Crossovers are noteworthy for bringing together two unlikely universes into one. Normally you wouldn’t find the likes of Spider-Man teaming up with Ryu, but that’s what has been happening in Capcom’s acclaimed Marvel vs. Capcom series for years. It makes for a game that appeals to two target audiences at once. So what happens when a game crosses over with pretty much the same game only made of paper? Well, you get Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam on the Nintendo 3DS. Combining Nintendo’s two RPG series’ headlined by the famous Mario, Paper Jam still appeals to the two target audiences by successfully capturing what made the Mario & Luigi series noteworthy and what made the Paper Mario games standout for all this time. It’s also a fun, and surprisingly challenging, game!
At it’s core, Paper Jam is a Mario & Luigi game. By that I mean it follows the formula of past games in the series like Dream Team: you simultaneously control Mario and Luigi, additional damage can be done in combat with well timed button presses, and the overall story has heavy comedic tones. Except this time Paper Mario is thrown in there for you to utilize as well!
One day while chasing a rat in Peach’s Castle, Luigi and Toad accidentally knock a book out of the library’s shelf. This book just so happens to be the book that contains the world of the Paper Mushroom Kingdom, complete with paper versions of Mario, Bowser, Peach, and more! Somehow (it’s never actually explained) the inhabitants of the Paper Mushroom Kingdom find themselves thrown into the 3D Mushroom Kingdom, and before long the paper versions of our favorite heroes meet up with their polygonal versions, including Bowser and his paper alter ego. Naturally the two Koopa Kings decide to take over the Mushroom Kingdom with their combined force, and it’s not long before Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario set out to stop them once again.
The story relies heavily on the importance of Paper Toads. For some reason there are hundreds of these guys lost in the Mushroom Kingdom, and for yet another reason they don’t want to be found and are hidden in each zone. Collecting these Paper Toads allows Toadette, who I’m happy has a role in a game outside of a Mario sports title, to construct new devices and objects to aid in your exploration and eventual conquest of team Bowser. Why the Paper Toads are necessary doesn’t become apparent. What is apparent is catching these guys is mandatory, and there are sections throughout the entire game where you literally stop battling and pressing forward only to enter a mini-game to collect them. The games are fine, but it’s a jarring experience to say the least. It comes off as the low point to an otherwise wholly enjoyable adventure.
Gameplay will be readily familiar with anyone who has played a past Mario & Luigi game. While outside of combat you move Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario collectively with the D-Pad, and have them jump independently with the face buttons. As you progress you’ll unlock new actions to aid in exploration, such as a hammer to bound enemies and flip tiles, a drill ability to pierce the ground and travel to otherwise inaccessible locations, and even a paper airplane mode for Paper Mario that lets the beefier brothers fly short distances! You gain these abilities steadily, and the game encourages you to backtrack when new abilities are earned to pick up rare items and stat boosting Beans! It works well.
The real meat of the game, however, comes from the turn based combat. Again, like the Mario & Luigi games before it, while in combat you control Mario with one button, Luigi with another, and now Paper Mario with yet another. Attacks aren’t as simple as pressing A and watching Mario jump on a foe: if you time your attack well and press the attack button again you can deal extra damage! The same goes while on the defensive: if you can jump on use your hammer at the right moment, you’ll not only avoid being damaged, but will actually damage your enemy! It’s a fantastic way to keep the combat fresh and not just a mindless button masher. In the later stages the game is downright brutal if you make a mistake: some enemies will take over half your HP with a single hit, so you’d best practice your timing or you’ll be in for a world of hurt!
Standard attacks are fine early on, but eventually you’ll need to incorporate the Bros. Attacks to take on bigger enemy parties. Essentially magic attacks, the Bros. Attacks have Mario and Luigi working together to deal damage. It might be something simple like playing a back-and-forth game of Koopa Shell Kicking, or something a little more complex like Luigi eating a Mega Mushroom, growing large in size, running toward the enemy, whacking them with his hammer, and having Mario jump on them as they skid across the battlefield. These attacks require the same precision button presses to deal more damage, and are effective at killing baddies and satisfying to pull off and see.
Rounding out combat are Battle Cards. As you take and deal damage, a star meter will fill. When you collect enough star points you can use a battle card in combat. These cards essentially act as extra actions the Brothers can take. For example one card might deal 60 damage to all enemies, while another boosts your team’s speed. Building and using this deck makes battles a lot more random, but also adds a layer of strategy. I enjoyed holding onto one bonus EXP card and using it for a boss, while using the powerful Mushroom card to turn all my enemies into mushroom items I could use later to heal myself! Amiibo are used in this game in a very similar way. By tapping an Amiibo, you can summon one of their random battle cards to use, which work the same way. The amiibo aren’t necessary, but if you have them and don’t mind lugging them around with you they do add a lot of extra support you might want down the road!
Lastly there’s Paper Mario. While he functions the same as regular Mario and Luigi, Paper Mario has the ability to make copies of himself. By producing more copies, he can deal extra damage to enemies, hit multiple enemies at once, and even avoid damage as his copies will go down first before his HP. Since he’s made of paper though, he’s more susceptible to fire attacks and isn’t nearly as powerful. Paper Mario might be in this new world, but he works very similarly to how he would in an actual Paper Mario game. Being a big fan of those games I was more than happy to see him represented well here!
The visuals are a big draw in the game. Literally coming up again and again in the story, the paper versions of the characters work differently than the 3D versions. For instance only Paper Mario can go in between small cracks in rocks to hit switches, and only paper enemies can make copies of themselves to add to the difficulty. Paper Jam captures the essence of the Paper Mario games and really brings them into the fold of this Mario & Luigi game. Seeing the paper versions next to the non-paper versions of characters at the same time is great and never really gets old. There are lots of nice touches that I won’t spoil here, but if you’re a fan of either game you’ll find lots to like!
One last point I want to touch on is the game’s difficulty. I was expecting this game to be a piece of cake considering it’s a Nintendo game. While it’s easy going early on, as you get into the later levels, and especially during boss fights (of which there are a lot), the game ramps of the difficulty. It’s never overbearing as the game does an excellent job with pacing, but even if you call yourself an RPG master you’ll find some challenging enemies lurking ahead. On top of this, Paper Jam requires you to use pretty much everything it teaches you in order to succeed. Trust me when I say you’ll be in for some tough fights should you find yourself in the latter half of the game!
It’s not the greatest RPG on the 3DS, but Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is a very fun one. Even if you haven’t played any of the previous Mario RPGs you’ll still find lots to like here, form the great visual style to the engaging combat. Small miscues like the abrupt ending and tedious Toads mar the experience, but not enough to detract from the game being worth your time. A surprising amount of variety in boss fights as well as overall strategy and difficulty only added to the game’s charm. Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is another fine addition to the Plumbers’ RPG repertoire, and shouldn’t be missed by Mario or RPG fans!