During the time of the year that celebrates love, I can't help but profess my undying admiration and respect for a video game, of all things. Paper Mario was, quite literally, the atmosphere and highlight of my childhood in terms of pop culture and media exposure, along with the countless other Nintendo 64 games I ran down to the video store to rent with yet another five-dollar bill wrested from my piggy bank (which was a wooden duck, incidentally). I probably rented the same damn cartridge enough times to buy three brand new copies of the game at Zellers.
It was strange that I knew this even then, but continued to rent the same old cartridge either way. I recognize today that I was drawn to that same copy of the game because I respected it like an old friend I shared countless joyful afternoons with. To this day, I wish I could go back and buy that same cartridge when the video store sold their inventory off.
Nostalgia aside, Paper Mario is actually a wonderful game. I'd recommend it to anyone who hasn't experienced it. Full of colourful whimsy and charm, and dripping with nostalgic appeal, this adventurous release by Nintendo and Intelligent Systems was highly praised upon its North American launch in 2001. Initially designed to act as a bridge between classic 2D Mario games and the new 3D experiences introduced with Super Mario 64, this strange yet alluring title was quite literally the best of both worlds. Add in the mechanics of an RPG and witty, hilarious dialogue and you get one hell of a fun experience. It's not meant to be approached as a traditional RPG, but rather as a unique interpretation of what Nintendo is capable of when they put their winged creative caps on. But what's really the main thing about this game that separates it from any other Mario title that came before it?
The world. That ever-expansive, explosively colourful, diverse and utterly exciting world.
Not a single Mario game since Paper Mario has come close to presenting such an inviting and inspiring game world to explore, in my opinion. In fact, I'd give anything for Nintendo to ditch the Super Mario 64 style of game design and revisit what made the original Paper Mario so insanely great. The massive cast of truly unique characters including NPCs and several party members, the diverse array of regions and towns to discover, and the altogether presentation of the story and atmosphere is truly special. It has that "Classic Nintendo" feel to it.
Of course, nowadays it really is just that. Time is strange.
The story is evocative, charming and sucks you in from the beginning — in a way I hadn't experienced a Nintendo game since Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (which served as an inspiration when this game was developed, incidentally). Princess Peach invites Mario and Luigi to her castle in Toad Town (basically introduced as the capital of the Mushroom Kingdom), but Bowser steps in and decides to up his game. Instead of merely taking Peach, he lifts the whole castle into the stratosphere, a mere dot of greenery and innocence perched upon the massive floating fortress he'd somehow managed to build underneath it (it's best to not question it and to just smile and nod). There are other elements playing a role in Bowser's plan this time around, dealing with the power of the stars and the Star Spirits protecting the world, but it's too much to go into detail about here. I will say that the story has far more meat on its bones than many other Nintendo titles, and as a basic RPG it's to be expected, really.
Paper Mario's story is separated into several chapters, and the game and subsequent menus are presented like a children's illustrated book. Each chapter focuses on a different region in the Mushroom Kingdom, and they range from a haunted forest to a volcanic island populated by a Yoshi tribe and plump little (and not-so-little) ravens. Still, the story itself isn't what draws me to the game, though, although I have no real complaints about it (other than my frustrated dislike of the Shy Guy Toy Box chapter).
As for characters, they range in seemingly endless variety. On one hand, there are the typical Koopas, Toads, Shy Guys, Bomb-Ombs, Paratroopas and other classic Mario game creatures. But then, there are hooded fortune-tellers of unknown races and incredibly weird characters that are one-of-a-kind, including a massive vulture, talking flowers, dog-like creatures that run the local badge shop in Toad Town, and nomadic mice that frequent the desert region in the game world. Still, these characters only enhance the atmosphere of the game and many offer useful services or items for you (including one Mario can whack with his hammer to obtain a bump of it's flesh, which you can then bake a cake with... and no, I couldn't make this up if I tried). Still, there are countless unique spins on classic characters as well — personally, I can't get enough of the group of Koopas dressing like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, complete with cheesy poses and theme music.
The world design is truly one-of-a-kind, not even replicated by later entries in the series of Paper Mario games spawned by this original title (and frankly, I only count one of them as a proper sequel worth your time). Each region in the world is separated into smaller cells, connected and presented like a bunch of expansive dioramas strung together. It's fascinating and increasingly endearing, evoking an air of mystery in the sense that players can't see what lies ahead. The magical use of geometry and layered backgrounds (with countless secrets) combined with what I consider the very best colour palette used in a Mario game makes for an inviting world, no matter how dark or nasty, that you simply can't help but be drawn into in even a slight sense. Prime examples of this genius art style at work are the Toad Town, Flower Fields, Dry Dry Outpost, Koopa Village, Lavalava Island and Shiver City areas. Hell, even the Jade Jungle and Shy Guy's Toy Box areas boast a clever mixture of colour, depth and geometric variety despite being absolute pains in the ass to complete.
