This review originally went live in 2017, and we're updating and republishing it to mark the addition of Paper Mario to the other N64 games on Nintendo Switch Online.
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 aid 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 'A' at the right time can increase damage dealt or reduce damage sustained, but discovering the right moment can take some practice. Paper Mario is not a mega-sum game with HP or attacks in the thousands, and this 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 mean the difference between fighting on and 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 revealed a few 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 a modern flatscreen with borders just seems to ding the atmosphere slightly. We've seen sequels to Paper Mario in the years since that have pulled off the whimsical look better.
That said, there's still something endearingly quaint and nostalgic about this game's look and feel that can transport those who played the original back in time, like picking up an old toy. Time may have frayed the visuals a tad, but the music is unaffected by age; it's a superb and often bouncy send-up that simultaneously belongs both in the Mario universe itself, but also in Paper Mario's unique niche.
Even if its looks might not pop quite as much as in the past, don't be deceived — Paper Mario still holds up fantastically as a fun RPG that balances strategy and approachability. It's a series highlight and a perfect pick for those wanting an involving experience with a lighter tone, and one which showcases Nintendo at its innovative best. Even if Yoshi's Story got crafty first, Paper Mario birthed a long-running series and carried that craft into the future, while also passing on its turn-based battle baton to the likes of the Mario & Luigi series. A true classic.