After the disappointingly boring Paper Mario: Sticker Star, my hopes were not stratospherically high for Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros, but it has surprised me by turning out to be one of the best JRPGs of this year. Colourful, inventive, well-written and localised and - as ever - charming to a fault, it’s a fun way to spend 20 hours or so, even if it’s not quite as good as the very best games in either series.
Instead of having you move between the two dimensions, Paper Jam Bros mashes the 2D Paper Mario world and the 3D Mario world together. After Luigi finds a mysterious scrapbook in some musty corner of Princess Peach’s castle, the Mario & Luigi world is invaded by paper interlopers. Paper Toads, Goombas, Koopas flutter down from the sky. Every main character also has their double: Paper Princess Peach and Princess Peach both end up getting kidnapped (nice for her to have some companionship for a change), Bowser and Paper Bowser keep getting into fights, and Mario and Paper Mario team up with Luigi to sort everything out.
Presentationally, everything is perfect. The lovely, clean lines of the Paper Mario characters contrast nicely with the cute sprites of the others. The world itself is gorgeously colourful, the music and sound effects are perfect, the animation is great. It is visually sumptuous. This is to be expected from a Nintendo game, but that didn't stop me from really appreciating how well Paper Jam Bros is put together.
This is the first Mario & Luigi game I’ve played since Bowser’s Inside Story in 2009, but the foundations of the game were nevertheless familiar from a long line of Mario role-playing game tradition. Outside of combat, you jump across platforms, bash blocks, collect things. When you run into an enemy, you jump into turn-based action combat: everything from swinging a hammer to dodging a thrown Koopa shell to pulling off a double- or triple-character special attack is contingent on timing. Essentially, every individual combat encounter is a sequence of involving mini-games.
Paper Mario has several advantages over normal, 3D Mario and Luigi in combat. His flutter-jump makes it easier to dodge attacks, and he can make copies of himself that both absorb damage and let him smack enemies with his hammer or jump on their noggins up to six times in a single turn. Indeed, Paper Mario is such a little badass that he ended up defeating bosses on his own a couple of times during my playthrough, after both Mario and Luigi conked out and I ran out of 1-Up Mushrooms. He ended up pretty over-levelled.
Mario, Luigi and Paper Mario are assigned to the A, B and Y buttons during combat, so you control all three of them separately. You’re not always sure which one of them is being targeted by an attack, so if a Boomerang Bro is about to chuck a projectile, you have to watch closely to see which button to press to dodge it. In boss fights especially, keeping track of the correct timing with all three is tough, especially when an attack targets ALL of them. Outside of combat, meanwhile, you want to get up stairs or jump across a platform, you have to press all three buttons in sequence (or at once, if you’re a finger contortionist).
It’s a cool system that keeps you on your toes, but it is never instinctive; you always have to concentrate, and even 15 hours in I would still press the wrong button now and then. It does not help that the colours assigned to the three Mario bros in-game do not correspond with the colours of the New 3DS’s lovely SNES-style buttons. That really scrambled my brain at the beginning. I actually found that tricky fights got easier when one or two of the Mario brothers were out of action; it made dodging and countering attacks much easier.
Battle Cards – introduced about halfway through Paper Jam Bros’ story – are combat modifiers that give you an additional thing to think about, and help prevent the fighting from getting overly repetitive. You assemble a deck of 10 Battle Cards, which do things like hit every enemy for 30 damage, increase power or give you bonus damage for perfect timing. They can turn fights around, when used correctly, and collecting and managing them adds another strategic RPG layer to Paper Jam Bros, beyond managing characters’ equipment.
Every few hours, there’s a big set-piece battle: either a boss fight, or a papercraft battle. Papercraft battles look more fun than they actually are, but they’re a great idea nonetheless: you basically take control of a giant cardboard mecha, shaped like Mario or Luigi or another friendly character, in a one-on-one battle against giant papercraft Bowser minions. I really enjoyed these encounters, mainly because they were over quickly. Paper Jam Bros is very good at giving you something else to do now and then, whether it’s a papercraft battle or a Toad-collecting mini-puzzle, to break up the monotony of exploration and combat.
There’s quite a lot of backtracking in Paper Jam Bros, which is made bearable by the many different collectibles dotted about the place. As you accumulate new tricks (Paper Mario can turn into a paper aeroplane, or a drill, or slip between cracks in rocks) more of these come within your reach, which gives you something else to think about when you’re trudging through the same area you came through five hours ago. Paper Jam Bros is definitely best played in smaller sessions – stuck on a long-haul flight with it, it became rather monotonous.
The one thing I desperately wanted from Paper Jam Bros was the one thing it didn’t really deliver: originality. It has plenty of inventive little gameplay mechanics, sure, but there is nothing thrillingly original, nothing that delights with its inventiveness as much as anything in Thousand Year Door, or even Super Paper Mario’s 3D gimmick. It is unfair of me to hold Paper Jam Bros to the standards of a game made by a completely different developer 11 years ago, but anything with the words Paper and Mario in its name is inevitably going to conjure those memories. What I really want is a new Paper Mario game, a new, rich RPG. Paper Jam Bros is fun, but it is not that.
What we have here is not so much a new Paper Mario game as a Paper Mario twist on an otherwise quite conventional Mario & Luigi game. If you, like me, haven’t played a Mario & Luigi title in a few years, then that’s not much of a bother – but if you’re coming fresh from 2013’s Dream Team, this might feel over-familiar despite the fun paper twist.