The Mario & Luigi games have had a strange, if not wholly unpredictable critical trajectory since their 2003 debut with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. To this day, the original GBA entry continues to earn new fans for its witty, meta-fueled script and active-involvement battle system; its immediate followup, Partners In Time on the DS, is frequently cited as the weakest in the series, with battles belabored by the juggling act of managing two separate pairs of heroes. As for the final DS entry, Bowser’s Inside Story: most agree it’s the best in the series, with the four-year break between games lending both a narrative and mechanical freshness to a game that easily could have been let down by franchise fatigue.
But what of the modern Mario & Luigi games? Well, the series has had a bit of a rough landing on the 3DS. 2013’s Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, while still having received generally favorable reviews, has been skewered particularly harshly in the years since its release, with abundant complaints about its 5+ hours of tutorials and generally uneven pacing. For me, Dream Team remains the absolute pinnacle of the series, with its expansive quest, irreverent humor, exciting Luigi-centric mini games, gorgeously off-brand 2D animation juxtaposed against 3D backdrops, and breathtaking score by RPG vet Yoko Shimomura easily outweighing any minor complaints I might have. Simply put, Dream Team is developer AlphaDream at its finest… and unfortunately, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is anything but. While it’s still an adventure worth having, the developer seems oddly unsure of its own sensibilities this time around, trying so hard to kowtow to Dream Team haters that it’s sucked a lot of the joy out of the experience.
But let’s start with what’s great about Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, and that’s the combat. Simply put, it’s never been more polished, or more fun. That’s not to say anything is drastically different here—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and all that—but a number of tweaks and additions elevate the game’s combat above what was found in its predecessors. The basic premise of Paper Jam is that characters from Paper Mario have invaded the world of the Mario & Luigi games, and while the device is used only in the most shallow ways where the story is concerned, it really shines in battle. That’s because where Mario and Luigi feel essentially like clones of one another, Paper Mario takes the paper gimmick to its logical conclusion, making for a character that feels truly unique from his compatriots. See, because he’s made out of paper, Paper Mario is a weak attacker who can take fewer hits before he gets knocked out; being made out of paper also means he has the ability to make copies of himself, with each copy adding more damage to each attack or acting as a shield that blocks enemy damage until all copies have been knocked out. Until you find a specific badge that automatically makes new copies at the beginning of a turn, each Paper Mario action becomes a strategic decision: skip your attack and make another copy so you can do more damage next turn or survive more hits, or attack with fewer copies now, doing immediate damage to enemies but putting Paper Mario at greater risk of death?
Battles are also made more interesting through the use of Battle Cards, which can be collected in various ways throughout the game, as well as by scanning Amiibo. Battle Cards are essentially modifiers that can last for a set number of turns or the duration of the battle, modifying characters stats, boosting experience, allowing for unlimited special attacks, and more. You can have up to three cards on hand in any given turn, and they’re drawn from a deck of up to 10 cards, so if you’re not happy with the cards you have on hand, you can flip them over and draw a new one next turn. I tended to ignore Battle Cards for the vast majority of the game, but they can be a great help during boss fights, and the experience boost they can give you is pretty significant if you play your cards right.
Outside of battles, Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam feels almost like an RPG retelling of Super Mario World, with the Mario brothers tasked yet again with rescuing Peach from the clutches of the Koopa clan. There’s a twist, of course—Luigi’s accidentally unleashed a bunch of Paper-fied characters into the Mushroom Kingdom—and it’s a fun way to bring together the sensibilities of two very different series of Mario RPGs. But the jokes introduced by the Paper Mario tie-in are about as two-dimensional as that series’ characters, and without an enigmatic new villain to propel the adventure forward, the story starts to feel tired rather quickly. It’s funny the first few times you see Bowser knocking Paper Bowser down a few pegs—not realizing, of course, that he’s really criticizing himself—but there’s only so much mileage you can wring out of the psychology of vanity as it applies to cartoon characters.
Of course, even without the fantastic writing of the previous games, the world of Mario & Luigi usually offers plenty of reasons to keep playing, with secrets to uncover, mini-games to complete, and interesting characters to meet along the way. But Paper Jam stretches its 5 or 6 environments paper-thin, seemingly making a point to stall you at every possible opportunity. It gets especially bad late in the game, where when you think you’re about to get to the end, suddenly you’re sent on another tour of half the game world just to get to the real final area. I’ve never before longed for a Mario & Luigi game to just get on with it already, but Paper Jam tested my patience repeatedly before gaining back some serious goodwill with one of the coolest final boss fights of any Mario game. Even if you’re as annoyed as I was by these end-of-game pacing issues, it’s worth seeing it through to the end just for this one boss fight.
The main new diversion in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam—and the reason the game can take anywhere from 25-45 hours to complete—is a series of Paper Toad hunts that occur near the end of each area. These can range from simple Where’s Waldo-style hidden character hunts, to tests of reflex that have you jumping at just the right time to keep your collected Toads from getting eaten by monsters, to a string of battles that must be completed in a limited about of time. They’re fun for awhile, giving players new ways to interact with environments they’ve grown familiar with, but the longer the game goes on, the more they start to feel like an obligation rather than a fun change of pace from all the fighting. If by chance you don’t find them to be maddeningly repetitive, you’re in luck: a series of Hard Mode challenges can be completed for extra Toads, which unlock rewards ranging from cool accessories to special Bros. Attacks. In fact, one of the best moves is locked behind 100% completion of the Toad Hunts, so it might be worth putting in the extra time just for that, if you’re up for it.
Paper Jam’s other new mini-game is its Papercraft Battles. These follow on from the Toad Hunts: once you collect a certain number of Paper Toads, Toadette contracts them to build a giant papercraft figurine of an iconic Mario character—say, Toad, or Yoshi—which you’ll then have to smash repeatedly against an enemy papercraft until it’s defeated. Giant character battles are nothing new to the series—they were a great feature of both Dream Team and Bowser’s Inside Story—but here, they’re drawn out, over-complicated, and just not very fun. If AlphaDream had dropped the extensive lead up to the papercraft boss battles and tightened up the controls a bit, these might actually be kind of enjoyable. As it is, they’re boring at best, and frustrating at worst.
The Mario & Luigi games have always been at their best when they’re mixing excellent turn-based battle mechanics with self-referential humor that pokes fun at the tropes and trappings of Nintendo’s most iconic characters. But at some point in the past few years, AlphaDream seems to have lost faith in its vision. Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam makes a ton of concessions to players who felt the earlier games were too padded out—you can skip conversations and tutorials entirely now if you really don’t care about all the great localization work put into the game by Nintendo Treehouse—and if you’re just here for the fighting, fear not: Paper Jam has some of the best combat of any RPG out there. But if you’re looking for another epic quest stuffed to the brim with hilarious jokes and memorable characters, the best recommendation I can give you is to give Dream Team another shot. It’s simply better in every single way.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is based on final review code provided to us by Nintendo. The game launched in the U.S. on January 22nd, 2016.