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The Paper Mario series has been through a lot of changes over the years - particularly with the combat system. Today I look back at the history of combat in this series to see where it's been, and how it has evolved from the N64 to the Switch.

Caleb Compton, Blogger

September 8, 2020

11 Min Read

The following article is a reproduction. The original article, and over 100 more, can be found at RemptonGames.com


What’s up designers, and welcome back to Rempton Games. I’ll admit that, prior to this year I had never really played a Paper Mario game. However,  I love origami – it is one of my biggest hobbies, and I have been thinking for a while now that it would be really cool to see a game with an origami focus. Because of this, when I heard there was going to be a game called Paper Mario Origami King I KNEW I had to check it out.

Overall, I have to say that I actually had a really good time! The writing was funny, most of the characters were charming if a bit flat (no pun intended), and there were lots of fun puzzles to solve and locations to explore. However, despite it’s many positive elements there were still a few things that did bother me about this game. First off, having never played the game before my impression of them was that they were RPGs, but playing through this game that didn’t seem to be the case. The combat system was also unlike anything that I had ever seen before, but rather than feeling fresh and innovative it mostly just felt tedious and I tried to avoid it as much as I could.

These odd design choices sparked my curiosity. Were all of the games this way? If so, why? If not, where did these strange design choices come from?  Let’s find out with this look at the history of combat in the Paper Mario series.

Chapter 1 – Paper Mario and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door

The original Paper Mario was released in 2000 on the Nintendo 64, and was originally developed as a sequel to Super Mario RPG. This game actually had much more traditional RPG style gameplay, actually being somewhat similar to something like Persona. You and your opponent take turns in battle, and you can choose between normal attacks (such as Jumping or using your Hammer) or use more powerful special attacks using Star Power or Flower Points, of which Mario has a limited supply. In addition to using attacks, Mario can use a variety of items during battle that usually either restore your own health, star power or flower points, or possibly damage your opponent.

Mario also has a variety of followers that can assist him in battle, each with their own different attack options. Battling and defeating enemies will earn Mario Star Points, and when Mario collects enough Star Points he levels up, which can increase his various stats. Mario is also able to equip special badges that he collects, which can do anything from giving him new attacks to changing the sound effects when he jumps. Overall, this seems like a very standard, if a bit simplified, RPG combat system with a Mario twist – exactly what you would expect from a Mario RPG series.

The next game in the series – Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door – uses a very similar system to the first game. Star power, flower points, followers, leveling, and badges all return, and the differences made to the combat system were all relatively minor, such as giving each follower their own separate HP gauges.

Outside of combat, Thousand Year Door is also the first game to really explore the “paper” aspect of Paper Mario. It mainly does this through the use of transformations that allow Mario to do things such as transform himself into a paper airplane, or roll himself up into a tube. These transformations are most used for exploring the overworld rather than in combat, however.

Chapter 2 – Super Paper Mario

Super Paper Mario, released on the Wii in 2007, represented the first major mechanical shift for this series. Rather than being a more traditional RPG with turn-based combat, Super Paper Mario eliminates the turn-based combat entirely to focus more on classic Mario-style platforming. However, Super Paper Mario still has a number of unique twists that make it stand out from classic 2D Mario platformers such as the New Super Mario Bros.

Firstly, Super Paper Mario retains the traditional level up mechanic from previous Paper Mario games. In addition, this game actually has more followers than any other game in the series, and each one gives Mario unique abilities that he can use to either traverse the overworld or in combat. For instance, one of the first followers the player will encounter is Thoreau, who gives Mario the ability to grab and throw objects. This ability is not only invaluable for defeating enemies, but is also used to solve puzzles to advance the story.

The last major mechanical addition in this game is the perspective flip ability, which allows Mario to flip from a 2D to a 3D perspective. This is used extensively to solve puzzles and complete levels, but is also used in combat as changing perspective can be used to avoid some enemies or attacks, and some enemies can only be attacked from certain perspectives.

Chapter 3 – Sticker Star and Color Splash

The next two games, Paper Mario Sticker Star on the DS and Color Splash on the Wii U, are both quite different from the previous games in the series, but also very similar to one another. Sticker Star returned to a turn-based combat system that relied on collecting stickers to use Mario’s attacks. Every attack, including a simple jump, will use up one of your stickers. In addition, stickers are also required to solve most of the puzzles throughout the game.

Although this game returns to a turn-based system, it removes almost all of the RPG elements that were found in previous entries in the series. Mario no longer has followers that assist him in navigation or combat, and he no longer levels up over time by gaining experience.

In addition to the simplified combat system, this game also places a much higher emphasis on the “paper” aesthetic – not by allow Mario to take advantage of his papery nature like in Thousand Year Door, but by showing that the entire world is literally made of craft materials. This results in moments where, for instance, Mario uses scissors to cut up the world or has to gain the help of a bunch of toads to unroll the paper landscape.

