For the longest time with Mario RPGs there was a strict separation between handheld and console. Since its GBA debut, the Mario & Luigi series has cavorted exclusively on handheld, while Paper Mario conquered the Nintendo 64 first and Gamecube and Wii afterwards.
But on the Nintendo 3DS, Intelligent Systems finally sent Paper Mario: Sticker Star to handheld before Alpha Dream countered two years later with Mario & Luigi: Dream Team. So in 2016, the two worlds meet in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam.
Through certain events the characters from (the 2D) Paper Mario (the plumber, Peach, Bowser and a load of Toads) enter the world of (the 3D) Mario & Luigi. How the crossover's occurred Nintendo won't say, but we're sure it's in keeping with the wonderful humour and unusual ideas both series have shown when interpreting the Mario universe up to now.
On this first demo, we play with the trio Mario, Luigi and Paper Mario (what the paper version of Luigi is up to is also not yet known). But living without him is probably more to do with reasons associated with the game mechanics. As usual for the series, while we direct the characters as a one group, we can jump them individually. Mario and Luigi are on the A and B button while Paper Mario is assigned to the Y button. Will Nintendo try for the quartet? It may be too much of a good thing.
From current play, it's not a true crossover. Paper Mario and others may have travelled to the Mario & Luigi world, but aside from the 2D look and a few crafting effects, the game feels more like a Mario & Luigi game. In the demo we only jump and swing our hammer as we explored, though we apparently get more skills at some point. At least the bottom screen indicates there'll be more options to choose from.
Encountering enemies flips us once more to a turn-based combat screen. In fighting Paper Mario can strengthen his attack by copying himself, though timing their attacks (as before, correctly timed button taps increase attack damage or allow you to dodge incoming strikes) is a mite tricky. The copies also double as a protective screen from enemy attacks, though you can still jump over oncoming enemies, Paper Mario's lighter weight allowing him to float in the air much longer.
This rhythmic attack and dodge always characterised both series. But both have different rhythms, which makes Paper Jam as a fusion of both, more varied. There's a nice interplay here as well. While we get the Koopa shell and Fire Flower attacks from before, there's mini-game-style specials that have us having to time individual strikes on a squash court or aim shurikens to cut (paper versions) of enemies in two. We hope there's more fun ideas like these to come.
Completely new to the game is the card deck. For defeating enemies we earn star points. With those points we can choose from a selection of three cards during the fight, which have very different functions. Some give us back life or skill points, while others weaken opponents. But the shortness of the demo means we cannot say how important these'll factor into battles. Perhaps they are supposed to represent the well-known star bonus system from Paper Mario. And at least in that series, it was pretty important.
In the short demo of Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam. we could try various elements. There was a boss fight against Dino Piranha from Super Mario Galaxy, with the climax of the fight flipping into a chase sequence that had us running away from Dino Piranha and dodge its attacks. Here Paper Mario is used in the form of a paper airplane that'd lift either Mario or Luigi in the air to protect them against slime ball attacks.
Another task was to find paper Toads. In three training missions, we learn to run faster and thus capture a frightened Toad or that Paper Mario can slip through small cracks in walls to access hidden areas. We learn to use the super hammer to crush large blocks, and in the last mission we try to sneak and collect 15 Toads without being discovered by any of the wandering Shy Guys.
Another particularly delicacy are the paper craft battles. These are reminiscent of the battles with the giant Luigi or the Giant Bowser from recent adventures. This time we control a large, paper-crafted Mario figurine which competes against Goomba paper craft figures. A load of Toads carry around our paper art figure in these battles, though every move uses energy, and to recharge results in something like an action-rhythm game.
Alpha Dream certainly seems to have glued the different franchise's elements neatly together, and stuck on some new ideas as well, though these are basically variations of known concepts. We won't know how fresh this all feels until we get a longer, fuller hands-on with the game. Equally important is how the humour's being handled, as the last adventure of two brothers dragged somewhat without the comedic touches...