Why Mario & Luigi is a better RPG series than Paper Mario
Paper Mario is an extremely popular Mario spinoff on the internet, so this probably won’t be a popular opinion to hold, but the title says it all. I prefer the Mario & Luigi series to the Paper Mario series and honestly think the former are closer to a good Mario RPG than the latter. Here’s why.
1. Mario & Luigi battle system is actually like a Mario game
This is why I adore the battle system in those games so much, because they actually feel completely different from the battle systems in every other Japanese RPG. Instead of the all so common quick time event like button presses that games such as Paper Mario and Mario RPG fall back on so often (these have no real connection to what’s going on in the battle itself and exist purely to add interactivity to what would otherwise be a purely ‘strategic’ affair), you actually feel like you’re making Mario and Luigi jump out of the way or attacks or hammer away projectiles and line up their special moves properly.
Above: Blocking the Shadow Queen’s attacks or timing your own isn’t too logical.
While battling Dark Bowser here feels more like playing a Mario game, and is easier to learn
Skill plays much more of a role than intellect because of this, and I like it that way. If you’d be able to logically dodge an attack then you can, and you’re not limited to any strict timing window (you can repeatedly jump or hammer away attacks at will until either you deflect the shot or get hit). It means it’s much easier to beat enemies through skill despite a massive level difference due to how easy it is to time dodging their attacks.
It’s hard to explain, but the battle system just seems more logical in Mario & Luigi than in Paper Mario, and is most intuitive to learn as well.
2. The style of the Mario & Luigi series is much more like the platformers than that of Paper Mario
Both have fantastic art styles, but the later Mario & Luigi games are far less offputting to your standard New Super Mario Bros player than the later Paper Mario ones due to how much more similar to the generic ‘Mario’ style they look. Compare below:
Both styles are well designed and look really nice, but I think the Mario & Luigi look is just closer to what a Mario game should look like.
It’s not that any one style here is bad, just that the Mario & Luigi series art style works best for the franchise in general, and is more ‘accessible’ to the casual gamer brought up on the 2D/3D platformers and sports spinoff games. The Paper Mario one is arguably what will forever keep it a bit of a niche series.
3. The story and tone in Paper Mario is too ‘dark’ for the Mario series, the lighter tone of Mario & Luigi works better
To put it simply, Paper Mario has a good story that just doesn’t really seem like it should be about Mario. Yes it’s got plenty of depth and lots of interesting characters and settings, but it really seems to have no real connection to the greater Mario franchise in general and the story is so dissimilar it feels like a dolled up installment at times.
In fact, do you know what I think Paper Mario really feels like more than a Mario game? A Doctor Who season. Think about it. Each chapter could fairly easily be made into a 45 minute episode and the overarching story could easily be turned into a seasonal arc. Super Paper Mario is the most obvious example here, chapter 2 is basically a story of the civil war days with a shapeshifter run loose, chapter 5 a ‘prehistoric’ story about pollution and the environment and chapter 7 could easily be explained as a planet taken after Ancient Greek myth and legend (or those Gods being aliens mistaken for Gods by the people in what would now be considered Greece).
As for Count Bleck’s plan of using the void to destroy all universes after losing the one he loved, that’s pretty much close to the stock Doctor Who season arc as it is. Season 3 of the revived series had the same general ‘power of hope powered up the hero to defeat the main villain element’, season 4 had the Daleks wanting to destroy reality in much the same fashion for different reasons and season 5 almost shows what it’d be like if someone such as Bleck succeeded. Heck, you could even say the time fields/cracks in season 5 are like the void from Super Paper Mario if you were so inclined!
Same general idea in both cases.
Problem is, what works in a dramatic series that runs weekly doesn’t really work as well in an RPG starring an overweight Italian American plumber. To some degree it seems like the Paper Mario series story just clashes with the universe it’s supposedly set in and causes huge issues in terms of contradicting any characterisation given in the actual main series. Yes it’s technically not in name only because of how much the gameplay takes stuff from Mario and how many Mario references are sprinkled throughout, but you could take the basic story, remove the Mario stuff and publish it as a standalone novel and no one would really know it was ever originally a Mario story.
Compare this to Mario & Luigi which never takes itself too seriously and probably feels more like the kind of story you’d get in an actual Mario platformer (perhaps with Partners in Time as an exception). Instead of attempts at ‘aesops’ or ‘morality’ or stories based around love or emotion, it sticks to the humour and general ‘save the world’ story the main series runs around and works out much better for it.
4. Mario & Luigi games are less formulaic in their game structure
No really. Have a quick comparison showing the game structure of each Paper Mario game compared to that of each Mario & Luigi game:
As you can clearly see, the Paper Mario games definitely follow a clearer ‘template’ than the Mario & Luigi games, which to some degree makes them highly predictable. You know generally what’s going to happen later.
