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Review - "Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam"

The Paper Mario series really hasn't seen much love overall, has it? Comparatively speaking, it has some of the least entries in terms of Mario sub-series, and only two of those are really even stylistically similar. After a couple of turn-based RPG outings, the series was overhauled in the platforming-hybrid Super Paper Mario, taking the stylistic elements and stripping away literally everything else. Also, Sticker Star happened, and honestly, that's one crumbled-up scrap of paper that belongs in the trash can of gaming history.

That being said, it makes sense for Nintendo to take their most successful Mario-based role-playing franchise and crash it into the cult-hit series. They're both RPGs. They both have Mario. They're both funny. But does this idea work, or is it something that only sounds good on paper?

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam
Developer: AlphaDream
Publisher: Nintendo
Available On: Nintendo 3DS
Rated: E

Really, the term "RPG" has to be used very loosely when talking about this game, because as anyone who's played a Mario & Luigi entry can attest to, this is a franchise that really isn't happy unless it's turning role-playing conventions on their head every five seconds. In Bowser's Inside Story, there was weird puzzle-platforming inside of Bowser's body. In Dream Team, there was bizarre "you're in Luigi's dreams" hijnks. It's definitely true that there's leveling up, turn-based battles, and the other bread-and-butter associated with traditional RPGs, but it's a far cry from the more definitive structures found in the first two Paper Mario titles and, for that matter, Super Mario RPG.

What's odd, then, is that crashing this franchise into Paper Mario didn't result in something more typical. Instead, it resulted in perhaps the most wildly experimental, varied entry yet. Even Paper Jam's turn-based battles are the strangest amalgamation of mechanics I've seen in the franchise to date, and definitely a shock to the system of anyone expecting a "normal" RPG.

While I'm not usually one to complain about unconventional blends of gameplay styles, I will say that, sadly, a lot of these mechanics add to a general lack of cohesion. In the span of thirty minutes, players can wildly swing from a turn-based battle to a collect-a-thon mission to a "find the hidden object" deal to "use a giant papercraft tank to take down enemies." Even in the middle of battles, there are new, weird gimmicks that players need to get the hang of. For example, Paper Mario's core mechanic consists of continually copying himself, which not only serves as his health, but also keeps his attacks from not completely sucking. That's stacked on top of the usual "dodge attacks and accurately hit buttons to do damage" schtick that's a hallmark of both franchises.

The good news is that, despite the game feeling like a grab-bag of different gimmicks, most of those gimmicks are pretty arresting. I really do think the papercraft battles are a lot of genuine fun, and have a distinct strategy and finesse to them. I also dig how Paper Mario is a totally different beast to use than Mario and Luigi in battle, as it definitely adds a sense of variety. That said, one sometimes wishes for a bit more consistency when there's an abrupt shift to a different gimmick that utterly blows.

Case in point: the monotonous "Toad Hunts," which are not optional affairs. No, these obnoxious stages, which require players to either chase Toads into each other to catch them, or to scan the environment for hidden Toads, are required to progress in the game. It's a shame, because they're easily the least fun part of the entire package. The directions are often counter-intuitive, they take too long for my liking, and I genuinely feel as if the rationale behind doing them (development of new technology to take on both Bowsers) is weak tea, at best.

And yes, I did say "both Bowsers." If you weren't already aware, Paper Jam's narrative concerns a magical book that holds the entirety of Paper Mario's universe getting flung open by accident (thanks, Luigi,) which sends the book's inhabitants crashing into regular ol' Mario's world. This means that the three-dimensional Mario interacts with the flat Mario, the normal Peach pals around with the paper Peach, and Luigi is pretty much on his own, because... screw Paper Luigi, I guess? But I digress. The central conflict has the Bowsers of both worlds forming a shaky alliance to kidnap both princesses, and both Bowser Jr.'s scheming to destroy the magical book so they can keep playing together.

As one might guess, this isn't exactly the most nuanced or in-depth narrative out there, but for what it is, it's great. And what it is, exactly, is a joke-a-second romp that pokes loving fun at the Mario franchise and stretches the "flat world meets 3D world" gags to their logical extremes. The dialogue here is easily the high point of the package, and practically makes it worth slogging through the Toad Hunts just to get to more of it. And even those have some clever jokes that make it easy to forget that you're doing a repetitive task for practically no reasons. Well. Almost.

The package is tied together by some impressive production values, especially for the 3DS. The pseudo-2D sprites that are a hallmark of the Mario & Luigi series look phenomenal here; their animations are fluid and lifelike in that Disney movie sort of way. The paper sprites also look great, with their signature visual trickery juxtaposed against a 3D environment, making their presence infinitely more interesting than the stuff we saw in Sticker Star. All of these sprites inhabit a vibrant, dynamic series of worlds that are positively teeming with personality, and are all a joy to explore.

Oh, there's also some amiibo stuff here, too. You scan an amiibo, you get a special card, that card does stuff in battle. It's non-essential, but it's a neat gimmick regardless. The same could be said of the New 3DS functionality, which allows players to pan the map while exploring, and to control the camera while in papercraft battles. Again, non-essential, but a nice thing to include.

On the whole, there are a lot of nitpicks I have with Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam. The lack of cohesion, the Toad Hunts, the inability to rein in its own ambition. But unlike lesser games, which can be made or broken by those things, Paper Jam is still an excellent title, in spite of its problems. Most of the gimmicks work, the story is a riot, the visuals are gorgeous, and it's a great title to play in short bursts or extended sessions.

While I do wish we could get a more focused experience in the vein of the classic Paper Mario titles, there's no denying that this is the best use of the property since the early 2000's, as well as one of the best Mario & Luigi entries.

- A hilarious story packed with fresh humor.
- Dynamic, varied gameplay.
- Loads of content to be found.
- Quirky, fun visuals and a great score.

- Disjointed and unfocused at parts.
- A bit gimmicky in some areas.
- Toad Hunts.


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