Conversation around the Paper Mario franchise in recent years has been tense at best, but usually full of frustration from longtime fans. It’s a long-standing grievance of the Paper faithful that the franchise has “died,” giving up the core components that initially defined it. It’s easy to dismiss these concerns as nostalgia or resistance to change, but critical reception to more recent titles in the series shows that there’s something it. It isn’t that fans just want The Thousand-Year Door again — they want what it brought to the RPG formula and the Mario world.
The original Paper Mario didn’t just steal Mario RPG’s timed-hits mechanic, slap on a quirky aesthetic, and call it a day. It rebuilt the formula into something more potent yet simultaneously more accessible. With Sticker Star and Color Splash moving away from earlier entries in the Paper series, the game closest to the original Paper Mario and its sequel isn’t a Mario title at all. Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling, produced by Moonsprout Games, released on consoles in May 2020, feels almost like an alternate sequel to the N64 classic, understanding and expanding upon what made that original formula effective — and it’s not just the aesthetic.
Now You’re Playing With Paper
Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64 immediately felt different from any other Mario title because of its commitment to worldbuilding. True, Mario RPG ticked many boxes one would’ve expected from 90’s era Squaresoft, but then and especially now, it feels… funky. While full of originality, the game’s tone isn’t very Mario-like, as fun and weird as it is. In contrast, Paper Mario built an interpretation of the Mario universe that felt organic, to such a degree that aspects of its world were later brought into the primary Mario universe, not unlike how Shy Guys and Bob-Ombs made the jump from the Doki Doki Panic-based Mario 2 to become iconic Mario enemies.
The first and second Paper titles doubled down on establishing setting and characters, rewarding players for engaging with their worlds. NPCs were designed with unique and deliberate elements to stand apart from the old flock (looking at you, waves of generic Toads), and players were enriched with lore, character development, and oodles of charm for interacting with them. Elements like recurring side stories in a hub town, Luigi’s endearing off-screen misadventures, or even diversions like cooking and dojo-fighting all came together to make players feel immersed in the world of a true Mario RPG.
The game doesn’t disappoint when it comes to battle, either. Players bring along a partner rather than an entire party, and can augment their abilities with Badges. By allowing players the means to pick and choose from a gradually growing assortment of passive and active abilities while limiting how many they could use, the game kept encounters fresh, rarely falling into the typical RPG grind. This level of freedom not only rewarded strategic preparation, but could account for different meta-goals, playstyles, and playthroughs, akin to Pokemon “Nuzlocke” shenanigans, built right into the game.
But none of this would work as effectively as it does without the active battle system. By turning almost every act of combat into a timing minigame, Paper Mario brought active participation into turn-based battles. Meanwhile Badges help shape the experience as the player desires, offering risk-reward elements, exploiting weaknesses, or making up for shortcomings. A partner whose attacks are useful in one situation but useless in another requires managing your team. When player skill is thrown into the equation on top of strategy, not only is combat more satisfying, choices made in and out of combat feed into each other. Sure, you took only one point of damage from that attack – but it was because you blocked it perfectly. Better stay on your toes next turn or you could eat three points instead, which could throw off your plans.
In more recent titles, it feels as if the Paper Mario series has been stripped down to its visual theme. Turn-based combat is still around, but offers no progression or purpose, merely filling out time. Unique characters and roles are mostly filled by boring-looking Toads. Custom builds using Badges and party members are exchanged for more shallow mechanics like Stickers or Cards which are consumable, bringing with them no sense of attachment or investment. While charming in its own right with slick visuals, fun music, and witty writing, this newer interpretation of Paper Mario no longer evokes the strongest qualities of the original formula, becoming a parody of the Mario universe and the old mechanics without bringing something substantial enough to fully replace it.
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Small Heroes, Big Changes
Bug Fables takes place in a world populated by cartoon insects. While its aesthetic shares some commonalities with Paper Mario, it doesn’t lean into the papercraft gimmick to shape its gameplay or even its setting. The world of Bugaria feels well-developed and rewards players for engaging with it. It scoops up every type of NPC the Paper faithful might expect, at times to a fault, and often ties some gameplay component to them, be that a side-quest, a type of item, or a gameplay hint. It incorporates the level of side-quests one would expect from an RPG while adding all manner of features not present even in the adored Thousand-Year Door, like a Hard Mode from the start, the ability to re-fight Bosses (including a Boss Rush mode) and even a card-playing side game.
On the gameplay side of things, Bug Fables bumps the active party to three members rather than one and a partner. These characters are all together from very early on, and they are all active, both in and out of combat. Outside of fights, this means the party actually interacts with the world around them, with all three having something to say about every room, character, and enemy encountered. It’s like the old “Tattle” ability (where a Goomba companion would lay out an enemy’s stats, unique traits, and give some flavor text) but multiplied by three, adding many interactions between protagonists, something even Paper Mario never really did much with.
Each of the three characters — a bee, a beetle, and a moth — have their own speciality that evolves over the course of the game. With three party members, enemies are balanced to be more aggressive and deal more damage. They are also often designed around this three member system, requiring players to pay heed to turn order on top of the “Timed Hits” mechanic. And this all works even better thanks to the way the game has retooled the badge system.
Bug Fables doesn’t just copy the effects of these abilities from its inspiration. While some familiar faces are present, many medals are there specifically to tailor game difficulty in various ways, like giving more rewards for harder fights. Even more intriguing, the game actively utilizes status effects through clever combinations of item use and medals in a way Paper Mario doesn’t even touch, all while maintaining the expected array of base level components so as to not alienate players who might be intimidated. Want to poison yourself to gain more Attack Power? Or put yourself to sleep to bolster Defence and Health Regen? Or maybe you want to use items that have gone bad without dealing with the negative side-effects? Medals in Bug Fables offer a wider variety of nuanced tactics that Paper veterans might choose to employ.
Fans would welcome all of these features in the upcoming Origami King. Hopefully, the game will steer things back in the direction of the classic Paper Mario formula in light of the disappointing Sticker Star and Color Splash. But regardless of whether it lives up to expectations, at least Moonsprout Games has proven that they understand what made the old Paper Mario great, and why players want to see another game like it. At the very least, it makes a case that the Paper faithful haven’t been worshipping a false idol all these years, and that indie developers are more capable than ever of plumbing the depths of design that bigger studios have, for whatever reason, moved on from.