The Mario & Luigi series of RPGs has been running since 2003, and every entry has been pretty consistently good, with each new game building off of the original double-brother action formula. The Paper Mario series, on the other hand, started out great with its first two entries, got a little shaky with Super Paper Mario, and then had a meteoric crash into utter failure (looking at you, Sticker Star). Still, for the most part, Mario RPGs are a winning concept in practice, and I’d be hard pressed to think of ways to detract from them. Luckily, the crossover game, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, did it for me.
One day, Luigi accompanies a random Toad into the castle storeroom, and accidentally uncovers a book (that really should’ve had a lock on it) that, upon opening, spews out legions of paper Toads, Goombas, and actually important people like Peach and Bowser. Knowing her paper people are probably lost and afraid, Paper Peach asks Mario and Luigi, accompanied by star spirit Starlow, who I guess has just been bumming around Peach’s castle since Bowser’s Inside Story, to track them down. Not five minutes after they leave to do so, Bowser and Paper Bowser fly in and kidnap both Peaches, who at this point in their lives, can’t even be bothered to be upset by this. Meanwhile, the brothers run into Paper Mario (but not Paper Luigi because no one cares about him, I guess), who promptly joins them on their quest to find more paper Toads. Oh, and save the Princesses too, if they get a minute. Compared to the previous Mario & Luigi games, the story is flatter than, well, paper. The game constantly lampshades the fact that Mario, Luigi, Peach and Bowser are just going through the motions here, and Peach, in an amusing conversation with Paper Peach, even says how tired she is of the whole kidnapping schtick. The characters’ genre savvy nature is amusing, but it doesn’t excuse lazy storytelling.
The game proper is mostly unchanged from previous entries; the Mario Bros. +1 walk around the overworld, using Paper Mario’s flexible nature to get over and around obstacles, and get into fights upon contact with an enemy NPC. In combat, the Bros can jump or use their hammers to fight, and during the enemy turn they can use the same tactics to dodge and deflect attacks. Paper Mario gets some extra attention thanks to his copy mechanic, in which he can create copies of himself and stack up to add more hits to his normal attacks, which is handy for dealing with larger groups, and the copies can even take hits for him, though you need to burn a turn to make more. Mario and Luigi’s Bros attacks make a return, several of which are copied wholesale from the previous games, in which timed button prompts between the two of them unleash powerful attacks on one or all enemies. With Paper Mario’s help, you can use Trio attacks that hit a bit harder, though the basic mechanics are the same. Replacing the dual badge system from previous entries is battle cards, which provide beneficial effects at the cost of star points you gain while fighting. It’s a neat little feature, but it tended to completely slip my mind unless I was actually in a difficult fight, which didn’t happen very often.The problem with adding a third brother to the existing system is one of ergonomics; my thumb can rest comfortably on the A and B buttons, so I can manage Mario and Luigi just fine for dodging. Adding Paper Mario into the mix, however, means I have to extend my thumb over to the Y button to cover all three, and the middle of a thumb isn’t good for holding buttons, so Mario takes more punishment while I try to micromanage the three of them.
For some reason, finding paper Toads is one of the integral parts of the game. In every area, there’s always some need for some kind of paper gadget, and some random paper Toad will tell you “yeah, I can totally build that thing, just get me X more paper Toads”. You go to an information center, where you have to play little minigames to acquire more paper Toads for your labor force. These minigames include hide and seek, breaking stone blocks with paper Toads in between them, and even a stealth minigame where you need to sneak past Fly Guys with binoculars, to name a few. Most of these range from boring to excruciating, made worse by how frequently you have to do them.
The last major new feature is papercraft battles, in which you ram giant papercraft enemies with a giant papercraft of your own. It’s a very simple process; knock over dudes, launch your papercraft to break them, pick it back up, lather, rinse, repeat. There’s not a lot of meat to it, unfortunately. Once you figure out the best way to knock enemies over, things take a turn for the dull. Considering how cool the giant fights were in previous games, this feels like a wasted opportunity.
Early on, there was something I took notice of: the game has a lot of features for making it easier. You can turn on target assist to see exactly which brother is being targeted by enemies, you can use an emergency block button if you can’t be bothered to dodge, and there’s even a straight-up easy mode that can be toggled from the options that powers up your brothers to a frankly ridiculous degree. These features, combined with the number of paper Toad minigames and faffing about on the overworld gave me the distinct impression that the game was going out of its way to keep me OUT of combat, which is baffling, since the combat is the best part of a Mario RPG.
True to its name, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam started with paper, and then got jammed before it could actually do anything with it. Boring minigames, excessive handholding in combat, and a story so bland even the characters don’t want to be in it. I think after the utter botch that was Sticker Star, and now this, Nintendo needs to take a long, hard look at what makes Mario RPGs great before they try this again.