We’re done with Paper Mario 2 now (and I’m starting Metroid Prime 2 – what an amazingly bad menu system!), so I should probably continue talking about it. It’s such a quietly unusual game, though, that I think I have a couple of entries’ worth of material about it.

Maybe it’s not that unusual; it is quite unconventional for an RPG, but now that I think about it, several of its non-RPG elements are actually fairly normal in adventure games (such as the Zelda games).

So: a comparison of the genres.

  • Both typically have you exploring in cities, overworlds, and dungeons.
  • Both can have fairly strong plots.
  • RPGs have a leveling-up system, controlled by experience points; adventure games have you gaining new abilities via items.
  • Both have a sort of HP system, but it’s finer-grained in RPGs; in RPGs, it’s tied to leveling up, while in adventure games it’s typically tied to finding a special item, like the Zelda heart containers.
  • RPGs have a party, adventure games don’t.
  • RPGs usually have a magic system or something like it (though not all characters can use it equally); adventure games typically don’t.
  • In RPGs, enemies are invisible until the battle starts; in adventure games, they’re out there for everybody to see.
  • In RPGs, battles are on a special screen, with most of the action happening by commands selected from menus; in adventure games, battles are on the main screen, and you control the character’s actions directly with the same controls as you use to move around.
  • I think inventories are probably normally handled in a more anal manner in RPGs.

Now, obviously not all of these are aspects tightly linked. Though, I suppose, they must reinforce each other for them to have remained coupled like this. It would be interesting to see a game design pattern language that explained these relationships; can we come up with some reasons? I suppose that multiple party members and magic go together, because magic gives a way for the party members to be differentiated from each other. And multiple party members also go with having a special battle screen with commands on it: otherwise, it would be too hard to control all the characters.

But that doesn’t explain why, in RPGs, the wandering monsters are traditionally invisible. And, indeed, in Paper Mario these aspects are severed: there’s still a special battle screen with special commands, but you see the enemies in front of you while wandering around, and can avoid them if you choose. Which is, I think, a good thing: for example, when revisiting areas later in the game, the monsters are too trivial for fighting them to be very rewarding (either intellectually or in game-play terms), so it’s nice if you can avoid them. Or if you’re in a mood for exploring instead of fighting, it’s good to be able to avoid monsters instead of having them distract you. (I’m still scarred from the ridiculously frequent random battles in Skies of Arcadia: sometimes I wouldn’t even be able to remind myself of what I was looking for when last attacked before another battle would start.)

I suspose the visible monsters are the only item in the other list where Paper Mario picks the adventure game choice instead of the RPG choice, but it makes untraditional choices (that don’t fit into either convention) in several other areas. For one thing, normally when levelling up, the experience point gap grows as you advance between levels. In Paper Mario, however, there are always 100 experience points between levels, and the same monster gives you fewer experience points as you get stronger. This works because the party members aren’t symmetric: you only level up Mario via experience points, while the other characters advance via a separate mechanism. (Which involves looking for certain items, like the way you “level up” in an adventure game.)

The character differentiation also happens differently than in normal RPGs: each companion has one special thing that it can do (give information, send a shell out, blow, hide you, etc.), and while these affect battles (in fact, each special thing turns into multiple special moves in battles), they can also be used in the overworld, to let you get items, get to previously inaccessible areas. This is actually one of my pet peeves in RPGs: you have this magic system, but while it has a big effect on battles, it really is only used outside of battles to heal you. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if you could use, say, a fire spell to burn your surroundings, instead of just burn your enemies? The only other RPGs that I know of that let you use your magic in the overworld are the excellent Golden Sun and its sequel. This makes Zelda-style puzzles possible in an RPG, and can be a lot of fun. In fact, now that I think about it, the connections between characters in Paper Mario and special items in Zelda are obvious: Koops is similar to the hookshot, Bobbery is a lot like the bomb bag.

The way you gain abilities via leveling up is also much more open. When you gain a level, you can chose what to increase: your hit points, your magic points, or your “badge points”. These latter allow you to equip more badges, which give you new attacks, or change your abilities (e.g. decrease the damage you take, increase the damage you do, etc.). So you can personalize your character to suit your playing style, both by what you chose to power up and which badges you equip. (Liesl and I took very different tacks here – for more than half the game, I think I upgraded badge points exclusively, and I chose badge points that changed my characteristics while Liesl chose badges that gave her more different attacks.) Also, the numbers involved are much smaller: in traditional RPGs, you’ll have hundreds of hit points and attacks will do tens of points of damage, while in Paper Mario you’ll have tens of hit points, and a badge that will decrease your damage taken by one point makes a big difference.

I certainly won’t propose this badge system as the ultimate in RPG leveling up systems, but it is a nice change of place, and I hope that future RPGs will continue to play around with flexible leveling up systems. (I had hoped that Final Fantasy X would have a similarly flexible system, but you really didn’t have a lot of choices when traveling along its sphere grid (or whatever it’s called) to level up.)

Enough for today; I’ll finish the discussion later this week.

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