One of the most impactful games of my childhood was Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Its presence in my life has a bit of a strange structure, which only adds to its legend for me. Within the game itself lies an intensely fun and engaging journey of color and memorable events. The game, and its entire franchise in general, certainly influenced an entire generation of players. Some of those players ended up so inspired that they made their own Paper Mario-esque game: Bug Fables.
Always a semi-risky venture to make a game so similar to that of its inspirator. Comparisons become inevitable, and the perception of “copy-pasting” ideas and mechanics can alienate some. Yes, Bug Fables is heavily inspired by Paper Mario and it shows through most facets of its structure and identity. What becomes important is experiencing how this new product relinquishes the adherence to being within the shadow of its source inspiration.
Minor Personal History
Years ago, prior to the game’s release in 2019, I was aware of Bug Fables‘s development due to various persons online. As someone also rather underwhelmed by the current direction of the Paper Mario franchise—which seems determined to go as far away from the traditional RPG battle mechanics as possible—something akin to its older entries is appealing by default. Yet like so many other indie games “inspired by [specific AAA franchise],” its priority was not high in my mind.
After a particular streamer spoke passionately about the game late last year, I decided to purchase it via Steam… although did not touch it for some time. It wasn’t until another streamer I followed more recently announced that they would be streaming it. Not wanting to be spoiled, I made an oath to them: “I’m gonna speedrun the entire game in a weekend so that I can watch you play it without spoilers.”
I did not beat it in a weekend, but considerable progress was made by the time they began the title themselves.
Before fully committing myself to Bug Fables, let me speak at some length, again, about Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.
I truly cannot understate the importance this game has in my life. Many things about it have rigorously shaped the way I view, understand, and enjoy out of video games. Meticulously dwindling the health of adversaries; leveling myself to the point of being OP; adventures within an adventure, sprawling the length of lands far and varied; colorful, eccentric characters full of flair; meaningful depth of dialogue and the integration of emotional catharsis through personal achievement.
These are the things that make video games meaningful to me. While Paper Mario is not a masterpiece in every element listed above, it at least gave the template to what would eventually become what makes video games so appealing to me. An intricate combination of riveting gameplay simplicity and evocative themes / people. Though I have my gripes with it, The Thousand-Year Door will remain a treasured gateway (doorway?) to knowing my current self.
Because I know myself as well as I do now, I can make the proclamation that Bug Fables is not only a great game on its own, it also surpasses the quality set by its primary inspiration.
To Be and Not to Be Paper
As I began to process how exactly I felt about the game, I broke it down in simple aspects, like so:
Gameplay | Story & Writing | Art | Sound. Through these categories, how did it compare to its inspirator?
Gameplay is about equal. Though it’s more in line with the original Paper Mario in its battle mechanics, it does provide a few wrinkles that makes things more strategic. Overworld exploration is fairly similar with the usage of abilities to puzzle-solve and explore, except I think the platforming can be rather fickle in Bug Fables. They’re both great and immensely satisfying in different ways.
Art and Sound both veer better in Paper Mario, even if this is not totally surprising. A large company such as Nintendo has the resources to make everything look and feel immensely crisp, eye-catching, and sufficiently catchy. Even for 2004 standards, The Thousand-Year Door still looks and sounds absolutely phenomenal—better than some AAA games even now. This is not to say Bug Fables does not succeed in these categories; it just doesn’t compare.
Then we get to Story & Writing. For an RPG title, this category is crucially important, especially with the general length of games within this genre and their text-heavy nature. If you have boring characters and story—or just mediocre writing overall—the impact will likely lessen dramatically.
Paper Mario is known for its creative use of self-aware humor and bizarre characters. Even The Origami King and Color Splash, considered very “meh” by Paper Mario purists, were praised for their writing/story. If nothing else, what can always be expected when it comes to games in this series is their fun dialogue.
Except Bug Fables has better writing. Frankly, it’s not even close.
To Love a Bug
From this point on, the comparisons to Paper Mario will be fairly minimal. A few mentions here and there, but this is now going to focus almost exclusively on Bug Fables as its own product. To immediately contradict this, let me spoil a small detail by describing something from the Paper Mario series:
In most games, the player is accompanied by a sizable quantity of partners along the way. The Thousand-Year Door, for example, has six (and an optional seventh) characters join Mario’s adventure by the end. Each has some importance to the respective chapter they’re introduced in, giving them some development as characters and introducing additional manners of progression. This ensures that there’s always something to “look forward to” in that regard for each chapter.
Bug Fables starts out with two characters, with a third joining them by the end of chapter one. And that’s it. Those three are the only party members you will get all throughout the game… not counting an optional pet that’s acquirable through secret means. When I told this to my brother, he lamented: “That kind of sucks.” I will tell you the same as what I told him.
It’s great that these are the only three characters you play as. This provides ample opportunity for the story to give the spotlight to these three at all times, no matter the chapter. Bug Fables does, indeed, allow their personalities to shine through in pretty much every conversation, trivial or otherwise. Their importance is not severely devalued based on chapter; each of them has equal reign of the situation most of the time, with only gradual disparity depending on the location.
