In the serial Humor in Games, PeterKoelewijn looks at the funniest games he has ever played. Why do the jokes work so well and why is the humor so refreshing? This time, he takes a look at the surprisingly clever humor of the Paper Mario games!

Do you remember Super Mario Bros. 3, in which the levels seem tinkered and you go backstage at the end of each level? Shigeru Miyamoto and his development team did this on purpose to give the impression that Mario was participating in a play. Mario and his friends played a dramatized version of the original Super Mario Bros. A funny idea that makes fun of the recycled story of the kidnapped Princess Peach. Would every Mario since then be a play played for our entertainment? Paper Mario grabs that idea with both hands!

Laugh with paper

The first Paper Mario appeared for the N64 and was the spiritual successor to the SNES classic Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Because Square wanted nothing to do with Nintendo in the N64 era, Intelligent Systems (known from Fire Emblem) was allowed to develop the game. They chose to give Mario and the other characters a paper look to make them more distinct from other 3D Mario games. When you entered a house, the wall flipped open so that you could peek in like a peephole. The game was full of visual jokes like this and was also a lot sharper than previous Mario adventures, full of puns and self-referential humor

You got the idea that everyone was participating in the joke and that Paper Mario was actually a parody of previous Mario adventures. The game became a hit and Intelligent Systems immediately got to work on a sequel to the GameCube, which many say is one of the best Mario games ever!

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

The first Paper Mario is great but still remains fairly safe within the standard Super Mario world, with familiar enemies such as Koopas and Goombas, and cliché worlds such as a desert level and an ice level. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door does its utmost to use as few Mario clichés as possible or to knock them over to surprise you even more!

Just like its predecessor, it is a turn-based RPG where you can do extra damage by pressing the right button at the appropriate time during an attack. You also have party members and options to make them stronger with enhanced attacks. The Thousand-Year Door adds something brilliant to that: you fight on stage and can perform your attacks extra stylishly. The Toads in the audience will then reward you with extra energy points for Super Attacks. The joke is that enemies and especially bosses can also influence your audience, so they sometimes turn against you! Case in point: The game’s first big boss is a huge dragon, who gets hungry halfway through the battle and starts to eat your audience! You then literally continue the fight outside the battle screen!

Other chapters from the GameCube classic include solving a crime on a train á la The Orient Express, entering a combat tournament with a corrupt organization, and recovering your body after it has been taken over by a ghost. Oh yes, and you also get to play short passages with Peach and Bowser and experience their perspectives of the bizarre adventure.

Even more craziness!

The Paper Mario series has been transformed into a more experimental branch of the Mario universe since the GameCube. With the exception of Mario Galaxy and later Mario Odyssey, Nintendo’s in-house development department does its best to reuse as many enemies and worlds as possible. Super Paper Mario for the Wii, however, went a step further and created even crazier worlds that Mario had to adventure through this time without turn-based battles. The humor was of course again abundant, with a villain kidnapping Bowser and Peach and forcing them to marry. Luig also loses his memory and turns into a true Power Ranger villain, including a gigantic robotic zord! The worlds and their designs were so ‘out there’, you could hardly believe you were playing a Mario game. Nintendo probably thought that way too …

No Fun Allowed from Miyamoto

I don’t know if it’s because of the success of the Wii, but around this time an extra conservative wave blew through Nintendo’s Mario department. Games such as New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Bros. You are from that time. Paper Mario: Sticker Star and other Mario spinoffs also fell victim. Miyamoto specifically instructed the team not to design new enemies and to put less focus on an original story. The game could do just fine without both. Perhaps true, because Sticker Star is perfectly playable … but at the same time this is the weakest part of the Paper Mario series according to fans. Gone was the crazy story in which the centuries-long battle against Bowser was only a side issue, gone were your charming party members and gone was the healthy dose of self-referential humor. Paper Mario was just a Mario game, like we get one every six months.

In my opinion lies the unique strength of the series in the humor. The turn-based combat is fun but not revolutionary, the flat designs are distinctive but certainly not unique; it is the self-relativating humor that gives Paper Mario a place among Nintendo’s top series. They are Mario games that make fun of Mario games!

The Wii U comeback

Fortunately, there is still hope. While Nintendo will never admit they were wrong with Sticker Star, they did reverse some decisions in Wii U sequel Paper Mario: Color Splash. You still have no party members and the fighting system with paint is cumbersome, but the humor is back and the – initially cliché – worlds turn into hilarious mini-adventures that constantly surprise me. The presentation of the paper world is also better than ever before, making Color Splash another unforgettable adventure. Well, unforgettable? Most of you forgot to buy it because – you know – it’s a Wii U game! I therefore fervently hope that Nintendo makes a port for the Switch.

That or just make a new Paper Mario. With Mario Odyssey, Nintendo proved that they can come up with plenty of fresh ideas for the franchise. I am curious how Paper Mario can make fun of that.

Humor in Games Serial

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