In their 2D and 3D platforming adventures, Mario and Luigi have personalities as thin as paper. Thank goodness for their RPG games, in which Nintendo’s iconic brothers get deeper stories to be heroes of, and personalities that shine. The box art of Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam continues a trend in showing that blessing.
In their defense, when life is made up of running, jumping, goomba stomping then rinsing and repeating those actions, there’s not much individuality Mario and Luigi could truly present. Particularly as meaty stories are not parts of those games’ structures. That’s perfectly fine as Mario and Luigi are fortunate enough to jump genres, and in doing so, afforded the opportunity to develop their characters (and that of the supporting Mario Bros cast) to be more than the brick busting and Koopa thwarting terrors they’re known as. Many of Mario’s and Luigi’s RPG series—from Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, to Mario & Luigi—allowed the brothers to grow into their own distinct beings.
Narratives, dialogue, and interactions are all things which help characters transform from ideas into legends. But before there’s even the act of playing a game, at times, there’s so much that may be gleaned from a game’s box art too. Covers may help sell the type of game it is. Other times, they’re a great introduction to its central characters.
For the Mario & Luigi series, the North American box art has become one of those things I look forward to, ever since the third installment of the series. Not only are the covers beautiful for their simplicity, but they also capture Mario and Luigi in a whole new way—playing up their personalities and breaking the fourth wall with a minimalist style to say so much, without showing too much.
The first two games in the series, Mario & Luigi: SuperStar Saga and Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time were covers that featured a lot of action. They were packed full of items and characters unique to the themes, and showed a lot of excitement. Both Mario’s and Luigi’s characters are portrayed well—Mario with fierce determination, and Luigi with worry. The covers are great at showing new villains, babies and urgency just by the brothers’ expressions and the dark, purple foreboding backgrounds, particularly on that of the Partners in Time cover. They’re also cluttered pictures, jumbled with the sheer number of things going on.
Starting with the third game Bowser’s Inside Story, the series box art began a different approach: clean white background with the brothers off to the left, and a new threat or mechanic encroaching their space. Mario and Luigi look as though they’re deliberately posed, perhaps standing still for a portrait or photograph.
This seems an obvious assessment, with no better indication than Mario’s steadfast, focused outward stare on the cover of Bowser’s Inside Story. A sweat-dropped nervous Luigi, the first to be clued in to danger, taps his brother on the shoulder. Can’t you just hear Luigi in his signature voice trying to get his brother’s attention? “M..M..Mariooo...”.
Yep, there’s a huge problem. An over-sized Bowser problem, as the rest of the frame shows not only Bowser as the unwelcome trouble-maker disrupting their game space but his mouth hangs open, dangling dangerously over silhouettes of the plumbers. If you’ve played Bowser’s Inside Story, along with the title of the game, the image is foreshadowing for what’s to come.
Bowser’s Inside Story is an excellent game with fun mechanics and mini-games, with fantastically killer music in tow. Not only does it introduce a sassy (and by Bowser’s standards a somewhat annoying) new character, Starlow (which seems to be Nintendo’s penchant for torturing us a la Navi and Fi in the Zelda series), but it also made Bowser lovable. I adore Bowser now thanks to Inside Story, when I didn’t think that would ever be possible. Bowser may not have had a huge, life altering backstory but he’s proven to have a level of compassion which he hides beneath his terrible kidnapping and destructive ways.
While these are things you don’t get hints at on the cover, particularly Bowser’s expanded personality, it’s a fantastic the cover all the same for Bowser’s threatening teeth and stare, Mario’s obliviousness and Luigi’s stress rings around his eyes. It really is something else, even if Mario and Luigi have to try again to get that snapshot right.
There’s so much a mere eye shifting can do. Mario is in the same place as he was on the cover of Bowser’s Inside Story, with his eyes now focused on a sleeping Luigi and the dream bubble showing the depths of Luigi’s thoughts. It’s not that his facial expression is different but Mario, to me, looks ever so slightly annoyed. It’s all in my imagination, I’m certain.
