(GameCube Review) Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: Rob Crippin

Overall: 7.5 = Good

(Originally published on January 10, 2005)

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is an interesting beast. Cel-shaded, one part platformer and two parts role-playing game, it’s a charming take on a familiar universe. Flawed though it may be, this sequel to the original Paper Mario and spiritual successor to Square’s Mario RPG ultimately succeeds, at least in a small way, as a leisurely paced adventure.

Aesthetically, the game is a unique treat. Though the “paperness” of Mario’s world can be a bit constricting (it doesn’t allow the same sense of scope as a more conventional style), it feels appropriate for the characters and settings, most notably for Mario himself. As a full-fledged cartoon rather than a simple cartoony interpretation of a real guy, Mario appears all the more iconic and timeless, though the Mickey Mouse factor is admittedly stronger than ever. He basically looks like the contemporary version of his classic NES sprite. The other individual character and setting designs are wonderful in a similarly simplistic way, and the graphics as a whole are smooth and never overreach, resulting in a game that will probably look pretty good long after future releases have begun to show their age.

The sound design is almost on par with the visuals; though not amazingly compelling, it’s charming and earnest. The score drifts from semi-serious imitations of typical 16-bit style RPG fare to traditional and lighthearted Mario-sounding cues and recomposed themes from past games. Some of the original stuff is actually pretty catchy, and everything seems to more or less hit the mark, save for the occasional disjoint I noticed between the two different styles, like when a very Mario-sounding “Item Get!” cue would play over some of the more downbeat role-playing fare.

In regards to gameplay, Mario is forced to adapt to the conventions of the genre by participating in turn-based battles and solving puzzles in between his usual bouts of jumping to and on top of things. Of course, being the magnetic icon that he is, the genre’s conventions also adapt to him. Like most Mario games (rated E for everyone!) the Thousand-Year Door is extremely accessible. Mario doesn’t have any complex statistics or anything of the sort governing his abilities, so he doesn’t have anything like strength, speed, or intelligence ratings to worry about. Instead, he and his sidekicks’ attack powers are advanced by acquiring new badges and by receiving a few special upgrades throughout the game. Experience and leveling are still present, although similarly simplified: after every victory, Mario receives a number of star points as reward. Gaining 100 star points advances him a level, and with each level he gains, players choose between upgrading hit points, flower/mana points, or badge points, which allow Mario to equip more skill-augmenting badges. Despite being a bit stifling in regards to customization, I found this level of simplicity suitable for the game.

The battle system, equally streamlined, borrows a lot from its predecessors. After attacking a foe in the overworld, Mario and whichever of the game’s seven sidekicks he has active at the time appear on a theatre-style stage opposite their enemies. Everything is completely turn based, so enemies won’t take shots while you’re fiddling around with menus (I prefer it when they can, though I didn’t mind the slower style here). Mario and his party have a healthy variety of maneuvers at their disposal, each of which can be improved by successfully inputting the corresponding action command. All of the moves are easy to execute once you get the hang of them, but some moves are more enjoyable to perform than others. I get a great deal of satisfaction from performing Mario’s jump moves, which require players to press A at the exact time shoe meets head, but I’m not such a huge fan of, say, Yoshi’s basic attack, which calls for mashing the right shoulder button as quickly as possible.

While I don’t think most players will find any of the encounters in the game very challenging, there’s usually enough going on during combat to keep you attentive and entertained. The new stage setting in particular is used to ingenious effect: props fall from the ceiling, audience members throw power ups or harmful objects, while smoke machines diminish the accuracy of combatants. If you perform well during fights by successfully executing action commands and adding stylish flourishes whenever possible, you’ll draw more eager spectators to your show. The larger the audience you attract, the more their collective praise can fill your star meter, allowing you to execute powerful, mini-game-like special moves. Fail to perform well and the audience will jeer your efforts and then leave, taking their precious potential for star power with them. Interestingly enough, different audience members have different abilities. Some will add more star power than others, while some won’t add any at all. Although they serve an actual function, I would’ve preferred more interactivity with the audience. As they are now, the groundlings and a lot of the battle screen’s wackier elements primarily act as a sort of pleasant distraction: one more thing to keep an eye on during the battles, most of which are habitually effortless.

When you’re not fighting, game progression basically flows something like this: players spend time exploring the hub town of Rogueport until they find some item or upgrade that allows them to reach a new warp pipe in the town’s sewer. They hit the warp pipe, go on an adventure (sometimes straightforward, sometimes wacky), and then return after every chapter with a new ability or two that allow them to access still newer areas or items back in Rogueport. Puzzles are solved by jumping on things, hitting switches, using Mario’s paper powers, such as rolling up into a tube shape or folding into an airplane or boat, and utilizing the abilities of Mario’s various sidekicks, some of whom actually have pretty clever ways of interacting with the environment. Most of the game’s puzzles are simplistic but enjoyable. There is occasionally too much hand-holding and lecturing—a typical symptom of Nintendo design philosophy these days—but a lot of the puzzles expect players to expand on what the game shows them and figure out how to apply Mario’s wide assortment of moves for themselves. The platforming elements don’t always hit the mark, however: Mario’s jump doesn’t really feel like Mario’s jump here, perhaps because he can’t accelerate to a decent running speed without the aid of Yoshi and thus cannot add any real momentum to a leap. That said, they offer a nice change of pace from the puzzles and turn-based battles.

