The sequel to Paper Mario. It features many improvements to battles and core gameplay that I greatly appreciated, but everything else was a bit of a letdown. The writers tried to do something different with the plot by using an all-new setting and villain this time, but I felt they lacked the charm of Paper Mario‘s. There was also a disconcerting rise in Anime Horniness.
I think the biggest issue I had with the plot is that unlike with The Legend of Zelda, Mario‘s main villain is very hard to improve upon. Bowser never gets old for me; he is an entertaining mix of goofy, cool, affable, and intimidating that somehow manages to work despite the inherent contradictions. There are so many directions you can take him in and situations you can slot him into that he works just about anywhere. Indeed, his segments were some of the funniest parts of this game (and getting to play as Bowser is always fun in a wanton destruction kind of way) — but they had nothing to do with the main plot and felt incredibly tacked-on, as if the writers felt obligated to include him but didn’t know how.
I just can’t work up the same level of enthusiasm for the X-Nauts. They have a very generic humanoid design and unlike Bowser’s menagerie of troops, they all look the same. They are about as incompetent as Bowser but aren’t nearly as personable, leaving nothing interesting about them. And maybe it’s just me, but sterile tech felt a much more boring aesthetic than Bowser’s castle. About the only interesting thing that could have been done with them would have been a tragic boss battle against a mindwiped TEC, but instead we just got yet another rematch with Lord Failvillain.
The other new settings and characters felt little better. Rogueport was kind of interesting, but after the prologue nothing’s really done with its supposedly seedy nature. All the other environments were just kind of meh. Petalburg’s diversity of residents just made it generic in contrast to Koopa Village; the Great Tree was a tedious mess of backtracking through repetitive environments; Twilight Town felt like it was checking off a box and the addition of a new but vaguely human species just felt awkward; Keelhaul Key lacked the liveliness of Lavalava Island; and Fahr Outpost could barely even be called a town. (Also, why are bob-ombs suddenly Russian and why do none of the bob-ombs outside of it act Russian despite supposedly all coming from there?) Every area in Paper Mario had so much going on and so many charming, memorable moments, but the areas here felt a lot more generic. Glitzville was probably the most interesting area; Rawk Hawk was cool because birds are great, and the plot was actually impressively twisty. But it doesn’t have a proper dungeon, and the unnecessarily long and unskippable cutscene every time you want to go there ground away most of my positive feelings towards it.
Which brings me to my next complaint: There is so. Much. Padding. In Paper Mario, you could unlock fast travel shortcuts in the hub town to every area in the game; all of them except two were in the same two adjacent rooms that could be accessed immediately from the hub town, and those two exceptions were still pretty close by. In this game, the fast travel rooms are several screens away from the hub town (many of which contain enemies), two areas have their warp pipes on the opposite end of the area, and one area doesn’t have a fast travel option at all — that would be the aforementioned Glitzville, which requires you to take a blimp from a completely different area of the hub and then watch a long cutscene of the blimp traveling every single time. And for some reason, the warp pipe to Fahr Outpost spits you out in the middle of the dungeon area, forcing you to trek through three screens of enemies every time you want to visit. This might not have been too troublesome if it weren’t for the glut of sidequests that all require you to visit multiple areas in succession. They clearly thought they were being funny, but just served to waste my time.
What’s curious is that Paper Mario had a lot of similar fetch quests, but they hardly bothered me at all, because traveling between areas was a breeze. There was a warp pipe right next to the quest giver that deposited you right into the hub room. Despite Koopa Koot being far more ungrateful and the rewards far less valuable, I found myself enjoying his sidequests far more.
The game also introduces the Pit of 100 Trials, a dungeon where you have to fight a series of 100 battles — and if you bail at any point, you have to start from the beginning again. What’s bizarre is that the game seems to expect you to make multiple runs through the course of the game — the enemies gradually increase in power to correspond with the various areas of the game, so you could conceivably do another set of floors every chapter or so. Except doing that is a huge waste of time because you have to fight through all the trivial enemies on the upper floors every time. They even disable the badges that let you skip battles with trivial enemies just for this dungeon! Why? What does it add to make you repeat challenges you’ve already mastered? They’re not even wearing down your resources, because you can often eliminate them in one round anyway.
Despite all my complaining, I did enjoy the game overall. The battle mechanics received several much-needed improvements — in particular, the stat and level caps were raised tremendously, giving you much greater control over Mario’s build rather than just maxing everything by the endgame. I was particularly grateful for the increased badge point cap, which synergizes nicely both with the larger number of badges introduced and the new mechanic of badges being stackable. I tried out a “danger Mario” build this time by minimizing my max HP to exploit a bunch of powerful badges that only activated at critical health, and the knife’s-edge challenge was fun. (I do have to wonder if the developers realized people would do this, because it seems absurdly broken and poorly balanced, especially in the endgame. Tying critical status to a set value rather than a proportion of max health seems a pretty glaring oversight.)
The party members were more hit-or-miss for me, but I did enjoy the hits, especially the little yoshi tyke! Koops also had more personality than Kooper, and I thought his design and his stylish poses were very cute. You also get to fight Kammy Koopa properly in a very cool double boss battle with Bowser, which was highly enjoyable and made Bowser’s bumbling interludes all worth it.
I think they went overboard with the stage and audience mechanics, though. If there’s any way to control who you get in your audience, I didn’t find it, so it adds a large element of randomness. While I liked the new “stylish” action commands as a fun optional challenge, I think star generation should have been fixed rather than tied to the fickle audience. I did also enjoy the greater variety of action commands in general, though the ones for the special moves tended to go on way too long for something you were supposed to use regularly.
I also have to say: Wow was this shockingly horny for a Mario game. Virtually every female character makes a pass at Mario at some point (and of course acts catty every time someone else makes moves on him), and there are not one but two party members with an ability based around kissing Mario. There is even one party member who looks like this (and yes, the boobs are animated):
Most egregiously, Peach’s interludes this time have a disturbing obsession with her taking off her clothes, including her needing to strip naked while invisible and the base’s computer falling in love with her after it spies on her in the shower — yes, really. No nudity is ever shown, but it’s still deeply uncomfortable and made me want to dunk all the writers in a cold shower.
So. That was a lot of complaining but it’s still a solid Mario RPG. If you liked Paper Mario you will probably like this one too. It just missed the mark in its attempt to try a lot of different things — but hey, better to try and fail than not try at all.