Release Date: January 22, 2016Platform: Nintendo 3DSDeveloper: AlphaDreamPublisher: NintendoGenre: RPG
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is the latest entry in the humorous and lighthearted RPG series from Nintendo. While past Mario & Luigi games have experimented with some pretty big ideas, like time travel and traversing dream worlds, the big twist this time around involves the addition of Paper Mario to the team, along with numerous baddies and environmental elements from the Paper Mario world. Although this crossover of different game worlds leads to some confusion among the characters themselves, it makes perfect sense in execution, as the best aspects from both series are fully utilized, leading Paper Jam to be another solid addition to the always excellent and beloved RPG series.
Paper Jam starts off in low-key fashion, with Luigi and Toad accidentally unleashing the inhabitants of Paper Mario into their own 3D world. This naturally leads to the double kidnapping of Princess Peach and Paper Princess Peach by Bowser and Paper Bowser, who have joined forces to get the drop on Mario and friends once and for all. With the stakes now increased twofold, Mario and Luigi must team up with Paper Mario to traverse the newly mish-mashed lands and save the day. While the story seems a little more simplistic when compared to the sprawling adventure of 2013’s Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, the series’ trademark humor thankfully returns front and center, and the different characters’ confusion at being introduced to their paper counterparts just never gets old.
The majority of the game uses the same 3D art style we saw in Dream Team, while the rest incorporates the boldly-outlined style of the Paper Mario games. The result is an incredibly unique visual experience, as the two styles play off each other’s stark differences to a positive effect. This crossover also affects the gameplay: Paper Goombas have different attack patterns than 3D ones, papery obstacles can stand in your path, and Paper Mario can use his flat dimensions to slide through narrow openings while exploring the 3D game world outside of battle.
The biggest change to the traditional Mario & Luigi formula in Paper Jam is that Paper Mario now joins the heroic duo as a brand new member of their party. Paper Mario attacks separately from Mario and Luigi during battle, and his self-copying ability allows for some really clever attack animations and button inputs. Besides the returning list of Bros. Attacks, Paper Mario’s presence gives way to a brand new list of Trio Attacks, which finds all three party members coordinating as one to inflict the most damage on their foes in wacky ways. Sure, it’s a turn-based RPG at its heart, but there’s so much player input involved in these battles—whether it’s observing an enemy’s attack and executing a perfect dodge, or nailing the timing to score an ‘Excellent’ rated Trio Attack—that Paper Jam often feels like an action game, or at the very least a great collection of mini-games.
A big part of Paper Jam is rescuing Paper Toads, who are so afraid of this strange 3D world that they’ve taken to hiding within the surroundings or outright fleeing from you in terror as you approach. While most of the Toads are automatically rescued as part of the story, you’ll still need to visit various Lakitu Info Centres around the world in order to mop up the remainder. These squat cloud-shaped buildings serve as hubs for separate Toad-rescuing challenges outside of the main storyline. These side quests have you rescuing Toads in a number of fun and exciting ways, from chasing them down with your dash ability, to sniffing them out in a game of hide-and-seek across town, to strategically crushing towers of blocks to let the trapped Toads drop down to safety.
In addition to saving these optional Toads, you can also test your skills in a series of progressively difficult quizzes about characters or events you’ve encountered in the game thus far. Most challenges feature a harder version of them for you to tackle as well. And of course, there is once again the long list of expert challenges to tick off as you battle your way through the story, which tasks you with doing everything from dodging several enemy attacks in succession to perfecting some of the most elaborate Trio Attack maneuvers. While the main story of Paper Jam is a generous length on its own, these thoughtful touches and extra tasks work wonders towards boosting the game’s overall longevity, and they’re all fun to complete, at that.
My favorite new addition is the wildly inventive papercraft battles, which function like epic tank skirmishes in a sense and truly allow the Paper Mario side of the visuals to shine. These battles find Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario sitting atop a giant paper-made version of a famous Mario character, which is controlled from underneath by a gaggle of Toads. You can maneuver around a fully 3D battlezone, pulling off jump attacks to squash enemy papercrafts or bash into cardboard ‘?’ boxes for an extra boost to your health before setting your sights on the towering boss. It’s a wonderful change of pace from the turn-based battles that make up the bulk of the game. Again, this is another strong example of how the Mario & Luigi saga extends its reach beyond the RPG genre, and Paper Jam plays off the strengths of its papery source material in excellent fashion.
Less exciting, however, is the new battle card system, which replaces the traditional badges seen in past Mario & Luigi games. As you progress through the story, you’ll eventually unlock the ability to create and maintain a deck of ten battle cards, which can be played during battle at the start of each turn. These cards grant special perks like increased attack power or defense, and are tied to a star usage meter that gets replenished for performing well against your adversaries. You can even use your amiibos in accordance with the game to create some special character-based cards for your deck as well. Admittedly, the amiibo integration feels a bit forced, and the cards as a whole can make the already exciting and strategic battle segments seem needlessly convoluted and cluttered in certain situations. But at the same time, I can’t deny the addictive nature of trying to earn or purchase every unique card that’s available in the game.
But as a whole, Paper Jam effectively blends together the biggest strengths of both the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario series to a charming and truly enjoyable effect. The addition of Paper Mario to the team puts some fresh spins on both the turn-based and explorative gameplay, and the thrilling papercraft battles are a true highlight in this bright and colorful amalgam of worlds. With immense variety in gameplay and a cool contrast of visual styles, not to mention the series’ wonderful sense of humor, Paper Jam is constantly unfolding itself to reveal more fun, and it never fails to entertain.
Joe Jasko is a game critic.