At the outset of Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, Luigi accidentally knocks over a magical book that contains all the characters from the Paper Mario franchise. And just like that, the vivid, three-dimensional universe of the Mario & Luigi games is plunged into chaos, as flat copies of everything from innocent Toads to the malevolent Bowser are strewn across the Mushroom Kingdom. There’s opportunity here for a perfect team-up, in the spirit of Mario and Luigi joining forces with their baby brothers in Partners in Time, but developer AlphaDream under-utilizes all these paper elements. Despite the inclusion of Paper Mario as a third character in combat, the reflex- and turn-based combat is too repetitive. Whereas Inside Story had the benefit of browsing the bizarre biomes found within Bowser’s body and Dream Team delved into Luigi’s surreal nightmares, Paper Jam is content to recycle the same grassy plains and spooky woods that players have seen dozens of times before.
Paper Jam fails to embrace the differences in style and mechanics between the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games. A regular Goomba and its paper equivalent have slightly different attacks, but both are dispatched in the same fashion, just as Paper Mario’s basic moves are carbon copies of Mario’s. The combat is a bit more complex, as players now have three characters to keep track of while attempting to dodge enemies, but battles are also longer, scaling enemy hit-points to account for the third Mario brother. The new stuff, as in players being able to transform a foe into a kite before savagely pounding it into the ground, impresses for its inventiveness—up until the point at which one realizes that combat is an endless repetition of minute-long mini-games. (Carpal tunnel syndrome is the only winner here.)
Even the lackluster script skims over the novelty of having these more or less identical characters from two separate universes meet, resorting to cheap jokes as villains like Kamek and Bowser keep trying to one-up their paper clones, or fan service in which the perpetually imperiled Princess Peaches make the most of their imprisonment by discussing fashion tips. At times, the game promises a tongue-in-cheek riff on its own outdated mechanics, as in Peach expressing her boredom with once again being kidnapped by announcing: “I guess it’s that time in the story.” Mostly, though, Paper Jam straightforwardly rehashes the old “The princess is in another castle” shtick from the Super Mario Bros. universe, throwing reams of mandatory mini-games at players in an attempt to ensure that despite having the fewest locations of any Mario & Luigi game, it’s just as long.
Nowhere is this over-gamification more apparent than the papercraft fights, which serve as a clear example of AlphaDream favoring aesthetics over solid design. These onerous segments of the game are thematically sound, but they’re not even remotely fun. Worse, as if watching sluggish, large-scale versions of our heroes amble through a 1cc version of Mario Kart’s battle arena wasn’t bad enough, players are forced to charge their colossal crafts by matching the beat of a cheerleading squadron of Toads. Because creativity comes at the cost of cohesion, the whole adventure turns into one irritating mini-game. Perhaps the reason why Paper Jam is stuck is because it keeps using the wrong paper stock.