AlphaDream’s Mario & Luigi series has consistently been one of the best and brightest franchises on the Nintendo 3DS, pulling on the rich universe that the Mario brand has created for itself for an expansive, and inventive mix of nostalgia and progression. Nostalgia because most of the humour relies on our attachment to these characters – which is undoubtedly there since Mario has been one of the most endearing game creations of all time – and progression because the games continually find ways to experiment with the tried and tested RPG formula, trading out a more traditional turn-based fighting approach for a blend of timed-action, in-battle mini games, and impressive animation. That’s only the battles as well, games like Mario & Luigi: Bowsers Inside Story and Mario & Luigi: Dream Time Bros. each had engaging, memorable story lines that built on unique mechanics as you’d progress. This new one, Paper Jam Bros., continues that penchant for a humourous, innovative push forward for the Mario universe, but it lacks the charm and inspiration of it’s predecessors. This isn’t to say that Paper Jam Bros. is a bad game, at all; it’s just simply not as good as Bowsers Inside Story or Dream Time Bros.
After Luigi clumsily opens a book containing the Paper Mario universe, the various sticker-like characters are flung all over the map and give room for some interesting dynamics. There are now two Princess Peaches (one 3D, one 2D), two Bowsers, two Bowser Jrs, two Kameks, one fucking zillion toads, and two marios…you get the picture. Much of the narrative relies on this, with “normal” versions and their paper counterparts often having different points of view, abilities, and styles; this is mostly seen in the many enemies which have varying attacks, with the paper versions being strangely more difficult than their “normal” counterparts due to stickers having the ability to stack onto each other.
Of course, battles are driven by the timed-hit mechanic, and the ‘Bros Attacks’ are like small mini-games in which rhythm determines the amount of hit points dealt. As such, these attacks are fun to collect, but the method of collecting them in Paper Jam Bros. is much different this time around; instead of collecting what was essentially jigsaw pieces (making for a fun game in itself) you just chase around a burglar character and tackle him every now and then; it’s not as engaging but at least the Bros Attacks are still creative (though many are the same as before) and playful. You have a new type of attack as well, utilising the fact that there are now three characters in your party – Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario – for powerful trio moves which require even more timed-button pressing than usual, often meaning these are more challenging to pull off perfectly.
Indeed, the blended universe has allowed the developers to take their unconventional RPG style even further, but it’s at the cost of engagement. Many of the mechanics and mini-games become repetitive, more so than the previous titles, and there is often so much to do in just one section – like finding toads over and over again – that you don’t get to explore the full map as quickly as you did in the other games. To add, the game obviously needs to be accessible to a younger audience, so while some of the ideas are interesting and immediately involving, they taper off because of the lack of challenging gameplay. You’ll breeze through these moments, and enjoy them while they last, but you’ll actually long for the frustration of a traditional Mario platformer. You may get a different form of frustration though, one which comes with excessive tutorials, designed to over-explain mechanics, again for a younger crowd.
Luckily, boss battles are somewhat challenging, and they are layered with entertaining sequences, like the excellent chase sequences which place Paper Mario as a folded up paper airplane for Mario or Luigi to grab on in order to evade attacks.
Perhaps one of the most memorable mechanics of the previous titles was the ‘other’ type of battle, where you’d have to turn the 3DS vertically to accommodate large-scale fights. Here, you have “Papercraft Battles” instead, bringing in large paper-made versions of characters to repetitively dash and jump at each other, it’s a huge step down for the series and is only fun because of the loot you get after each win.
Map design lacks the imagination of a title like Dream Time Bros. often consisting of insipid recreations of the stock-standard environments: grasslands, caves, deserts, forests, and mountains. Some of the environmental play works well here, but most of it falls flat of what we’ve come to expect from AlphaDream. The world of Paper Jam Bros. is colourful and vibrant, mixing 2D with 3D, but there’s little beyond that.
Many of the game’s strengths come from the presence of Paper Mario and his ability to fold, squeeze, and float, augmenting the dynamic between the two brothers by way of trio-abilities like a triple-hammer process that’s required to smash bigger blocks. On the other hand, you have to constantly be pressing an additional button; as with all Mario & Luigi RPGs, each character is assigned a particular button – Mario is A, Luigi is B, and Paper Mario is Y – and you’ll frequently need to press all three in sequence, even when jumping from platform to platform. Given, the developers have thrown in a ‘catch all’ button, X, which you can press when you want all three to jump at the same time, but that is only of use when smaller jumps are required.
The humour is still bizarre and wacky but lacks the punch of the previous titles (especially Bowsers Inside Story, which was hilarious), instead putting most of the laughs into physical comedy, like when the two Bowsers get stuck in a power struggle and try to one-up one another. Regardless, there’s still an infectious playfulness about the writing here, using the Mario universe for various, effective jokes.
Of course, Amiibo is worked into the game, where compatible figures can be used to increase attacking options in battle. This is thankfully not a necessity though, but at least it brings in a small advantage for those who want to utilise Nintendo’s focus on augmented reality. Amiibo figures give you “summon”-like attacks, which you can use once per battle if you have obtained enough blank cards whether through play or purchasing them at Toad’s shop.
Despite some flaws, it’s hard to resist the charm of a Mario & Luigi RPG, and while Paper Jam Bros. might not live up to the series’ standards it’s still a fun, relaxed game that draws on Mario regalia and mixes it with slightly odd, humourous writing, making for an entertaining, unique narrative broken up by idiosyncratic gameplay. It’s definitely one of the best 3DS titles of 2015, and continues the interest in this inventive RPG series, which I hope is not ending any time soon. It certainly makes up for us not getting a new Pokemon RPG this year.
Review Score: 8 out of 10
Highlights: Same quirky sense of humour as previous titles; inventive in-battle attacks; paper world changes dynamic; benefits of having three people in your party; inventive boss battles.
Lowlights: Not challenging enough; missing some of the best mechanics of the previous titles; can be repetitive; step back in design as compared to previous titles; papercraft battles.
Released: December 10, 2015
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Reviewed on Nintendo 3DS.