The Paper Mario fan base is a small one with a big heart made up of players who will defend the games until their dying breath. It’s not hard to see the appeal behind the games — they are some of the most accessible RPGs (and action-adventure platformers) that managed to make turn-based combat fun so that battles didn’t feel arbitrary or disengaging like most traditional RPGs. Intelligent Systems’ games also introduced some fantastic storylines within the Paper Mario series containing countless, memorable characters who ooze personality and rich, new worlds that enveloped the player in an unparalleled sense of adventure.
The series has gone through a lot in its 20-year existence. Gameplay has been shifted in different directions throughout its course, RPG elements were mostly scrapped, and plenty directorial choices throughout the years have given the games an identity different from when the series started as a spiritual sequel to Super Mario RPG. Some fans have lashed out against this new direction, some are lukewarm to it, and some are certainly OK with it. None of that changes the fact, though, that Nintendo’s choices are a result of the games we are receiving from the series today and there’s no going back on it.
So, with all that said, I would like to present to you my ranking of the six installments in the Paper Mario series. I replayed the first four and played the last two within the past eight months, so I’m mostly confident with my summated opinions and rankings. I’m aware you could easily dig up my reviews and look at the scores to piece together my rankings, but I wanted to write this article regardless. (DISCLAIMER: Keep in mind these are just my opinions! Feel free to disagree with them and don’t get too upset at them!)
And so we start with number six…
6. Paper Mario: Color Splash (2016)
My score: 3/10 | Original Review | Platform: Wii U
The worst Paper Mario game for a few reasons. The biggest reason is its borderline offensive disposition of how much it doesn’t believe in its own player, because Nintendo apparently thinks their audience transformed into preschool children from 2012 to 2016. Obstacles will literally be placed in front of the player only to be told seconds later how to conquer it.
Color Splash is void of intrigue. Combat against common enemies is useless because gradual progression is gone, boss battles are contrived so that the player doesn’t need to use strategy or skill, and the whole game is just so boring. Earlier installments included a puzzle aspect in them in order to keep the gameplay fresh. This game has color spots and cheap adventuring tactics, not to mention it is pretty much a beat-for-beat rehash of Sticker Star.
A colorful, garish theme park with no rollercoasters.
5. Paper Mario: The Origami King (2020)
My score: 4/10 | Original Review | Platform: Switch
Yeah, I kinda dislike this latest installment, contrary to the thoughts of what I’ve been seeing and hearing from others. It feels like it actively tries harder to appeal with its characters and oh so zany, self-aware personality than any real gameplay. This is proven in a sequence early on where a bunch of trees break into a sing-and-dance routine that feels uncomfortably forced and it doesn’t get much better as it goes on. The nagging attitude and constant objective reminders are cranked up to 11 with the help of Olivia’s wink-wink hints and obvious rhetorical questions. Add that to a world that’s already really dry, too.
If there’s one good (scratch that, great) thing about The Origami King, it’s the revamped combat system (something that makes me happy considering it was always one of Intelligent System’s best-constructed aspects with this series). It offers more puzzling qualities than anything outside of it and the boss battles are pretty thrilling and different, too.
I admire some of what The Origami King accomplishes but it’s pretty hard to warm up to when you’re told where to go and what to do for most of its adventure instead of having the liberty to discover on your own.
4. Paper Mario: Sticker Star (2012)
My score: 5/10 | Original Review | Platform: 3DS
This is where Nintendo approaches Intelligent Systems and tells them to “exclude a complex plot,” plus a multitude of other restrictions like having no creative worlds or characters and to substitute them with the familiar settings from the platformers. Gone are the partners, RPG elements, and peerless game design that made Paper Mario what it was. It’s for this reason why Sticker Star is so hated in particular and why I would assume many of the dedicated fans tapped out after this game.
My reasons as to why I like this more than the other two is for its open world qualities. For the record, I think the combat is fine, but it’s collecting the stickers from around the world of Sticker Star that makes me still appreciate this game somewhat — that’s where the other two games lose me, because their worlds aren’t as lively. In Sticker Star, Intelligent Systems still shows they can hide secrets and make the discoveries full of wonder and intrigue.
Not the pile of trash most will claim it to be, but still not a very great game.
3. Super Paper Mario (2007)
My score: 6/10 | Original Review | Platform: Wii
I often think my score is a little too harsh but then I think back to the incredibly awkward mix of platforming and adventuring this game offers and I immediately revoke my thought process. Forgettable, tiring levels and broken, downgraded combat mechanics are among the issues as well but the world is still lively, the enemies are still threatening, and the adventure (plus the shockingly mature story & memorable characters) is still enchanting.
I’m waiting for the day Nintendo and/or Intelligent Systems makes a stand-alone game based on the 3D flipping mechanic because I still can’t get over how much potential it has to make for a brilliant puzzler. Not that Intelligent Systems didn’t deliver, but it remains one of the best aspects in this game for discovering secrets and getting past roadblocks I’m just baffled it exists.
Some consider this game the first “bad” Paper Mario because of its shift to 2D (which admittedly remains a strange choice) but I think it just misses. Dimentio might remain as my favorite video game character as long as I live.
2. Paper Mario (2000)
My score: 8/10 | Original Review | Platform: N64
On my recent playthrough, I was in awe of how seamless the pace of Paper Mario felt. Every chapter is concisely packed with enemies, puzzles, and secrets, making the adventure flow along quite quickly. The freshness of the game mechanics in this first title still shine through in through and successfully brought something new to the table (and by table, I mean genre). The worlds range from buoyant to downright creepy and kindle the necessity for immersion in such a grand game.
Cavernous secrets can be discovered in the depths of the worlds, the battle system is top-notch and is supported by a brilliant badge system (and partners), and the simplistic, puzzle-infused adventure is an absolute joy. I really have no major problems with this game — there are only rare instances ridden with tedium that bother me (the desert, certain Peach sections) but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying this game whole-heartedly.
Simple yet complex, Paper Mario was and still is a fresh take on the RPG genre that managed to make turn-based combat fun with the help of action commands and an arsenal of special moves. It might be the most accessible of the series.
1. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (2004)
My score: 10/10 | Original Review | Platform: GameCube
No surprises here. Full disclosure, I have a personal attachment to this game, but even then this still offers such an expansive and unabashed expedition it’s difficult to not call this the most complete game in the series. It has issues I would usually nag on—for instance, too much talking and not enough playing (especially near the beginning) — but I simply don’t care because I become infatuated with the game all over again every time I revisit its gritty, scum-filled hub world of Rogueport and proceed to do the same with the following eight chapters.
What makes the gameplay great in The Thousand-Year Door is everything that was great about the gameplay in Paper Mario tenfold. Every aspect — the badge system, the combat techniques, the dungeons, the boss battles, the overall adventure and sense of discovering secrets and collectibles in the crevices of these worlds — is expanded and deftly crafted to a higher degree than the predecessor and it acts as a perfect sequel as it does everything a sequel should do — refines every quality — and it resulted in a truly inimitable game that is irresistibly replayable and filled with tons of little side activities.
Also worth mentioning is the epic story and lovable characters, glorious soundtrack, non-contemporary gameplay scenarios, boundary breaking experimentation (the game breaks the fourth wall more than once — not really a huge deal, I just can’t think of any other game that does that), and evocative personality and tone which brings out a side of the Mario universe we will probably never get to see again.
Series average: 6/10