Princess Peach, taking a long look at the two Bowsers (one familiar, one made of paper) marauding around the throne room of her opulent castle, sighs heavily. Turning to her own paper counterpart, she complains about her imminent kidnapping. “It’s this part of the story again, huh?” The po-faced princess of the Super Mario Bros games never utters anything beyond “MAAAAAAAAARIO”, she’s vapid, useless, and all-around rubbish. Paper Jam’s ravishing royal, on the other hand, is knowing, witty and rather capable despite her tendency to end up as a damsel-in-distress.
That’s Paper Jam, and the wider Mario & Luigi series in a nutshell, really: this is the Mushroom Kingdom you know and love, except funnier, weirder, and often downright more interesting. Few developers would get away with the liberties that AlphaDream takes with Nintendo’s most precious characters, but with such a great track record it’s easy to see why Nintendo is happy to let the team run wild. Over the years, they’ve sent the Mario Bros. on quests to tackle a toad obesity crisis, explore the depths of Bowser’s innards, and fight off an alien invasion with the help of their infant selves. This time, the worlds of Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi collide, leaving papery allies and enemies strewn across the world, as well as double the threat from the aforementioned Bowser duo. Of course, it’s not long before the perma-schtum Paper Mario and the pseudo-Italian babbling brothers team up to get things back to normal.
What follows sticks closely to the tried-and-tested Mario and Luigi formula. Make no mistake, this is an M&L game with Paper Mario guest-starring, not the other way around. Making a welcome return is the turn-based battling of previous entries, in which timing is more crucial than boring number-crunching. The standard jump attack becomes an acrobatic double strike with a perfectly timed button press, and the ultra-satisfying hammer-thwock noise (plus oodles of damage) only occurs if you strike at the opportune moment.
Even when enemies attack you, there’s no obligation to just stand there and take it, you can always dodge, or even counterattack, with some deft fingerwork. Also back is the Dream Team Bros art style, and while I still miss the crisp sprite-work of the first three games, animations remain as delightfully characterful as ever.
One of Bowser’s frequent tricks is to send giant, papercraft enemies to stop you proceeding. Luckily, you’ve got a few papercraft creations of your own (hefted around by some poor toads). Battles between these hulking, origami brutes play out like a weird, real-time 3D brawler punctuated with rhythm action sections which recharge your papercraft. They’re a welcome change of pace, much like the giant battles of Bowser’s Inside Story, despite being one of the weaker elements of the game.
As usual, enemies are thoughtfully designed and plentiful, with each one more like a puzzle than the sentient health bars you normally fight in RPGs. Each has a range of attacks, often with subtle tells to indicate what they’re about to do. The boss fights in particular are spectacular, and too good to spoil here, but each one will have you on your toes, dealing massive damage to players who don’t get out of the way of their varied, powerful attacks.
For series veterans, Paper Mario and his wafer-thin cohort are the key ingredient in making things feel fresh. At a base level, he adds a third character to keep track of during battles - his fluttery jump requires different timing to the original duo - and his ability to create multiple copies of himself to boost his defences adds an extra smidgen of tactical depth. Most exciting, though, is his arsenal of trio attacks, in which he flattens enemies with a ginormous cardboard hammer ready for further abuse. The first, for example, sees the squashed enemies pinned to a wall as the heroic trio thwack a squash ball into them. Even better are the tiny details which give the paper cast a distinct identity; how they become ‘crumpled’ rather than stunned, or the way that paper koopa troopas fold themselves into 3D shells to attack. It’s ludicrous, convention breaking, and utterly charming.
Outside of battles, you find yourself in the main overworld, where some light-platforming awaits. Traversing the terrain requires a range of slowly unlocked special moves, such as a devastating triple hammer technique, and these act as Metroidvania style gear-gating. Returning fans might find they know exactly what move they’ll need to access some secret areas, which can be mildly frustrating, knowing that you’ll need to backtrack later. The in-world puzzling is never as taxing as, say, a Zelda dungeon, but this keeps things breezy and prevents sticking points.
The pacing, in general, is excellent, breaking up the main battle-platforming-battle formula with races, hide-and-seek challenges, pop-quizzes, papercraft battles (see boxout) and plenty more. Despite boasting a lengthy main quest, monotony is an issue it deftly sidesteps - a feat few RPGs manage quite as well.
With Paper Jam Bros being the fifth entry in the series, perhaps it could have done more to shake up the formula, but when the status quo is this inventive, it’s hard to hold a grudge. Delivering another excellent and original entry into a consistently brilliant, and heartbreakingly overlooked franchise, might just make this the highlight of Nintendo’s Christmas line-up.