Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam is the fifth entry in the Mario franchise’s long-running RPG branch. Developed by AlphaDream, Paper Jam takes a novel twist on the formula by blending the two worlds of Mario RPGs together: Mario and Luigi and Paper Mario. Both franchises have proven to be incredibly successful within the RPG genre with a great degree of charm and humor, alongside some unique and engaging gameplay mechanics.
The events of Paper Jam kick off in a manner that is distinct to the Mario and Luigi franchise: Luigi’s utter ineptitude. While fixing a hole in Peach’s library, Luigi knocks over the book containing Paper Mario’s world, unleashing its contents across the Mushroom Kingdom. What starts as a simple task of collecting the lost Paper Toads to bring them back to their world quickly becomes an arduous battle against a united front of Bowser and Paper Bowser.
Make no mistake though: Paper Jam is in no way trying to take itself seriously. For the bulk of the 20-hour story, it never really feels like any genuine threat exists to any characters or the Mushroom Kingdom at large. The emphasis instead is put on the interactions between characters, often played for humor more than tension.
While the story may generally be lacking in depth, the character interactions can be quite endearing. The writing is witty and punctuated by self-aware jabs, both to the Mario franchise and RPG tropes in general. There are very few laugh-out-loud moments, but the cutscenes bring a smile to one’s self. Unfortunately, there are few noteworthy characters this time around, with no real show-stealers like Bowser in Bowser’s inside Story. Paper Jam certainly feels like a step down in this regard, landing more in the playful realm than in the humorous realm of previous installments.
For those unfamiliar with the Mario and Luigi franchise, gameplay is usually split into two distinct forms: exploration and combat. Exploration takes place on a 3D plane as you navigate the Mario Bros. through the Mushroom Kingdom. Areas are absolutely littered with coins to find, item boxes to open, and additional treasures buried beneath the ground. Maps can get quite large, and with the amount of items to find, there’s plenty of incentive to go exploring. With each brother’s ability mapped to a different button and a range of abilities to acquire, exploring is a very active experience. Direction is always clear as well with a nifty guide arrow always pointing the way to your current objective, but it never feels too constricting.
Combat in Mario and Luigi takes place in a turn-based manner. Each of the three Mario Bros. is equipped with a jump attack and a hammer attack, alongside a small selection of unique cooperative skills. Paper Mario sets himself apart with the Copy ability, enabling him to create copies of himself to shield from damage or amplify his attacks. Common to both franchises, there is an active component in the battle system, bestowing additional damage to well-timed button inputs and enabling dodges and counters to swift reactions.
What seems like a limited combat system on paper quickly proves to be one of the more engaging, dynamic combat systems in the genre. It’s easy to fall into a rudimentary attack pattern, but the cooperative Bros. and Trio attacks demand attention and provide immense satisfaction to pull off. Similarly, a keen focus and an attentive eye are absolutely necessary for defensive action, particularly in the later parts of the game. Enemies can deal significant damage to you in the late stretches, and although their attacks are telegraphed, failure to respond appropriately can quickly put you on the back foot. Bosses are especially engaging, as each possess a broad array of attacks, often including one or two that triggers a brief unique event to counter. To add an additional layer, a new feature called ‘Battle Cards’ is introduced midway through the game. This is a customizable deck of cards that can be called upon in battle to bestow unique effects, such as buffs, debuffs, experience boosts, or just outright damage. Cards can be found from defeated enemies or bought from stores to include in your deck. It’s an additional layer to combat that is rather open to experimentation, so although the execution seems lackluster, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have it around.
An additional type of combat exists with Paper Jam, known as ‘Papercraft Battles.’ These events are interspersed throughout the story, taking place at static points in the adventure. The player is tasked with piloting an enormous papercraft version of one of the protagonists against papercraft creations of Bowser’s minions. Although each battle puts you in control of a different papercraft, these sequences don’t really manage to bring anything unique to the table, nor do they undergo any significant progression. For example, while Papercraft Yoshi possesses a unique tongue attack, granting it more range, it dispatches foes in the same way: dash into them when they’re dazed, follow up with a stomp. Later sequences pad out the experience with numerous foes and additional puzzles, and although they’re quite pretty to behold, they never really become anything more than a brief, mandatory distraction.
Speaking of brief, mandatory distractions, Paper Jam has a slew of minigames to offer. These minigames are required to progress the story, and generally provide no benefits otherwise. A significant amount of these minigames boil down to simple hide-and-seek missions, with a few more puzzle-oriented tasks and the occasional race. While fundamentally functional, these additional tasks are generally uninteresting and would be best pushed to the side. A minigame should serve to complement the action, or provide a brief respite from a taxing journey, not grind forward progress to a halt and task the player with re-treading ground in order to progress. If this were a rare occurrence, it wouldn’t really be an issue, but this happens several times throughout the story, and only really serves to pad what should’ve been a more streamlined experience into something much more stilted.
The graphics and sound possess the standard Nintendo flair. The Mushroom Kingdom looks particularly vivid this time around, with a gorgeous, bright color pallet and some imaginative, beautiful landscapes. The juxtaposition of the 3D landscapes littered with 2D objects is rather eye-catching, particularly in the detail of the 2D objects. The two design styles complement each other nicely, and are often used to good effect in puzzle design. In terms of sound, the soundtrack is wholly enjoyable, with some very catchy background music and crisp sound effects. The battle theme is unfortunately one of the weaker tracks, despite being the most common song in the game.
Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam certainly seems to be aimed at rectifying the lack of creativity of the previous Mario and Luigi title while attempting to provide the more traditional RPG experience that the previous Paper Mario title deviated from. There seems to be two distinctly different goals in the game, and that is the biggest shortcoming of Paper Jam. While borrowing from a world as vivid and imaginative as Paper Mario, the Mario and Luigi franchise didn’t quite manage to capture that same level of creativity, nor did it provide the traditional RPG experience of its predecessors. The result is a solid RPG, but not a particularly noteworthy one. There’s a great deal of charm on display, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that there could have been more here.