I missed paper Mario when it came out in 2001. I missed a lot of console games that came out in the first decade of the 21st century – in my twenties I started living like a vagabond, wandering the country and living out of a suitcase. Between 2001 and 2013 or so I stopped being able to keep up with releases. That’s about a decade of prime gaming.
21st Century Retroboy is my personal journey through the games I missed out on.
I was a big fan of Super Mario RPG back in the Super Nintendo days. It was a lot of fun, got great reviews, and nearly universal acclaim. When Nintendo approached Square about making a sequel for the N64, though, the developer demurred to focus on Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation.
This is part of a much bigger deal about Nintendo’s choice to stick with cartridges over a CD format and turned into this whole thing where they refused to work with Square for years, but for the purposes of Paper Mario let’s just say that Nintendo turned to Intelligent Systems to create the sequel instead.
Right away I find I like the 2D on 3D paper cutout aesthetic – it’s used to great effect in several instances, including when Mario falls from a great height and slowly drifts down like a leaf.
So, we open up in a Mushroom Kingdom at peace. Mario and Luigi live together in a quaint little cottage, and receive an invitation from Peach to a party she’s throwing. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is – we saw this in the introduction to Super Mario 64.
The brothers go to the party, and we get control of Mario for a bit of mingling. Most of the dialog is inconsequential, but good worldbuilding. Luigi’s cool just sort of awkwardly hanging out in the foyer; I get the feeling it’s not his first time.
We learn about a few other lands in the Mushroom kingdom – Dry Dry Desert and Shiver Region – and that the kingdom itself is multi-ethnic… we have the Toads, Koopas, and Nomadimouse’s, at least, along with our three humans – Mario, Luigi, and the Princess.
In fact, these are the only three humans we’ve seen in Mario games to this point… two outsiders and a monarch. Usually when we see a small group lording over a pool of larger subjects, it’s nothing egalitarian… are the Toads a subject people?
Are the Goomba and Koopa conquered? Super Mario Bros did establish that the Koopa were a tribe, a foreign power, invaders. How dark are the Kingdom’s internal politics?
If there are answers, they’ll have to wait, because shortly after Mario arranges for a clandestine meeting with the Princess the whole place starts to shake – King Bowser’s fortress erupts from underneath the castle and we’re carried off into the stratosphere.
Mario leaps to the defense of the princess and we’re given our first taste of the combat engine. It’s not a full taste, not even properly a tutorial, because we’ve only got one option and this is a fight that’s rigged to lose, but again so simple that there’s no real instructions necessary.
We select the Jump option to attack, Bowser attacks us back, everybody taking a paltry single point of damage per exchange.
After a bit of this Bowser reveals his secret weapon, a Star Rod that gives him the tremendous power to… do 3 damage per round instead of 1, and renders him immune to our own weak attacks.
He defeats us soon enough, and kicks our sorry butt out of the palace to go sailing down to the ground.
16 minutes in, and we’re out of the intro and into the prologue.
Crushed, defeated, we land and are treated to a display of translucent Stars bestowing what power they possess to save our lives. These guys look great, especially the star with the Dad mustache and the one in the sailor outfit.
They can’t do much to help us, but after they fade away we’re discovered by a little Goomba with a snaggle-tooth and hair bow.
We soon wake up in a Toad House – the game’s version of the standard RPG inn – and are informed that we’re in Goomba Village, home to a grand total of one Goomba family and one Toad. Really more of a Homestead. Living here are Goompa, Gooma, Goompapa, and Goomama – along with two kids, Goombaria and Goombario.
Each of them is, in some way or another, named in relation to the son Goombario – Gooma and Goompa are his grandparents, Goomama and Goompapa his parents, and Goombaria, his sister with a feminine version of his name. Goombario’s name draws from your own, reflecting his hero worship of you.
Full control of Mario is finally rendered to us, and we’re given our first quest – after a Magikoopa bars the path forward with a block, we need to borrow Goompa’s hammer to smash through it.
From here we get our first tutorial as well, an explanation of the combat system we’ve largely figured out, as well as instruction on searching nearby bushes and trees for coins, mushrooms, and quest items.
Upon returning to the Goomba Village we’re also taught about Badges, this game’s equippable gear – each has different sorts of effects, with the Super Jump badge giving us a special attack that consumes Flower Points to use. Each costs a number of Badge Points to equip, out of our limited number.
