Nintendo Needs Mario Role-Playing Games
On October 1, 2019, AlphaDream Corporation, the team behind the beloved Mario & Luigi series of turn-based role-playing games, declared bankruptcy. This move surprised many and marked yet another crippling blow to fans of Mario RPGs, as Mario & Luigi was the only active series in the genre. But how did the Mario RPG series fall so far, and is there any hope for the future?
The early years of Mario RPGs
The story of Mario RPGs traces back to 1996’s Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, developed by the RPG giant Square (best known for the legendary Final Fantasy series) in the waning years of the 16-bit SNES. The game was a match made in heaven; Square wanted to popularize the RPG in North America, and Shigeru Miyamoto wanted Mario to be in an RPG. The result was a game widely hailed by critics and fans alike, the game set in stone the conventions all later Mario RPGs would follow: large parties with interesting characters, plots outside the traditional “Bowser kidnaps Peach” conventions, and even team ups with Bowser and traditionally villainous Mario characters like Goombas and Koopas alongside the introduction of new races and locations outside the Mushroom Kingdom.
Despite this widespread success, Square would ultimately defect to Sony for future games, leaving a true sequel to Super Mario RPG impossible. However, this wasn’t Nintendo’s final stab at the genre; they released Paper Mario, which launched in Japan in 2000 in the dying years of the Nintendo 64, a platform infamously light on RPGs. A spiritual successor to Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario boasted a distinctive art style while advancing mechanics like action commands that were introduced in its forefather. While the plot was far simpler, it still subverted expectations by having a nearly omnipotent Bowser nearly murder Mario at the start the game. The game throws another curveball by granting Princess Peach agency, with her stealth-based missions leading Mario to the next locations on his quest. In terms of character, it also made major changes by having nearly all of Mario’s partners be of traditionally hostile races while also exploring the villages of the Mushroom Kingdom, many of which are home to friendly Goombas, Koopas, Bob-ombs, and more. Critics and audiences alike loved the game’s fresh, fun approach, even if it was a bit low in difficulty.
A second franchise was launched in 2003 with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga for the Game Boy Advance. While Paper Mario was the spiritual successor to Super Mario RPG, Superstar Saga can lay more claim to being a sequel; developer AlphaDream was staffed by many former Square employees, and the game’s score was composed by the composer of Super Mario RPG, the brilliant Yoko Shimomura; it even sported a cameo from fan-favorite Geno, a beloved character from that game. With tight gameplay, a wacky and twisty plot, a ton of notable characters, and an entire new world in the Beanbean Kingdom, this pocket-sized adventure was yet again a hit with critics and audiences alike, as were its two direct sequels Partners in Time (2005) and Bowser’s Inside Story (2009). All three titles shared similar gameplay tropes including its genre-bending action command system; in these games, not only can action commands power up normal attacks, they can enable you to dodge enemy attacks entirely, with the downside being that enemy attacks often hit hard. This challenging format keeps battles fun, fresh, and engaging and rewards players in a way most RPGs don’t.
While the Mario & Luigi series was kicking off, 2004’s Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door was launched to widespread acclaim and is now widely regarded by many as the greatest Mario RPG. Building on its predecessor in almost every way, TTYD boasts a more complex battle system, a much more engaging and original plot, a slew of new and interesting characters, and most surprisingly a dark and shocking edge with twists you wouldn’t see in any other Mario game. After all, in what other Nintendo game can you see Mario become a world champion professional wrestler, team up with a pirate ghost, or battle an ancient demon possessing the body of Princess Peach? To this day, TTYD is seen by many as the definitiveMario role-playing experience – but it’s also the last true console game in the genre.
The decline and rock bottom
After four straight critically-acclaimed, commercially successful titles, Nintendo didn’t seem content to stick with the formula. In many ways this is a good thing for Nintendo to consider, but in the case of the Mario RPGs, it hasn’t fared so well. While the Mario & Luigi series continued doing its thing to the very end, Paper Mario‘s story hasn’t been as happy.
Super Paper Mario launched for the Nintendo Wii in 2007. Unlike its predecessors, this game was a hybrid RPG/platformer with a major focus on perspective thanks to its unique gameplay gimmick: the ability to shift from a 2D to a 3D perspective. Sure, turn-based battles were gone, replaced with a real-time battle system based on platforming, but the traditional Paper Mario elements were still here; a slew of creative and fascinating worlds, diverse and interesting NPCs, and a story that frankly might be the best in the entire series. While fans and critics were somewhat split on the gameplay shifts, most seemed content with the product. This might not have been a turn-based game, but it certainly was a Paper Mario game.
Unfortunately, these positive feelings vanished with the release of two games widely dreaded by Mario RPG fans: Sticker Star (2012) for the 3DS and Color Splash (2016) for the Wii U. While these games kind of restored the turn-based RPG elements, they ditched the unique stories and characters entirely. Most worlds followed traditional Mario tropes and nearly all NPCs and enemies were of traditional Mario species. Even worse, the much-touted RPG elements fell flat; battles were turn-based, sure, but there were no partners relied entirely on disposable cards and stickers. Almost all strategy was removed from battles and no rewards were given except coins, which can mainly be used to purchase… more stickers or cards. To say Paper Mario fans were distraught by these entries is an understatement, and even though Color Splash had some of the best writing in the series, it failed to change people’s opinions, especially after it was revealed that the Mario & Luigi series would be the only Mario RPG series going forward.
