Nintendo's Mario RPG Problem

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam. Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam. NINTENDO

Disclaimer: insofar as Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam can be said to even have a plot, this article will spoil elements of it.

I recently finished Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, because it's an excellent series and I was looking forward to writing a review of it. I can't do that right now, though, because playing the game all the way through has filled me with so much frustration and disappointment that I can't even talk about the game without going into the major problem in detail. Plus, this is an issue that plagues more Nintendo games than just Paper Jam, and I feel like this trend needs to be addressed directly before it starts plaguing and ruining too many other games.

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is a game that should have been vastly more enjoyable than it was. The mechanics are solid, the enemy designs and attacks are clever, and the game even addressed nearly all of my complaints from Dream Team about hand-holding, making it optional and largely pushing tutorials out of the way. I should have been completely enthralled, but instead I was utterly bored the entire way through, having almost no desire to pick the game up after putting it down. The game should have been a 9/10 easily, but instead it was a 6/10 - entirely because the game has no story.

The story structure is basically no different from the original Super Mario Bros. Bowser captures Peach, Mario defeats Bowser and saves Peach, and absolutely nothing of interest or consequence happens in between. Even the central concept of the Paper Mario world interacting with the normal Mushroom Kingdom goes no further than "there are now two Bowsers, Peaches and Marios". The game's length is padded out by an excess of minigames where you save Paper Toads, and periodically sending the player backward and forcing them to return to where they were for several hours.

And the game really rubs it in by constantly hinting that something exciting and interesting is ABOUT to happen, and then never following up. The two Bowser Jr's constantly talk about the importance of a certain key book containing Paper Mario's world, and you're convinced that something major will happen involving it, but it never happens. Near the end of the game, you're running through a gauntlet of enemies, and it constantly cuts back to the two Bowsers, who just comment on how annoying you are and doing absolutely nothing to advance any sort of plot. I nearly threw my 3DS at this point.

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam.

This is a directive that actually came from Shigeru Miyamoto himself. An infamous "Iwata Asks" interview on Paper Mario: Sticker Star revealed that Miyamoto wanted the story substantially gutted, and no new characters introduced - hence the quote "it's fine without a story, so do we really need one?" After playing through Paper Jam, and looking at early information for Paper Mario: Color Splash, it seems that this is being applied to every Mario RPG. This attitude belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how turn-based RPGs operate - they are not fine without stories, and they do really need one.

There is something very important that all game developers need to understand when they are making games: a player always wants to be making forward progress toward their goal. Whenever they are clearly not, it's frustrating and not fun - and if you spend an excessive amount of time making very slow progress, it's not a whole lot better. Good games understand this and utilize this in smart ways to make the player feel accomplished. A good example of this is Dark Souls; the plot of the game is slowly revealed to the player, and they are continually given new goals to accomplish whenever they achieve their current one. Final Fantasy X is also good at this; as the plot twists and turns, the player keeps progressing toward the ultimate goal stated at the start of the game, even though the details and motivations are constantly morphing in interesting ways.

The Paper Mario series sort of takes a shortcut to this, by giving you an ultimate goal (defeat the Big Bad) and making you collect seven to eight magical MacGuffins on your way. This also lets them create a number of fairly disconnected scenarios (one for each MacGuffin) while making you feel like you're still taking part in one big story. The Mario & Luigi series doesn't always do this, and there's often a lot of sidetracking instead of progress, but it's offset by great writing and fun combat, so I generally forgave it - up until Paper Jam.

The thing is that forward progress is important both on an overarching story level, and on a minute-to-minute gameplay level. And this is the biggest problem with turn-based RPGs - they are constantly interrupting your forward progress. Every RPG player has said "ugh, not ANOTHER random battle" at some point, because the frequent interruptions get really frustrating when they stop you from progressing. This is also why grinding is the worst thing ever, because it's pure busywork without moving forward. (And this is one reason why Chrono Trigger is the best RPG ever, because you never have to grind.) And this is why story is more important in RPGs than in other game genres - they help make up for the fact that you're going through what is basically a slog. If the path to your ultimate goal is constantly being interrupted, the game can make this less frustrating by providing you with smaller, ancillary goals along the way. Plus, the motivation to see what happens next in an intriguing plot can often offset the annoyance of constant random battles.

