Based on everything I’ve read on the internet in the past 70 years, I’ve come to find that there are two conclusions about the Paper Mario series that have reached near-universal consensus among fans of the series.

  1. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, the 2nd game in the series, is a very good game.
  2. Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the 4th game in the series, is irredeemable hot garbage.

I’ll nod along with those two statements myself. But this is where it gets interesting. When you ask fans about Super Paper Mario, the 3rd game in the series, you see surprisingly mixed results. I feel like it’s probably about 50:50 “SPM is the best entry in the series” vs. “SPM is okay, but not as good as TTYD”. Although everyone seems to agree that SPM is still far better than Sticker Star. More interesting still is that fans will adamantly cling to one side of the debate or the other, and everyone has really well-thought-out reasons about why they like one or the other.

I would love to come here and present a balanced argument outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each entry, exploring why people tend to flock to one game or the other. I really would. But I’m gonna level with you, reader - I can’t do that. Because when I first found out there was such a stark divide between TTYD fans and SPM fans, I actually could not believe it. When I found out (years after playing SPM) that not just a handful, but a significant portion of players online felt that SPM was better than TTYD, I was genuinely in disbelief.

So there is no moral high ground in this post. I’m not making an attempt to be fair about it. I’m not going to guarantee I’ll say anything that hasn’t been said a million times before. I’m just going to recall, to the best of my ability, how I felt during my one and only playthrough of Super Paper Mario in 2010. And I’m probably gonna get a little mad about it.

I vividly recall how disappointed I was in the art direction of the game when I first arrived to the main hub town. I get that they wanted to go for a “pixel aesthetic”, but this was not pixel art. To call this pixel art would be an insult to the medium. I’m convinced that a majority of the non-recurring characters in this game were whipped up with the rectangle and line tools in MSPaint, with a gradient fill applied from some early-2000s photo-editing program. I’m not exaggerating - I understand how hard it is to make video game art, I have tried and failed many times. But these sprites are inexcusably hideous, and way below the standard of what I would expect from an official Mario game.

And maybe this would work if they went all the way with it. But they still have assets from TTYD re-used all over the game. Our heroes are obviously unchanged (Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Bowser), but most of the enemies from TTYD are ported over unchanged as well - goombas, koopas, pirahna plants, etc. And they’re placed right alongside these geometric abominations, which creates a jarring lack of visual consistency. I think this page on The Spriters Resource illustrates this perfectly. If you haven’t played the game before, I’m confident you’ll still be able to pick out which sprites are new and which are re-used with at least 90% accuracy.

Okay, visuals aside… wait, not quite yet. I haven’t talked about the partners. These are your partners from the original Paper Mario and TTYD combined. I know the names and abilities of all these fellas because they all had something interesting about them. I’m not sure why their sprites are in the files for SPM, can’t remember if they made an appearance or not. But these are your partners for SPM. I can’t remember the name of a single one of these things, and I could only guess what they do based on their shape. I certainly don’t remember any puzzles they were involved in.

Also, I don’t think any of them have any backstory or relevance to the overall plot of the game (except for the butterfly one, whom you start with). You kind of just find them in rooms throughout the game and they follow you because… you’re the chosen one? That might actually be the reason. If they did have a backstory, I don’t remember it. Now, that could partly be because I only played through this game once, and play through PM and TTYD once every couple of years… but you get the idea.

Now I’ll back off the graphics. There’s plenty more to cover. One thing I really liked about the world design in PM and TTYD was that it felt very connected. Sure, the story was divided into chapters, but you had to adventure a little bit to get where you were going. In fact, the original PM did a little better job with this. The Haunted Woods, the road to the Koopa and Goomba villages, Shooting Star Summit - all of this physically connected to Toad Town. There were roads tying it all together, and you got to see more of it as the game progressed. Whereas Rogueport in TTYD was simply connected to the rest of the world via pipes in the sewer. Exploring the sewers was fun enough, though.

But SPM reels that back in, hard. The hub town has enough stuff to explore, but everything else is divided up into strictly-defined worlds and levels. And all the worlds are numbered and you reach them from doors that are lined up on the top of the town. You have to play through level 1-1 to get to level 1-2, then 1-3, then 1-4. Why regress world design like that? It was fine in 1985, but we have a lot more technology, experience, and money invested in this stuff now. This approach just feels so lazy. I guess they were trying to point back to the original Mario and say “hey, remember this?”, to which I would nod and pretend to smile as if a friend told his favorite joke for the hundredth time, trying to supress my disappointment that he can’t come up with any new ones.