So how was the Mario & Luigi series going? Well, not great. Dream Team launched for the 3DS to mostly positive reviews and sold well, but not nearly as well as Bowser’s Inside Story; the latter sold an estimated 4.5 million copies compared to Dream Team‘s. Many fans and critics took issue with the game’s lengthy tutorials along the sprawling 35 to 40 hour quest, but it was still seen as a solid entry by most. Then in 2015, the launch of Paper Jam presented a massive opportunity – a crossover with the Paper Mario series. Unfortunately, this was a crossover with Sticker Star, and that game seemed to bleed over. Paper Jam was widely praised for its battle system, which many regarded as the best in the series, but its paper-thin plot and limited variety of original characters turned many off. The game would ultimately sell only one million copies – a disappointing figure to be certain.
Rather than give-up, AlphaDream decided to return to basics with a remake of Superstar Saga, updating the GBA title from the ground up for the 3DS. This remake was well-received by most but it launched in October 2017, only months after the launch of the Nintendo Switch. The game sold poorly as a result, and a follow-up remake of Bowser’s Inside Story tanked entirely, seemingly leading to AlphaDream’s bankruptcy and the seeming demise of the Mario RPG.
A new hope?
Despite these disappointments for Mario RPG fans, all hope isn’t lost. August 2017 saw the launch of a new Mario series on Nintendo Switch with Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. At first glance, this game seemed to be a disaster in the making – a XCOM-style tactical RPG where Mario has a laser gun and teams up Ubisoft’s Rabbids? To the surprise of many, however, this Ubisoft-developed title won over everyone when launched to critical praise and is beloved by Mario fans. This innovative title in many ways brought back what everyone loved about the old turn-based RPGs: a slew of zany partners, a fun (if not overly wordy or complicated) story, and rock-solid fun and challenging gameplay. Go to any internet forum or Reddit post with even a mention of this game and you’ll find dozens of users lauding it – it hasn’t just been accepted by Mario RPG fans, it’s been embraced.
Even more encouraging are two more signs: Nintendo’s filing of a new trademark for Mario & Luigi, and recent rumors of a Paper Mario title for Switch. According to these rumors, this title would be a return to form for the series and not a remake. To say fans of Paper Mario like myself are excited is an understatement; we’ve been waiting over a decade for another competent entry in the series and over 15 years for another turn-based title. It’s unwise to trust any leak, but it’s safe to say the community is more excited than it has been in years. For us, Paper Mario isn’t just a series; it’s one of our favorite series. The Thousand-Year Door and Super Paper Mario boast my favorite Mario stories ever and TTYD might just be my favorite Mario game ever.
Nintendo needs the Mario RPGs
One thing that might be changing at Nintendo is their traditional aversion to story. Legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto is famously opposed to complex stories, viewing them as a distraction to gameplay, and it is known that he was one of the major influences in removing story from the Paper Mario games; however, in recent years Yoshiaki Koizumi has gained more influence in the company. Koizumi is famous for his support of storytelling in gaming and has been known to sneak stories into games even when ordered not to. Koizumi is most notable for writing the story for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening as well as directing the story-driven Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy (where he wrote the story and pushed for the inclusion of the beloved Rosalina backstory) as well as for producing the recent Super Mario Odyssey, which again sported an excellent Mario story. In short, he’s the perfect guy to have in charge if you want more story in Mario RPGs, and there’s a big reason why you’d want that – Mario RPGs have shaped the Mario lore in ways far beyond their popularity.
Bowser’s modern interpretation as a goofier, more sympathetic, or even likable villain draws straight from Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, and Superstar Saga, and Luigi’s entire character as we know it today originated in Paper Mario and was expanded even further in the Mario & Luigi games. The games also give a more complex and creative backdrop to traditional Mario titles, allowing for a fresh look at the story that makes more ordinary Mario stories more acceptable when they do come around. The balance here is what is necessary; there’s no reason we should only have one type of Mario story.
A way forward
So what might a new, return-to-form Paper Mario game look like? I think almost any Paper Mario fan would list the following as must-haves:
The first would be a strong, compelling story with fun, engaging characters and unique situations, new and interesting partners, and, ideally, new and unique environments that are outside the traditional Mario tropes. It’s worth noting that Color Splash actually nailed two of these already; the game was lauded for its hilarious script, and even though the characters didn’t have the distinctive looks fans wanted, the characters themselves had a lot of personality. All that’s really needed would be a good story and good partners. All things considered, it’s not a huge shift!
The second and most important change would be a return to a turn-based battle system similar to the first two games. There is obviously no issue with changing the structure in some ways, and in fact some advancements are to be expected, but fans really want a return to core RPG mechanics. There’s still so much that can be done with the classic formula. Maybe allow the player to, for example, have three partners in battle instead of two, or use the motion sensitivity of the Joy-Con controllers to create fun, complex, and rewarding action commands, similarly to how Super Paper Mario handled items. The possibilities are kind of endless since TTYD only scratched the surface of the RPG formula.
In truth, it wouldn’t be that hard to create a new, sustainable formulas for Mario RPGs, and there’s no reason for Nintendo not to try. For many of us, the Mario RPGs were our first introduction to the genre – we wouldn’t be into other series if it weren’t for them. And with the Switch, Nintendo has created a new era of experimentation and fun for gamers of all ages – it’s a no-brainer to bring back Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi in all their glory.