Game Design

How JRPGs Can Do Better: The Mario RPGs

Guest article by main_gi.

main_gi's website

Continuing Yujiri's article

The "Mario RPGs" are a group of turn-based JRPG-style games. They have a few common stylistic and gameplay traits such as Mario being the main character, jumps and hammers being the main attack, enemies visible on the field instead of being random encounters, and less of an emphasis on plot and lore compared to most JRPGs (but still a lot more plot than other mainline Mario games).

But to continue Yujiri's article, the most relevant gameplay addition is **Action Commands** (or Timed Hits in Super Mario RPG, but this article will consistently use Action Commands). I found it odd that Bowser's Inside Story was seemingly used as the sole example of an JRPG that can do 'better', just because it had action commands, when every game in the Mario RPG series has had it so far, as well as other games that were inspired by this series (like the South Park RPGs and Undertale) having some sort of timing based system as well. So this is a gameplay-focused review on all the games in the series.

A summary of the best aspects of the series (just to quickly answer the "making JRPGs better" question):

Ring Fit Adventure release trailer

Trial and error gameplay

You'll notice one of the things I don't have on here is gameplay variety and game balance. That's because it's kind of a "well duh" thing, and just pointing it out will not help you create variety and better balance. The way the games did that was with multiple features and additions that will be different for other games.

The rest of the article will just be pointing out successes and flaws of each specific game's gameplay, like a quick review.

Super Mario RPG (1996, SNES)

RPG stat customization has two forms. **Lock-in** is anything in battle that you have a choice in, but can no longer change freely afterwards. (If there's a limited number of changes you can make that can not replenish, this is also a form of lock-in.) This is opposed to non-lock-in, stuff like equipment and skill trees that can be changed at will.

This game has a system where you choose stats to level-up, which was an idea used in the later games. Each character has their own level and experience. Level-up bonuses are awarded at the end of a battle (there is no full heal for these level-ups). Each level-up gives some generic passive stat gains in level ups that you can't change (like a normal RPG), and then a choice between:

There was also a "bonus stat" system that incentivized a "balanced" build by cycling through each of the 3 choices and giving it even more of a boost than usual:

Bonus stat system

A more specific guide with numbers is here (search [LEVUP]). (This is the guide I'm getting most of the more specific info from.)

The **non**-lock-in is standard JRPG equipment. Each character has 3 equipment slots (Weapon, Armor, Accessory), with most equipment being character-specific. It still has the problem of most JRPGs in that equipment has significant power creep and is just busywork of strictly better upgrades. The Accessory equip slot is at least interesting because the equipment isn't power creeped as much, and is not full of strictly better upgrades, and most of the Accessory equips are multi-character.

The stats are pretty standard RPG stats. HP, **MP** (I'm calling the "limited cast replenishable currency" MP through this entire article for consistency, because well, it's a renamed mana points system. In Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, this is called FP. In Superstar Saga (1), this is called BP (no relation to Badge Points). In Bowser's Inside Story (3), Dream Team (4), and Paper Jam (5), this is called SP (no relation to Paper Mario's specials). In Paper Mario: Color Splash, there is a MP derivative system called paint.), Attack, Defense, Magic Attack, Magic Defense, Speed. Not to the level of "Dexterity Stamina Intelligence". Now, "Magic" being used as a term here isn't very illuminating. It apparently is used as the attack/defense calculation for *every* Special attack, even the very non-magical ones like jumping on enemies or Bowser's crush attack. If I had known that, I wouldn't have dumped so many of my level-up boosts in regular Attack.

In battle, the game has a bunch of standard RPG tropes. It **hides** basically all the stats and damage formulas. There are **'elements'** for damage that can deal more or less damage depending on resistances. And all damage is **slightly randomized**.

Speed is calculated with 'turn cycles'. The characters with the highest speed takes their turn, then the 2nd highest, the 3rd highest, and so on, until the last character in which the cycle repeats.

Each ally can choose between 4 ability categories on their turn:

The Action Command system is slightly different for regular attacks vs. Special attacks. While Special attacks tend to have pretty varied and unique timings, attacking and defending is just timing one button press (A) at the right time. The "right time" involves two timing zones: a 'close' timing and a 'perfect' timing. Enemy "special" attacks can't be blocked (I don't know how to distinguish an enemy special attack from a physical one).

