Can we take a moment to appreciate just how gloriously wacky it is that a game like Paper Mario exists in the first place?
This is an idea that followed in the footsteps of Super Mario RPG, the Square/Nintendo collaboration which in itself marked a big departure in genre for the Mario universe. Nintendo would continue down this path with its own Intelligent Systems at the wheel, yet go off book even further by straying from some honoured RPG conventions and changing the aesthetics entirely! There had to be initial worries about this idea when it was on paper (har har), but the result turned out to be something magical.
Paper Mario somewhat simplifies the RPG formula by making the action focus primarily on Mario and one of eight partners at a time. Party management doesn't involve sorting between a lot of equipment and maintaining the points of the whole team; instead, you swap between which partner is thought best for the job. Partners can't be killed, but they can be delayed if hit. It's Mario's HP you have to watch out for, as a KO on him will end your current run.
This solo-centric setup might come off as a bit boring at first, but it soon becomes clear that strategy comes into play. Choosing whether Mario or his partner goes first can change his risk for damage; a good example being with Bob-ombs that can get angry with one hit and outright explode with two. Some fights might feel better with a partner who can defensively help Mario, while others might benefit more from one that can exploit enemies' weaknesses. Powers and abilities can also be augmented with badges found throughout the game, but only a few can be equipped at a time based on the number of available Badge Points.
Another key element of battle is an active timing system borrowed from Mario RPG. Simply hitting the A button at the right time can increase damage dealt or reduce damage sustained, but discovering the right moment can take some trials and practice. Paper Mario is not a mega-sum game with HP or attacks in the thousands, which actually ends up adding tension. As Mario's life whittles closer to zero, the ability to shave a few points of damage off an incoming attack or avoid it entirely can sometimes mean the difference between fighting on and a game over. It's a brilliant way to keep players engaged in the action and eliminate the button mashing that can plague some RPG battles.
Battles wouldn't mean much without a fun world and story for motivation, and Paper Mario delivers here as well. There are distinct environments with characters who stand out in each, but the partners often provide the most flavour with their demeanour and dialogue. What are potential baddies in other games are companions with distinct personalities here. It's difficult not to end up with a favourite you'll want to use all the time, whether it be the cute-yet-volatile Bombette, the wannabe tough guy Lakilester, or any of the others.
Princess Peach and Bowser also get the spotlight during intermissions and, seriously, the best Bowser is a talking Bowser. Mario RPG and Paper Mario arguably cemented Nintendo's main nemesis as the brutish goof he is often adored as today, making you almost feel bad when his plans go awry. Overall, the writing and localization stand as shining points on this game's crown.
Of course, the big draw on the box is the paper theme of Paper Mario, and it's still appealing even if time has shown some creases. It's like an alternate Mario universe of its own, living in a storybook with 2D characters existing among 3D objects. Things will sometimes fold or flutter down in amusing ways, and there are certainly still moments and pieces that have the power to wow today, but playing on the Wii U with a modern flatscreen and borders just seems to ding the atmosphere a slight bit. We've now seen sequels to Paper Mario that have pulled off the whimsy better. That said, there's still something endearingly quaint and nostalgic about the look that can send those who played the original back, like picking up an old toy. The music need not worry about age, though; it's a superb and often bouncy send-up that simultaneously belongs in the Mario universe and Paper Mario's unique niche.
Even if looks might not pop quite as much as in the past, do not let them deceive you. Paper Mario still holds up fantastically as a fun RPG that balances approachability and strategy. It's a perfect pick for those wanting a lighter yet involving experience, and essential for anyone who wants to see a key point in Nintendo's creative innovation. Even if Yoshi's Story got crafty first, Paper Mario carried that notion into the future and passed its gameplay baton on to the likes of the Mario & Luigi series. A true classic.