Paper Mario: The Origami King is a pretty good game in its own right, but let’s be real: It’s been years since we’ve had a game that captures the magic of the first two titles in the Paper Mario series. Where Origami King makes combat more into an action-oriented puzzle, old-school Paper Mario games were deeper role-playing games with light action elements. Fortunately, there is something out there that picks up the torch, and it’s on Nintendo Switch to boot.
Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is a highly-rated adventure RPG that has been out on PC for a while, and was more recently released on consoles. The Paper Mario influence is obvious from the get-go, thanks to an art style that makes everything look like a two-dimensional cardboard cutout. It looks better in motion than it does in screenshots, trust me. The combat is also a turn-based affair where good timing can help you hit or defend a little harder. Some ideas are similar, too: I’m currently playing through a desert section that is obviously lifted from the Nintendo 64 game’s memorable Oasis portion.
It would be a mistake to call Bug Fables a mere imitation, however. Rather than simply recreating an experience you’ve already had, Bug Fables takes the original Paper Mario formula and expands upon it in ways big and small, ultimately creating a delightfully unique experience.
Part of it is the basic premise: You play as a group of bugs living in a larger insect world, much like you do in the equally excellent Hollow Knight. This fact alone affords Bug Fables room to experiment with characters the likes of which we don’t typically see in games that often. I’ve killed plenty of zombies, grunts, and humans in my years gaming. Here, I’m more worried about things like praying mantises, parasitic wasps, dung beetles, moths, and all manner of ants. Better yet, there are larger kingdoms of insects, each with its own politics and cultural preferences to worry about.
One of the playable characters is a bee rebelling from her mother, who would rather see her fulfill a predestined role within the hive, like all pollinators do. Intriguingly, the only types of bugs I haven’t seen are roaches, but that’s intentional. Roaches, in this world, are an ancient civilization with advanced technology that other insects are still struggling to understand. I’m only about 15 hours into Bug Fables, but I have a feeling I’m going to find out what happened to the otherwise ubiquitous real-world pest. For now, I’m left to wonder about smaller-scale politics, like why ladybugs aren’t allowed in the ant kingdom.
I am also regularly amused by how the developer, Moonsprout Games, plays with the outsized setting. There are times when it becomes obvious that you are a tiny creature living in a huge world. There was a part, for example, where I walked into a museum that proudly displayed a set of jacks and rubber balls that were speculated to be remnants of an ancient war. Shops and houses are made out of things like old boxes and soda cans, which lends Bug Fables a worn, lived-in look.
Combat will be familiar to anyone that has played Paper Mario before, but there are some twists. Rather than having two characters on the field, you have three. Your positioning determines who gets hit the hardest by the enemy, though you’re allowed to switch order midway through your turn. Characters can also give up their turn to give a different teammate a second action, but the trade-off is that any attack will be slightly weaker. Enemy placement also makes a difference: If your rival is flying, for example, only certain attacks will land ... unless you manage to drop them to the ground.
I am also regularly surprised by the complexity of the action commands — many hours in, I still have to actively pay attention to what the game wants me to do. The window to land a hit will constantly shift, or the button prompts for specific attacks change from turn to turn, so I can’t just turn off my brain after memorizing how it works. I can — and do — mess up on basic commands when I get sloppy. On the flip side, though, it’s extremely satisfying when I manage to accurately predict the timing of an enemy attack, allowing me to negate its damage.
Oh, yes: There are stats and numbers to worry about. As you level up, you get the choice to add to your HP pool, increase your skill points for special commands, or expand how many “medals” you can equip. Like badges in Paper Mario, medals affect all sorts of different things in combat, allowing you to tailor the experience to whatever play style you see fit. Right now, I’m wearing a medal that allows one of my characters to harm an enemy whenever I successfully block an attack, and another one that instantly kills low-level adversaries without having to go into battle. I’m trying to save up for a medal that allows for follow-up attacks.
Bug Fables is also full of the type of side content that makes RPGs sing, from optional quests and bosses to secret shops and even a fully fledged card game that makes use of all the characters you meet along the way. I’ve participated in a play, and have returned an apartment’s worth of lost items so far. There are a number of “bounties” I have no idea how to complete yet. There’s even a cooking system with dozens of recipes that can beef up your items in new and unexpected ways. I haven’t messed around with it much yet, but Bug Fables also introduces a charm system where you can pay a mystic for random, temporary buffs during battle. And, if the base experience isn’t enough of a challenge, Bug Fables also gives you two difficulty options via medals that make fights harder, but the rewards greater, too.
Perhaps my favorite mechanic is the dedicated “gossip” button, which you can press at any time to have your characters comment on the colorful cast they meet along the way, or the many antics that transpire during your adventure. Let me tell you, it is a perverse pleasure to stand in front of someone and then decide to talk shit about them, just because you can. When social distancing has decreased the opportunities for hot gossip, being able to blow off some steam like this in a game is a hilarious relief. More games should have a gossip button like this. It’s brilliant.
All of this is to say: If you’re hankering for a real Paper Mario experience, you can have it. It only costs $24.99 — less than half of what Origami King does — you can take it with you on the go, and it’s a blast. It’s just not being made by Nintendo.