Twenty years ago, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars accomplished something that is rarely seen in today’s Mario role-playing games – it expanded Mario’s universe of characters beyond the Mushroom Kingdom. The fourth wall-breaking humor in Legend of the Seven Stars still holds up extremely well today. It pokes fun at all of the tropes, cliches, and conventions found in the Mario series up until that point — 1996.
The highest quality Mario role-playing games (Thousand Year Door, Legend of the Seven Stars) weren’t slaves to established canon and pre-existing characters. Rather than be chained to the past, the best spinoff games moved far away from the mainline series, creating their own unique twist on the universe. Meanwhile, the dullest Mario role-playing games (Sticker Star, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam) have always been the ones that follow silly arbitrary rules regarding original characters, locations, and story.
Unfortunately, Nintendo’s insistence to avoid original characters, and stick to a unified cast of characters across all games, has made recent Mario role-playing games feel unimaginative, predictable, and worst-of-all, forgettable.
Being super conservative with your universe is defeating the entire point of creating a spin-off game in the first place. Fans play spin-off games to see a completely new side of their favorite franchises. They allow us to see things that we normally wouldn’t see from traditional Mario or Zelda games. They allow us to break away from the rules of what’s acceptable from these franchises.
Somewhere along the way, the Mario role-playing games have lost their sense of adventure. They lost that feeling of going on an epic quest and never knowing who you’ll meet along the way. That’s what I loved most about Legend of the Seven Stars when I first played it twenty years ago. It was unpredictable. One moment you’re meeting familiar faces from the Mario universe like Toad, Bowser, Peach, and Yoshi. Other moments introduced the player to brand new characters such as Frogfucious, Jonathan Jones, Belome, Boshi, Croc, Booster, Jinx, Geno, Axom Rangers, and Mallow.
Alpha Dream, the studio behind the Mario & Luigi series, employs talent that previously worked on Legend of the Seven Stars. But after playing “Dream Team” and “Paper Jam” on Nintendo 3DS, it’s beginning to feel like Alpha Dream has grown bored with their own series. The series started off promising, but now it’s become this thing that nobody gets excited about.
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam wears its lack of ambition like a badge of honor, unashamed of its slow pacing, uneven gameplay, art asset recycling, and paper-thin story. The game makes zero attempts to surprise the player, to transcend the given material supplied to it through gameplay innovation and storytelling. Paper Jam Bros only exists because Nintendo needed something to fill in the gaps on their release schedule. That’s the only purpose of its existence.
The idea of crossing over two Mario RPG franchises sounded promising on paper, but the game fails to highlight the strong points of the two franchises that it’s crossing over. It fails to match the high quality standards found in the best games from “Mario & Luigi” (Superstar Saga, Bowser’s Inside Story) and “Paper Mario” (Thousand Year Door, Paper Mario 64).
But here’s my biggest problem: Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros never feels like an actual adventure, it feels like an identity crisis. It can’t decide whether it wants to be an RPG or some weird-hybrid thing. The pacing is dragged down by the constant bombardment of Toad hunts, mini-games, and papercraft battles. There is nothing fun about the papercraft battles — they just flat out suck.
Turn-based battles are frequently interrupted with long tutorials and useless advice. What is the purpose of having so much dialogue in a game that has such a weak, paper-thin story with a predictable ending? Can’t Starlow just shut up for a minute?
Another thing that kills any sense of adventure in Paper Jam Bros is the pulsating arrow at the bottom of the screen. The arrow is always pointing in the direction that you need to go next to progress the story. There is always someone or something holding your hand to make sure that you never get lost or frustrated.
For a forty-dollar retail title, Paper Jam Bros looks shockingly low budget. As you journey from one identical Toad town to the next, most of the Toad houses all look the same. Most of the NPCs that you meet along the way are Toads and Paper Toads. Sure, you’ll bump into the occasional Yoshi here and there, but it’s mostly just Toads.
What’s the point of going on this long 25-30+ hour adventure when most of the NPCs that you bump into are Toads? That doesn’t make exploring worlds feel very rewarding or satisfying. That makes me want to stop exploring because of how limited the world feels.
Lastly, I want to discuss how bored I’ve personally become with Bowser.
The genius behind “Legend of the Seven Stars” is how it used Bowser to introduce a villain that wasn’t Bowser — aka The Smithy Gang. Even back in 1996, Squaresoft understood that Bowser being the villain, and Peach being the damsel-in-distress, was getting really old and tiresome. And that was twenty years ago!
In my opinion, Bowser and his children are no longer compelling villains for a thirty-hour role-playing game. Taking a break from Bowser and Baby Bowser as the main villains would help “Mario & Luigi” feel more fresh again.
As I’ve said twice before, people play spinoff games to see things that they wouldn’t normally see in a mainline Mario game. We see Bowser in almost everything nowadays, so why not try something different for once? Could it really hurt?
But who could replace Bowser for a future Mario & Luigi RPG?
Villain Alternative #1 – Wario and Waluigi
Wario debuted in Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins as the main villain. Since then, he’s been portrayed more as a “greedy hero” rather than a straight up bad guy. Personally, I’d love to see him return to his villainous roots in a future Mario & Luigi game.
And how come Waluigi has never been the villain of…well… anything? The Mario & Luigi series is about Mario & Luigi working together — so why not have Wario and Waluigi work together as a duo of villains? It just makes sense and everyone knows it.
Villain Alternative Idea #2 – Wart
Wart was the main villain of Super Mario Bros 2 (USA) but we haven’t seen much of him since. Wouldn’t it be a great surprise to see him return as the main villain of a Mario RPG? M&L Dream Team’s story would’ve been more interesting if it had been about Mario and Luigi returning to the Dream World Subcon from Super Mario Bros 2.
Villain Alternative Idea #3 – Tatanga
Tatanga was the main villain of Super Mario Land (1989). He conquered Sarasaland, kidnapped Princess Daisy, and was the first extraterrestrial main villain to appear in the Mario series. He also makes another appearance in Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins.
Villain Alternative #4 – Donkey Kong
The rivalry between Mario and Donkey Kong has existed for as long as Nintendo has been in the game industry. The character Mario wouldn’t exist without Donkey Kong’s success. Wouldn’t it be intriguing to continue that Mario vs DK rivalry in an RPG? I’d rather play that instead of the recent Mario vs DK games.