Super Mario RPG…
Paper Mario 2…
Super Paper Mario…
Meanwhile, the Mario & Luigi games vary things up a bit. Remember how many twists and turns the original game’s story took? You first looked to stop Cackletta and get back Peach’s voice, then it turned out Cackletta had stolen an imposter Peach’s voice and the next few ‘chapters’ had a more relaxed pace to them. Finally, you had Peach herself really get captured by Cackletta possessing Bowser and even that ended with her being let go before the game ended or you entered the final dungeon. The game was about as far from strictly formula for a Mario RPG as you could get.
Partners in Time was a bit of a cliche storm however, having all the hallmarks of a Mario RPG ready and present to the point the game itself was quite literally divided into distinct ‘levels’. However, some things kept it more interesting, with a fake final dungeon in the Shroob Mothership and another part of the game being about as long as three ‘chapters’ put together (when you went through Toad Town, Star Hill and the Star Shrine’s three seperate areas in one go).
Finally, Bowser’s Inside Story again made the game long mcguffin collecting fetch quest into a minor and quite late encountered part of the experience. For the first half the game there is no collecting of pointless mystical artifacts, you’re just Bowser trying to reach and take back his castle or Mario/Luigi trying to help him get there.
Contrast that to Paper Mario where every game is built around collecting seven mystical objects, where the gameplay is cleanly divided into chapters and where various character archtypes and themes are present across all three currently released games and you can see a level of unpredictability that makes Mario & Luigi the better designed game series.
5. Mario & Luigi has less ‘filler’/’gimmick’ content
You might even say Paper Mario goes wrong here in that it tries to be too ‘clever’ for its own good. Really, with certain ideas and sections, you can tell the game designers at Intelligent Systems were having way too much fun designing the game and didn’t really care less about whether the average player would fun actually playing through it.
This isn’t about the whole game, most of the gameplay in Paper Mario is excellent and is just a fun RPG experience in general. What it does refer to are the gimmicky sections thrown in every and now and then to pad out time. Here are some of the worst:
- Many of Peach’s missions in the first two games. Bowser’s ones were usually fun, Peach’s ones just dragged on and on and required things like stealth and potion making rather than actual RPG style gameplay.
- Over long running gags like that part in Paper Mario 2 where you have to watch a mafia Pianta member say ‘I love you’ to his wife about 50 times in a row
- Backtracking, like between Twilight Town and Creepy Steeple.
- Chores, like running on hamster type wheels in Super Paper Mario (you don’t need to do it for as long as you potentially could do it for, but you still need to do it at first)
- Chasing NPCs through the whole game world (General White in Paper Mario 2, Dimentio in Super Paper Mario)
- Mazes in general
- NPC escort missions in about chapter 5
- Mountains and mountains of text to read through in cut scenes
- Arbitary time wasting like finding Dry Dry Ruins with that beeping stone.
- Hitting mountains of enemies out the way with a hammer
There’s nothing wrong with some of that stuff if done sparingly, but I don’t think Paper Mario as a series has ever done ANYTHING sparingly. To some extent it feels like the story and humour is being used at expense of the gameplay, that half the series is basically meta jokes and mocking gameplay conventions for the sake of it rather than just letting people play a video game.
You can immediately see why it’s so much more popular than Mario & Luigi on the internet, this is the ‘nerd’ type crowd that likes games that make fun of cliches and gameplay conventions at the expense of fun gameplay, the types littered all over free flash game websites and such like. For the kind of crowd who religiously reads webcomics and watches internet reviewers rip apart 90s video games, or who thinks I Wanna Be the Guy or the Impossible Quiz is hilarious, Paper Mario’s worst sections might be entertaining. For someone not so much like that, the kinds of things mentioned above just get in the way of the fun gameplay found in the rest of the series.
That’s where I think Mario & Luigi wins out again. The series doesn’t generally have filler, it doesn’t have bland chores and fetch quests as necessary parts of the gameplay and it doesn’t generally try to do too much at once. Are there some poorly thought out exceptions? Perhaps, the space ship sections from Partners in Time and some of the mini games in Bowser’s Inside Story might count, and Joke’s End from the original game had all the worst elements of your standard JRPG dungeon:
As well as music that would drive someone to brink of suicide in minutes…
But in general, the games are designed to be fun over being ‘meaningful’ or ‘deep’ in any meta sense, making them better games as a whole. The Mario & Luigi series in general understands what people expect from the Mario series and it never forgets that as a video game, it’s job is to be fun for the player.