But there’s Luigi, napping away and his dream is rather egotistical—Luigi’s dreaming about himself. Many of the Dream Luigis look as spacey as the one manifesting them, but there’s more to them than that. They’ve got some hilarious demeanour to them, as Luigi most certainly is. The one in front is armed with a matter-of-fact confidence and a hammer. One wipes his nose. One looks to be breaking the fourth wall of the dream itself. But above all, they all look good-natured, playful and dim. Absolutely dim.
In Dream Team, Luigi’s dreams and his Dream Luigi Team are anything but a self-centered projection of Luigi’s inflated ego. That’d break character for what we know of Luigi as the younger, scaredy-cat brother—an aspect of his personality that’s prevalent in the Luigi’s Mansion series. The reality is much sadder: Dreamy Luigi is strong and powerful, and in the Pi’illo Dream World where he’s transported, Luigi is given the chance to manifest a persona who’s a hero like his older brother.
Once more, the box art may not convey all of this gut-wrenching emotion to 2013’s Dream Team but Mario’s side glance along with the ominous, nightmarish bat gawking at the entire affair has an air of curiosity about it. Maybe the nervous Luigi at the center of the sparkly Dream-sphere is an accurate reflection of Luigi’s self-doubt, and the same we’ve come to know of Luigi’s absence of confidence—that no matter the situation, Luigi can never think himself as the hero he wishes he could be. He’s innocent and nervous, even in dreams.
All that musing aside, Dream Team’s cover art is yet another ruined photograph opportunity.
Paper Jam is the fifth game in the Mario & Luigi Series, and once again we find the brothers in the middle of another strange scenario. Mario’s eyes are now diverted to the 2D visitor Luigi’s pointing at. The white space is peeled away at the corner and in pops Paper Mario, bringing with him some elements from his Paper World, namely some poor Toads who are floating listlessly above Mario’s head.
Paper Mario’s crossover into the Mario & Luigi series is just as silly as this cover. Paper Mario looks like ever the daring, pleasant, feisty and flat version of himself that he is—razor sharp and ready to go.
Having spent over 20 hours with the game thus far, it’s been a wonderful jaunt, and the cover conveys that in how lively it is. The Toads are clueless and pleased at being blown about into this world. In the game, the Paper Toads are an outrageous mess of Toad drama, and they have some of the best lines, with observations that pack a humourous punch. Their Mario & Luigi rounded counterparts are just as brilliant.
Many of the Toads—paper or not—are a mix of unsure folk, scared, smart, sassy and there’s that one Toad who will win awards for a moving ‘private’ soliloquy. They’re much more than what I’m accustomed to in the 2D platforming games, as the hapless citizens whose heads I may or may not have Mario use as springboards as punishment for terrible treasure chest rewards. In Paper Jam they’re papercraft engineers, dreamers, and business entrepreneurs.
Although there’s only so much the cover can do to capture the finer details of the game (and man, is it a hell of a ride!), it’s not just the Toads who shine with their witty dialogues. The Mushroom Kingdom is mixed up with this meeting of alternate versions, and the villains create scenes for equally fabulous humour. Not to mention that the battles are some of the most fun I’ve played in recent memory. Then there’s that peculiar Goomba giving Paper Mario the side eye on the cover...let’s just say he’s an absolute gem.
Paper Jam blends the worlds of Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario together for utmost comedic effect. It’s a really adorable, funny and enjoyable game that so far gives Toads and many of the Mario grunts a welcome spotlight. The series’ crossing gives the characters a chance to interact in a way that creates one big dysfunctional meeting of family. That’s what I think of while playing the game—these characters know each other really well as more bickering family than simply friends and foes, and it’s yet another fourth wall breaking moment in Mario’s long history as a video game giant.
Paper Jam’s box art is a clever addition to the Mario & Luigi series. It’s tidy, effective and lets us peek into yet another “failed” game art cover. That long standing joke from Bowser’s Inside Story to now—with small hints as to big adventures that await, and the layered characterizations and conversations within—is what makes the games’ covers in the series picture-perfect.
You’re reading TAY, Kotaku’s community-run blog. TAY is written by and for Kotaku readers like you. We write about games, art, culture and everything in between. Want to write with us? Check out our tutorial here and join in. Or follow us on Twitter @KoTAYku.