The Paper Mario series is an intriguing corner of the Nintendo stable, and not just because it sees the famous plumber become flatter than a pancake. Fan opinion seems to be split right down the middle; depending on who you ask, the series is either a complete disaster that hasn’t seen a good game since the GameCube, or a bouncy, quirky little thing that showcases the developer’s creativity. And fondness for papier mache.
From the good to, well, the Sticker Star, there is a lot to unpack with Paper Mario. Thus, let us have a delve and see if we can come up with a definitive ranking of each and every title in the franchise.
Updated on September 23, 2023, by Bobby Mills: The Paper Mario series recently received a new addition to its roster, Paper Mario: The Origami King. Our previous update incorporated this title in the ranking, but we wanted to account for shifting perspectives now that it’s been out for a while (and perhaps amend our harshness on some of the other entries).
On top of this, Nintendo recently announced a full, ground-up remake of The Thousand-Year Door for 2024; so we figured, why not shine the spotlight a bit more on this fan favourite?
6 Paper Mario: Sticker Star
Sticker Star was a divisive game, to say the very least. In a drastic departure from the series norm, outlandish locales like Rogueport and Flopside gave way to the usual Mario fare. Sing it with us: grass world, desert world, fire world, jungle world, cloud world, boss.
Equally confounding was a noticeable lack of any RPG elements – adhesive stickers took the place of a traditional battle menu – and a truly irritating companion, Kersti. Picture Navi, ratcheted up well past 11.
When you strip away the entire identity of a franchise, argued fans, there isn’t much left to work with. That isn’t to say, though, that there was no fun to be had. The soundtrack is a series highlight, incorporating remixed hits from retro favourites like Super Mario World; and some stages, including a Snifit game show, a ski-lift assault, and the Enigmansion (a Luigi’s Mansion-flavoured ghostbusting romp) were a blast.
Sadly, the desire to keep things a bit closer to the Mario brand sunk a lot of Sticker Star’s potential – but it’s still worth one go for fans of the series.
5 Paper Mario: Color Splash
Color Splash is, in essence, Sticker Star done right. Nintendo listened very keenly to the complaints about the various systems from the much-maligned 3DS outing, and so for Paper Mario’s Wii U debut, they made sure to address as many as possible.
The writing is every bit as snappy and sarcastic as you’d want; and though the game is still, technically speaking, not an RPG, it errs far closer to the genre than its handheld cousin. For one, you now level up again (in a sense – your paint capacity, necessary to charge up more powerful attacks, increases as you battle.)
Yes, the only secondary characters the title uses are Toads, just as Sticker Star did; but it’s tough to care when the individual interactions are this good. Name one other Mario game where a Shy Guy on a train ponders the futility of being a defenceless mook.
The battle system relies on a card mechanic not dissimilar to the stickers, but a better-implemented roulette wheel means that you’ll never be at a total disadvantage. Overall, while it might not represent the peak of its field, Color Splash is a perfectly whimsical, breezy adventure worth your attention.
4 Super Paper Mario
Super Paper Mario was the first game in the series that really strayed away from its RPG origins, opting for a 2D platformer approach while still maintaining such hallmarks as EXP and badges. Isn’t it cool how change can sometimes be positive? As with its predecessors, the game features infectious music, fantastic writing, and interesting locations and characters to explore and interact with.
The story, which sees the nefarious Count Bleck attempting to delete all of reality out of spite for losing his long-lost love, gets almost Kingdom Hearts-esque at times – and goes to some very dark places for Mario. Where else will you get a chapter dealing with the gang navigating Hell? Or an extended Exorcist homage, complete with neck-cracking? Or Luigi being prognosticated in an ancient book to end the universe?
It’s easily the most complex narrative in the franchise, and is often cited as the one which made Miyamoto step in and say, “Hey guys, perhaps we ought to dial this back a bit.”
With four main playable characters in the form of Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Bowser (and their companion Pixls), there are many ways to tailor the adventure to your skillset. All told, Super Paper Mario tried bold and exciting new things, while managing to keep the series’ core identity intact.
3 Paper Mario: The Origami King
The Origami King feels like the most complete form of what Sticker Star and Color Splash set out to do, and at last strikes a balance between the series’ modern whimsy and its classic innovation. First and foremost, the fan-favorite feature of partners finally returns; and not like the Pixls that Super Paper Mario gave us, which were basically glorified tools.
A special shout-out to Bobby the Bob-Omb, who experiences an existential crisis upon realising his species’ fate is to explode and he’s lived far past his expected expiry date.
Battles have been overhauled, and while they are still turn-based, they now centre around 360-degree rings, giving combat a bit of a puzzle flair. You have to try and line up enemies by shifting the concentric layers, to try and attack as many enemies in one go as possible.
Sure, it’s a tad too easy and gets very repetitive at times – especially since you can drop a bunch of coins to have Toads jump in and solve the puzzle for you – but it keeps you on your toes.
The charming origami graphics are absolutely delightful, and with these new folded creations comes new powers and skills. For example, Mario’s 1000-Fold Arms ability allows him to stretch out his arms in the overworld and peel back scenery to uncover the way forward.
Coupled with a surprisingly heartwarming story, Origami King is as good a modern Paper Mario as you could conceivably ask for.
2 Paper Mario
The original Paper Mario that started it all (doomed to relative obscurity as a late-stage N64 title until the advent of YouTube) is a fantastic adventure.
Bringing new and interesting locales in the Mario universe, fun and diverse characters to talk to, snappy writing, an easy-to-understand, yet deep-if-you-wanted-it-to-be battle system, a fun array of partners – this game had it all. It even featured the Princess Peach baking simulator fans had clamoured for eons.
Originally conceived as a sequel to Super Mario RPG, with the paper art style coming later into development, this change allowed for the game to feel absolutely timeless. No matter how aged it becomes, no matter how jagged its textures, it doesn’t matter: it’s set in a storybook, so the pages might just be getting a bit weathered.
So many iconic setpieces called this game home. Tubba Blubba’s castle chase, Shy Guy’s Toy Box, the penguin murder mystery; the list goes on. The only criticism one can level at Paper Mario is that it isn’t…
1 Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
Contrarianism can be fun, but on this one the general consensus is correct: The Thousand-Year Door, is without a doubt, the best of the Paper Mario franchise. It took everything the original did and made it better.
The intricate story is a blast to play through and is written in a fantastic manner that is absolutely full of laughs. Luigi pops up from time to time, detailing a side adventure he’s been on to ‘The Waffle Kingdom.’ Real, or made-up? You decide.
Of course, this levity is balanced out with some serious stakes, like the invasion of the alien X-Nauts or Peach becoming possessed by a 1,000-year-old entity with cataclysmic motives.
The partners met along the way, like student Goombella or the elderly Admiral Bobbery, all have their own unique powers and backstories that make them both utile and fun to be around. Other NPCs, including a Pianta criminal cartel and Rawk Hawk the wrestler, are just as witty and add to the feeling of the game being set in a living, breathing world.
The graphics of the game are stunning to this day, and the soundtrack is full of banger songs that are sure to stick with you. Likewise, the battle system is quick, fun, and easy to understand – while still incorporating systems that can be tough to master for those who choose to seek them.
Overall, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is unforgettable; so much so that in 2024, Nintendo is remaking it from scratch for the Switch, answering the prayers of fans the world over who had long thought it impossible. HD Professor Frankly awaits!
Next: Best Mario Spin-Off Games