And while the games have many similarities, the look and feel of Paper Mario is completely unique. The fact that the characters and structures in the 3D world are paper-thin (hence the title), lends the game a distinct feel that the designers, Intelligent Systems, pulled off flawlessly, from tiny paper leaves wafting through the air after Mario hits a tree with his hammer to the way Mario himself gently floats to the ground after a long fall. The completely different feel of the graphics, combined with a superb RPG interface that borrows all the best elements from Super Mario RPG and improves them, makes this a must-have game for the N64.
Be warned, however -- if you're severely allergic to overly cute-and-cuddly games, take some Dramamine before heading off on Mario's adventure. The game is about as cute as can be, with adorable characters, storybook artwork and even plotline elements that would make Barney proud. At one point, for example, two enemies that formerly challenged Mario's path to his precious princess send a letter saying, in effect, that they were sorry for their evil ways, and that they would henceforth turn to the powers of good.
The sickly-sweet sentiment in the game is really the only fault we could find, however -- and that's purely subjective. The storyline tends to follow the typical Mario pattern -- Bowser steals a powerful artifact called the Star Rod from the Star Spirits in Star Haven (there are a lot of stars in this game). He then uses it to capture the Star Spirits and make himself invincible. After he comes down and once again kidnaps Princess Peach, Mario has to find a way to rescue the seven Star Spirits and defeat Bowser.
The graphics in Paper Mario might be what makes the game stand out from the crowd (and the fact that it's a true RPG on the N64), but the console roleplaying elements are superb. The game has much of the feel of the original Super Mario RPG, and it's obvious that Intelligent Systems borrowed quite a bit from Square's original masterpiece. Players control Mario around the world with some elements of his 2D action days, banging on blocks overhead and jumping over platforms and the like. Enemies wander around the area, and when they come in contact with Mario, combat ensues.
Just like Super Mario RPG, combat is turned-based, and Mario can choose from a variety of moves. A little way into the game, Mario receives an amulet that lets him use Action Commands, which are basically more powerful attacks. For example, when Mario uses a Jump attack, players can hit the A button right before Mario lands on the enemy, and if they time it right, Mario will cause more damage than normal. These Action Commands vary with different characters and different attacks -- for example, Mario's hammer attack can be powered up by holding the control stick to the side and letting go at a precise moment. Players can also hit the A button immediately before Mario gets hit in order to reduce any damaged caused. The Action Commands lend a lot of fun to the game that would otherwise result in a boring button mash during combat. In many cases, strategic use of Action Commands are require to help Mario escape from battle unharmed.
As in any good RPG, Mario has plenty of stats that affect his performance. The three main stats are Heart Points (HP), Flower Points (FP) and Badge Points (BP). HP is Mario's health. FP are used for special attacks and magical items. BP determine how many badges Mario can equip at once. Every time Mario emerges victorious from combat, he earns a certain number of Star Points. For every 100 Star Points, Mario goes up a level, and players can then choose which of the three categories to increase. In many cases, this can be a tough call -- players could raise Mario's HP by five, or they could raise his BP by five, so that Mario can then equip a badge that raises his HP by five points. This kind of control, although limited, lets players tailor Mario however they like.
Mario also isn't alone in his adventure. Players will come across a variety of characters that will join with Mario's cause, and each of them bring something new and different to the mix -- and in many cases, their help is needed to get past certain puzzles. For example, Kooper, the helpful blue-shelled Koopa, can help Mario reach switches and objects that are out of jumping range. Mario can send Bombette, the willful Bob-omb, walking toward a crack in the wall and blast a way through with her explosive, ahem, personality. These tricks also work during combat -- Kooper's ranged shell attack is just the thing for taking out explosive Bob-ombs without taking damage.
There's no doubt that the game is one of the most saccharine titles currently available on the N64, and it's the perfect RPG to get kids started on the genre. But it also contains enough roleplaying fun and graphic grandeur to keep the adult gamers hooked, no matter how Disneyesque it feels.
Bottom Line: It's the only real RPG for the N64, and while some players will undoubtedly groan at its incredibly child-oriented feel, it's more than a match for any RPG on any system.