We’re also given our first Star Pieces, though what those are used for isn’t immediately apparent.
The third new feature before we leave Goomba Village is Goombario’s joining us – in addition to helping us in combat with a headbutt attack and a ‘Tattle’ ability to provide both combat stats and lore on the enemies we face, he provides an ability that can be used in the field to tell us about characters or places we visit.
That’s pretty cool. I like out-of-combat abilities, and I like superfluous lore. Another feature I like is that you can see the enemies on the map before you fight them, and in doing so gain First Strike by jumping on them or hitting them with your hammer before they can get you. This both counts as an attack and gives you first regular attack, so an enemy that takes two hits to nail can be eliminated without risk.
We’re seeing three types of foe so far – goombas, goombas with wings, and goombas with spiked helmets. Each has two hit points and does one damage, but each of the latter two adds a twist to combat – spiked goombas will hurt you if you jump on them, and winged ones can be grounded by hopping on them. It’s not much, but it does add some variety to the fights.
It’s not long before we have our first boss fight, against two slightly larger Goomba brothers. They’re basically just like regular ones, but with more hit points, and they aren’t too tough to beat.
The Goomba King
They run off and we meet them again a little further down the path, along with the Goomba King! Despite his size he’s also got the same attack power of a normal Goomba, though he has yet more hit points.
Fortunately both the Goomba Bros are still weak from their earlier thrashing, and I discover that attacking the tree they’re all standing under creates an area attack sufficient to destroy them. The Goomba King isn’t any more difficult, though I’m forced to use a healing mushroom. I hate that… I’m a total item hoarder when it comes to RPGs.
Victory gives us enough Star Points to go up a level, and once we do we’re given the choice between boosting our HP by 5, our Flower points by 5, or our Badge Points by 3… I opt, this time, to increase our Flower Points. 5 just wasn’t enough. I like that it’s a simple choice, but I have no idea where to sink my points in the future.
It’s just a short hop to Toad Town, and this seems to be more of an actual community. Plenty of NPC Toads to talk to, and even a pipe we can jump through to return to Mario’s house and visit Luigi if we feel the need, though at the moment there’s little purpose other than sleeping to heal up.
We can also spend some of our coins on items, but at this point I don’t bother. Much of the NPC conversation is, understandably enough, about the Princess’s castle disappearing, including this fun little dialog between two townsfolk who lament that their concern about one another above that of anything else makes them wicked Toads. It’s great
There’s also a post office – at first I thought this was unnecessary as Mario has a mailbox at home, but then I discovered that Goombario had a message here – the Goomba Bros showing their admiration for his strength. A nice little touch.
We find a quartet of shadowy Toad figures blocking the way east out of town. I don’t trust ’em! They seem sinister. But I can’t figure out a way past them, so I head out the gate North past where the Princess used to be, and then East towards the Shooting Star Summit.
Shooting Star Summit
First, though I walk along the base to this little tower housing two robed things, Merluvlee and Merlow. The former offers to tell my fortune, and this seems to offer something related to different items but it costs coins so I skip it.
Merlow reveals what the Star Shards are for: I can trade them in for badges. I have no idea which ones are good or how many I’ll be able to afford, so I just grab a couple for the sake of grabbing a couple. My 3 badge points don’t go far, though – maybe I should spend points on that next level up.
Not much left to do but scale the summit. Quite a few falling stars go zooming by as I do, but I can’t collect them and they don’t hurt me so it’s just a cool visual to enjoy.
At the top I get more exposition from the stars – Bowser stole the star rod, to oppose him I have to free the seven Stars from captivity, and only then can I save the princess.
Got it. Not too terribly unique from an RPG (or a Mario) perspective, but good enough to give me a context for what I’ll be doing.
We’re treated to an intermission scene where a rookie star named Twink tries to comfort the princess, and is asked to bring you a star pendent. It does so, and we get another tutorial on Action Commands – a little arcade action and timing to enhance our combat offense and defense, and honestly I feel like this kind of active involvement adds a lot to menu-based RPG combat. Keeps me focused and invested, anyway.
We’re given the chance to use this new mechanic in a fight against a reasonably powerful enemy, and it works just fine. This brings us to the end of the Prologue chapter… not a bad introduction to the game and its concepts. I’ll have to play a bit more to get a feel for the mechanics, but I’m enjoying it so far.