The Mario brothers have a lot of villains to contend with in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam. When Luigi’s disturbance of a magical book sends the flat characters of Paper Mario flying into the three-dimensional cartoon world of Mario & Luigi, the Bowsers from both dimensions, along with their devious children and armies, meet up and set out to conquer the Mushroom Kingdom with their combined forces. Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario face down hordes of familiar creatures, in both their paper and traditional forms, on their way to confront the Bowsers. But of all the menaces standing against our heroes, none can compare to the fiendishness of the paper toad, a miserable creature who’s able to instill dread with the mere mention of its name.
These two-dimensional toads have been scattered around the Mushroom Kingdom, and every once in a while, Paper Jam comes to a screeching halt when the Mario crew has to drop everything and collect them via some annoying mini-game. While the Bowsers and their minions threaten to burn, stab, and crush the heroic trio at every turn, the damage done by paper toads goes far beyond such fleeting physical wounds. Paper toads do irreparable harm to Paper Jam itself, gumming up the game with asinine interludes and destroying any momentum it builds when it leaves you alone to explore and battle Bowsers’ forces. They’re not responsible for all of Paper Jam’s deflating moments—just most—but they’re emblematic of its wrongheaded insistence on forcing unnatural pace and needless variety onto an otherwise charming adventure.
What makes that decision even worse is that it ignores Paper Jam’s organic, driving rhythm. When you’re not being forced to chase around a bunch of whining mushroom-headed dolts, you’re fighting your way through the Kingdom’s various themed sectors—desert, beach, tundra, etc.—with the same timing-based battles that are customary for Mario role-playing games. The bros and their enemies take turns exchanging attacks, but instead of resigning themselves to getting hit by everything, the bros can turn the tables on an enemy’s strike if you hit the right button at the right time—jumping over a koopa’s shell or batting away a piranha plant’s fireball. With the addition of Paper Mario to the team, you now have a third target, and a third button, to worry about when on defense.
That one change makes Paper Jam more vexing than the plumbers’ past outings, but the specifics of the challenge create a satisfying cycle of failure, adaptation, and accomplishment. Every new enemy is a learning opportunity. It’s likely that your crew will get waylaid while you figure out the best ways to counter each of an opponent’s multiple techniques. The only way forward is to keep fighting, learning the proper rhythms and tells. That initial feeling-out process is frustrating, but with enough practice, you can learn how to make it through even the hairiest of battles unscathed, and there’s an elation that comes with doing so. Eventually, you’ll move on to the next area and the next set of enemies, and the cycle will start again.
That rhythm is captured in microcosm during each of Paper Jam’s lengthy boss fights. You go into these battles blind, and you have to keep your party alive long enough to develop strategies against your powerful foe. As such, boss battles often begin as grueling wars of attrition, with the plumbers getting walloped and sucking down restorative mushrooms to stay alive while you get your bearings. Depending on how long it takes to develop a plan of attack, these fights can last anywhere from five to 20 minutes. At the worst of times, it’s easier to quit in the middle of a fight and try again, just so you can start fresh and take advantage of what you’ve learned. But even when sticking it out and taking my lumps, I was hardly ever in danger of total failure. Healing items are plentiful. It’s just a matter of getting through turn after turn of punishment until your brain and fingers work out the proper defensive strategies.
But every time Paper Jam is gaining momentum, it does away with its satisfying melees in favor of a boring chore. There’s nothing more crushing than to climb one of the game’s learning curves and feel like you’re ready to take on the world only to be informed that you can’t kick any more koopa ass until you’ve played hide-and-seek with a dozen paper toads or piloted a giant cardboard Princess Peach to victory in the world’s slowest demolition derby. All of these intermittent activities bring the game to a halt. Catching paper toads as they fall from the sky. Stealthily rescuing paper toads from their Shy Guy captors. Chasing paper toads around an open field because they’re a bunch of raving idiots who don’t recognize that the guy who’s trying to talk to them is freaking Mario. These diversions are tedious at best and infuriating at worst, especially when they’re difficult enough to warrant multiple attempts.
The side games are meant to offer breaks from the sometimes brutal challenges of Paper Jam’s battles. But there are ways to create that downtime without numbing the mind, and Paper Jam knows it. As with every other Mario role-playing game, the script is full of bizarre scenes and meta-humor, like a one-off conversation with a nihilistic toad and a single, shockingly inspired use of the “Let’s-a go!” exhortation that Mario has spouted for the last 20 years. The “worlds colliding” premise also sets the stage for a few illuminating private conversations between classic characters and their paper counterparts. In one memorable scene, the two Princess Peaches bemoan their constant damsel-in-distress status and bond over a desire for change and freedom. Despite the sad undertones—Peach would love to try out a shorter hairdo, but people keep telling her “short hair isn’t sufficiently princessy”—it’s a heartwarming and pleasantly self-aware moment.
Those clever, dialogue-driven interludes are all the downtime Paper Jam needs. Yet it pads itself out with mindless chores that waste time and momentum. It’s maddening when you have to endure so much chaff just to reach that rewarding point of forward progress—and it is rewarding. At least the frustration of Paper Jam’s punishing battles comes with the knowledge that they’re leading to a well-earned epiphany down the line. And as difficult as those fights can be, nothing is more infuriating than the moment when an overeager lakitu stares you in the face and says, “I can tell you guys are just itching to rescue some paper toads!” No, guy. I’m really not.