The identity of games is something that’s mostly apparent at a glance. A set of characteristics that set a game or series apart from the rest of the pack, a game’s identity can also be imprinted on their fandoms. Players get a certain idea of what a game is into their heads and will cling to that idea even in the face of the character of a series changing. It’s a natural response, really. If you love a game, you hold in your mind a snapshot of what you love about that game, codifying what it is to you. But when so many people’s idea of a series is fixated on one point in its history, the idea of identity starts to break down. At the same time, a consistent identity across a long timeline can breed stagnation and prevent innovation. This is the tightrope that the Paper Mario series continues to walk with its latest entry, The Origami King, even as it has to reside in the shadow of the beloved second entry in the series, The Thousand-Year Door.
Paper Mario is a series born from innovation. A clever spin on the first Mario RPG for the Super Nintendo, Paper Mario married a striking papercraft aesthetic to an active battle system reliant on timed button presses, all while playing with the idea of two-dimensional objects existing within a three-dimensional space. The Thousand-Year Door, the follow-up to Paper Mario, didn’t shake up the formula much, and in fact realized much of the promise that Paper Mario showed thanks to the memorable settings, incredibly funny writing, and a more polished evolution of Paper Mario’s battle system. It’s still remembered as the zenith of the franchise to this day, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse, especially with what came next.
The Thousand-Year Door was the last Paper Mario to use the beloved RPG system of the first two games, as the series started to experiment in bold new directions. Super Paper Mario dropped RPG battles entirely, instead functioning as a platformer where numbers come out of enemies you hit. The next entry, Sticker Star, brought back battles on separate screens, but every action you did was tied to items called Stickers instead of levels and experience points. Color Splash continued this exploration of actions being tied to items, here represented by cards.
While this spirit of experimentation is completely in line with what the Paper Mario series was built on, the seismic shifts in gameplay came at a cost. If the RPG battle system that is part of why The Thousand-Year Door is a thread that began running through the series, Super Paper Mario cut that thread clean off and hasn’t repaired it since. Developer Intelligent Systems seems more interested in playing around with RPG conventions in new ways than it is iterating on what came before. And unfortunately for the fanbase that was happy with the direction The Thousand-Year Door was going, that meant leaving something that worked well behind. Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with a sizable portion of the Paper Mario fanbase.
Here’s the thing about this sentiment surrounding Paper Mario: They’re not wrong to have it. When you fall in love with a game or franchise, the shape of it becomes crystalized in your mind. You’re allowed to be attached to that shape, and if the creators of that shape try to change it, you’re allowed to be bummed and feel left behind. It’s the nature of liking media. At the same time, though, developers can tinker in their own worlds and feel like they need to push forward instead of living in the past. That’s how new things are born, after all, and sometimes you can’t get your creativity out there without shaking things up.
For its part, The Origami King is the boldest, most innovative Paper Mario in years thanks to its willingness to wear the clothes of RPGs while throwing out pieces of the form where the developers see fit. Battles take place on a radial dial that you can spin layers of while shifting spaces along its radius. This is all in service towards getting enemies positioned so that you can hit them all at once. Jumps hit all enemies along one line, while Hammers hit a two by two arc area close to you. But what’s important is each individual battle is a solvable puzzle where you can perfectly line up enemies, which will get you an attack bonus. There’s also no leveling or experience, just money which you can use during battles to help you if you get stuck on a puzzle. Because there’s very little character growth, The Origami King is more like a new take on a puzzle game than it is an RPG. It also works beautifully, using three dimensions in ways RPGs seldom do and forcing you to put thought into each encounter, which ends up feeling different every time.
It’s a shame, then, that so much of the Paper Mario fanbase is still wanting a proper follow-up to The Thousand Year Door that they may not give The Origami King a chance. And here we come to the tug of war between identity and innovation again. Paper Mario’s wild shifts in gameplay can be akin to the trajectory of the Final Fantasy games, where each one is different and takes gameplay chances that other series might shy away from. But Final Fantasy has always been like that from the start, and uses the thread of superficial elements like crystals and spell naming conventions to hold its identity together in the face of so much change. That’s somehow enough to hold the series together, though.
And then on the flip side, you have the Mario and Luigi series, a Mario RPG that runs parallel but separate to the Paper Mario series and has been more evolutionary than revolutionary and has suffered because of it. Most of the games in the series tend to run together linked by the solid RPG gameplay that Super Mario RPG established years ago. But the different themes tended to not work to set each game apart, resulting in a blurry mishmash of a series without multiple standouts. The only exception is Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, which took the Mario and Luigi formula and split it into two discrete sections: a 2D one that takes place inside Bowser’s body, and a more normalized Mario and Luigi 3D map, except with Bowser as the playable character. If developers Alpha Dream had taken the creativity that went into Bowser’s Inside Story and applied it to the rest of the games in the series without changing the core of what the series is, the entire franchise would be more fondly remembered while still retaining a core identity running through it.
That doesn’t mean that the Paper Mario series as it stands today lacks an identity, though. Far from it. What typifies the Paper Mario games are three different strands: quirky, humorous writing, a willingness to play around with both two and three dimensions, and deconstruction of RPG conventions. But again, that’s not what people latched onto. From an audience engagement perspective, there was absolutely ways in which Intelligent Systems could have innovated while retaining what people loved about The Thousand-Year Door. Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is proof enough of that. But that’s not what Paper Mario means to them, and that’s absolutely valid.
In the end, we all have our own ideas about what games mean to us, and games’ identities aren’t a fixed thing. Rather, they shift based on who is experiencing them. And yes, they also shift based on the developer’s goals and wishes. These two axes mean that players and designers may go separate ways at some point, and that’s okay. It’s a natural symptom of change in general. How much we embrace it is ultimately up to us.