Paper Mario 64 Review: A great game, but outshined by its sequel

Paper Mario 64 Review: A great game, but outshined by its sequel

Paper Mario 64, a timeless classic that captured the hearts of gamers when it was first released, continues to hold a special place in the world of video games. With its unique blend of RPG elements, innovative battle system, and charming paper-inspired art style, it's no wonder this game has remained a fan favorite over the years. In this review, I, Brighton Nelson, will look at various aspects of Paper Mario 64, including its battle system, storytelling, music, art and graphics, characters, customization system, sidequests, and locations. By examining each of these elements critically, I will explain the pros and cons of this experience of a game. Now, without further ado, RPG Ranked presents... a Paper Mario 64 Review: A great game, but outshined by its sequel.

Battle System - 8

This game took the world by storm with its fun and innovative partner-and-badge-based battle system. Taking what was great from the original Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars and putting its own spin on it was executed very well here, and this is a phenomenal battle system. With engaging timing mechanics, partner switching, and an incredible customization system, this game has some excellent battle mechanics. The only things holding it back from a 10 out of 10 (which I gave to The Thousand-Year Door) are simple. First, each partner is much less distinct in this game than in the sequel, with much more crossover in how abilities function. This makes the player much less incentivized to be creative with their partner selection. Second, each partner does not have health, making the battle system less strategic and, quite frankly, more annoying (albeit creative). Third, it feels archaic to come back after The Thousand-Year Door, which refined this battle system and dialed everything up to eleven. Overall, I love this battle system; it just can’t get a perfect score when TTYD’s battle system is better in literally every way.

Story - 3

While this is the best executed “save Peach, kill Bowser” story in the series… I can’t pretend I enjoy this format, nor do I think it is creative. While Bowser has great characterization here, and the Peach segments add a lot of depth to the storytelling, the plot is so essential that I found myself rather bored of it by the end of the game. The tension from the beginning of the game is lost by the end, and the final battle is super underwhelming, as Bowser just casually flies away. This is about as perfect as the basic Mario format could get. Still, compared to the endless creativity found in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Super Paper Mario, and Paper Mario: The Origami King, this does not compare. Of course, this story is leagues ahead of Sticker Star and Color Splash, but that doesn’t mean it is incredible. Overall, Paper Mario 64 does an alright job of telling the typical Mario storyline, but that’s still all it is: the typical Mario storyline.

Music - 7

I don’t think a game has ever had a more fitting soundtrack than this game. This is a charming, upbeat, and relatively carefree soundtrack, with tracks like Goomba Road perfectly encapsulating what the game is all about. Quite honestly, my favorite theme is the battle theme; it is so fun and charming, and I adore it. I also love the individual boss themes, as they are just so awesome, and the Chapter 7 music is very atmospheric; I particularly enjoyed the tracks found there. However, as much as this music is perfect for this game, it isn’t my favorite music ever… and this is my least favorite soundtrack in the series. I know, controversy, blasphemy, sacrilegious, all of the above. But you know what? I’m okay with that because, as much as this is a perfect soundtrack, it doesn’t resonate with me as much as others. So I can’t give this any higher than an 7 out of 10.

Art & Graphics - 9

When a game looks like it could’ve been made yesterday, that’s when you know the game’s art direction is absolutely incredible and timeless. If you told me this game was made for a modern console, I would literally believe you because nothing about this game gives off an aura of outdated graphics or distracting visuals. This game is still one of the best-looking games in the series and one of my favorite-looking games of all time. While many people want a graphical remake for this game akin to The Thousand-Year Door, while I love the look of that game, I don’t think much can be done to make this game look better or more timeless… it is just that good. I played this game for the first time in early 2023, and it still holds up to be a phenomenal-looking game to this day. In summary, this is one of the best-looking games of all time… it just exudes charm in every minute detail, and that’s something I can’t say about many other games.

Characters - 5

This will get me a lot of hate, but as much as everyone loves their inspired designs for the characters in this game (myself included), the characters are fragile in terms of personality and story. While Peach, Bowser, Twink, and Lady Bow are highlights, and Kolorado and Raphael the Raven are good enough, most of the other characters have paper-thin personalities and storylines (sorry, just one paper joke in this article, I promise… I’ll keep it at an original trilogy level of paper joking), especially compared to later entries in the series. Well, only some of the later entries because Sticker Star obviously has some of the worst characters of any RPG ever… but I digress; I’ll talk about that in a different review. Anyway, let’s get into some more analysis about the characters. Goombario joins your party because he wants to explore and looks up to Mario! And what personality does he have? Pretty much none. His tattling can be occasionally endearing, but Goombella executed this so much better in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. I won’t say he is a horrible character; he is one of the better ones, but that’s not saying too much. Kooper? In all but name, he’s Goombario 2.0, but he likes Kolorado instead of Mario. Lady Bow? She is fantastic and has a lot of plot relevance and character, so she gets a complete pass. Watt? She has two lines of dialogue and has absolutely no motivation to join Mario outside of beating General Guy. Sushie? I guess she is like a mother figure to some of those Yoshis? She’s pretty bad. Lakilester? He’s a vibe, actually, but I found him to be pretty annoying, to be honest. Overall, the partners aren’t all that compelling and join the party to help Mario beat a boss... that’s about it. Compare this to characters like Koops, who have a burning desire to save their dad and become a stronger person. To Yoshi, basically an adopted son of Mario’s who profoundly loves his “dad” and all things fighting, with some of the best dialogue in the series. To Vivian, who, depending on the version, can either be an estranged sister in need of love or a transgender person looking for someone to care about them. To Admiral Bobbery, with a tragic past and a touching story of refinding life’s joy. I’m sorry, but Paper Mario 64 cannot compare to those. Even outside The Thousand-Year Door, we have Tippi, a phenomenally written character in Super Paper Mario that you feel very emotionally connected to at the end, even if she pisses you off with her motion controls. We have Professor Toad and Captain T. Ode, which might seem generic at first but have so much charm and depth to Bowser Jr., Kamek, and Bowser, who are all given so much character in The Origami King, making them my favorite iterations of all three of these characters. From seeing Bowser trust in Bowser Jr.’s abilities to take care of himself to comforting Olivia in times of distress, to Kamek being the misunderstood and lovable wise guy, to Bowser Jr.’s antics surrounding his “revival” of sorts, these “generic” characters have so much more charm than the characters present in Paper Mario 64. While I’m not saying I dislike the partners and characters in Paper Mario 64, the only real standouts are Bowser and Lady Bow and maybe Twink if it’s a good day. I think the characters in this game are well-designed and fun, but they don’t have much depth compared to other Paper Mario games and definitely compared to pretty much any other RPG series out there. And for that, I must begrudgingly give the charming characters in this game a 6 out of 10.