Paper Mario: Color Splash is very similar to Sticker Star, except that instead of using Stickers for actions you use battle cards. This game also adds the additional twist that you can choose to paint your cards, and painted cards are more effective than unpainted cards.

I’m personally not a huge fan of the combat system used in these two games. I think that the use of finite resources such as stickers or cards for actions is just a conceptually bad idea, as it literally means that Mario won’t even be able to jump on his enemies without the right cards. It also just seems to add extra steps to the process of attacking without really adding much in return. In addition, by removing experience and a leveling system you remove any incentive to battle. Add on the fact that you are using a finite resource (stickers or cards) when you battle, and you are actually incentivized NOT to battle to conserve those resources. This combination basically encourages players to avoid the combat like some sort of totally hypothetical plague. 

Chapter 4 – Origami King

Finally, we arrive at the most recent entry in the series – Paper Mario: Origami King. This game once again totally shifts the combat style of the series. The reliance on finite resources for battle actions is instead replaced with a ring-based battle system that focuses on properly lining up enemies for attacks.

On the one hand, I would say that removing stickers / cards in combat is definitely a step in the right direction. In addition, this game actually brings back partners in battle, which had been missing for the past 2 games, and the ring-based system actually had some potential to be pretty interesting. However, in practice I think that these mechanics miss the mark.

Although partners are technically back, they aren’t really the same as in the older entries in the series. There are only a handful of partners, they are all tied to the story so you can’t really choose who you have with you at any given time, and they don’t really do much. They will occasionally help out by attacking enemies for you, but you have no control over them. This means that you have no choice about what attacks they use, or which enemies they target. They also don’t really help you in the overworld, they cannot be attacked by enemies, nor can they be levelled up – all of which were possible in the original few games.

Now lets talk about the ring system. During normal encounters Mario stands in the center of 4 concentric rings, and is tasked with lining up enemies to be attacked. Mario can move the rings either by rotating them, or by sliding them back and forth, and the goal is to place enemies either into a straight line or a 2×2 square. Once enemies are lined up Mario gets an attack bonus, and can attack them with either his hammer or his boots.

I have never seen a combat system like this before in my life, and frankly I am completely baffled by it. First of all, the ring system seems completely disconnected from both the theme of the game and the combat itself. At least Stickers and Battle Cards tied into the core paper-based mechanics of those games, but the sliding system really has nothing to do with origami. In addition, it seems totally disconnected to the rest of the combat mechanics thematically. It is just adding a puzzle for the sake of adding a puzzle, but in my opinion it doesn’t really benefit the combat at all.

While the existence of the ring system is puzzling, the way it is implemented also removes all meaningful choices from the combat. Each puzzle has 1 “correct” lineup, and generally there is only a single sequence of moves that will line the enemies up correctly. It doesn’t feel like you are making tactical decisions because there is a clear right or wrong – you either lined them up correctly, or you failed.

Once the enemies are lined up, you also don’t really have any meaningful decisions to make. If the enemies are lined up in a line, you use your boots. If they are lined up in a square you use your hammer. It’s not a choice – it is literally the only thing to do.

The boss fight system is a little different, and in my opinion much more interesting. Instead of Mario being in the middle with enemies around him, Mario starts outside the rings and has to line them up correctly to find his way to the boss. This system has a lot more potential for strategic decision making, and usually requires a few tries of trial and error to figure out which types of attacks are most effective.

Unlike in normal battles the decision to either use your boots or hammer is actually a meaningful one, but there are many other choices to be made as well. For example you can choose to attack from either close or long range, you often have access to special moves that aren’t available during normal combat, and enemies often have weak-spots that must be attacked. The bosses often affect the battlefield in interesting ways, such as freezing spaces, or taping them, lighting them on fire, etc.

The boss fights certainly weren’t perfect – these fights are much more complicated, which would make them less accessible to more casual players. In addition, many bosses require a very specific set of actions to be done in a specific order, which can lead to some very frustrating moments. Specifically, I remember during the fight with the Fire Vellumental I had almost defeated it, but I didn’t do the correct action during my last turn and it ended up fully healing itself – basically forcing me to repeat the entire boss fight over again. However, I think that there is potential in this strange system if some of the kinks could be ironed out.

Until Next Time

Thank you so much for joining me on this journey through the combat mechanics of the Paper Mario series. If you liked this video please leave a like, and subscribe so you don’t miss more videos like this in the future. If you want to see more, check out my other videos like my previous one where I look at the problems with the game of Quidditch and how they might be fixed. I also have over 100 articles on the Rempton Games blog which you can check out at the link in the description. And join me next time for part 6 of my Evolution of Pokemon Designs series. Until then, thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you all next time.

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