Although the Mario brothers are best known for their platforming adventures, they’ve also been known to dabble in the realm of role-playing quests from time to time. In fact, the long-running (portable) Mario & Luigi series prides itself on delivering unique storylines wherein the two plumbers must use turn-based mechanics to battle evildoers.
In the past, Nintendo’s overall wearing heroes have ventured into Bowser’s organic interior and dealt with Luigi’s narcolepsy, not to mention his problematic dreams. Hell, they’ve even dealt with a problem concerning time itself. Now, with Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam (or Paper Jam Bros. if you live on the other side of that big, wet pond), the iconic duo must grapple with the results of a magical book disaster.
At the beginning of the game, a frightened Luigi and his pal, Toad, are shown entering the dark and dusty attic of Peach’s castle. They’re there to investigate a draft and the reason for it, but a scary little mouse causes them to unleash unexpected havoc. The little guy frightens the easily scared Luigi so badly that he knocks over an old tome, which results in all of its living inhabitants spilling out into the Mushroom Kingdom. We’re not talking about new types of enemies or anything supernatural, either. Instead, the truth of the matter is that, inside of that dusty old book lays a different dimension, which is home to Paper Mario and the flat, 2D versions of all of the Mushroom Kingdom’s most notable characters, including Peach, Bowser and tons of toads.
As you can imagine, the unexpected mixing of the Kingdom’s regular inhabitants and their flattened doppelgangers creates quite a problem, especially when the two Bowsers happen to meet each other. Although we know about Paper Mario and his realm, those living in the Mushroom Kingdom apparently don’t, as they’re shocked and flabbergasted at the sight of their flat clones. This premise allows for some good comedy and some quirky writing, which are two of the best things about Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam.
Once the dust settles a bit, it becomes clear that something needs to be done, and it’s up to the regular, sprite-based Mario and Luigi to save the day yet again. They’re up against a rather large task, too, given that a bunch of paper koopas and goombas also fluttered out of the book once it hit the ground. Those foes had no problem teaming up with their peers, either, creating a super-sized team of baddies.
Of course, Bowser is at evil’s helm once again, with a clone at his side, and this leads to another predictable kidnapping of Princess Peach (and her twin, of course). They’re taken away and imprisoned within the familiar Castle Bowser, where they’re expected to live out the rest of their days.
Thankfully, Paper Mario also made it out of the book safely, and it isn’t long before he joins the brothers in action, turning what has traditionally been a two-character romp into a three-character adventure. Whereas Mario and Luigi have always been controlled by the A and B buttons, respectively, Paper Mario jumps, attacks and chooses his items with the Y button, and you’ll need to get used to using all three in order to jump properly. That said, there is another mechanic that comes into play, where pressing the X button makes the trio flutter in the air before they drop down and take off running. It’s a helpful way to make all three jump at once, and running into enemies can cause added damage.
The inclusion of Paper Mario also allows the team to reach across large gaps and pummel gigantic rocks out of the way with a three piece hammer shot. On top of that, he’s a great help in battle, with his Trio Attacks (including team kite and racquetball specials) and his ability to fly in paper airplane form. There are times where bosses will chase after Mario and Luigi, and the only way to avoid getting hit by their mad dashes is to jump up and grab onto Paper Mario as he floats in the sky above.
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is still very much a Mario & Luigi RPG, though, meaning that it retains a lot of the same gameplay elements as past titles. As such, you can expect the same RPG-meets-light-platforming traversal system, relatively large environments with minor puzzles and that very familiar battle system. Things haven’t changed much, and that’s both a pro and a con.
Of course, adding a third main character into the fray did change the battle system up a bit, but at its core it’s still very similar to what we’ve become accustomed to. You get to choose between jump and hammer attacks, as well as battle point-depleting Bros. Attacks, such as Luigi’s drill and the brothers’ tandem shell kicking exercise. And, when it comes to Paper Mario, you have the same types of options at your disposal, except his Bros. Attacks are the aforementioned Trio Attacks, and his health is mostly measured in clones.
Whenever Paper Mario attacks, his damage is dependent upon how many clones he has going. You can have a total of about six, and each one can land a hit if you time your button presses properly. This all works in the same way as Mario and Luigi’s extended attacks do, what with requiring you to press a button at a certain time in order to cause extra damage.
Of course, you’ll be spending time upgrading the characters’ stats by buying new equipment and picking the right extra pieces (and perks) to accentuate your build, but it’s all pretty basic and accessible stuff. There are new battle cards this time around, too, and those allow you to improve your stats, better your rewards or harm enemies during battle. Amiibos can also add to this mechanic, but they’re not necessary.
What else is new? Well, for starters, there’s an entirely new mini-game that forces players to search for and save distraught paper Toads. There are different variations on this theme, but they all essentially task you with playing either hide and seek or tag. Each one is simple in its design, but these segments tend to be overly long and drag on, harming the game’s pacing in the process.
Perhaps the most notable new addition, though, are the papercraft battles, which let you control giant cardboard structures that resemble Mario and his peers. These arena-based fights pit you against large-scale enemies who must be taken out (usually by being rammed, knocked over and/or jumped on) before the main boss appears. Mushrooms give you health when yours is depleted, and your papercraft monster runs on energy that must be renewed by completing a basic rhythm exercise while standing on highlighted pads.
If I was to say that I loved the papercraft battles, I’d be lying, because they honestly didn’t do a lot for me. They break things up a bit, and add some much needed variety into the mix, but aren’t all that fun to complete. The combat is clunky, the rhythm mechanics are imprecise and there’s little tension to be found.
On the presentation side of things, there’s little to be surprised about. Mario, Luigi and their pal, Paper Mario, must explore relatively large and colourful environments based on different environmental themes, and you get to listen to a lot of familiar music in the process. It all works, but the only thing that truly stands out is the juxtaposition between the regular, sprite-based characters and their flat peers.
With all that having been said, your main takeaway should be that Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is more of the same. Sure, it adds some new bells, whistles and mechanics into the fray, but they don’t do enough to change the core gameplay, or really make that much of a notable impact. They’re simply layered on top of a game that is good, but not great, and one that is similar to a fault.
This review is based on the 3DS exclusive, which we were provided with.
With Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, Nintendo and AlphaDream have presented yet another solid RPG set in the iconic Mushroom Kingdom. There's lots of familiar gameplay to be found, which fans should enjoy, as well as some humorous juxtaposition that results from two worlds colliding. However, the game doesn't do enough to make itself feel unique, and its new mechanics are hit and miss.