Aside from Paper Mario's main story, there are countless little side-activities and opportunities to partake in, and several secrets hidden below the lush, colourful surface of this game. Collect badges to power up abilities and gain new moves. Spend coins and gamble, including on what I consider the strangest lottery ever — featuring plump, multi-coloured piglets being squeezed out of a pipe. Join the Toad Town Dojo and try to even half-attempt to defeat the overpowered master there. Have your fortune told, travel the world and stop in inns like a nostalgic drifter, picking up as many special items and goodies as you can carry before taking them back to Toad Town for a local chef to use in a seemingly endless book of recipes. Hell, even visit Mario's house, ground pound the secret door in the bedroom and read Luigi's rather hilariously sad diary. At one point, you gain complete access to every area in the game via various modes of transportation including a steam-powered train, a whale, and even a strange hovering pod found in Star Haven. Just before reaching the very end, players can choose to revisit any place in the game and just explore, going between Bowser's castle and the Mushroom Kingdom as often as they like. Honestly, as a child I loved nothing more than just wandering around this heavily populated game world, trading items and getting Tayce T. to whip up yet another mistake for me to eat as a result of mixing uncooperative ingredients together. I felt like a travelling connoisseur of Mushroom Kingdom delicacies mixed with an archaeologist and tourist. It was such a wonderful place to escape to, with a deliciously charming atmosphere that could never be tainted by the outside world. It was — and is — the best part about Paper Mario, in my opinion.
And then there's the soundtrack.
Good God almighty, that soundtrack.
It's melodically brilliant and gives the game a special charm that no other entry has come close to mimicking. Composed by Yuka Tsujiyoko and Taishi Senda, this collection of jittery jingles, ethereal atmospheric pieces, and peppy, quirky little ditties is an essential pillar of Paper Mario's design. The game wouldn't have half of it's lasting appeal without it. Highlights include the entire Shiver City / Shiver Mountain / Crystal Palace suite (the latter section of which is one of the very best compositions in a Nintendo title). This segment of the game, taking place towards the end of the player's journey, evokes a sense of urgency and discipline. The player guides Mario and his party up treacherous slopes, through icy caves and a brilliant frigid wilderness. The Crystal Palace section of the region is one that took my breath away as a child the first time I entered its mirrored, mystical halls with Inception-level mind-trickery. The haunting yet urgency-tinged score that plays in these halls prior to the final boss battle before Bowser at the end is truly mesmerizing.
Other must-listen pieces include the Goomba and Koopa village themes, respectively. Homey and full of warm, fuzzy charm, they serve as wonderful themes introducing players to the mechanics and atmosphere of the game. The Toad Town theme falls into a similar category, as does the music that plays inside Peach's Castle at the beginning of the game. Other standouts include the Shooting Star Summit and Star Spirit Sanctuary themes, both of which are transcendent and shimmeringly beautiful.
Though, that's not to say the nastier parts of the game boast sub-par soundtracks. On the contrary, some of the pieces that play in areas such as the Forbidden Forest and Koopa Bros. Fortress are strong, deeply atmospheric pieces, making use of echoes and fantastic layering. The Dry Dry Ruins theme is fantastic in every sense, full of rumbles, bitter harpsichords, dried-out marimba beats and a shivering synth that alters as the player guides Mario throughout. The Gusty Gulch theme and entire Bowser's Castle suite are brilliant, really giving the game's atmosphere a knife-like edge and shaking the foundations of what players would have become accustomed to hearing thus far in the game. I really can't praise the soundtrack highly enough, and vividly remember cranking my television volume during some parts of the game.
If you've not touched an entry in the series of games spawned from this one (and Super Mario RPG, before it), you'd do well to pick up a copy of the original Paper Mario and hold tightly onto it (and not just because of the price a Nintendo 64 cartridge of the game commands nowadays). The Wii and Wii U Virtual console services offer the game for a great price and it's certainly more than worth plonking down ten dollars for. It's bright, intriguing, surprisingly deep and frankly one of the most charming Nintendo titles released. Aside from the equally delightful direct sequel, Paper Mario and the Thousand-Year Door, I personally can't recommend the later entries in this beloved series to anyone. They almost tarnish what made the first two games so great, and with each new title released I found the charm was sucked away, replaced by a plastic shell of what was so special and appealing in the first place. I sincerely hope Nintendo revisits what made this initial game so appealing and timeless.
Because it's rare to come across a modern title that respects you as much as you respect it.
If only more people would put the countless cloned drab dude-bro overhyped productions aside for a few years, and let the magic trickle out again. Perhaps that's why I respect Nintendo and their creative vision so very much, among a few other developers and companies. I lived out so many inspiring, wondrous, whimsical years during my childhood thanks to the inspiration and emotional gravity offered by this allegedly mere digital plaything, and I know there are countless others out there in the world who share a similar attachment to this pixelated old friend. The very best of friendships tend to last a lifetime, but what is a purpose of a friend? They provide comfort, companionship, smiles, entertainment and share time with you. If you're feeling blue, they're there for you. If you need someone to lean on, you don't have to look far.
Similar to the friends I've made and kept over the years, I consider Paper Mario — yes, a video game — an equally important presence and source of joy in my life.
It's yet another title for me that is more of an experience than a game.