Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door – Surprise After Surprise

Boy, look at me, reviewing almost nothing but good Nintendo games. It’s almost like I’m a huge fan of the company after growing up with a Nintendo system in my house for pretty much my whole memorable life. Ever since Super Mario World all the way back on the Super Nintendo (sorry, eighties-kids, I was raised on 16-bits), I’ve loved video games. And Mario games! So let’s talk about what is probably my favorite Mario game of all – Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.

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Flat in style, wide in scope.

The Paper Mario series may have fallen on hard times as of late, but back when it debuted on the Nintendo 64, a lot of people were pleasantly surprised at this deceptively-simple RPG series. Using Action Commands to perform attacks much like in Super Mario RPG back on the Super Nintendo, Paper Mario’s claim to fame was that it’s easy to pick up and play. There aren’t huge numbers like eighty or whatnot. You don’t have to track stats. When you level up, you pick one of three things to increase each time. Your attacks level up naturally through the story.

The Thousand-Year Door is the logical evolution of the original, in terms of both style and gameplay. The story, however, is another matter entirely.

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Now this is a story, all about how…

The game’s intro details an ancient city that was sunk beneath the ground by a mysterious cataclysm. Many years passed before people resettled on top, only to discover the ruins of the town still lurking underneath, with a mysteriously large door that none could open. Naturally, stories of a legendary treasure behind the door began to spread, as it took on the name of the Thousand-Year Door.

Years later, the town above is now Rogueport, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. It is here that Princess Peach finds herself while travelling, and she finds a peddler of goods with a strange lockbox that will only open to the pure of heart. Peach is of course, able to open it, and sends its contents to Mario – a treasure map, and as it happens, the very Magical Map that charters the course to unlocking the Thousand-Year Door.

When Mario arrives in Rogueport to help with the treasure hunt, however, he doesn’t find Peach. He instead runs into a young Goomba archaeologist named Goombella, who is being harassed by a strange group of thugs called the X-Nauts. As luck would have it, Goombella and the X-Nauts were both looking for the same treasure, so when Mario helps her out, she takes him to her college professor Frankly, who explains that in order to open the Thousand-Year Door, the Magical Map must be held aloft before it in order for it to point to the Crystal Stars, mystical gems that contain untold power… and also happen to be the key to the Door. And there’s seven of them, though isn’t there always?

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Mario’s been just about everything, so why not an archaeologist?

The story starts off relatively light-hearted and while it never gets ridiculously super-serious like Super Paper Mario eventually does, the stakes are notably higher than your usual Mario fare, and several events – especially late-game – are treated with some level of solemnity. This is the very odd sort of game that has an entire chapter dedicated to a literal bedsheet ghost turning people into pigs, that has a subplot about familial abuse. And that’s not even getting into if you’re playing the Japanese version where said abused family member is apparently confirmed transgender. (Nintendo, progressive when they want to be. How about that Tomodachi Life glitch?) The writing’s genuinely hilarious when it wants to be, and sombre when it needs to be. It’s a good, if odd, balance.

The story’s quite good though – certainly helped by the setting of the game. Rogueport is a very atypical Mario world – if the gallows in the town square don’t tip you off, seeing a mini-gang war erupt in the background should prove enlightening. Mario’s not well-known in this part of the world, with very few characters actually acknowledging the famous hero before them (and bizarrely, Luigi seems to be more popular). The various characters you encounter are a unique bunch, especially compared to the fairly bland cast of other Mario games – a Mafia don Pianta, a boisterous sea-dog Bob-Omb, a gold-plated Koopa that talks like a ‘hood gangsta’, and this is to say nothing of the ridiculous bosses you encounter, or your entourage who all get a lot more screentime than in the original Paper Mario.

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Look, he’s even got the accent.

But let’s talk about that there gameplay. In The Thousand-Year Door you follow a pretty strict formula. Stand in front of the titular Door in order to get the location of the next Crystal Star, go there, do the mini-story for that chapter, play a couple Peach and Bowser mini-games, and then 50 GOTO 10. It’s a pretty simple rigmarole. Along the way you’ll fight all manner of baddies, meet all manner of wacky characters, and learn all sorts of bizarre abilities, such as being able to turn into a paper airplane.

The combat in this game is the best part. First of all, enemies are all visible in the overworld, so you can either attack them for a First Strike, or they can hit you in turn, which gives a free turn to whomever struck first, using whatever attack they struck with. From there, Mario and his partner attack, then each enemy in a row. Pretty easy.

The big draw in this game is that every battle takes place on a stage. After a certain point in the game, you have an Audience watching your battles. They’re actually quite important – impressing the Audience is how you recharge your Star Power, which you use for Special Moves. The better you do, the bigger your Audience and the faster you’ll recharge. If you do poorly, they’ll begin to leave and can even turn on you by throwing harmful items at you. (You can strike back, but be careful – sometimes they throw helpful things!)

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Each Audience member also has a different effect. Dull Bones, for example, don’t contribute to refilling Star Power at all, so seeing an Audience full of them is somewhat disheartening.

Another improvement from the original game is that you actually start out able to use Action Commands – you don’t have to play for an hour to get them – and your partner characters all have their own HP values, so you can actually move them in front to take hits you don’t want Mario to. After all, if they fall, you can keep fighting, but if Mario takes a tumble, it’s game over no matter how much Goombella could Headbonk the opposition into oblivion.

Every attack has an Action Command, but in addition, every attack (save Special Moves, since they actually use Star Power) has a Stylish Command as well. Hitting the A Button at the right point during an attack makes the character do a special pose or an extra fancy flip or whatnot, which naturally thrills the Audience and generates Star Power much faster. They’re an unnecessary flourish, but getting good at them is a huge help for being able to use your powerful Special Moves as often as possible.

