Believe it or not, there was such a time before Xbox was on the gaming scene. That’s right (I’m showing my age now), it was the PlayStation who was the new kid on the block, and the epic console war between Sega and Nintendo was all but over with the sad demise of the criminally underrated Dreamcast.
At this point, gaming’s most famous mascot, Mario, was a household name across the world and had already branched off into kart racing and numerous sports games. It was becoming clear Mario and chums could turn their hand to almost anything, and not long after the turn of the new millennium yet another series was born, with the release of Paper Mario for the N64.
The game marked the start of something (nearly) new for the residents of the Mushroom Kingdom, taking them into RPG territory, but not the first time. They had broken that ground five years earlier on the SNES, with Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, which was developed by Square, of Final Fantasy fame. Although Paper Mario isn’t a direct sequel, it is heavily inspired by its predecessor with the development duties this time falling to Intelligent Systems, the hugely talented people behind the Fire Emblem and Advance Wars series.
As ever, the titular moustachio found himself a princess light, as Bowser initiated his latest fiendish plan to kidnap Peach. However, this time he went one step further, taking the castle as well as the damsel in distress for good measure. It once again fell to Mario and friends to put a stop to Bowser’s evil plans and rescue the princess. To do this, Mario had to track down and rescue all seven star spirits to gain the power to defeat Bowser. The hunt for each was presented as a chapter in a book which told the story of Paper Mario.
Although you mainly played as Mario, it was actually his friends who possessed the skills required to overcome the many obstacles you encountered. Interestingly, these friends were all actually former enemies, ranging from a Goomba and a Koopa Trooper to a Boo and a Lakitu. Learning each individual ability was key to getting about and finding some secret stashes.
Alongside exploring, there was of course combat in Paper Mario. It was turn-based, and there were ordinary and special moves to unleash on your enemies which all went towards earning “star points”, which would see you level up. Well-timed button presses could also boost the power of some of your attacks in order to inflict maximum damage.
Paper Mario was a typical RPG in some senses, but shone with that Nintendo magic which elevated it above many of its rivals. The castle was very reminiscent of Super Mario 64, the music was new but familiar at the same time, and the gameplay was accessible to most, unlike in many RPGs. Oh, and for the record, the paper versions of the characters from the series are incredibly cute. How seamlessly Mario transitioned to a totally different genre was mighty impressive. Is there anything that the humble plumber can’t do?
Far from being a bit on the side of the main franchise, Paper Mario regularly placed in the very top tiers of “best games” lists thanks to favourable reactions upon its release from critics and players alike. It was so popular that it has paved the way for five sequels to date and the series shows no signs of slowing down. The most recent entry, Paper Mario: The Origami King, was released for the Nintendo Switch last year.
Quite clearly it’s going to be very difficult to pick up a copy of the original game nowadays, not to mention how much it would cost if you could get your mitts on it. However, Paper Mario was re-released on both the Wii and Wii U virtual console services, of which the latter is still up and running. If it’s too much trouble getting your hands on the original in either of its forms however, you can’t really go wrong with any game in the series. As it turns out, there’s a lot more to Mario than collecting coins and sliding down flagpoles.