel human, real, and natural in their messiness.
  12. Echoes: One thing echoes another, like game mechanics or characters echoing the central theme of a story.
  13. The Void: Oftentimes the most important things are in empty spaces.
  14. Inner Calm: We are not given all the information at once, so that emergent complexities can come out through natural tension.
  15. Not-Separateness: We like the feeling that pieces, even if they are physically separate, are not, and that if you take one piece away, the other suffers.  The world is connected.

 

The Mario Structure

Traditional Mario games, from the classic platformers to the early 3D Mario games such as Super Mario 64 (SM64), actually do a fairly decent job in employing these patterns to create aesthetically pleasing “Mario” structures:

1 – Levels of Scale: This is not just in Mario literally changing size in most games, but this is also true structurally as well, in which you are able to interact with all three levels of scale:

      • Small: Coins, items, enemies, in-level things
      • Medium: The levels themselves that must be completed
      • Big: The big map, the worlds you go through.  Not all games have maps, but most, like Super Mario World (SMW) or Super Mario Bros. 3 (SMB3), indeed do, allowing you to track your progress.

Three levels of scale as seen in Super Mario World

  • 2 – Strong Centers: The platformers are often devoid of this (outside of maybe Mario being your center, which is a reach), with the levels simply stacking up on each other as you go through the world, from point A to point B.

But with SM64, Nintendo improved on this with Peach’s Castle, proving that a strong center can work with a Mario experience that you keep coming back to and which serves as your hub.

3 – Boundaries: In all Mario games, the game is divided into worlds that you must complete in order to move on to the next one, and each world typically has a singular aesthetic that binds it to itself.

Worlds 2, 4, and 6 (respectively) in SMB3

SM64 also has numerical boundaries of stars you need to collect in order to unlock new worlds, and Peach’s Castle has literal photo boundaries that you need to jump through in order to enter levels.

4 – Alternating Repetition: Platformer levels that just build on each other are actually not the best at this, considering you’re just playing levels which don’t necessarily repeat.  With SM64, you can argue that there is a light repetition of needing to at least set foot in Peach’s Castle between completing one of the missions in the levels.  Additionally, certain elements, like mountain regions, repeat overtime between levels – Course 4 is Cool, Cool Mountain (left below) and Course 12 is Tall, Tall Mountain (right below).

Because this aspect is sparse, maybe Nintendo was experimenting with this aspect in these earlier games.  But this aspect is less noticeable than some of the other patterns.

5 – Positive Space: The Mario aesthetic is brilliant at this, and one of the reasons it is so nice to look at.  Mario, the collectible items, his enemies, the coins you collect, etc. are often drawn using hot, red colors that contrast vs. the environments that are cool colors like blues or greens, creating Positive/Negative space.  Mario himself, with his reds, pops out a lot.

6 – Good Shape: Some of the Mario maps, particularly SMW, create a good shape. Mario does so too when he puts on the different suits, creating new lines and angles in himself.  These new suits are meant to give Mario new abilities, but also create interesting, contrasting shapes that complement these abilities.  Keep in mind, these abilities are mechanically based and less from a character and thematic level.

7 – Local Symmetries: Again, the platformer style doesn’t lend itself much to symmetries.  It can be argued that you encounter similar types of levels in each world at specific places (you often are traversing left to right with an enemy castle on the far right, repeatedly), and that Peach’s Castle in SM64 is largely symmetrical from an overworld perspective.  From a character perspective, the only characters often symmetrical to each other are the enemies who are sometimes mirrors (like Red vs. Green Koopas), and Mario vs. Luigi.  These symmetries are often more aesthetic and not from characterization.

8 – Deep Interlock: This unfortunately is an area where Mario games often suffer; there’s rarely a case of a thing or item you didn’t think was important becoming important later.  In many ways, there are just not enough elements because everything is simple in traditional Mario.  Worlds are bounded and singular, characters don’t have arcs, and there really isn’t a story for mechanics to enhance.

9 – Contrast: There is some contrast in the world level structure, which is effective.  Particularly in the classic platformers, there is contrast between the island, grassland, desert, lava, forest, pipe, and sky worlds (among others), with gorgeous aesthetics for each one that contrast one with the other.

