It's hard to imagine this industry without Mario. While the medium of gaming certainly existed before Shigeru Miyamoto's mustachioed plumber graced our consoles, the franchise has been around for so long that gamers who grew up with Mario in the 90's now play the games with their kids. It's astounding how when so many other gaming franchises try to re-invent themselves to accommodate the changes in culture and tastes, the Mario series has endured for so long while keeping the core concept and tone intact.

However, there was one "Mario" sub-series that made a point in subverting the standard tropes by putting the characters in surreal and outlandish situations, making long established enemies temporary allies, and poking fun at tired gaming cliches through witty dialogue and humor- the "Mario" RPGs.

With the recent announcement of a new "Paper Mario" game, I thought I'd take a look back at the series and see how it fell from grace.

'Super Mario RPG'

In the early 90's, a company called SquareSoft was making a name for itself with their critically acclaimed RPGs. Games such as "Final Fantasy" and "Dragon Quest" were so popular in Japan that their release days often saw a massive amount of absences in both schools and the workplace. However, as popular as RPGs were in the East, they struggled in the West. To make these games more approachable to Western markets, games such as "Final Fantasy IV" were dumbed down considerably in their English localization. Square even went as far as to make a specific "Final Fantasy" title exclusive to the west called "Final Fantasy Mystic Quest." Ironically, "Mystic Quest" was panned by American gaming critics for being too simple and easy for the average gamer.

At the same time, Mario found himself with some new competition in the form of "Sonic the Hedgehog." Sega capitalized on Sonic's attitude to contrast with Mario's more innocent and cheerful image. In 1991, Sega of America conducted a focus test with Mario fans. After showing them both Mario and Sonic, 80 percent of the group showed a preference towards Sonic.

Noticing the lack of Square's popularity overseas and the changes of the current gaming climate, Shigeru Miyamoto approached Square about a possible RPG starring Mario. After both parties agreed, development of "Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars" began in 1995. The game incorporated the standard turn based combat, exploration, and story-telling of RPGs and mixed them with Mario's platforming gameplay.

Simple enough to grasp without sacrificing any of the depth and quality, "Super Mario RPG" proved to be a hit in the west, getting rave reviews and becoming the most-rented game in the U.S. for 14 weeks in a row.

'Paper Mario'

With the release of Sony's PlayStation, Square realized that Nintendo's N64 just didn't have the specs needed for their more cinematic endeavors, leading to an end to their long partnership. "Final Fantasy VII" was released on the PlayStation in 1997 to critical acclaim and huge sales, proving that RPGs were no longer unpopular in the west. Around this time, a company called Intelligent Systems was working on a sequel to "Super Mario RPG" utilizing a distinct paper cut out art-style.

The game was later re-titled "Paper Mario" and released on the Nintendo 64 to positive reviews. Critics loved the art direction and gameplay, but bemoaned the more simple plot when compared to "Super Mario RPG."

The game's follow up, "Paper Mario and the Thousand-Year Door," sought to address those criticisms with a larger tale and a major emphasis on humor. While "Paper Mario" used the standard "Bowser kidnaps the princess and Mario has to stop him" story, "Thousand-Year Door" had a more outlandish tale involving Mafioso-styled mobsters, Lucha Libre wrestlers, and an Agatha Christie-inspired mystery on a train. Furthermore, characters such as Bowser, Luigi, and Princess Peach were more fleshed-out and even playable in sections that satirized established conventions in the series.

"Thousand-Year Door" was acclaimed by critics for its witty dialogue and whimsical story.

How the series stumbled

In 2007, Intelligent Systems followed up "Thousand-Year Door" with "Super Paper Mario" for the Wii. Abandoning the RPG gameplay of the previous "Paper Mario" games, this entry was a standard "Mario" platformer where players could switch from 2D to 3D. Despite this, the game didn't sacrifice the dialogue and characters that made the first two entries so loved. Critics enjoyed "Super Paper Mario," but found the platforming lacking when compared to standard "Mario" outings and the plot wanting when compared to the RPG entries.

"Paper Mario Sticker Star" is where the series really hit bottom.

Miyamoto told Intelligent Systems that a plot was not necessary for a "Mario" title and recommended that they only use characters who appeared in "Super Mario World." Gone were the surreal characters and dialogue and replaced with an abysmal battle system where players could only use cards that they collected to fight enemies; making battles a pointless chore. The follow up, "Color Splash," attempted to bring back the humorous dialogue, but was panned for incorporating the same battle system from "Sticker Star."

"Paper Mario the Origami King" was just announced and fortunately looks to be returning to the series' roots. The game is slated for a July, 17th release of this year for the Nintendo Switch.

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