The Problem with Paper Mario? No developer creative freedom

Today I’d like to focus on a quote from Paper Mario: The Origami King producer Kensuke Tanabe in an interview with VGC:

"Since Paper Mario: Sticker Star, it’s no longer possible to modify Mario characters or to create original characters that touch on the Mario universe. That means that if we aren’t using Mario characters for bosses, we need to create original characters with designs that don’t involve the Mario universe at all, like we’ve done with Olly and the stationary bosses."

That sheds a lot of light on complaints that people have had with the Paper Mario series recently. Think about all the things that made your favorite Paper Mario games great. The fight with the Shadow Queen at the end of Thousand Year Door, the hilarious Mr. L in Super Paper Mario. Popular partners like Goombella and that Yoshi you got to name. All of these are basically off-limits for all-new Paper Mario entries. Instead, Paper Mario dev teams have to come up with something completely different. That’s why we end up facing off against the Origami King and his soldiers of colored pencils and tape.

I think it’s useful to look at the origins of Paper Mario, specifically in Super Mario RPG. That was a game for the SNES made by Square that also made a lot of original characters and didn’t really touch on Mario lore all that much. However, those characters were very memorable, so much so that Geno, one of the main characters of the game, has been requested as a Smash Bros. character up until this day.

When Nintendo upgraded to Nintendo 64, Square was largely focused on publishing for PlayStation, which means that the next Mario RPG was going to be an in-house project. They got developer Intelligent Systems to take it on, which was originally headquartered in the Nintendo Kyoto Research Center. Intelligent Systems took the general format of Super Mario RPG and fooled around with it, making it a little bit more streamlined, a little bit more casual. The writing became more tongue-in-cheek and focused on jokes, and riffing on Mario’s existing enemies rather than creating new characters and setting up new conflicts. It was originally called Super Mario RPG 2 but eventually became known as Mario Story in Japan and Paper Mario in America, due to its flat 2D sprites in a 3D polygonal world.

This name, Mario Story, is important. Because Paper Mario and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door were both known as Mario Story (1 and 2 respectively) in Japan, while all the other Paper Mario games have the title of, well, Paper Mario. You can kind of consider them two different franchises. One focused on the story, and the other focused on… well… the fact that Mario is made out of paper. That’s why Sticker Star, Color Splash, and Origami King all have this craft feel to them while Paper Mario and The Thousand Year Door treat Mario’s paper existence as more of a quirk than a central part of the story.

This might have something to do with Nintendo’s opinion toward the general “crafted” series of games that include things like Yoshi’s Crafted World and Kirby’s Epic Yarn. They are, for the most part, spin-offs of their original series and it’s possible that Nintendo looks at Paper Mario as more of a spinoff instead of a core franchise.

And spinoffs have limitations. They are, by nature, more casual than other games. Yoshi’s Crafted World was far easier than Yoshi’s Island and Kirby’s Epic Yarn didn’t even allow you to die. Similarly, The Origami King does away with many of the systems that we loved in Thousand Year Door and the original Paper Mario, as did Sticker Star and Color Splash.

So now you see the issue. Not only is Nintendo unable to touch existing Mario characters, but they also have a limit on how creative they can get with their gameplay, which leads us to where we are now. The Origami King is a fun and funny game, but Mario characters barely get to be a part of it. Mario and his buddies are just there while Olivia and Oly are actually the main characters of the story.

And you know, I think we would be comfortable with any half of this equation. If the next Paper Mario game featured an all-original cast but a deep and tactical system, then it would be a lot like the original Super Mario RPG. If the next Paper Mario featured a casual system but did interesting things with the Mario cast of characters, then we would have another Thousand Year Door.

But the further the Paper Mario series distances itself from what makes mainline Mario games so fun, the fewer fans will care about it. If Nintendo really wants the series to be a hit again, they need to be willing to take some risks.

What do you think? Should Nintendo remove restrictions on Paper Mario devs? Let us know in the comments.