Customization System - 6

I freaking love the badge system! While I still enjoy Color Splash and adore The Origami King, the badge system was definitely the apex of combat in Paper Mario! There’s just something so special about the badge system and upgrading partners, and I love how the progression is in this game! I have two problems, each that takes a point off my score. First, I hate how low the BP cap is in this game… a mere 30 BP. In The Thousand-Year Door, the cap is 99. This makes Paper Mario 64 feel more archaic and less customizable than its successor and makes it hard for me to come back to this game because it is so much less compelling in terms of its battles. Second, this system has minimal customization for the partners. The badge system in The Thousand-Year Door did a perfect job of allowing upgrades for Mario and his partners, making so many more options in that game. However, as much as I think this system has its flaws, the badge system is just such a fun and simple way to upgrade Mario, making this battle system one of the best in the series. Overall, Paper Mario 64 has a fantastic customization system, but I don’t believe it is as flawless as superfans claim.

Sidequests - 6

There are some great quests in this game. Collecting and reading Parakarry’s letters, doing quizzes for Star Pieces with Chuck Quizmo, cooking with Tayce T., fighting Kent C. Koopa, fighting the Shy Guys, and participating in the Dojo in Toad Town. While this were good sidequests, I will admit, I found most of the other games in the series to have much better and more fun side quests… but maybe that’s just me. These are some charming quests that do add a lot of depth to the game, but they just really weren’t all that intriguing to me, and I only found myself doing a few of them before moving on to playing the next game I had on my RPG backlog. These aren’t bad sidequests, they just aren’t outstanding either.

Chapters - 7.5

Sure, there were some more generic locations here, with Chapter 1, Chapter 3, Chapter 5, and Chapter 8 being similar to previous Mario levels. This game doesn’t have as many unique locations as other Paper Mario games, but do I really care? No. Why? Because first of all, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 6, and Chapter 7 are all completely unique and inspired areas. From a chapter about saving Boos from being killed by an invincible Tubba Blubba in a creepy forest to going into a Shy Guy toy box that oozes with charm and atmosphere, from a chapter with a bunch of talking flowers being unfairly ruled by a sentient cloud creature to an ice chapter with unique locales such as a penguin village, a Star Spirit village, and a fabulous mirror castle! Even the more generic grassland, desert, Yoshi Island, and Bowser Castle levels are still charming for various reasons, from the unique bosses to the stunning environments. Overall, while I think other games (especially in the Paper Mario series) have much more exciting locales than this game, there are still some really high highs here, so I think an 7.5 is a fair score.

Quality of Life - 7.5

While not nearly as bad as The Thousand-Year Door, this game still has its backtracking portions that can become incredibly annoying, particularly in Chapter 6 and leading up to Chapter 6 by finding all the seeds. Also, the limited item storage can be annoying (albeit necessary for balancing purposes). Also, the cap of 30 BP, while an issue of the customization system, seeps into the quality of life for me because, quite frankly, this is one of my most significant issues with Paper Mario 64… it just makes the game so much slower-paced than TTYD, because I maxed out my BP before I even got halfway through the game, and that just made the game so much slower. However, outside of these issues, this game was well-paced, glitch-free, and consistent throughout the board, making it a relatively seamless experience.

The Verdict

Fun Factor: 5
Overall Score: 64%
Letter Score: B

In conclusion, Paper Mario 64 stands as a beloved classic in the world of gaming, renowned for its innovative partner-and-badge-based battle system and timeless art direction. While it may not reach the heights of its sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door in certain aspects, such as storytelling and character depth, it still holds a special place in the hearts of fans. The game's music, while fitting and charming, might not be everyone's absolute favorite, and its sidequests, while enjoyable, may not match the depth of those found in later entries in the series. Ultimately, Paper Mario 64's unique charm and memorable moments continue to captivate players, even as it faces competition from its own franchise's later installments. While it may not be a perfect ten in every category, it undeniably left an indelible mark on the gaming world, proving that even a classic formula can shine with a fresh, paper-thin twist.

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Paper Mario 64

Primary Version: Paper Mario (N64)