Just looking at the environment on your screen will cue a naive gamer into what world is being played.

10 – Graded Variation: This works in Mario on a pure difficulty-ramp perspective, as the levels are designed such that they become harder as the worlds progress. However, there’s little seen of the world at large actually changing, and YOUR abilities don’t advance or change much beyond the initial learning of them.  You learn your jumping and running abilities fairly early, and then outside of a handful of new suits that may get introduced (also usually early), there is not much of this.

11 – Roughness: Roughness arguably comes from the weirdness of the villain characters and how some of them act through their physical mannerisms.  However, on a character level, Mario characters are typically EXTREMELY smooth, which makes the games simple and accessible, but also makes them feel less mature.

12 – Echoes: Echoes can come from certain levels or abilities (you become a frog in the water level, for example).  The enemies often echo the environment as well.  These echoes exist outside of character and narrative, though, as there isn’t much of a theme in traditional Mario games.

13 – The Void: Bowser’s Castle usually takes up some nice space on game maps, with a lot of empty room around it.

Still, this is usually only seen at the end of games, so it is not set up as well as it could be.  You can argue that Peach is a metaphorical Void that is missing, but you rarely see the effects of her being missing.  This is a “maybe” in SM64, because the game starts with her inviting you for tea, and then when you arrive, she is absent, which creates this feeling of dread and worry (also, it’s Peach’s Castle with no Peach for the entire game).

14 – Inner Calm: Well, there’s a calmness in Mario and complexity, emergent-wise, in the Level Design, but because you aren’t unlocking many new abilities or lore, there isn’t a whole lot of emergent complexity.

15 – Not-Separateness: Again, this is a problem in Mario games, even in SM64, because all of the levels feel separate.  This is the Mushroom Kingdom; but it doesn’t feel like a real, full, lived-in place. Characters inherently don’t feel connected, neither physically nor emotionally.

So, we have a Mario structure that is expertly used in creating scalable structures and complexities in the levels themselves, but a structure that is, basically, devoid of narrative and emotional connections.

Nintendo eventually tried its hand at Mario RPGs, and the genre alone
lends itself to much more complex narratives and structures.  After experimenting with Super Mario RPG (see below), Nintendo released the original Paper Mario.

Note: I played SMRPG a long time after already playing the Paper Mario series and the Mario and Luigi series, so my knowledge of these games as not as informed by SMRPG as many others.  However, I saw SMRPG as a wonderful game in its own right with an amazing plot, but one that didn’t use the Mario structure as strongly as its successors.  This is why I see it as an “RPG experiment” that Nintendo practiced with before merging it with more known Mario structures.  See the section “Challengers to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door” for more details about this.

From this point on, I am only speaking about PM64 and later TTYD.  So, from here on out, be aware of spoilers for both games.

 

Porting the Mario Structure to the RPG: The Original Paper Mario

Through this game, Nintendo managed to port the Mario structure seen in platformers and 3D into a grander scale, incorporating some of the elements the classics were weaker on, to make the world more satisfying.  In this original, the story is worth mentioning only somewhat, as it is not wholly complex.  The plot is not nearly as complex as Super Mario RPG, but that is not the point of Paper Mario.  The story is meant to exist in a similar vein to a traditional Mario adventure, but expanded to incorporate more of the world and the core characters’ effects on it.   It shows Nintendo’s ability at taking a simple, emotional theme and connecting it across its mechanics and characters to create beautiful results.

For the uninitiated, in Paper Mario, Bowser kidnaps the Star Spirits and steals their powerful Star Rod.  This boosts his power, allowing him to capture Peach’s Castle by raising it high into the sky.  Bowser is then powerful enough to defeat Mario in single combat.  Mario must then traverse the Mushroom Kingdom to retrieve the Star Spirits, held captive by Bowser’s minions, and eventually return to the skies to fight Bowser once more.

