Before we begin, please note that all reviews are subjective and indicative of individual preference. While I have attempted to collect an un-biased aggregate scoring for each game mentioned in this article, nothing is absolute when discussing review scores.
Everyone knows Mario. Everyone. The Mario franchise is the best-selling game franchise of all time, with over 528 million copies sold. However, those who aren’t in the loop might not realise Mario’s storied, often checkered history with RPG titles. The Mario RPG franchise has been in business for 21 years, starting with the aptly titled Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo in 1996. But it’s the split that followed Mario RPG that makes this franchise so interesting, and worth getting a closer look. Much like how Ocarina of Time forever split the Zelda series into two (three?) different timelines, the Mario RPG franchise has been split between two larger game series, often competing with each other, yet both falling victim to the same cries of declining quality.
After the critical success of Mario RPG, a sequel was announced as being in the works for the Nintendo 64. In 2000, this “Mario RPG 2” later became Paper Mario, a game series all its own. While it borrowed Mario RPG’s beginner friendly gameplay and time-based combat, it proved itself to be a unique enough experience to hook gamers all over again, ranking generally in the same tier as its predecessor. And 4 years after that, Intelligent Systems would release Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, whose scores were similarly critically positive. Both of these games, aloung with the massive success of the original Mario RPG, helped establish an 8 year legacy of highly successful RPGs starring gaming’s biggest star, Mario.
Rewind a year earlier to 2003, where AlphaDream and Vanpool were working on an entirely different RPG title for the Game Boy Advance. Similar to Paper Mario, Mario and Luigi: Super Star Saga also featured the staple timed-combat system, but put more of an emphasis on Mario and Luigi and how they could work together both in and out of combat. This game was followed in 2005 by Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time, which officially made the Mario and Luigi series the second Mario RPG game franchise. Both games were received very well, seeing review scores that rivaled their sister series, Paper Mario.
Speaking of Paper Mario, in 2007 Intelligent Systems published its third entry in the Paper Mario franchise, Super Paper Mario. This title was a drastic step in a new direction for the Paper Mario series, featuring real-time combat and a platforming focus, with looser RPG elements. While the game was a departure from the tried and true Paper Mario formula, it was still a successful game, and went on to be one of the best selling Wii games of all time, moving 2.28 million units worldwide. Reviews were mostly positive, but scores had dipped slightly from past titles, most likely due to the unconventional style this game presented. It was certainly a game that drew a mixed response from the fans, and today it is widely seen as the turning point for the franchise that would ultimately lead to an overall dip in quality.
It would be four years following Partners in Time before the release of the third game in the Mario and Luigi franchise, Bowser’s Inside Story. Critically acclaimed, this title would prove to be one of the highest rated titles not only in the Mario and Luigi series, but in the entire Mario RPG franchise. This was the high point for this series, unlike the Paper Mario series, which, while still receiving great reviews, had been seeing consecutively lower aggregate scores from entry to entry. Again though, the Mario RPG “Rule of Thirds” would apply to the M&L games, and future titles would be rated lower than the previous entries.
In 2012, the Paper Mario series was brought back to life after a 5 year hiatus in the form of Paper Mario: Sticker Star. The game received mixed to positive reviews overall, with both Metacritic and GameRankings giving the game an aggregate score of 75%. While this is by no means a bad score, it did represent a new low for a game in a series that had done so well critically up until now. Fans were also very mixed on their opinions, as this entry again provided a vast difference of the previously established Paper Mario formula. The final Paper Mario game to be released (as of the time of this writing) was Paper Mario: Color Splash for the WiiU in 2016. The game received slightly better scores than Sticker Star, and provided a similar gameplay experience to its predecessor.
The Mario and Luigi series released their 4th installment, Mario and Luigi: Dream Team, in 2013. It performed better than Sticker Star, although it was less well-received than any prior M&L title. The final game in the Mario and Luigi series (again, as of now) was Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam, which was actually a cross-over of both Mario RPG series. Interestingly, this was also the lowest rated M&L game to date, with scores similar to Sticker Star, the lowest rated Paper Mario title.
WHAT’S THE POINT?
The fascinating thing about observing these two sister franchises is how many similarities they share. Both games seemingly came out of nowhere, borrowing off of the successful ideas from the original Mario RPG. Both did very well initially, and both started to decline in quality after their third games, critically speaking. Interestingly, while the Paper Mario series abandoned its roots in favour of new ground, the Mario and Luigi series kept its core formula unchanged, and as a result seemingly saw less of a dip in their reviews. In fact, the only M&L title to fall below an 80% Metacritic score was Paper Jam, which was the title that strayed the farthest from the original concept of the series.
There can be no denying that reviews are subjective. Somebody out there prefers Sticker Star over every other Mario RPG title, and that’s absolutely fine. But looking at the aggregate review scores for these two game series, who are at their core so very similar, provides us a unique view into what makes a game series successful, and what causes it to fall into decline. It’s no secret that moderation is key when you’re developing a new game as part of a long running series. Stray too far from the original product, as in the case of the later Paper Mario games, and you risk losing your initial player base. Fail to provide enough new content, as it could be argued the Mario and Luigi series did, and your game may be seen as unnecessary or rehashed. The Mario and Luigi series has a plan, in the form of a remake of their first title, Superstar Saga. Whether it will be a success remains to be seen, but it’s certainly the safe choice, which seems to be how the M&L series likes to handle their releases.
The fate of the Paper Mario series is largely unknown at this time. Perhaps Nintendo will see the marginally improved scores of Color Splash as a sign to stay the course and improve on the current formula. I know a number of older gamers are insisting Paper Mario return to its roots, wishing instead for a “true” third installment. Whatever they decide to do, the urgency seems to lie with Paper Mario more than M&L. If history is any indicator, a new Paper Mario title comes aloung once every 5 years, give or take, so it wouldn’t be unwise to expect it to be two or three more years before we hear any news about this particular series. Either way, we wish them both the best. Each series offers something wholly unique to the RPG genre, and with any luck, they will continue to do so for quite some time yet.