Paper Mario: The Origami King is out today, and if you've read Eurogamer's review you'll know the game makes several tentative steps back towards its RPG roots - though it ultimately shies away from the series' old companion system.
Recent entries have sidelined or removed party members - to the chagrin of long-term fans of the series. The Origami King begins to address this by having certain characters travel with Mario in a limited capacity, though these are noticably lacking in their variety.
It's been a while since we've had truly individual companions in a Paper Mario game - the kind fans still remember fondly from The Thousand-Year Door. That game had a university student goomba named Goombella, a genie-like wind spirit named Madame Flurrie, and the popular Vivian, a ghostly being who begins the game as an antagonist.
Each of these companions had their own unique designs. Many, such as Vivian, had memorable character arcs. (Vivian, famously, also caused something of a headache for Nintendo in its localisation of the game. Portrayed in the original Japanese release as a transgender woman mocked for her transition, the character was re-written for its English translation, and any references to her being transgender were removed.)
Since The Thousand-Year Door, the series has moved away from introducing original character designs to focus on existing characters, and more of Mario's main cast. Unloved follow-up Super Paper Mario ditched companions completely for its dimension-hopping platforming gameplay. More recent entries Sticker Star and Color Splash reverted back to adventure RPGs, but focused almost exclusively on existing character designs.
In a VGC interview, Nintendo producer Kensuke Tanabe commented on how this shift impacted The Origami King:
"Since Paper Mario: Sticker Star, it's no longer possible to modify Mario characters or to create original characters that touch on the Mario universe.
"That means that if we aren't using Mario characters for bosses, we need to create original characters with designs that don't involve the Mario universe at all, like we've done with Olly and the stationery bosses."
It's an interesting comment, as there are several new characters in The Origami King which could be classed as both modifications of Mario characters or original characters in their own right. But only Toad characters. Perhaps they are an exception?
Tanabe last addressed this subject in an Iwata Asks interview, dug up today by Nintendo Enthusiast. In it, he recalled a missive from Nintendo design legend Shigeru Miyamoto given to him when designing Paper Mario: Sticker Star:
"Aside from wanting us to change the atmosphere a lot, there were two main things that Miyamoto-san said from the start of the project - 'It's fine without a story, so do we really need one?' and 'As much as possible, complete it with only characters from the Super Mario world.'"
Without spoiling anything of The Origami King's story, the new characters who do appear are the closest we've gotten to The Thousand-Year Door's roster since that game - though still a long way away from it. Perhaps things will shift closer again in the next Paper Mario?