1 – Levels of Scale: Mario doesn’t change size in PM64, but the game makes up for it through its structure.  Firstly, there are literally three different types of game spaces for you to interact with:

        • Small: The battle screen, where you fight enemies in turn-based gameplay.
        • Medium: In-world, where you traverse the Mushroom Kingdom and solve puzzles and interact with characters.
        • Big: The map, which you can view whenever you’d like.
    • And, like the established Mario structure, there are small items/badges/coins you can use to affect you, medium characters and enemies that you interact with, and the larger, big-picture structure that you are traversing, which carries more narrative weight this time.

2 – Strong Centers: The game is all about its strong center.  Toad Town acts as a hub throughout the game that you continually return to and is full of life, shops to visit, and NPCs to chat with.  Additionally, Peach’s Castle (which has been uprooted) acts a subtle Strong Center on its own.

3 – Boundaries: Firstly, during some game moments, the game employs actual boundaries.  This is similar a bit to SM64 in unlocking more of the physical game space as you progress through it.  (Example: At first there is debris that prevents you from exploring the southern half of Toad Town, but it is removed after Chapter 1.  This becomes very satisfying and feels like you opened up the city.)

You also can see some boundaries on the map so then it feels satisfying when you cross them (i.e. getting to go to Lavalava Island in Chapter 5 after viewing it on the map up until this point).

Plus, biggest of all (which turns Peach’s Castle into a strong center) is the boundary between you and the castle. The game starts off IN-CASTLE with Mario visiting Peach, so in your mind, Peach’s Castle feels like the center even though Toad Town is the game center.

You’re then thrown from it and Peach’s Castle is raised high into the sky by Bowser, with you needing to find a way back, a crossing-the-boundary task that initially feels impossible.

When you actually do, when you’ve made it back to Peach’s Castle at the end of Chapter 8 (where you were at the beginning and where you’ve been playing as Peach multiple times), it feels like you have finally returned to where you’re meant to be.  It feels glorious.

Lastly, of course, the Mario structure itself is built on boundaries of levels, and PM64 utilizes this with the chapters.  It’s a bigger world and an interconnected Mushroom Kingdom, but the boundaries are still there with each chapter feeling like a stand-alone part of the story with a mission to complete.

4 – Alternating Repetition: Ah, NOW it has it.  Each chapter typically has an “overworld” that also has some sort of “village” or hub of NPCs, followed by a “dungeon”:

      • Chapter 1: Pleasant Path (overworld), Koopa Village (hub), Koopa Bros. Fortress (dungeon)
      • Chapter 2: Mt. Rugged/Dry Dry Desert (overworld), Dry Dry Outpost (hub), Dry Dry Ruins (dungeon)
      • Chapter 3: Forever Forest/Gusty Gulch (overworld), Boo’s Mansion (hub), Tubba Blubba’s Castle (dungeon)
      • Chapter 4: Toad Town (overworld/hub), Shy Guy’s Toy Box (dungeon)
      • Chapter 5: Lavalava Island (overworld), Yoshi’s Village (hub), Mt. Lavalava (dungeon)
      • Chapter 6: Flower Fields (overworld/hub), Cloudy Climb (dungeon)
      • Chapter 7: Shiver City/Starborn Valley (hubs), Shiver Mountain (overworld), Crystal Palace (dungeon)
      • Chapter 8: Star Haven (hub), Bowser’s Castle (overworld), Peach’s Castle (dungeon)

Notice how as the chapters progress, the game begins to play with this alternating repetition to keep you on your toes as to what to expect next.  The game uses Toad Town, the de facto center of the entire game, as the “hub” for a chapter as well.  The last two chapters start out with you in the “safe place” with NPCs before sending you off on your quest.  You get the idea.

There is also a grander scale of Mario returning to Toad Town in-between
levels, which creates a pattern of Worlds / Toad Town / Worlds / Toad Town (with a playing-as-Peach level thrown in-between there for good measure).  This a similar repetition to the Levels / Peach’s Castle / Levels from SM64, but because you spend more time in Toad Town in this game compared to Peach’s Castle from SM64, this pattern stays with you more strongly.