Still, the game can be frustrating at times, especially when it refuses to give players the benefit of the doubt. Observe Chapter Six, “3 Days of Excess,” wherein Mario must solve various mysteries while aboard a train bound for the ritzy Poshley Heights. The first whodunit is fairly simple: someone has stolen the chef’s special dinner from the train dining room and it is Mario’s job to find the culprit. An astute player might logically conclude the perpetrator is none other than the fat fellow in cabin 003 with the spoon in his hand and a twinkle in his eye. Nothing would be gained by talking to him or searching his room, however, because the stew pot in question won’t magically appear there until Mario examines the drops of stew on the floor outside the man’s cabin. The game has a lot of that sort of overly (and overtly) linear structure, and you occasionally have to satisfy really asinine prerequisites in order to trigger certain events. You’ll also be expected to take control over some fairly mundane tasks: there is a scene a bit later in the game, for example, where the male half of a Pianta newlywed couple must tell his wife that he loves her 100 times. And the game, thinking it’s being cute or clever, actually expects you to press A or B 100 times to properly refresh the dialogue bubble. I find this sort of thing endearing in small doses, but for some, the game may not be able to build up enough equity to justify tooling around like this. There is also some backtracking to be done throughout the adventure, usually nothing too dreary or monotonous, unless you count the optional quests, but enough to break an otherwise brisk enough pace.

It occurs to me that some of the game’s more tedious elements could have been added (or perhaps originally designed) to extend its length and expand its scope, which couldn’t be more unnecessary. I’d liken it, loosely, to taking a perfectly fine and functional wallet-sized photograph and blowing it up to make a billboard. It just misses the point, and it exposes flaws that would have been otherwise largely unnoticeable. The game works best as something small and quaint. The adventure feels naturally epic at times—Mario is saving the world, after all—but ultimately, everything about the game, from its mechanics to its settings to its graphical style, has a certain smallness, simplicity, and sometimes even restrictiveness to it. The result of all this stretching is a game that goes on just slightly too long, wearing out its welcome earlier than it should.

Worse still, the game has a habit of telling you the story, rather than allowing you to play through it. It doesn’t always feel natural for a Mario game to be so… nonreciprocal. The dialogue, especially long in the tooth at moments, may be the best example. Many utility characters have the bad habit of yammering on with an unrelenting fury long after they’ve served their purpose and divulged all useful information; the prologue in particular just goes on and on and on and on. There may also be too many hip kid colloquialisms, out of place “real-world” references, and fourth-wall breaking in the dialogue for some tastes. A lot of characters also speak with that ellipses-laden “um… er… jeepers…” style, and the more serious villain characters could stand to be a hair more articulate.

On the other hand, some of the game’s other characters are legitimately entertaining, either in what they have to say or merely in their design or story. Luigi, for one, spins some genuinely charismatic yarns. Equally compelling is Admiral Bobbery, one of Mario’s more impressive sidekicks. He is a bob-omb, you see, who is also a navy admiral. He looks like a navy admiral should (if admirals were just bombs with feet and faces), and he has a story that goes something like this: once an able navigator, Admiral Bobbery returned home from long a voyage at sea to discover that his beloved wife Scarlette, with whom he shared love unmatched, had succumbed to illness and passed away while he was gone. Blaming himself for not being there when his lover needed him most, Bobbery became a depressed recluse and vowed never to sail again. This is all great, of course, because Bobbery is nothing more than a bob-omb with a sailor’s hat and bushy, grey mustache. I really like these outlandish characterizations, and I think that they, along with the kind of scenarios that see a supercomputer falling in love with Princess Peach or Bowser romping through classic-style sidescrolling levels or Mario fighting in an arena under the ring name of Great Gonzales for an unscrupulous Southern promoter, manage to expand the game’s universe in a way that makes it all the more appealing and personable while still allowing it to retain much of its original identity.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is more successful as an experience than as a game—nebulous terms, I know, but suffice to say that while the game can be a joy to move through, many parts aren’t necessarily fun to play. To die to a boss or otherwise lose a decent chunk of progress might be more frustration than the game is worth. It seems that, knowing this, the developers chose to sap anything that might be too challenging for players, opting instead to provide a better pace at the expense of any great sense of achievement. Nevertheless, the game was a pleasant experience for me on the whole, at least as a fan of Super Mario. It has its share of shortcomings, but it’s saved by charm and personality. The world Intelligent Systems has created around Mario is engaging and inviting, even if the Thousand-Year Door‘s various design flaws and sometimes-too-rigid role-playing structure more than once impeded my desire to explore it.

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