Nintendo struck gold when they made the first Paper Mario. They figured out how to take a beloved series like Super Mario, put a slight twist on it, and create something entirely new that doesn’t feel stale, doesn’t feel like a flimsy spin-off, and best of all, is better than most Super Mario games. Yeah. It is. Fight me.
Fast forward to today, and Nintendo has really painted itself into a corner with success. Zelda and Mario rule the Nintendo kingdom, with other series like Metroid, Kirby, and Animal Crossing as their princes and princesses. Everyone wants sequels and ports, and who can blame them? I also want to play Wind Waker on the Switch. I also want another Animal Crossing. I also can’t wait until Tears of the Kingdom comes out.
But let’s imagine for a second that we’re some Nintendo exec — and we’ll have to imagine pretty hard, because Nintendo doesn’t let anyone in on its secrets. Imagine that one of your blockbusters — like, say, Splatoon 3 — is finished and released, and minus the people you need to keep working on the game for live service stuff, you’ve now got several hundred game developers without a project. You can reassign them to something in the works like Super Mario Odyssey 2 or Animal Crossing: In Space, but you notice that there’s a spot on the release calendar in 2026 that isn’t full yet. You need a new game.
But god, it takes so much R&D to create a totally new project, and half the ideas either get scrapped in favour of “another Zelda” or they get announced at some games event to a response so lukewarm that you just quietly cancel them and hope no one notices (cough, Project Giant Robot).
How can you be sure that your new game doesn’t completely sink beneath the high tides of Zelda and Mario? Easy… you make it a Zelda or a Mario.
Hitch your game to the ever-rising star of one of Nintendo’s big franchises, and you’re guaranteed good marketing and plenty of attention. And that, friends, is where Paper Mario comes in. Remember Kirby’s Epic Yarn? Or Yoshi’s Woolly and/or Crafted World? I’d be willing to guess that at least one of those games was borne from a developer wanting to try something new, and wisely deciding to have a well-known protagonist so the project would get greenlit. [That’s true! Epic Yarn started out with Prince Fluff as the protagonist before Kirby barged in and stole the spotlight – Ed.] That’s what I’d do in this hypothetical developer’s shoes.
But I have to wonder why we’ve never had a spin-off in the vein of Epic Yarn, Woolly World, or Paper Mario for the Zelda series. Sure, Aonuma and co. have dabbled in new art styles, but never changed the tone, setting, or mechanics as much as Paper Mario has.
The closest, perhaps, are Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, which went harder on the comedy of the Zelda stories and shrunk a lot of the danger down to DS size, and Majora’s Mask, which is closer still, with an entirely new, non-Hyrulian antagonist, no Zelda, and no Triforce, too. But it’s still canon. I’m thinking of something that’s self-contained entirely — and maybe that’s why Zelda has never had something quite like Paper Mario, since the Canonical And Very Serious Timeline is practically a dogmatic document by now.
(Well, I guess there’s Hyrule Warriors. Sorry, I genuinely forgot about Hyrule Warriors until now. But that’s more about the Warriors part — the punching and fighting and all that. And it’s not very light-hearted, which is what I’m going for.)
But imagine a Paper Zelda with me now. Much like Paper Mario, Link is still the hero — and he’s still mute, too, since that works perfectly well in Paper Mario. Naturally, he has a companion from the beginning, whether that’s Midna, Tetra, Navi, or someone totally new, and along the way, he makes new acquaintances willing to fight alongside him, from the Deku, Goron, Rito, and Zora tribes, as well as fairies, Sheikah, and just about anyone who would be fun to write. They each have their own powers and strengths, and they’re each related to one of the chapters in the story.
The story is a little harder to determine. Link usually has to do one or more of several things: save Zelda, find the Triforce, collect MacGuffins to open a big door or similar, defeat the Big Bad. Since Link is most likely going to pick up his combat companions from their respective realms, perhaps each tribe can help him in these overall quests — the MacGuffins, much like Paper Mario’s Star Spirits/Pure Hearts/origami streamers etc., or like Ocarina of Time’s Spiritual Stones, even.
You could even add in an explanation as to why Link’s all two-dimensional, like Link Between Worlds — it’s a horrible curse, obviously. Or a special sword that gives him the power to roll up like a tube. Or a Midna-like companion who helps him realise his inner papery nature!
The thing is that Link is a bit boring in most games. Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass gave him back a personality, but we haven’t seen much of that goofy side of the Hero of Various Things since. A Paper Zelda would give him the opportunity to emote like he did in cutscenes of yore, and while we’re at it, we could bring back Linebeck, too.
I miss the side of Zelda that wasn’t afraid to be a bit silly, even when the stakes were high, and I wonder if its popularity has made that hard to do. After all, comedy is taken less seriously by the world in general, despite the fact that it’s way harder to be genuinely funny than it is to sound smart (trust me, I’m a writer), and comedy is much harder to translate across languages and cultures, too (trust me, I have a degree in languages). But Nintendo has the chops for it. They’ve got some of the best writers and the best localisers in the biz, and they’ve got Paper Mario developer Intelligent Systems’ phone number, too. Go on, Nintendo. Trust them. I know I do.