Should one be earnest, there are optional side quests for each character to further delve into their personal histories. Themes of family, identity, personal ambition clashing with community values, and atoning for the mistakes of one’s past are all placed under the microscope when it comes to the three leads. They’re people, rather than just avatars to control to one’s whims. It’s a hell of a lot more than I can say for Mario or any partner who tags along outside of their designated chapter.
Amazingly enough, that isn’t where the quality ends. Even the story of Bug Fables, as clichély “find MacGuffins and save the world” as it is, has discreet development behind the scenes.
One starts off in the Ant Kingdom, now ruled by the daughter of a once-revered queen who mysteriously disappeared. Things aren’t quite as prosperous now; relations with neighboring colonies are shaky and the new ant queen seems to be rather harsh in her leadership. The role of the heroes in this story—Kabbu, Vi, and Leif—are that of incidental participants. While Leif has further mysteries to discover, Kabbu and Vi are simply adventurers aiming to prove their worth—nothing more.
A beautiful pragmatism pervades the details of the plot. A motivation is established, and through the efforts of one group of adventurers, the world begins to become ever smaller. Different types of bugs come into contact, events hidden in shadow come to light, and a moral becomes clear. What’s lovely about it is that these things are shown, gradually, as one progresses through the game.
Different bugs occupy different places; characters initially blunt and uncouth evolve in stature; the walls, both physical and metaphorical, of people and places crumble with enough force. Substantial enough to have visual evidence occur with just about every passing chapter, especially so near the end. These events of bringing the world together in a time of unrest and distrust was done effectively well.
Of course, characters within this evolving story do not slack when it comes to surface value. The game’s three leads bounce off one another splendidly, especially due to their contrasting personalities. Kabbu, the stubbornly virtuous defender of justice; Leif, the sarcastic, sharp-witted cynic; Vi, the rash and oft-times selfish bundle of energy. Though never truly hostile with one another, their bond is one that takes time and experience to sturdy adequately.
As stated previously, the game provides these characters many opportunities to speak their mind. With how dialogue-heavy this title is, almost every instance of conversation is sure to have one of the characters comment. For the most part, it’s enjoyable without being too bloated. Characters say what they need to say and the plot progresses without being too overly expository. Eventually, it gets to the point where the player may want to hear more commentary from these three.
If it feels as though you’ve run a marathon reading through all of that prior section, let me personally apologize. There’s just so much to say about this game that can’t be properly elaborated on without going into specific details and setting up context. As such, this section will focus solely on small issues with the game that I will try to make mildly cut and dry.
Note that Bug Fables is an indie game, developed by a small team of people(?). As a consequence of this, it isn’t going to be the best-looking game of the bunch, and certain areas definitely showcase that. While yes, there are a lot of creative implementations of natural objects to simulate some manner of realism, when it comes to looking at these objects themselves, they can be a little off-putting on occasion.
A very short quip earlier in this post noted that the platforming in this game can be a little finnicky; this style of visuals can add to this. The alignment of the camera during whack-a-worm feels too closed in and off-centered, making it hard to gauge where, exactly, Vi’s beemerang will travel (and where the worms’ hitboxes are). Various places don’t always have distinguishable environments that designate placement of characters in midair, which can lead to bad jumps. Finally, the rigidness of various structures also clashes with the rather paper-esque style of creature designs.
As much as I adore the battle mechanics and overall feel of the game’s controls, its dungeon design can come across as maybe a tad too simplistic, especially in the first two chapters. Frankly, in comparison to the rest of the game, the first two chapters are rather lackluster in many capacities—dungeon design, general writing style, and complexity of mechanics included. True, no need to throw everything at a player first-thing, but when I think to how much more I enjoyed chapter three compared to the prior two, it’s pretty substantial.
As such, Bug Fables is a slow-starter. One will have to trust that the game will continue to grow in quality and immersion… I believe it does, but I’m one person with a blog. I didn’t fall in love with the game until chapter three, about five-ish hours in (with some additional side quest activity). Some patience may be required to get through an otherwise chonky game (25-35 hours, depending on desired completion percentage).
There are many aspects I didn’t touch on too much with this. Music, complexities of battle system, and other specifics were either sprinkled in or otherwise ignored. The thing is… I don’t want this review to be 4,000 words long, so I went with the most crucial aspects of what I believe this game does absolutely right. For me, what sets it apart as an invigorating RPG and a worthy successor of its inspirator, is it’s phenomenal writing and character-focused structure.
With RPGs, writing is crucial. Even with Paper Mario‘s fun display of wittiness and pizzazz, it is Bug Fables that ends up being the superior product, if only because all the personality in Kabbu’s horn trumps that of Mario’s entire being. I adore these bugs like I adore my non-existent children—unconditional adoration and the desire to see them succeed and to be with them forever. Can’t say that for any Paper Mario thus far!
Final Score: 8/10
For more reviews on this topic, be sure to check out the associated archive.
Thank you for your time. Have a great timezone.