In my first playthrough, I only knew that timed hits existed, not that there were two timing ranges. Besides damage numbers, there is no indication of it, and you can't even tell if your 'close' timed attack is late or early.

Attack animations don't have the best user feedback in general. It still has the classic RPG trope of damage occuring *at the end of the animation* instead of when the attack appears to connect during the animation. This is awkward with stuff like Mario's Super Jump and Fireball attacks, that hit the enemy multiple times visually, but only deal the damage at the very end, giving you no indication on how the damage is calculated, or even if the number of fireballs or jumps scales linearly with damage.

There's also the 'standard' RPG awkward animations from this time that are not physically possible (like punching an enemy from far away and it still takes damage, characters standing on thin air to get into position for the animation). Also the Final Fantasy effect where boss characters seem to be a similar height to you on the overworld, but in battle they become giant in comparison to each individual character.

Paper Mario series

Super Mario RPG never got a direct sequel. Instead, it split off into two new RPG series, Paper Mario being one of them. This is my much preferred series from a gameplay perspective. It does *so* many things right that break fantasy JRPG gameplay traditions (as much 'tradition' as you could change of a genre that has only existed for a few decades).

There are also a few things that really aren't necessarily better or worse than traditional JRPGs, but it's part of the 'series formula':

Paper Mario (2001, N64) and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (2004, GameCube)

I'll use this section to compare Paper Mario (also known as Paper Mario 64 or PM64) with its sequel (TTYD) - I would be repeating a lot of information otherwise, because the games are more similar than different.

Mario & Luigi series

The Mario & Luigi series is a lot more consistent in gameplay across the titles, but shares a lot more with traditional JRPGs and is arguably more casual overall, but has a higher emphasis on action timing. This will compare all 5 games that are currently out - Superstar Saga (1), Partners in Time (2), Bowser's Inside Story (3), Dream Team (4), Paper Jam (5). I've put numbers after the names for readers unfamiliar with the series.





Finally, theming, again:

Stat upgrading items in Final Fantasy

Gameplay gimmicks and action commands in the Mario & Luigi series

While I said the gameplay was lacking in strategy, it *does* have lots of gimmicks per game that change what *kinds* of action commands you do. There's two main buttons as a series standard - A is "Mario' buttons" and B is "Luigi's button" by default, which I will call "character buttons".

On the overworld, the character buttons cause the respective characters to jump, but navigating through the world is a bit more cumbersome due to extra cycle commands - you can press a button to cycle through other abilities that get unlocked (which is different per game). I *broke* my trigger button in my first playthrough of Bowser's Inside Story because of it (they became soft and took more effort to click). Superstar Saga (1) has it the worst, with a 3-cycle of Jump/Jump, Hammer/Mini-Mario, Fire/Tickle, but also has a "switch order" button to change the cycle into Jump/High Jump, Hammer/Luigi Dunk, Dash/Thunder.

In battle, on-your-turn attacks only use the character buttons involved with the attack (and very occasionally D-Pad or circle pad controls). When defending, the character buttons are used for "counterattacks" (somewhat of a misnomer, as some attacks can only be 'countered' with a dodge and can't deal damage back to the enemy - but most attacks can counter with damage). These counters are much more *animated* than the Paper Mario series.

With the standard A and B buttons, a *ton* of attacks in the whole series can be dodged too easily by pressing/releasing *both* A and B when an opponent is attacking ambiguously, so you never need to react as soon as you find out who is being attacked. The designers seem to have known about this since the first game (the final boss has an attack that punishes you for jumping when you shouldn't have), but it's still in there.

Okay, so here's the gameplay gimmicks and how they change stuff.

Super Paper Mario (2007, Wii)

Super Paper Mario is not a JRPG, so this article will not cover it.

Paper Mario: Sticker Star (2012) and Paper Mario: Color Splash (2016)

This series took a controversial turn when it completely changed every gameplay element for the worse, and watered down the story. In fact, you may as well **forget everything you know from the "Paper Mario series" bullet points.**

Video example and comparison here from TheBitBlock's review

Goomba Stomp article

I would end this article with a summary of the games, but I already put that at the very top because that's better reader experience. :P


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