Review: Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam for Nintendo 3DS

Paper Jam or Paper sham?

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam arrives in time to mark the 20th anniversary of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, a collaboration between Nintendo and Square Enix (nee SquareSoft) that introduced the plumbing protagonist to the world of role playing games and is now available on the Wii Virtual Console (and Wii U’s, if you happen to be in Europe or Japan. Sigh).

Nintendo and Square Enix would go their separate ways for a while, and in Super Mario RPG‘s wake arose two spiritual successors: Paper Mario, a Nintendo 64 RPG from Intelligent Systems which reimagined the Mushroom Kingdom cast as paper-thin characters in a paper-and-cardboard world, and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga for the Game Boy Advance, developed by AlphaDream — a developer comprised of several former Square staff, some of which had worked on the original Super Mario RPG.

The Paper Mario series started out strong and peaked quickly with The Thousand Year Door on GameCube before arguably faltering with the more action-styled Super Paper Mario for Wii and then effectively throwing out so much of what made the series great with Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the series’ first — and so far only — portable entry. The Mario & Luigi series took a different path, offering great writing, story, and humor but lacking gameplay in Superstar Saga before arguably flipping the two with the darker but tighter-playing Partners in Time and then striking a near-perfect balance in Bowser’s Inside Story and treading water with Dream Team.

Finally, all these years later, the two series collide on the Nintendo 3DS in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam. But is this the real “Dream Team,” or does it crumple under pressure?

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There’s an old saying that goes something like “it’s my world, you’re just playing in it.” For the most part, that’s what you get in this team-up as it is a Mario & Luigi game first and foremost, but that doesn’t diminish the impact that the Paper world holds on it.

The story begins with Luigi accidentally knocking a mysterious book off of a shelf in Princess Peach’s castle, opening it and sending a bottleneck explosion of Paper characters flying all across the landscape. Goombas, Koopa Troopas, Toads — you name it. Among them are the Paper counterparts to Princess Peach and Bowser, who soon meet up with their more three-dimensional other selves. Knowing that two Bowsers can only mean trouble, the Mario Bros. head out to find Mario’s alter-ego and team up to stop the Koopa Kings from causing too much mischief.

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It’s not especially deep, nor does it need to be. All told, things take off at a much quicker pace than in Dream Team, and keeps things moving rather well.

One issue I’ve seen people take with Dream Team is how long-winded it could get, especially by way of its constant tutorials. I have to admit that I never noticed, due in no small part that I was actively seeking to pay attention to them the whole way, just in case there was a gag slipped in, or they tweaked a mechanic on me. With this in mind, I took a different tact when approaching this game.

Rather than checking out all the tutorials to see if there was any change, I figured I’d skip everything and see how I did, especially since that was now an option. All told, I did quite well by it; the game gives you the brief gist of what you need to know and opens up pages in an in-game manual for you to check out at most any time, just as you can also practice your Bros. Attacks and Trio Moves (more on those in a sec) at most any time — even in the middle of battle.

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If you’ve played any Mario & Luigi game before, you know what half the gameplay entails, though this also makes a pretty good starting point for newcomers thanks to different difficulty options and settings that you can toggle at most any time. If you fall to a boss, the game even offers you the option right there of going the Easy route if you choose.

Going on Easy Mode basically buffs your characters up so they’re more resistant to damage, while the new Assist Mode can be used at either difficulty setting. I went with this because keeping track of the tells the enemy use can be tricky, especially now with three playable characters on the field. With it activated, a reticule appears beneath the brother (or brothers) that are about to be attacked, giving you an easier time of dodging that attack. Even so, it’s still beneficial to figure out how an enemy moves and anticipate it, particularly on those that attack more than one brother. Meanwhile, even if you know who’s going to be attacked, being able to time your counters properly is still all you, and remains a challenge in its own right.

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The main time I paid particular attention the tutorials (so I’m not sure if they’re as easily skipped; sorry) was on the two biggest new additions to the gameplay: Papercraft battles and Battle Cards.

Papercraft battles are special encounters in which you must use a giant Papercraft character (Mario and others with their own special abilities) to take on the Papercraft characters and bosses of the Koopa Troop. First, you have to stand in a certain area and tap the button in time with the beat (don’t worry; I absolutely suck at most anything rhythm-related, but I did fine) to build up your charge meter, then basically knock the Papercraft enemies around the arena off-balance before launching yours into the air in a jumping, smashing attack.

The other big addition is the Battle Cards, which are basically playing cards with different attributes that you can use at any time during battle as a free action in exchange for a given quantity of Star Points, which you each back over the course of the battle. You can power up your team, inflict damage on all or certain types of enemies, increase benefits, and so on. They really come in handy!

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On the other hand, they also tie into the amiibo functionality in this game. This can be good or bad, depending on your point of view. I, personally, did not care for it due to the need to constantly tap amiibo figures to your Nintendo 3DS system to use the cards they’ve got. If you’re a kid with a pile of amiibo next to you while you play on the floor, it might not be so bad, but having to go to the shelf when the opportunities arose and mess with everything was just more of a hassle than I was interested in.

Plus, only Super Mario series characters (and their variants) work, so I was disappointed to find out that my Donkey Kong amiibo would yield no benefits. And since the figures are storing data instead of simply unlocking the cards in the game, I wasn’t able to use my Super Smash Bros. Mario amiibo without erasing his data.

Fortunately, amiibo are only required if you want to “collect them all.” If you just want to play the game, you can still use the Battle Cards found therein and do just fine.

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While the Papercraft and Battle Cards are the biggest changes, they’re not the only ones. For the first time in the series, there are three main characters on the field of battle at a time for most of the game (Baby Mario and Baby Luigi in Partners in Time don’t really count, as they either operated in their own battles or sat on the adult Marios’ backs), as Paper Mario joins the fray.