Also, if you are so inclined, there are different sidequests that become unlockable with each chapter you complete, so these stack onto your feeling of repeating them with each iteration.  For example, you unlock three more of Koopa Koot’s missions after each chapter, so, before leaping into the next world, you can choose to complete them as part of an interlude, and then your mind expects to complete them as part of the next iteration.  This is also true with unlocking new badges at Rowf’s Badge Shop, and delivering Parakarry’s letters, among others.

5 – Positive Space: Again, the Mario aesthetic with paper is wonderful and creates LITERAL contrast with the paper lines on characters and objects, which make them stand out and pop.

Also, Bowser is at his most menacing in this game, and there’s an energy about him that creates this positive space whenever he’s on screen (because, well, he basically murders you in the first scene, which makes you see him as a much larger threat than usual).  This is reinforced by the aesthetic point that when he is glowing, he is at his most strong.  So, here, the aesthetics of Positive Space are reinforcing the deeper Positive Space of Bowser’s characterization.

There is also a contrast of seeing the shadowy, see-through Star Spirits that appear beside you at the beginning BECOMING positive space as you save more and more of them.  Again, Positive Space reinforcing the central plotline and theme.

6 – Good Shape: The world map, for one, is great to look at, and it’s great to see your trails of the places you’ve visited creating dotted lines across the Mushroom Kingdom.

There are also shapes with the dishes that Tayce T. cooks for you- you want to keep making the dishes to see the different shapes of what they look like, but the interesting shapes they make are secondary, as their purposes are to help heal you in different ways.

7 – Local Symmetries: You encounter similar types of enemies in certain worlds (just like in classic Mario), and then certain enemies (like Gloombas or Hyper Goombas) repeat in terms of style, which create symmetries that lead back to them.  So, as you’re fighting a Hyper Goomba in Chapter 3, you’re thinking about that time you fought an ordinary Goomba in the prologue and how this current experience is different.

 

There are also local symmetries with how the items in-game connect with each other (Mushroom vs. Super Mushroom vs. Ultra Mushroom, etc.), which leaves you thinking about how their different abilities relate.

8 – Deep Interlock: In-game, this happens a lot, as within a chapter, you’ll find a certain item or there will be some mystery early on that gets resolved later.  For instance, in Chapter 6, you get various items from the various flowers and only figure out how to use them by talking to other flowers and realizing which flower needs which item.  Most mysteries are self-contained within each chapter, however.

There are also larger-scale connections with Kolorado (returning as comic relief several times in the story) and Jr. Troopa (a character whom you fight as your first mini-boss and who returns for revenge a total of five more random times).  Aside from these, however, there’s less of an interconnected narrative that you feel.  In-game, you’ll get introduced to new mechanics AND partners as the story and worlds progress. But less globally.

9 – Contrast – There is the same wonderful contrast that traditional Mario has, with the different vivid worlds.

Thematically and mechanically, each level is more or less the patterned overworld + dungeon in which you have to figure out who is behind some sort of mystery, and why/how to defeat them.  The contrast is in the details, and, aesthetically, it’s brilliant.

The yellows of the desert vs. the purple of Forever Forest vs. the blue-green of Yoshi’s Island vs. the shining white of Shiver City vs. the grey-orange of Bowser’s Castle make them distinct.

Also, unlike traditional Mario, the game employs dialogue that acts as a contrast for the rest of the game (listening to NPCs is contrasted with running around in the overworld).  The comedic dialogue between characters typically contrasts with the seriousness of the subject matter, but, at least with PM64, the subject matter is not completely world-ending or anything.

10 – Graded Variation – Here we go: You feel the world at large changing more (i.e the difficulty ramps up with types of enemies, you unlock more abilities / more badges / partners / more ways to fight, etc.)

You are unlocking all these things and adding abilities or people to your inventory, so it feels like you are changing.

Toad Town changes as well.  If you spend the time talking with people, you see people’s opinions of Peach’s absence changing more, with some maintaining their wishes for her return, with others giving up hope, and others moving on to small issues in their own lives, such as longing for Toad romances.

If you return to your house and interact with Luigi, you’ll see that he also changes, with his opinions of you going from “take me with you” to “you’re never gonna take me with you” to “I wish you luck regardless.”

