It’s always hard to watch a beloved series fall on hard times. It’s even harder still when the problems holding it back are glaring and should have been as easy to spot as Godzilla stomping through a nitroglycerin plant. Alas, for one reason or another, crippling problems either manage to go unnoticed or disguise themselves as a game’s main selling point. Most often it’s a new feature that sounds exciting on paper, but winds up a disappointment in practice. Case and point, the slow yet drastic decline of the Paper Mario series.
The Paper Mario series was blessed with an incredibly strong start. Paper Mario surprised everyone with its simple, yet satisfying, turn-based combat and its willingness to put Mario in outlandish settings. He explored ancient koopan tombs, stole a loudmouth key from an invincible(?) giant and even took on the Teenage Mutant Ninja,
Turtles *ahem* Koopas on his quest to gather the seven star spirits. Add to that an unexpectedly deep level of character building via the badge system and you’ve got an instant classic that would only be outshined by its immediate sequel Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.
Paper Mario’s sequel did exactly what a worthy successor should. It kept what worked and added just a little bit extra. Mario was still the straight man in an otherwise silly world. His quest for the seven crystal stars (for it must always be stars) led him through a career as a wrestling superstar, the loss of his body and the ability to speak the letter “p”…somehow, befriending a ghost pirate and literally getting shot to the moon. It’s a journey that would have been impossible to undertake were it not for his new “curse” of being able to transform into paper. It was the first addition to the series that could be called a gimmick, but it never really came off that way since it was so well-integrated. Gliding around as a paper plane and sidling through gaps in walls were novel activities that enhanced the gameplay rather than taking away from it. Unfortunately, this would not hold true for the gimmicks of all future sequels.
Paper Mario fans had to wait three years for the series’ next entry to arrive in the form of 2007’s Super Paper Mario. While not a bad game by any stretch, Super Paper Mario represented the first major departure from the established formula. It dropped almost all RPG elements in favor of something closer to traditional Mario series platforming, but did so with a twist. On the outset of his quest to gather the eight Pure Hearts (for it must always be…wait,) Mario gained the ability to travel to the third dimension and discover all the secrets held therein. Pits could be bypassed via hills in the background. Enemies could be given the slip and insurmountable obstacles could be turned into amusing stage dressing at the push of button! The 3D flip was a wonderful and wonderfully integrated mechanic that justified that game’s departure from form and helped keep it from being received as an utter disappointment. The game, like its predecessors, also heavily benefited from the series’ trademark goofy scenarios and brilliant writing. Seriously, what other game would dedicate a whole level to riffing on RPG level-grinding and cheating? Super Paper Mario may not have been like its predecessors, but it still carried enough of their spirit to earn a unique place in the series. Still, its successful departure opened up the door for further experimentation in the form of the series’ only mobile game, Paper Mario: Sticker Star.
While Super Paper Mario’s quality as a Paper Mario game is debatable, that of Paper Mario: Sticker Star is certainly less so. The game returns to the series’ RPG roots, but does so with a catch. This time, everything revolves around consumable, single-use, stickers. Everything. If Mario wants to use a jump attack, he’d better hope he still has a jump sticker left in his inventory. The same goes for hammer moves and all items. Combine that with the fact that Mario does not level-up from fighting, and the result is a game that actually punishes its players for engaging with its core mechanic. Mario’s search for the six royal stickers (seriously, what’s going on here?) is also devoid of much of the charm that made its predecessors a joy to experience. Gone are the fanciful scenarios and smart writing. Instead, players are treated to the same worlds present in every regular Mario game and characters breaking the fourth wall in order to outright acknowledge the fact that they’re living in a paper craft world. Still, Paper Mario: Sticker Star did have a couple of idea nuggets that could have worked if they’d been implemented in less overbearing ways. Using stickers to overcome obstacles in a level could have been a fun little diversion. Introducing paper-themed status effects would have been interesting in a more fleshed-out RPG battle system. Sadly, that wasn’t the case and Sticker Star should have gone on to serve as an example of exactly how not to make a Paper Mario game…except it didn’t.
Instead, Paper Mario: Sticker Star ended up as the foundation for Paper Mario: Color Splash. Everything that hindered Sticker Star is still very present in Color Splash. Consumable-based combat is back, the only difference being that Mario is using cards instead of stickers. The system tries to be deeper by including summon cards and the ability to enhance all cards by painting them, but it is still heavily undermined by the lack of meaningful rewards since both money and paint are plentiful outside of battle. So what else is there outside of the battle system? Not much. Color Splash tries to include more interesting worlds, but ultimately fails since it doesn’t do anything fun with them. It thinks it’s funny, but self-referential humor gets old really fast when there’s nothing deeper to it. The most that can be said about Paper Mario: Color Splash is that it tries. It does its best to elevate Sticker Star’s flawed systems and looks gorgeous to boot, but all the spit and polish in the world can’t fix a fundamentally broken foundation.
The once-great Paper Mario series has been in steady decline for about ten years now. Super Paper Mario got the ball rolling by showing how successful the games could be when based upon a single quirky mechanic. Paper Mario: Sticker Star took it a step further by basing itself entirely on a gimmick instead of a fun mechanic and Paper Mario: Color Splash attempted to fix it by focusing on all the wrong problems. The series isn’t beyond salvation, though, and Nintendo wouldn’t even have to give up their love for the paper craft gimmick that defined the last two games. All it would take is integrating the paint and/or stickers as minor activities rather than having them serve as the basis for gameplay. Bring back the series’ traditional RPG system, give Mario his quirky partners back, and please, please, inject some of that classic zaniness into his next journey! The clock doesn’t have to be turned back too much here, just enough to get the games onto solid footing again.