Super Mario RPG had been a late-life hit for the Super Nintendo. It had combined Nintendo’s trademark characters in a light role-playing adventure that mixed in new characters and an element of timed button presses courtesy of the RPG specialists at Squaresoft (of Final Fantasy fame). A sequel seemed like a no-brainer…until the Nintendo 64 console arrived and Squaresoft jumped ship to the rival Sony Playstation, throwing the in-development Super Mario RPG 2 into doubt. Not only could Nintendo, who had handed off development to subsidiary Intelligent Systems, no longer use any of the original characters Square had helped develop, but the N64 lacked the processing power to render the vast new game in full 3D. Intelligent Systems took the creative route of revisualizing the game in a papercraft world, turning the N64’s weakness into a strength, and the game (renamed Mario Story in Japan and Paper Mario elsewhere) turned out to be an engaging and surprisingly deep RPG adventure like its predecessor, frequently cited as one of the best games on the platform.
Yoko Shimomura had written the best score of her career thus far for Super Mario RPG, but as a full Squaresoft employee at the time, there was no chance of her return. Instead, Intelligent Systems handed the assignment to one of its staff composers, Yuka Tsujiyoko, whose primary work before then had been for the Fire Emblem series of hardcore tactical RPGs. In many ways, Tsujiyoko came from a similar place as Shimomura: extensive experience with generally dead-serious RPGs thrust into the role of writing a lighthearted and jokey score with full license to use the iconic Mario themes penned by Nintendo’s Koji Kondo.
Tsujiyoko incorporated far more of Kondo’s themes into her work than Shimomura had; Paper Mario is in fact suffused with classic Mario tunes from the NES and SNES generations, some openly, others so subtly that one might miss it on first listen. She also began the score with a very light touch before gradually moving into more straightlaced and even occasionally even downright serious music before ending with a parade scene that served as a sonic recapitulation of the music that had gone before. One can’t deny that the resulting score feels every inch a Mario score, and a Mario RPG score at that.
However, Tsujiyoko’s music suffers throughout from an extremely thin presentation. Large sections of the music are only one or two musical lines, sounding very stark and isolated even as they try to be quirky and fun. She’s also not able to make a significant impact with original thematic material; the music tends to shine its brightest when Tsujiyoko is referencing Kondo’s classic tunes. When Tsujiyoko’s own original compositions take center stage, they generally feel like too little musical butter scraped over too much musical toast.
Part of this is, of course, not Tsujiyoko’s fault. The N64 was theoretically capable of playing a variety of music formats: PCM, MIDI, even MPEG, with a theoretical maximum sampling rate of 48 kHz with 16-bit audio. But with the space on the Paper Mario cartridge limited to just 20 megabytes, sound quality was the first thing to be sacrificed in favor of more game data, leaving Tsujiyoko and her synthesizer performer/sequencer “vAin” to struggle with some of the lowest-grade synth on the N64. This is both one source of and an aggravating factor for the aforementioned tinniness and thinness that is the major hallmark of N64 music and Paper Mario. At times, the sound seems less lush and well-synthesized than that of the SNES–while the older console had less raw capability, its SPC700 chip allowed music to be stored in only 64 kilobytes, preventing the kind of pilfering of resources and marginalization on the N64 despite even greater space limits.
That’s not to say that, whether due to lackluster composition or technical issues, that Tsujiyoko’s music for Paper Mario is a total loss. The lovely music box “Mario and Peach’s Theme” opens and closes the game with synthy fairytale charm, for instance. The late-game sequence including “Crystal Palace Crawl,” the battle theme “Freeze!” and the lovely group of tracks from “A City in the Stars” to “Sanctuary!” are all able to make the best of technical limitations and show some of Tsujiyoko’s compositional chops; it’s not hard to get the impression that she struggled somewhat with lighthearted music but is more in her comfort zone with relatively serious music in the Fire Emblem vein.
Ultimately, whatever the reason, Paper Mario is probably the weakest Mario RPG soundtrack. It is also, perversely, the only game in the Paper Mario series to have a soundtrack: a two-disc set was put out in Japan alongside an incredibly rare American release with identical contents that was available by special order from Nintendo Power. Neither set includes all the music in the game, both suffer from failing to properly loop the music they do present, and both have become sought-after collector’s items in their own right (much like the game they represent). As for Tsujiyoko herself, she would return with fellow Fire Emblem composer Yoshito Hirano to pen Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on the Nintendo Gamecube; that score, free from the constraints of the N64, is far superior and as yet unreleased. The first and only available Paper Mario score, on the other hand, will probably only be of interest to dedicated collectors and diehard fans of the game.