What’s interesting is that all these changes are triggered by boundary checkpoints of completing a chapter.  Once you do, time passes and characters’ opinions change.  You feel the sense of time in this game, which follows over to its successor.

11 – Roughness – It feels very fresh to see some ROUGHNESS (as in, character and different aesthetics) added to traditional Mario characters like Toads, Goombas, Koopas, and others.  You can see this in the Mushroom Kingdom denizens, like the different Toads are of different colors, wearing different types of clothing, or have different kinds of hairstyles.  But most especially, you see this with your partners.

Each one has a unique aesthetic, like Goombario having a blue hat to make him stand out from a traditional Goomba, or Bombette being a pink Bob-omb.  The game takes the traditional Mario enemy and tweaks them to make them your friends. Some of their personalities are more fleshed out then others, but aesthetically, absolutely yes.

This applies to Peach as well – instead of a pure damsel in distress, she’s out there causing mischief and trying to help, finding out information for you and potential boss weaknesses in between chapters.

12 – Echoes – Each party member echoes the environment/chapter you find him/her in.  For example, you meet Kooper in the Chapter 1 grassland area that is full of Koopas, so it makes sense that you would meet him here.  You meet Sushie, a Cheep Cheep fish, in the water/island area, so it makes sense that you would meet her here.  This goes along with there being certain items/enemies/characters echoing traditional Mario games.

The story (needing to save Peach to restore her absence to Toad Town mirrored by needing to save the Star Spirits to give people hope) is very, very simple, but it is built by the fact that at the beginning, you, like, basically almost die.  So, the game is built on a foundation of hopelessness, echoed both through your journey, the loss of the Star Spirits, and Peach’s abduction.

As you get stronger, you begin to feel more hopeful.  You’re saving more Star Spirits, and Peach is unlocking new locations in her castle.  There is a literal montage effect of finishing a chapter and saving a Star Spirit echoed by a Peach chapter to see how she changed as well.

The point is – unlike traditional Mario games that are more or less just about Mario and Peach, in Paper Mario you feel the effects of this conflict on the world.  The world needs hope.

And yeah – you building yourself up and getting more of the world behind you bring hope.  Once you rescue Peach and the Star Spirits and defeat Bowser, the story ends with the world parading, and you looking at the stars  with Peach (a.k.a. one of the most romantic moments between Mario and Peach in a game), with everything echoing each other.

The music of the game also provides echoes.  There are battle themes, leitmotifs for the Star Spirits which come on every time you save one, and Bowser’s theme has never felt more sinister.

13 – The Void – Again, there is a LITERAL VOID of Peach’s Castle being missing which connects back to all the echoes of it listed above. Also the void of the shadowy Star Spirits that you see at the beginning makes you feel their absence in Star Haven.

And in terms of level design, the game indeed employs the boss-battle-in-a-big-room, or dungeon-in-the-middle-of-nowhere style of design as well.

Lastly, the very end of the campaign, you arrive at Peach’s Castle after fighting your way through Bowser’s Castle in Chapter 8.  You’ve finally arrived that the space where you’ve played as Peach and navigated through a bunch of enemies, but the entire castle is empty.  And you’re like, “oh my – Bowser is here somewhere.  Time for the final battle.”

14 – Inner Calm – There is emergent complexity in the gameplay as you unlock new party members, hammers/boots, badges, and other bonuses that give yourself more STUFF to work with in-battle.  There is less emergent complexity for the sake of narrative though.  The stakes are established early, and from there, the chapters, more or less, stand alone until the climax.

15 – Non-separateness: This aspect is perfect here, as the worlds feel connected.  Mario games are typically about saving the princess, but here you actually see what her absence is doing to her subjects.  There is also the fact that Parakarry’s letters, Koopa Koot’s missions, and other sidequests between characters make you realize that all these NPCs have actual relationships with each other and backstories and histories.

So, as we can see, the original Paper Mario expanded the Mario structure out into a 3D RPG, utilized a powerfully simple paper aesthetic, and employed more of these patterns to create a very pleasing experience.  But, as seen as well, this experience is largely constrained to the chapter-by-chapter level.

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