Square’s Super Mario RPG on the SNES in 1996 put a new twist on Nintendo’s plumbing star by casting him in something other than an action platformer. It was a bold take on a familiar icon that turned out to be a great treat for RPG fans like me who wanted to see if it could work — and thankfully, thanks to the wizards are Square (now Square-Enix), it did making it one of the best RPGs on the SNES.
Fast forward to the Nintendo 64 and a quiet project brewing at Intelligent Systems, a development studio that is also part of the Nintendo empire responsible for games such as Mario Paint in 1992 and their work on the WarioWare series to date.
For several years in the late 90s, they were working on a game that was meant to be Super Mario RPG 2 — a sequel to Square’s game. It was also initially intended for release on the ill-fated Nintendo 64DD, a disk system similar to the Famicom’s, which came out in Japan in 1999 but never made it out due to its abysmal performance in the market.
According to the extensive coverage of the game over at the Super Mario Wiki, legal twists with Square led to a number of changing names for the game as it became Mario RPG 64, then Super Mario Adventure, and finally Mario Story in Japan. For the West, it would be renamed Paper Mario when it arrived in North America in 2001 (it came out in Japan a few months earlier in 2000). In a quote for IGN in 1997, Mario’s godfather, Shigeru Miyamoto, said:
“I think (Super Mario RPG II) will be the game that’s friendly for game beginners and amateur players to start out with.”
It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Square wasn’t asked to create the sequel — or participate in its development in any way — when Nintendo decided to internalize the project with Intelligent Systems.
Final Fantasy 7 had come out in January, 1997, a few months before Miyamoto’s interview above with IGN, though the game had been in development for far longer than that which eventually led to Square’s support of rival Sony’s PlayStation partly due to its capacious CD-ROM format (even Nintendo’s 64DD disk system apparently didn’t have enough space for the game Square was making). To say that relations were still somewhat chilly by the time 2001 rolled around is probably a fair assessment (Square’s marketing for FF7 included an ad that left little doubt that they had zero love for cartridges, or the people behind them). But things would begin publicly thawing a bit later with titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance in 2003.
But Miyamoto’s description of the game was apt. Paper Mario’s presentation and feel squarely aim at being as accessible to players as possible with bright colors, plenty of information on screen, and not-too-brutal battles. If Paper Mario were an RPG teacher, it’d be one of the nicest and most patient ones out there especially for players that have never picked up an RPG before or had the pleasure of experiencing Super Mario RPG on the SNES. And for veterans that aren’t put off by its colorful look and its cutesy atmosphere, there’s a solid RPG system waiting to be explored beneath the surface.
This time, series big bad, Bowser, has stolen the legendary Star Rod that grants wishes to anyone that wields it. Of course, his biggest wish is to defeat Mario which he manages to do after crashing Princess Toadstool’s party at her castle before raising it into the sky and gloating over his victory. The Mushroom Kingdom is in peril, but thankfully, Mario isn’t quite as dead as Bowser thinks he might be. Revived by a friendly family of Goombas (talking and walking mushroom people) who found him on the ground where his paper-thin self landed after getting tossed from the castle, he sets out to find new friends and bring them together to stop Bowser before he finally makes a wish that everyone will really regret.
From the start, you’re introduced to the mechanics of the game on through to your destined defeat at the hands of Bowser to give you a taste of combat and there on in, are introduced to the basic staples of its unique collection of strings with which to pull and turn Mario’s character into surviving what’s ahead.
This also isn’t a game with “mega” damage in much the same way that Square’s take had also approached things. You won’t be hitting things for hundreds or thousands of points of damage. Hitting enemies usually mostly results in single-digits of pain. Hitting an enemy for 9 points of damage is considered brutal stuff.
But that doesn’t mean that Mario doesn’t have other tricks inspired by traditional moves from his platforming day job. Aside from his “Jump” attack (useful for knocking down flying enemies) and a “Hammer” attack (useful against enemies that have spiked armor making it tough to land on them from a Jump attack), he can also use special skills that use “FP” or “flower points” (think magic points). If you miss having your reflexes tested in the same way a typical Super Mario game might challenge them, don’t worry. There are certain techniques that, while optional such as pressing “A” at the moment your Jump attack hits an enemy for bonus damage, add a bit of spice to breaking down foes before they can do the same to you.
There’s also a “Badge” system where, depending on how many Badge points he has, can equip badges that enable powerful abilities. Each badge takes up so many points limiting how many Mario can use at any time.
Leveling up has also been given a twist. Mario earns star points every time he defeats an enemy and for every 100 he collects, he levels up. It’s just another way the game pays homage to elements from Mario’s previous adventures such as when he collects 100 coins in certain Super Mario titles to earn a free life. On leveling, the player can decide whether to upgrade their health, flower points, or badge points depending on how they want to develop their Mario.
There are also healing items (like mushrooms), items to restore flower points, buffs, and attack specials among other things strewn throughout the game. There are also hidden items like star pieces that can be traded in for unique items. Coins can also be used to purchase items from shops or even hints from certain NPCs. There’s a lot of of them to talk to.
Much of the game also plays up the 2D “flatness” that made the game adopt its Paper Mario name for the West. Mario doesn’t jump into bed — he jumps and then kind of floats in under the covers. Turning left or right reveals his paper-thin self. Entering buildings “folds out” the facade as if it it were you opening up a small model to see what’s inside. But not everything’s flat — this is a 3D world, too, with everything from rocky steps and tall trees to the houses and mazes that Mario and friends will be exploring.
Paper Mario’s success would go on to create a lasting series of themed games spanning generations of hardware from the N64 onwards all the way up to the most current systems. As for Paper Mario itself, like many other classics, it was also made available digitally via the Virtual Console marketplace. Today, it still holds a special place in fans’ hearts as an endearing adventure featuring some of Nintendo’s most famous characters. It even holds up fairly well even after fifteen years attesting to the simplicity of its design and the ease of use behind its clever mechanics.
Like Squaresoft’s colorful take on the Mushroom Kingdom, Intelligent Systems’ is a celebration of everything Mario related. The RPG format has once again given it an interactive form with which it can expand the lore and magic of Nintendo’s most iconic characters. To that end, Shigeru Miyamoto and his team have managed to re-capture the magic that Square had created, breaking Mario and his friends even further away from being stereotyped as platform-only performers proving that the only limits to where they might go next is one’s own imagination. And they’re still proving that today, fifteen years later.