Yes, you read that right. Paper Mario with BEES. Bug Fables is a curious little game that exists in the “spiritual successor” indie space. Like One Step From Eden earlier this year, Bug Fables latches onto a defining characteristic of a popular AAA series fans consider “lost,” and builds its own identity around it. In this case, Bug Fables is a sincere derivative work of Paper Mario, specifically going after the play experience from the first two. But while “looks and plays like classic Paper Mario” is the easy hook, Bug Fables has its own personality and ideas that make it uniquely worth playing.
The biggest difference between Bug Fables and Paper Mario is the literal paper-ness of their worlds. Paper Mario is paper in a diegetic sense; the characters are to some extent aware of their physical nature. Maybe they don’t know it as “paper” the way we do, but Mario is out there folding himself up into an airplane and stuff. And as recently demonstrated, alternative lifestyle choices such as origami are akin to heresy. Bug Fables, at least as far as I can tell, doesn’t once acknowledge the visual connection within the text. It’s a visual affect, letting the player know we’re friends if we like Paper Mario. It isn’t just a visual homage, though.
Bug Fables, developed by Moonsprout Games of Panama, is about as literal a representation of the “derivative work” label as you can get. Bug Fables looks like Paper Mario, and acts like Paper Mario in almost every way, from how characters lightly flip over when they change direction, to how experience points pop out of enemies as little orbs that form into larger orbs in groups of ten. The timing-based attacks and defense play out almost identically, although the signature jump attacks aren’t present. That would be a little too on the nose, perhaps. Regardless Bug Fables performs exactly as intended, without any noticeable jank or clumsiness. It feels like it looks like it should, and is a lot of fun!
What we have here isn’t just a big Paper Mario clone. Driving what makes Bug Fables distinct is, naturally, its main cast. Kabbu, Vi, and Leif comprise your party, which is already a major difference from this game’s chief inspiration. Kabbu, the responsible but naive beetle, acts as a tank who can safely take point. Vi is a sassy bee who is very sassy, and also acts as healer and fights with a boomerang. Leif is a moth mage with ice powers capable of manipulating enemies in and out of combat. Having a group of characters that play specific roles is a boon to level and combat design, giving the player not only a set of options, but reason to pay attention to each one.
While Bug Fables is generally bright and cheerful, it would be irresponsible not to draw attention to some real world context here. Publishing this title is Dangen Entertainment, a company recently forced to restructure after members of its leadership were exposed for some irredeemably ghoulish behavior. Supporting small creators unfortunately attached to toxic persons or structures is a tough needle for many individuals to thread. For what it’s worth, the developers have confirmed in their Discord they have been compensated by Dangen and are eager for folks to play their game. I personally default to support creators depending on the information I have, hence my decision to cover Bug Fables.
Paper Mario is alive and well, albeit to different degrees depending on who you’re talking to. Many Paper Mario fans haven’t felt catered to since The Thousand-Year Door, left behind by the more front-facing gimmickry of the series since. While it’s still unclear how much RPG is under the hood in Origami King, there’s a new kid on the block that might have what traditional fans have been looking for. Bug Fables is 100% a derivative work inspired by the original Paper Mario structure and aesthetic, and definitely captures that gameplay feel. That said, Bug Fables also establishes and justifies its own presence, with a fascinating story, cute characters, and distinct combat structure. It’s definitely worth a look-see for more than just its homage-led presentation.
Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling is currently available for the PC and will be released for the Nintendo Switch, the Xbox One, and the PlayStation 4 on May 28, 2020.