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Taking Turns: Mario’s RPG History

by Kyle Hilliard on Jan 22, 2016 at 12:15 PM

Mario didn’t invent the platformer, but he popularized it and as a result is closely associated with the genre. Mario jumps on and over things, which is why it’s strange to consider how much success he has found in a genre so traditionally divorced from platforming. Super Mario RPG and its descendants have story and dialogue, menu navigation, and tactical decision-making, which is basically a list of things you won’t find in a typical Mario game. With the recent release of Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, we take a look at all Mario’s games that fall under the RPG umbrella and examine how the series has evolved over the years.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996)
Super Nintendo

Mario has always been precious to Nintendo. It’s rare he is handed off to developers outside of Nintendo, and while Square Enix (SquareSoft at the time) was not the first or last to do it, Legend of the Seven Stars is his earliest and biggest departure. Nintendo supervised the development and Shigeru Miyamoto was involved, but the game is hugely different from his typical adventures.

Legend of the Seven Stars introduces turn-based combat with a timed-button press mechanic called action commands that allows players to counter attacks or deal more damage by pressing buttons at specific moments during the turn-based combat. It also does something Nintendo seems hesitant to do, even today: Add fleshed out original characters to the Mario cannon. Party members Mallow and Geno are not alternate forms of established Mario species and are instead totally original. Unfortunately, the two haven’t seen much love following the release of Super Mario RPG from Nintendo (though Geno custom items can be used in Super Smash Bros.), but the two have their fans. He isn’t an original character, but you can also add Bowser to your party, which is one of the rare occasions where the fearsome dinosaur becomes a good guy.

Super Mario RPG also set a standard of humor by pushing the Mario characters into atypical situations. Later Mario RPGs would push harder on the funny dialogue, but this first entry certainly set a specific tone.

To see us play Super Mario RPG in an episode of Replay, head here.

Paper Mario (2001)
Nintendo 64

Paper Mario, known as Mario Story in Japan, was rumored to be called Super Mario RPG 2 during development, and it’s easy to see why. The game has a dramatically different art style and has no direct story ties to Super Mario RPG, but its combat and party development resembles the 1996 game with the inclusion of action commands. Much like Mario RPG, the game also has Mario building a party of characters, but they are all based on established Mario species and enemies.

Developed by Intelligent Systems, the game both established a new franchise for Mario and moved the Mario RPG legacy forward.

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (2003)
Game Boy Advance

AlphaDream, Superstar Saga’s developer, is a studio that almost exclusively develops Mario & Luigi games. It has developed every one including Superstar Saga. The game was directed by Yoshihiko Maekawa, who co-directed Super Mario RPG drawing a direct line to Square’s 1996 game. The series is also called Mario & Luigi RPG in Japan, drawing another line between the similar franchises.

Rather than building a party, the titular Mario & Luigi are the only members the player controls, which continue to take advantage of action commands in battle. This time however, Mario and Luigi are each assigned to a dedicated face button for combat and world exploration, which creates interesting scenarios where players have to think about and control each character separately.

It’s here where the two Mario RPG series, Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi, diverge. Paper Mario has each party member taking turns selecting attacks similar to a traditional RPG, where in Mario & Luigi, the face buttons are assigned to each character. You still take turns, but dodging attacks and pulling off special moves requires specific button coordition.

The game also includes original characters like Queen Bean, Prince Peasley, and fan favorites, Cackletta, and Fawful. The meme-focused humor Nintendo is generally known for these days, blossomed here. Fawful in particular is known for strange dialogue shouting things like, "I HAVE FURY!" or saying, "I am waiting like an elevator."

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (2004)

By this point, two separate Mario RPG franchises had been established, with each being worked on by separate developers. The Thousand Year Door continued many of the combat mechanics established by the original Paper Mario, including the continuing use of action commands. Outside of combat, new paper abilities were added to the game. These allowed Paper Mario to do things like turn into a paper airplane to explore out-of-reach locations or a paper tube to roll under tight spaces.

This entry also established a number of new non-Mario species characters as it did not take place in the Mushroom Kingdom. Madame Flurrie is a wind spirit who is an expert at making enemies dizzy and Vivian uses assorted shadow techniques. There are also platforming intermission sequences where players control Bowser breathing fire and revisiting areas Mario previously explored.

Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time (2005)
Nintendo DS

Titled Mario & Luigi RPG 2x2 in Japan, Partners in Time added Baby Mario and Baby Luigi to the mix, upping the number of total playable characters to four. The story has adult Mario and Luigi going to the past to save Princess Peach and encountering younger versions of themselves. Along with the time-travel story, an alien species called the Shroobs also forced themselves into the plot to become the main antagonists.

Much like Superstar Saga, each character is relegated to a dedicated face button, significantly complicating combat as dodging or pulling off special moves often involves coordinating all four fighters. As the first Mario RPG on a dual-screen handheld, the game also extends combat and overworld exploration across upper and lower screens.

For more on the Mario RPG games, head to page two.

Super Paper Mario (2007)
Nintendo Wii

For the third Paper Mario game, developer Intelligent Systems took a fairly radical departure from its established mechanics. Super retains Paper Mario’s art style and humor, and has RPG mechanics like leveling up, items, and damage indicators, but the game is a platformer first and an RPG second.

The main hook for Super Paper Mario is the way Mario interacts with the world from both 2D and 3D perspectives. Players can view the world from the side making it look like a typical Mario platfomer, but can then switch the camera to the side for a 3-dimensional view of the world, which opens up exploration as well as ways to bypass obstacles and enemies. As an early Wii title, the game also takes advantage of the Wii Remotes assorted motion and pointer controls.

Most of game is spent with Mario, but Bowser, Luigi, and Princess Peach are also periodically playable. In one particular stand-out story moment, Peach has participates in dating sim video game with Francis, a nerdy chameleon.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story (2009)
Nintendo DS

After Intelligent Systems toyed with the core mechanics of Mario RPG in Super Paper Mario, AlphaDream brought back turn-based combat for the third Mario & Luigi game. The game highlights Bowser, one of the series’ funniest recurring characters. After running into returning villain, Fawful, Bowser is given a mushroom that makes him inhale everything. As a result, Mario & Luigi end up inside Bowser. The rest of the game plays out with Bowser making his way to defeat Fawful, who gave Bowser the mushroom in an attempt to take over the Mushroom Kingdom and Bowser’s Castle, while Mario & Luigi help unbeknownst to Bowser, from his insides.

Combat is familiar from previous Mario & Luigi games, but Bowser fights as well under the player’s control.

Paper Mario: Sticker Star (2012)
Nintendo 3DS

Sticker Star marked a sort-of return to Paper Mario’s original structure. Turn-based battles return, but party development and expansion was removed, and there was an added emphasis on collecting stickers. Stickers are collected throughout the game, and used for combat as well as puzzle solving. For example, instead of using the standard jump attack, you had to expend a jump attack sticker against an enemy. Stickers can also be placed in the overworld to unlock new areas and solve puzzles, like placing a bridge sticker over a river in order to cross.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (2013)
Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Dream Team takes mostly place inside Luigi’s subconscious while he dreams. Action commands and turn-based combat are present, but the game offers more side-activities and touch-screen interactivity than previous entries thanks to the strange dream-world setting of Luigi’s mind. As Luigi sleeps, his face appears on the lower screen, and it can be prodded and pulled with a stylus to make things happen on the upper, dream-world screen. By taking place in Luigi’s mind, the game also offers an impressive level of insight into Nintendo’s eternal underdog.

Some combat moves call in hundreds of Luigis and there are also battles with a giant Luigi against giant enemies that take place outside of the turn-based fights. There are a handful of few tweaks, but overall the combat doesn’t change much from the standards set in place by the previous entries.

Mario & Luigi Paper Jam (2015)
Nintendo 3DS

It took over a decade for the two series born of Super Mario RPG to overlap. Paper Jam is a Mario & Luigi game first, but with the separate franchises already being similar, it feels like an appropriate middle-ground between the two. The game takes place in the Mushroom Kingdom and features no original characters, which helps to focus on the humor on the sudden appearance of two of every character. The two Bowsers constantly bicker over how to defeat Mario, the two Peaches lament about always being kidnapped, and Mario silently works in tandem with his paper counterpart.  

Paper Mario adds paper-focused attacks to Mario & Luigi’s arsenal by making copies of himself, and can also do things like turn into a paper airplane to assist in navigation outside of combat. Also added, for this entry, are action battles among giant paper craft creations that Luigi and the Marios can ride on top of.

You can find our review of Mario & Luigi Paper Jam here.