A standard Mario platformer constantly has you moving forward, with almost no interruption, so a story is much less important. Similarly, Super Paper Mario was a platformer/RPG hybrid instead of a turn-based RPG, so story is not as critical to the game's enjoyability, since the action isn't stopping constantly (one notable chapter excluded). And this is where Nintendo made a major mistake - they used survey data from Super Paper Mario, where only 1% of players said the story was interesting, to inform their policy on future turn-based Mario RPGs. If they had done the same survey on Paper Mario: the Thousand-Year Door, I feel like they would have gotten an enormously different answer.

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam fails this important concept of forward progress on all fronts. Being a turn-based RPG, you're constantly being interrupted, even if the combat itself is enjoyable. But they commit another annoying mistake with how they choose to pad out the game. At multiple points in the game, right before Mario and crew are about to reach their destination (usually Bowser's Castle), some plot device happens to force them backward and make you spend several hours getting back to the exact same point. In one egregious example, Starlow declares that the group has to flee Bowser's Castle because it's suddenly airborne, and the very next thing she says once they've escaped is that they have to get back to the exact same castle. Games should never do this, ever. Good games will take the goal and push it forward; bad games, like Paper Jam, will push the player backward. The end result is that you spend several hours getting back to a place you already were, and you don't feel like you've accomplished anything.

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam.

But that's only half of Miyamoto's troublesome edict. He also demanded that new characters not be introduced, which restricted the developers to basically nothing but the same copy-pasted Toad. They tried to give them different personalities as reflected through their dialogue, but the end result in Paper Jam is that you get nothing but bland, identical-sounding Toads that make amusing but insubstantial wisecracks the entire time. I will laugh at them sometimes, but I never cared about a single one of them. The only reason I wanted to save any of them was because the game forced me to in order to proceed. I never got emotionally invested.

This may sound like the boring complaint of an artsy-fartsy critic, but this is actually very important to most video games, and RPGs most of all. Emotion does interesting things to the human brain, and one of the most significant things is turning off the brain's logic sector almost completely. When we get emotionally invested in games, we are far more likely to overlook or forgive its flaws, and this includes the constant interruption of turn-based random battles. And making players emotionally invested in your game basically demands that you create characters they will care about.

I do not care about Paper Toads.

I have never cared about these generic color-swapped Toads.

I will never, at any point in my life, care about these copy-pasted, wise-cracking, completely uninteresting Toads.

There are certain things that a character needs to do for a player to care about them. They don't need to be particularly complex, but it's not enough for them to just be funny. A character needs to have personal wants and needs; they need to have some area in which they're personally unsatisfied, where they want to improve their lives or themselves as people. Pixar has stated in the past that all of their films focus on the personal growth of the main characters, and it's no coincidence that so many of them are so beloved.

Take Fawful, a major villain from past Mario & Luigi games. He's very well written, and never fails to make me laugh, but it's hard for me to get emotionally invested in his otherwise flat character. Now look at Papyrus, a popular character from the critically-acclaimed RPG Undertale. He's also a very funny character, but from the moment we meet him, we get to see his hopes and dreams, and the things he wants to change about himself. I enjoy both characters, but like every character in Undertale, I find myself really caring about Papyrus. Things like this are what cause outlets to give Undertale perfect 10/10 scores and Game of the Year awards, despite the game's graphics being in the "passable" range. We forgive the game's issues, because it makes us care about it so much.

Paper Jam completely fails at making us care about its characters, or even making us like them on the same level as Fawful. Even looking at previous Paper Mario games, they featured a large number of Toads, but most of them were distinct from the others in both personality and visual style. Most people who played The Thousand-Year Door could probably give a good description of the look and personality of Jolene, the assistant manager of the Glitz Pit. I couldn't tell you anything about the personality of a Paper Toad from the newest game, and I ran into over a hundred of them that all acted the exact same way.

A good story and strong characters are a big part of what make great RPGs so great, and it's what makes us continue to play them even as we curse the frequency of random battles and force ourselves to grind for levels. Unfortunately, these are exactly the elements that Miyamoto does not want to see in future Mario RPGs, because he doesn't seem to fully understand how the RPG genre is different from the platformer genre. Furthermore, these are the elements that would have taken Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam to greatness, but without them, the game is instead lounging in mediocrity, where it should never have been. If Nintendo wants to bring their Mario RPG series back to the levels of greatness they once had, they'll need to change their course before it's too late.

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