The Mario RPG spin offs have long been some of my favourite JRPGs. Games like Super Mario RPG, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door took classic Mario elements and spun them on their head, giving us a unique, fun and frequently hilarious twist on the classic Mario formula. Recent Mario RPGs such as Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros and Paper Mario: Sticker Star have abandoned this charm and imagination in favour of a rigid adherence to classic Mario tropes and unfortunately Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros does not reverse that trend.
One day in Peach’s castle, Luigi stumbles across a strange book which acts as a portal between the regular Mario universe and the Paper Mario universe. Hordes of paper Toads as well as Paper Princess Peach come flying out, as do Paper Bowser and Bowser Jr, along with his army. It isn’t long before Bowser and Paper Bowser team up and capture their respective Peachs, leaving Mario and Luigi to save the day. Along the way, they are joined by Paper Mario himself.
Once again, Nintendo have made the baffling decision to add no new elements to their Mario RPG story. Early Mario RPGs added new characters and places mixed with the old; I adored exploring Rogueport in The Thousand Year Door and Fawful is one of the most memorable Nintendo villains in recent memory. When existing characters were brought in it was with an interesting twist; who could help but love the pathetic Bowser of Superstar Saga, or the sassy and brave Peach of The Thousand Year Door? All these are gone, with Paper Jam Bros keeping these characters firmly in place in their established dull characterisations. Paper Jam Bros is a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together from existing Mario elements, but this series is thirty years old now, there’s not much left to do with them. This is fine for a mostly story free platformer, but I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect better in the RPG. The worst part is that there still is story, we still have to sit through it as the same boring beats play out again and again. The only element I liked was the first appearance of the Koopalings in a Mario RPG, but nothing much is really done with them. It seems strange to be complaining about the story of the Mario game, but I know Nintendo can do better because they have in the past!
For anyone hoping that the injection of Paper Mario into the Mario & Luigi world would carry with it some interesting gameplay twists, lower those hopes quickly. Inside and outside of combat, the core mechanics are basically the same as elsewhere. There is a slight twist in the ability for Paper Mario to make clones of himself and boost attack power, but nothing really comes of it mechanically. Special attacks involving the three characters are fun enough the first few times, but begin to get a bit dull. Recent Mario & Luigi games have relied on a gimmick to set them apart from the others and these have genuinely been successful, particularly in the excellent Bowser’s Inside Story and to a lesser extent in Dream Team Bros. The addition of Paper Mario doesn’t even come close to offering the gameplay variety offered by playing as Bowser or manipulating Luigi’s dreams; essentially, he’s a new combat character with some different moves but that’s it. He offers some powers outside of battle, but in practice these aren’t really much different from those in the old games. The core mechanics of this series are still pretty solid, but five games in now something else is needed to keep me coming back.
Paper Jam Bros makes a couple of attempts at new mechanics, but none are entirely successful. There are semi-regular missions to rescue Paper Toads; some of these are interesting but a lot of them are basic treasure hunts as you trawl the environments pixel hunting. There are some cool different ones, like one based around FallBlox-esque er…falling blocks, but the majority are quite dull. Replacing the extremely enjoyable giant battles of Bowser’s Inside Story and Dream Team Bros are giant paper craft battles. These see you taking part in real time tank battles against a group of enemies, ramming them over and then jumping on them to finish them off. There aren’t many of these in the game and they’re really not that interesting. I do appreciate that Nintendo were trying to do something different, but different is only good if it’s better or at least as good as what came before. The papercraft battles are not only boring in themselves but also replaced a much more enjoyable feature.
Paper Jam Bros looks and sounds very similar to Dream Team, with the addition of the Paper Mario world being jarring and off putting rather than visually interesting. Mario and Luigi are bursting with personality with plenty of funny and charming animations; Paper Mario can’t help but come off as a bit (wait for it) flat. The environments are as generic as they come; field, forest, desert, lava, tropical island, snow. Considering the weirdness of the Mario universe you’d think it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with something a bit more interesting. The music is forgettable plinky-plonky nonsense. The game is presented well enough, but most of that work was done for Dream Team so it’s difficult to give this game too much credit.
Paper Jam Bros is probably decent enough if it’s your first Mario RPG. As someone who has played every Mario RPG, it just isn’t good enough for me. The mechanics may be solid but Nintendo has continued its bizarre move to strip the soul from the Mario RPGs. This series was one an automatic purchase, but not anymore. I really hope that Nintendo wins me back because I desperately want to love another Mario RPG, but it doesn’t seem likely.