A few more points I just need to churn out:

  • Balance. I remember that once I unlocked Bowser as a playable character, he was pretty much all I used all the time, and it’s clear to see why. He does twice as much damage as the other characters, has a fire breath attack that can hit several enemies from a reasonable difference, and that fire breath has no fuel, cooldown, or restriction otherwise. Suddenly the whole game is Super Paper Bowser, and the character-switching might as well be removed.
  • Combat. Turn-based combat hasn’t aged particularly well today, but I think TTYD had one of the best implementations of that particular mechanic that I’ve seen. It’s satisfying all around, between tons of different action commands, stylish moves, and fun star power abilities, the combat never felt like a grind. SPM drops turn based combat in favor of old-school platforming and jumping on stuff. But things still have hitpoints. Also there are consumable cards? But I don’t think you need them for anything. Most of the “combat: was so faceroll-easy you (especially with Bowser) didn’t need to worry about consumables.
  • Story. What was with the serious world-ending tone of this “Light Prognosticus” or whatever? And the weird wedding thing? I don’t remember much, but I definitely remember thinking this game alternated rapidly between trying to be satirical and silly and trying to be serious, and I wasn’t sure what to think. Where was the line between parody and the story? Was the whole game supposed to be a parody? If so, of what? That was totally lost on me.
  • Backtracking. The game gives Mario the ability to flip into “3D mode” during levels. Some things you can only see in 3D mode. But this really devolved into playing levels once normally, only switching to Mario when you might need him to progress, and then playing through them again going into 3D as much as possible hoping to find something. Generally not worth the trouble.
  • The nerd level. If you’ve played it, you know what I’m talking about. That world… is actually pretty funny! I got a few laughs out of the dialogue. The writers pulled no punches with their interpretation of the average message-board user in the 2000s.

And finally, I have to close out with what made me mad enough to shut off the game, and that’s the re-use of the “lol so repetitive” joke. TTYD pulled out this joke a couple of times that I can remember:

  • When Frankie loses the engagement ring and, upon its return, has to apologize to Francesca by saying “I love you!” 100 times.
  • One side quest sends you up to the Glitz Pit to perform a tedious cleaning task for Jolene, and the backtracking for the quest itself ends up being quite annoying.

But the SPM writers must have thought this was the funniest thing in the world, because they abuse this trope way past where it’s funny.

  • You have to run on a hamster wheel for 15 minutes in order to get enough of a currency to progress, unless you “cheat” and look up the required code online beforehand. But there is no in-game way to progress without doing this. The joke here is that you only have to run for 15 minutes instead of several hours, because you get a code to get the rest of the currency that you need after that. But this joke could have easily been communicated in 60 seconds. The punchline was not funny enough to merit a 15-minute wait. To paraphrase Yahtzee, if I have to amuse myself while playing a game, something has gone seriously wrong. (We’ll talk about RuneScape another day)
  • The infamous Pit of 100 Trials returns, a fun challenge from TTYD. But this time, when you complete it, you get nothing. Except you get told that now you have to do it again to get the reward. The exact same 100 floors again, for no purpose other than to make a joke. A joke that takes… I dunno, probably around an hour to execute? And then another hour to re-do the whole thing. I was just flat-out annoyed, not amused. If it were 100 different challenges, I might have done it. But I’m not doing the exact same thing over again, that’s just plain stupid.
  • The 100-samurai challenge. If the P100T P200T wasn’t fun enough, you get to fight 100 palette-swaps of ugly enemies in 100 identical rooms for… I don’t know, some kind of reward? I tried it, died on the 95th one or so, and never went back.

That last one was what made me actually give up on the game. I wasn’t mad that I lost on what was considered a difficult fight. I was furious that they would fill the game with such time-wasting garbage so many different times that I didn’t want to play any more. Maybe I should have been furious at myself for seeing what was coming and trying to suffer through it in the first place.

I believe I did revisit the game once more a couple of weeks later so that I could finish it. It wasn’t because I enjoyed it, but because I felt compelled that I should finish an entry in a series that I held in such high regard. I finished the game out of some self-inflicted obligation and said to myself, “I’m never going to play this game again”. 8 years later, and I’m okay with that decision.

I bought Sticker Star for the 3DS several years after playing SPM without heeding any reviews. I was hoping it would bring back some of the things I liked about TTYD simply because I read that there was turn-based combat. But I was very wrong, and I remember even less about Sticker Star since I gave up about halfway through the game out of sheer boredom.

I passed on Color Splash for Wii U purely out of principle, because I’ve given up on the series ever being something I’ll enjoy again. My decision was reaffirmed when I learned that combat in Color Splash uses consumables (cards, I think) and doesn’t reward experience, only paint to refill your paint bucket. Which means that combat is actively discouraged: it’s a resource drain that almost never pays off. That kind of glaring balance problem will definitely turn me off of a game.

So why go on this big, long rant about an 11-year-old game that I only played once? Is it simply some form of catharsis to vent about how one of my favorite game series has progressively devolved into something I can no longer tolerate? Oh yes, absolutely. I’ve had a lot of time to dwell on this, and the delta between how I experienced TTYD and SPM was a profound lesson in coping with disappointment that has stuck with me for years. In a similar vein, Sticker Star was the game that really enforced that I should never buy a game on brand-recognition alone. I tend to do a lot more research before making my purchases now.

But moreso than just relieving my personal vendetta, I think it’s just as valuable to reflect upon the things we enjoy about games as it is to reflect upon what we can’t stand about them. Highlighting what makes games bad helps us emphasize what makes them great. Between these two sides of the criticism coin, hopefully we can come up with innovations that make games better than ever. And maybe we can avoid some of the pitfalls of our predecessors. Maybe we’ll never have to run in a hamster wheel for 15 minutes ever again.

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