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In the grand scheme of Mario spin-offs, one of the most beloved ones is the Paper Mario series. With the recent release of Paper Mario: The Origami King, it got me thinking – what’s the story behind Paper Mario? Stylistically and narrative-wise, it sticks out from the franchise’s more traditional approach to platforming. Turns out there’s quite a bit of history regarding the fan-favourite.

In the Beginning, there was Squaresoft

The origins of the inceptive Paper Mario game begin with Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, a game that was a collaboration between Nintendo and Squaresoft for the SNES. Mario creator and Director of Nintendo, Shigeru Miyamoto, had at the time expressed his desire to create an RPG starring the iconic plumber. Who better to reach out to than the industry’s RPG powerhouse, Squaresoft? 

It took over a year to develop just the graphics for the game, with Nintendo Power in 1996 mentioning its usage of the latest ACM graphics, stating it was “one of the most advanced video games ever conceived – and from what we’ve seen, it is nothing short of magical.” Maintaining an isometric perspective, the game used the turn-based aspects found in previous Squaresoft games, such as Final Fantasy VI, alongside the traditional platforming elements of the Mario franchise. Composers Yoko Shimomura and Nobuo Uematsu, known for their work on the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series, had taken the forefront for curating the arrangements. 

To no one’s surprise, it was a huge hit. It was an all-rounder in terms of story, gameplay, music, and graphics, and a sequel was definitely in the prospects. Of course, the great divide between Nintendo and Squaresoft occurred.  Final Fantasy VII was no longer in the works for the Nintendo 64, and Squaresoft jumped ship onto the Playstation, skyrocketing the console’s popularity. Super Mario RPG 2 seemed to be out of the question now. 

New Beginnings

The 1997 chapter of Nintendo Space World – a video game trade show hosted by Nintendo –  revealed that there was still hope. After the release of Super Mario RPG in ‘96, there was a severe lack of RPGs on the N64. The news of a new Mario RPG was sure to quench the thirst of fans of the genre. However, this new entry was developed by Intelligent Systems, known for the Fire Emblem series, and seemed to sport this picture book-like artstyle. 

Miyamoto stated “It was hard to begin Super Mario RPG 2. If we made the game in the same graphical style as Super Mario 64, no one would have recognized the transition. We see this graphic style as a definite evolution from the Super NES original.” As the art director responsible for the game’s iconic design, Naohiko Aoyama came up with the art style with the intention of going against the trend of realistic 3D graphics, and instead wanted to use the N64’s enhanced graphical capability to better portray the 2D character models. It was a decision that worked like a charm, as it was this trademark feature that led to the game to later be released under the title of Paper Mario.

The game’s long-awaited release in 2001 was met with a cacophony of praise. It had surpassed fan’s expectations from the spiritual successor while completely laying out a path of its own. The battle system was still turn-based but added new innovative elements, the dialogue was witty and added more substance to the plot, and it was plain adorable. The first Paper Mario was in many ways what paved the way for the rest of the series, but what really set a base for it was the next installment, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door.

Venturing Forward

Released for the GameCube in 2004, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, built further on the paper-like themes for the game. Mario could now fold into a paper airplane or roll up into a tube of paper, making it a cinch to reach new heights and crush enemies. At the same time, it maintained the RPG mechanics of the former game and improved upon. You could actually see your enemies and choose whether or not you wanted to fight them, thereby getting rid of random encounters (truly a godsend).

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door defined the series with its iconic font and sound effects that are still being utilized in successors. It featured memorable characters of old and new, as well as a charming plot full of great comedy. For many fans, it’s the pinnacle of Paper Mario titles. 

When Super Paper Mario came out for the Wii in 2007, it made quite a few changes in terms of gameplay. In order to fully utilize the console’s motion controls and enhanced graphical capability, the iteration moved on from the RPG combat system and instead incorporated elements of the genre. Mario now had a companion, Tippi, that was much similar to Navi from the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and could be controlled on-screen using the motion control pointer. On top of that, you navigate through the world of Flipside, named such as the key mechanic of the game was to switch between the 2D world and the 3D world.

It’s a game I fondly recall playing, remaining glued to the TV for hours as a kid. While some considered it to be one of the best installments in the series, others were skeptics of its new mechanics and backtracking. 

This is why when Paper Mario: Sticker Star released for the 3DS in 2012, many, including me, were taken aback by its stark differences in relation to the preceding titles. The storyline had completely gone for a toss as Miyamoto wanted the developers to focus on the sticker-like aspect as much as possible, requiring a whole lot of backtracking for finding specific stickers. “It’s fine without a story, so do we really need one?” he said in an interview of Iwata Asks, a series of interviews conducted by Satoru Iwata, former Nintendo president and CEO. It definitely wasn’t a case of just former fans being disappointed, it was also new-comers to the series who felt that the game was lacking that special something. 

Paper Mario: Color Splash for the Wii U seemed to follow suit. At this point, Nintendo had completely abandoned the RPG label for the newest game, with producer Risa Tabata confirming that it was indeed, an action-adventure, and for those seeking a more RPG-feel, there was the Mario & Luigi RPG series. “In terms of what we focus on for the Paper Mario series, we focus on puzzle-solving [and] humour,” Tabata stated in an article for Kotaku

A New Chapter Unfolds

It seemed that the core of what made the Paper Mario series stand out so much was gone. After the shut down of AlphaDream, the developers behind the Mario & Luigi series, it really was Game Over for the likelihood of another Mario RPG. 


The release of Paper Mario: The Origami King somewhat seems to have proved that Nintendo moving away from the RPG narrative wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The jump in graphics allowed the developers to go all out with the visuals. The environments are reminiscent of a picture pop-up book, and as the title of the game suggests, many of the world’s characters are origami figurines. It’s a game that’s been received with a lot of mixed reviews, some praising the game’s creativity while others expressing anguish at the combat.

It’s evident that the Paper Mario series has been subject to a lot of change, which largely boils down to Nintendo being Nintendo, and evolution taking its course. Take a look at the Pokemon franchise for example, and it certainly hasn’t been the same as the years went on. Fans still have their favourites from the bunch, but each generation has its own appeal. 

Perhaps Nintendo will continue to release future Paper Mario titles in a similar fashion, or perhaps they’ll go back to the story-based RPG of the olden days. Maybe even the cycle will come full circle, and we’ll have another Mario RPG spin-off branch out. Only time will tell how the future of Paper Mario will unfold.

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