Paper Mario, which just was re-released onto Virtual Console in April of this year, picked up where its spirit predecessor Super Mario RPG left off, and led the way for its later sequel. Despite most reviews credit the sequel for improved graphics, deeper storylines, improved battle mechanics, and more “paper themed” gameplay fitting of the title, Paper Mario wholistically did better than its two direct sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door; it had the highest ratings from GameRankings, Metacritic, EGM, and Gamespot, and sold considerably more copies the first week, at 276,000 compared to the 159,000 of TTYD. While there are plenty of reasons why a game would sell better than another, one reason comes to mind as someone who played both: despite TTYD having improved largely on the formula, Paper Mario won fans over for its open world exploration in ways that TTYD did not.
For starters, a lot of fans complained about TTYD level design because it seemed like the world largely was disconnected with other parts. In TTYD, different chapters and areas within them were largely only accessible by warps. For example, Glitzville is connected by blimp, Poshley is connected by train, Keehaul is connected by boat, and then the final area ends up being the moon, only accessible by teleporter. In a lot of ways, it felt almost pointless fans to have a map, because the areas did not really have any size or location that was significant in relation to each other. Comparatively, Paper Mario connects most of the initial areas through the central hub that is Toad Town, with most areas being accessible by leaving that town in a specific direction.
Depth also plays a large component of the game. Paper Mario, when it was originally in development distinguished itself from Super Mario RPG with Nintendo Power calling it “a two dimensional Mario in a three dimensional world,” and for the most part lived up to that. Conversely, TTYD would more often have levels that would involve more left to right action, making the game feel a bit reductive in comparison.
There also was less incentive to actually explore the actual world. Sidequests within TTYD were predominantly initiated and monitored through The Trouble Center, a hub that alerts you to people who need help. And while this is a cool feature for older players who are busier and have trouble keeping up with certain elements after taking a break, it does take away a certain exploration factor when you less frequently initiate the quest simply by talking to the person and learning they’re in trouble, rather than having a central device tell you so and send you to them anyway. And with the decreasing difficulty as modern gamers, there was less incentive to actually finish the sidequests, as the rewards were not entirely necessary. Many RPGs entice players to sidequests and exploration to get a weapon that would give them an edge, and while the Mario RPG series never really had difficulty as its strongest suit, TTYD was a progression towards easier gameplay that made sidequests even more superfluous than before, aside from just doing them for the sake of completionism.
The longer my columns on Retroware have progressed, the more it feels like I have to stretch to find something new to talk about while fitting the limits of the theme of the column; I can imagine many readers wondering why an article like this would be tagged as The Cultural Gamer. How is talking about open world mechanics cultural? For me, this topic comes down to an undeniable truth about the video game world: no matter how advanced game technology gets, and no matter how much time passes for developers to improve, no game is simply ever going to have it all, and it is largely unrealistic of gamers to expect this. I see gamers who have played both Paper Mario and TTYD go back and forth regarding which they find to be better, and the most interesting thing I notice is that the points are all valid in their own right, and not necessarily contested all that often. Paper Mario does have the better open world exploration, but TTYD really does have better battle mechanics and improved character development.
But to a large extent, this is why sequels exist in the first place; if a game could have it all, we wouldn’t need more of its kind. Sequels are a pretty big part of our culture, as is comparing them. Part of the reason why I love writing about video games is that it is only through comparing and contrasting, making observations, and pointing out things done well or done poorly that we really start to move forward. We all know a few game series that feel like they don’t really listen to player feedback at all, and we all know some that take feedback really well, as well as some that listen to the fans too much. But this balance – this challenge to change just enough that we’re making progress as games and gamers, while staying enough of the same that we can see where we’ve been and enjoy a little nostalgia and familiarity – it’s a constant evolution.
Paper Mario was hardly an influential game for other RPGs, but it did pick up where Super Mario RPG left off in terms of paving the way for other Nintendo RPGs. And in a world where console wars frequently define what games you’ll play at least to a small extent, this kind of influence is still fairly important to those that don’t play as much of the genre. The whole reason Super Mario RPG was so significant was that it was a Square Enix vision of a Nintendo franchise, introducing the concepts of RPGs to uninitiated players, the same way Paper Mario did to a new generation.
We as a gaming culture need to be all about introducing new things to each other; too often, I see the opposite, with hating casual gamers or hating girl gamers or hating neckbeards or other ridiculous reasons we come up with to call our own kind not real gamers. Paper Mario did the opposite of that; rather than assuming a side of the game culture couldn’t understand what the other was up to, they introduced a concept to a new audience and generation. And while it was a far cry from perfect, it was a step in the right direction – one we need to keep making.