The Mario series has always been about one thing: one working man braving incredible danger to save the Princess from dire peril. This formula, even from the days of Donkey Kong, has remained relatively the same; yet Nintendo and a score of other developers have found wonderful ways to play with this formula and surprise their gaming audiences. One of the best ways, in my opinion, was to develop the Mario universe into an RPG.
Everybody’s favorite plumber has had a great history of classic RPG games: Super Mario: Legend of the Seven Stars, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, and the wonderful handheld Mario & Luigi series that has sired several classic adventures. Many of these games are incredibly well loved, and I know that I love them too. Usually, at least once a year, I find myself picking up one of these titles and playing it through, thoroughly enjoying the adventure as much as I did the first time I played it. And if you look at their history, there hasn’t been a truly bad Mario RPG, and I think in many ways this has to do with the Man himself and the rich source material that comes with him. I daresay that Mario could be one of the best RPG protagonists of all time. And now that his newest RPG has been released, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, I believe it is time to look at why he fits into this genre so darn well.
A Refreshing Take on the Familiar
One of the nice things about Mario is that he is so instantly recognizable. All gamers, no matter what the age, have their own personal relationship with the plucky plumber. In every one of his RPGs, Mario is a silent protagonist, and he is one of the few, I think, who is able to remain silent without being disconcerting. Who he is is so readily apparent to the gamer due to his cultural identity and his basic appearance. It boils down, again, to that basic formula: Mario’s only goal is saving the Princess. When we put this formula into an RPG setting, though, it brings out so many rich layers to the experience. A large part of this is due to the fact that the original Mario games were platformers, built to be picked up and put down; your whole game experience was that one sitting, and once you picked it up again you started back from the beginning. RPG’s are, by nature, longer than the average adventure, and while the first RPG Mario starred in, Super Mario RPG for the SNES, wasn’t a terribly long RPG, it still clocked in at about 30-35 hours of game time, meaning that you had to dig a bit deeper into the source material to make the game interesting.
One thing that is great with RPGs is that the world has to be fully defined for the gamer in order to keep them invested, and I feel that Mario is perfect for this as it fleshed out a world that players were always curious about. Using Super Mario RPG as an example, the Mushroom Kingdom suddenly became a living breathing world rather than a backdrop to a platformer. Mario could now interact and talk to the various Toadstools that inhabited the Kingdom, and the player could actually travel to and explore Bowser’s Castle and Yoshi’s village. The characters, as well, now had to be made much more 3-dimensional rather than a just basic archetypes. Bowser was made into a foe-turned-friend character who was a lovably incompetent monarch ousted from his own kingdom, and Princess Peach was now more than a damsel in distress, but also a strong character who actually seemed rather tired of her same old role as the helpless female figure, and actually becomes one of the most valuable members of your team. Even Mario himself, though he never speaks, shows a side that has never before been seen in other adventures: he shows intelligence, true courage, and an almost tongue-in-cheek sense of humor about his own celebrity, making him serve as a great lens for the player to look through.
And again, all of this is just an interesting take on the same inherent formula. The game starts as Mario looking to save the Princess from Bowser, but a greater threat emerges. He then spends the first half of the game seeking out the Princess again (as she gets kidnapped by the new villain, Smithy), and then all your favorite characters (as well as a few new ones) band together to defeat this new enemy, thus saving the Princess’s and Bowser’s kingdoms once again. It’s the same old story, just told in a new and fascinating way. It’s fun, it’s refreshing, and it gives the gamer an in-depth view of a much loved franchise.
Damn these games are funny
A great thing about taking a series out of its natural element is that you get to look at it in a new light, and in the case of the RPG, you get to look at the often tired Mario formula for what it is, and poke some playful fun at it. One of the great things about the RPGs that Mario has starred in is the fact that, really, these games are pretty damn hilarious. They come off with so much wit and charm that you can’t help but smile as you play them. Bowser, in every game, is shown as the bad guy who just can’t catch a break, and while sometimes portraying a random soft side (in Paper Mario, he goes out of his way to be extra nice to Princess Peach, trying to woo her), he is always punished, usually humorously, for being such a goofball bad guy. Luigi, in the Mario and Luigi series, is the unfortunate forgotten, but equally important, brother who is forced to live in his brother’s shadow, while Mario is treated and viewed as the uber-celebrity that he is. The RPGs take the ideas that gamers must have always thought (i.e. how can a fat Italian plumber jump so high?) and pokes fun at these ideas.