Mario and Luigi operate mostly how they always have, and Paper Mario’s style is adjusted to fit in with theirs while still remaining unique. For instance, while the other brothers can jump to dodge enemy attacks, Paper Mario has a much higher flutter jump that makes some dodging a bit easier. Beyond that, he also has a Copy Block which allows him to team up with duplicates of himself to add more power to his more Paper Mario-feeling jump attacks, or divide and conquer by attacking all enemies at once (or one a whoooole lot) with his hammer.

Whereas Mario and Luigi can team up to perform Bros. Attacks, Paper Mario can initiate Trio Attacks with the pair. These are similar to the Bros. Attacks as you basically engage in a mini-game (such as tennis against the wall or flying a kite made of your foes) of sorts to rack up as much damage as possible against a foe (or foes) within the limited time span.

Likewise, Paper versions of enemies tend to team up with their counterparts to interesting effect, as they don’t attack quite the same way. Some are slower, throw straighter, or otherwise perform their own variations or unique attacks, sometimes even teaming up in certain instances. It’s a nice bit of variation that doesn’t stray too much from what fans known and love from the series.

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Some other changes made have streamlined things a bit, such as the elimination of bonus points when you level up. No longer do you have to figure out which stat to dump extra points into, or remember which was the last one you favored in order to keep an even spread going. When you reach a new rank, however, you are allowed to take some new bonuses, such as increased health, Brother Points, or my favorite, additional slots so you can equip more gear.

Thankfully, there are no gyro attacks this time, either. When performing Bros. and Trio Attacks, it’s all in the buttons, and usually feels more accurate for it.

Save blocks are gone, as it’s now up to you to save at most any time. This is kind of a double-edged sword, as the onus is now on you, and sometimes you’re not going to get the chance before you realize something big is about to happen and you didn’t have the opportunity to save before it started up.

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Other parts of the game are kind of hit and miss. A new thing that more or less replaces sidequests are hunts for Paper Toads, which you must complete in order to proceed. Paper Toads get into all sorts of trouble throughout the game, and rather than having finding them be more organic like the (optional) Blitties in Bowser’s Inside Story, you’ll generally have to run around a familiar area and perform a variety of acts to save all of the chickenhearted 2D Toads. Some require battling enemies, others simply hunting them down, still others grabbing them out of the air, or you might even find a combination.

They generally aren’t too bad, save for some of the ones where you have to herd them somewhere (particularly within a time limit). Ever heard the expression “like herding cats”? It’s sort of like that, though on the whole these aren’t too bad. It just really depends on which one you’re doing and how well it manages to go, though it may require more than one try.

Another thing are the boss battles. While they’re good enough in their own right, they do tend to carry on a little big long, just enough to overstay their welcome. You’ll fight a while, think you’re about ready to finish them — just one more Trio Attack ought to do it! …and the battle just keep raging on. Then, almost abruptly, it’s suddenly over. It’s like they’re too short to be too long, but too long to be long enough. It’s just kind of weird like that.

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The graphics are pretty much the same as in Dream Team, which I honestly loved. The hand-drawn characters are very nice looking and can still fool you into thinking you’re looking at 3D-modeled characters, especially when the odd cutscene comes up and shows the actual 3D models for that portion. They’re very fluidly animated and chock full of character, especially Luigi. Listening to the music is a treat for the ears as well — I’ve had it running in my head through this whole review, and that’s thanks to the efforts of Yoko Shimomura, who has composed music for the entire series, as well as the original Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars!

As for the writing and story, it’s got some pretty funny stuff. None of it is too deep and it doesn’t tend to drag, as one thing seems to lead to the next in fairly quick succession. On the humor side, one of my favorite bits was while fighting a multi-character boss and deflecting one’s attack into the other. The victim of the attack grew enraged and attacked their teammate in a cartoonish cloud of dust, doing several points of damage to their ally for me! Funny and practical!

There aren’t any new characters introduced here, though, and that sort of shows a little more on the Paper Mario side. It feels like a carryover from Sticker Star, but none of the unique characters from the Paper Mario series show up here. No Goombella, Koops, or Kammy Koopa — just Paper Bowser, Paper Bowser Jr., and Paper Kamek. There’s even one Goomba that I can’t help but think might have been a distinctly identifiable character in the older Paper Mario games, but is just a mere Goomba in this.

This may diminish the game a bit for some, though I honestly found it forgivable — and I say that as a huge fan of the original characters and world presented in those games. But for this particular entry, whose hook is the meeting between different versions of the same characters, I feel like I can let it slide a little bit.

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Overall, I’ve really enjoyed playing this game. In a way, this is almost like the Mario — or at least the Mario RPG — equivalent of Sonic Generations, as I felt a similar sense of glee in seeing the characters from two different worlds (which I never knew were different worlds, but that’s an article for a different time) meet and interact in interesting ways.

On the whole, I’d say that for me, the game falls somewhere between Bowser’s Inside Story and Dream Team, and leans more towards the former than the latter. Which is admittedly interesting, as I felt those two were rather similar, and here comes one rather different one (relatively speaking) to wedge right between the two. Either way, I can honestly say that I enjoyed this a great deal more than Sticker Star.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what the hold-up with this review was (probably not, but bear with me), it’s because I was pulling double-duty on the Game Card with my wife, Nadia, who reviewed it for Syfy Games, and it was hard to get the game away from her! So if you want a second opinion, head on over there and see what she has to say.

MarioLuigiPaperJamBoxMario & Luigi: Paper Jam was released for the Nintendo 3DS on January 22nd, 2016 at a price of $49.99.

A review copy was provided by Nintendo of Canada.

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.

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David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.