Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Rank Up! - Ranking the Paper Mario Series

Yesterday, August 11th, saw the 20th anniversary of the original release of Mario Story in Japan. For most of us on this side of the world, however, we know it fondly as Paper Mario. After pouring through the contents of the latest Paper Mario game, The Origami King, and holding it in rather high esteem as my review shows, it seems like an ample time as any to give the Paper Mario franchise the Rank Up! treatment. Let's do just that!

As always with Rank Up!, I'll be counting down the list of every game in the Paper Mario series, starting with my least favorite of the bunch and slowly working my way down to the very best. After you've checked out my list and rationale for this order, why not share your thoughts and possibly your own ranking!

6) Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS)

My least favorite in the Paper Mario series greatly changed the formula of the franchise, and to start off, it was not for the better. While far from an awful game, Paper Mario: Sticker Star failed to live up to previous installments. After being teased with early screenshots featuring partners and the traditional turn-based battles of the series--all typical elements of the series--the final game saw a removal of nearly all of the things that fans of the franchise adored. The turn-based battles were still present, but now one-time use stickers were used for attacks and no experience was gained from battles. Both really undermined the need for players to engage with encounters altogether. Then, there were the dreaded Things, one-time use objects that needed to be used to turn the tide in specific areas of the game. The problem here was that in battles, most of the time the right Thing to use was so unclear that it made boss battles aggravatingly obtuse. Fortunately, Nintendo would use this decidedly shaky foundation to fine tune the concept for future, better installments.

5) Super Paper Mario (Wii)

The start of the shift in Paper Mario's gameplay concepts, Super Paper Mario on the Wii was quite the sizable shift to say the least. Really, one could call the game more of a spin-off due to the complete lack of turn-based battles altogether. Instead, everything was done in real-time via jumping and hammering in this platformer/RPG hybrid. The story of the game went in some truly bizarre and dark (at least for the series) places, offering new foes to face and numerous original characters to encounter. The main gimmick to exploration and world traversal was the ability to shift the camera to a new axis to reveal paths and hidden objects in a 3D perspective that were obscured when viewed from the traditional 2D perspective of the games. It was a novel idea but did lose its luster over the duration of the game. Super Paper Mario was an interesting and mostly successful experiment for the Paper Mario series, but it would lead to a future for the franchise that is quite different from its origin, and one that plenty of fans have and continue to adamantly oppose.

4) Paper Mario: Color Splash (Wii U)

Released in the final years of the Wii U, it's no surprise that many did not get to experience Paper Mario: Color Splash, either due to not owning the dismally selling Wii U or looking ahead to Nintendo's next console. Those that did would discover a mostly improved sequel to Paper Mario: Sticker Star. While Things were still a part of the game, their implementation was much less of a frustration and cause for headaches. The paint mechanic of coloring in the world brought an abundance of entertainment with regard to exploration, and the personality and humor of Color Splash when compared to its predecessor were much more apparent. This was a hilarious at best and humorous at worst game. It wasn't without its caveats, though, as battles still didn't feel worthwhile to engage with, as attack cards had limited uses. Worse, you had to use the Wii U GamePad in a needlessly convoluted manner to "paint" the cards into more usable forms. Still, I quite enjoyed my time with Paper Mario: Color Splash, and between the sensational presentation (both beautiful graphics and catchy music), exploration, and humor, it's a game that I do recommend... as long as you're not searching for a traditional Paper Mario experience.

3) Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (GCN)

Often noted as many a Paper Mario fan's favorite game in the series, I don't have as much of a fondness for the sophomore entry in the Paper Mario franchise. By no means is it a terrible game--well, that much is obvious due to the game being number three on this countdown--but Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door has just enough elements that detract from the overall game that it somewhat sours me on it over the other two titles in the series. For one, there is a massive amount of backtracking in multiple chapters, which makes revisits to the game a chore... or at least more of a figurative headache than I would like. Secondly, there are some leaps in difficulty that could have used some more ironing out--particularly the super-challenging final boss. That said, everything else about The Thousand-Year Door is a delight. The humor, writing, and story are on point; the battle system is as engaging and enjoyable as ever; and the worlds are a ton of fun to explore and discover items and badges in. If you have yet to play this classic and have access to both the game and a functioning GameCube, (prepare for an awful pun...) do X-"naut" skip this game!

2) Paper Mario: The Origami King (NSW)

With the direction and approach of the modern Paper Mario games, I certainly did not expect one of the games to give me such a sensation of excitement and pleasure from playing--much less be number two on my list of favorite Paper Mario games. But, lo and behold, Paper Mario: The Origami King, the latest in the Paper Mario series, has achieved that feat. Well met, Origami King. The battles still don't reward experience for completing them, but not only are the puzzles fun to solve by turning and sliding rings to assemble enemies in nice groups to attack, they're also worthwhile this time around. Why? Because coins are more important than ever in The Origami King. They're used for purchasing new attack cards (which don't break after just one use), items, and all-important accessories. Exploration has never been more fun and engaging in a Paper Mario game due to how mesmerizing each location is, how lovely it is to uncover the myriad secrets in the world, and how delightful it is to discover hidden Toads, item boxes, and collectibles. Really, some lackluster moments in the game aside, Paper Mario: The Origami King made me a true believer of this new direction for the Paper Mario series, after just "liking" its two predecessors.

1) Paper Mario (N64)

Sometimes the first things are the best things. ...Is that a saying? I hope not, because it doesn't really roll off the tongue as well I'd like. Regardless, the game that continued the tradition of Squaresoft's Super Mario RPG arrived late on the Nintendo 64 with the original Paper Mario. (Heck, even the tentative title for the game was Super Mario RPG 2!) Paper Mario wasn't overly reliant on the foundation set by Squaresoft's classic SNES Mario game, but it did have several concepts in common, such as turn-based battles that feature context-sensitive button inputs as the main one. The game brought several new ideas to the table as well, and I don't just mean the paper/storybook aesthetic--though that was a big one. The addition of partners with both in-battle and out-of-battle skills that could be switched between to both attack foes and solve environmental puzzles added a fun element to the game. Another new addition was that of badges, which could give Mario and his partners various helpful bonuses in and out of battle. What puts the original Paper Mario over the top when compared to the other entries in the series, most notably The Thousand-Year Door, is that it has great pacing, worthwhile battles, and less aggravating points in it than any other game on this list. Plus, it's just overall the best game for me.