I mean, let’s face it, the universe in which Mario inhabits is pretty absurd, and the RPGs do a great job of pushing this absurdity into the limelight in a humorous way. The villains are always over the top and often defeated by their own eccentricities. For example, take Fawful, the henchman and later main villain of the Mario & Luigi series; he is a dangerous villain who is a bonafide mechanical genius, but one who is so over the top and quirky that he is wildly entertaining. He can barely speak a coherent sentence (“I HAVE FURY! In the last moments of the finale when relief leads to negligence that begets rashness, that is when the comeback that falters comes back and beats your pathetic comeback that I scoff at!“), and is always vexed when nobody can understand him. The third Mario and Luigi game, Bowser’s Inside Story, is my favorite in the series, is casts both Fawful and Bowser into the limelight, and shows them off as the humorously flawed characters that they are. As well, this story is the most absurd, as it features towering Bowser battles, Mario and Luigi exploring Bowsers innards and bowels, and a finale that is so over the top and funny that it is still one of my favorite endings in a video game. A little charm goes a long way, and while I haven’t even talked about how the series makes fun of RPGs in general (I could write a whole article on just that), these games are wonderfully funny and poke a good bit of fun at a series that we all know and love.
A Marriage of Action and RPG Gameplay
Platforming and action is something that Mario has always been about. To remove action, movement, and platforming from a Mario title would be to remove what makes Mario who he is. Thus his RPGs have always been action intensive. Instead of having simple turn based battles with menus and inputting commands, Mario has been able to dodge attacks, boost his attacks with a well-timed button press, and engages on platforming sections between his battles. It adds a new layer of fun to the battles and the general game-play, and most importantly it doesn’t forsake Mario’s roots.
One of the best examples of this is the Paper Mario series, which even went so far as having a full on platformer RPG (Super Mario Mario). The Paper Mario series, in essence, was turning the 2D roots of Mario into a 3d RPG, and it was created some amazing games. The series, while having a core of solid RPG action, also focused on using the 2D “paper” aesthetic to its advantage, creating some great platforming and action sequences. Mario could fold into a paper airplane, roll into a tube, or flatten to get under doors and such. As well, Mario could interact with his enemies as he normally would in his platforming games: they wandered the game in a side-scrolling fashion, and Mario would walk into them to initiate battles. If Mario jumped on his enemies, though, as he would in a platforming game, he would then get an extra first hit in his battle when it started.
As well, many of the Paper Mario games, in general, follow the structure of the Mario games as far as pacing, i.e. Mario has to collect 7 pieces of so-and-so, so he must travel to seven different worlds, but the worlds in this, rather than just being a snow, desert, or cave environment a la Super Mario World, are instead pretty damn inventive. Take, for instance, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door for the GameCube, where it has Mario traveling to the Moon, a pro wrestling tournament, and even a cross country train where he engages in a Murder on the Orient Express style mystery. Even Super Paper Mario had an interesting segment that was a slight homage to some modern Japanese Horror films (it ended in one of the creepiest boss fights ever!). The RPG lets Mario explore whole new areas, and subsequently lets the gamer see Mario in places that he never would any place else. At all times, no matter how different the RPG games played, they always felt like Mario adventures through and through.
In the end
Mario manages to create a great RPG experience through a wonderful use of his world’s rich source material (especially when they showcase other side characters), a wonderful self-reflexive sense of humor, and a great use of the core Mario game-play. Mario’s RPG excursions are always a bit off the wall, i.e. focusing on scrapbooking stickers or creating an entire Paper version of the Mushroom Kingdom (and some of the bosses of Super Paper Mario count as some of the weirdest in Mario’s history), but they have a great amount of heart and always add something new to the Mario universe. Mario, himself, is able to be viewed in a completely different light; he is no longer just the impersonal hero, but a man who, even silent, can interact with the world around him and provide a view-point for the player. Mario makes some great games, and his RPGs are definitely among some of his best in my opinion, and while I haven’t played Sticker Star yet, I have heard good things already. Who knows where Mario’s RPG adventures will head from here, as they are always wonderfully inventive, but I know that no matter where Mario will lead us next, I will be there with bells on.