Badges make a return as well, with each Badge having a certain BP cost – you can only equip Badges that add up to the same amount or less than your total Badge Points – generally granting a number of boons in combat from extra moves (which cost Flower Points), to buffing abilities (making your Appeal move, for example, generate more Star Power), to interesting trade-offs (make Action Commands more difficult in exchange for them generating, you guessed it, more Star Power).

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Many attacks let you perform multiple Stylish Commands in a row.

The thing to note, of course, is that in Paper Mario, numbers are small. By the end of the game you likely won’t have much more than fifty HP. Attacks that do ten damage are devastating. Defense is simply subtracted from the attacks’ values, there’s no weird equations. Some people might not find this terribly impressive, but honestly, I like this much more. Oh sure, make all the “you just suck at statistics” jokes you want, but I prefer something like this to games where I use the same attack and get 638 damage one turn and then 622 the next. Numbers that big just aren’t that exciting because I end up just doing a lot of rounding up or down, there’s not much difference between values like those. Here, I see an enemy’s attack value, I go, “Right, okay, that means they can for sure wreck me cold in a couple turns if I let them.”

There’s also no complex equation for levelling up – you get a hundred Star Points, you level up, and you can either add five to your HP, your FP, or add three to your BP. Every ten levels, your stage size increases as well as your Audience. Interestingly, as the stages get bigger, they start introducing random stage elements that interfere with the battle – fireworks going off can harm the enemy or the player, for example. Sets can fall down on top of you with particularly large attacks. Things fall from above stage. Some are definitely more frustrating than others – mist is the biggest offender, making random attacks miss – and while I don’t think I’ve ever lost a fight to a stage effect, sometimes they’re more detrimental than helpful.

Something else that’s somewhat luck based is the Bingo. Every Action Command you do gives you a slot icon. If you get two in a row that match, the next Action Command activates a slot machine where you have to match the third icon with the first two. You then get a bonus based on what it was, for example, three Mushroom recovers all your health and also fills up a good portion of the Audience. Getting three Poison Mushrooms, though, kicks all of your values – HP, FP, and SP – down to half of what they were and makes the whole Audience flee. This can wind up crippling what was otherwise an easy fight.

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It’s always satisfying when you nail a good one, though.

Bosses tend to throw in odd wrinkles to the mix – they don’t always play by the same rules you do. The first one, for example, will actually eat a portion of the Audience to recover its health when you have it on the ropes. And as you can see in the screenshot just above, even regular enemies can be carrying (and can use!) items, or even Badges (which provide the requisite boons). Suffice to say this is when your partners can come in handy. From Goombella’s Tattle to Bobbery’s Bomb, they all tend to cover abilities Mario himself can’t use (though some attacks, like Goombella’s Headbonk, are functionally similar to one of Mario’s, such as Jump). They can even be levelled up by finding Shine Sprites in the field and then taking them to Merlon – he’ll level each one up for just three, and later in the game you can level them up a second time.

Exploration is relatively simple compared to all that. You run, you jump, you hammer things. You’ll learn new techniques, like the aforementioned paper airplane ability which lets you cross large gaps. The way Mario gets these paper abilities is patently absurd – and the way the joke continues throughout the game just gets stranger and stranger.

Every once in a while you’ll solve a puzzle, and there’s a dungeon or dungeon-like-thing in mostly every chapter, and the world is filled with a ridiculous amount of collectables, from hidden Badges, to Star Pieces you trade in for more Badges, to a whole extra dungeon. There’s also a number of sidequests you can take on in the Trouble Centre, with rewards from coins to mini-game passes. You’ll also get e-mails from some of the friends you make throughout the game, be it in the main story or through the Trouble Centre. You’ll even get e-mails from Peach as she deals with her own trials and tribulations.

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Mario uses a Mailbox SP. ‘Cause y’see the Game Boy Advance SP had just come out and… yeah… Hey, they could have just as easily made a really bad e-Reader joke. I mean, besides the e-Reader itself.

Speaking of Peach, after every chapter there’s an intermission where you control her as she deals with her being kidnapped at the hands of the X-Nauts and their leader, Grodus. The X-Nauts’ computer, TEC, actually falls in love with Peach and so asks her to help him understand this bizarre feeling called “love.” This little sideplot is cute, and pretty silly, and it’s kind of surprising how you feel kind of bad when it (inevitably) ends in tragedy.

On the flip side, after you play as Peach, you get an intermission with Bowser, who in deep contrast, spends the entire game trying to play catchup with Mario and the X-Nauts. He wants the Crystal Stars, why? Because Mario wants them. He wants the princess, why? Because it’s his job to kidnap her and he won’t be having anyone else ruin his fun! His sections are much more shallow, though there’s quite a bit of fun to be had with the bits where you control Bowser in a bizarre parody of the original Super Mario Bros. that has to be seen to be believed.

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Do computers dream of electric Peaches?

Visually, the game looks good, even today. Of course, playing it blown up on a larger TV, you can see all the compression artifacts in the character sprites, and it’s a little rough around the edges, but the cartoony paper aesthetic holds up well, and the clever transition effects are excellent. A boat doesn’t just turn around, it flattens out and turns end-over-end, visually bending like a piece of paper. All the characters spin like a pinwheel on their centre when they turn around. You actually turn sideways to the camera to slip between tight spaces. The paper style is used extremely well throughout the whole game.

What about sound and music? Well, it’s great doing Stylish Moves to a huge Audience and then hearing them go absolutely bonkers over how cool you are. All the sound effects are well-used and pretty satisfying, from the whump of a hammer to the ding-a-ling! of nailing an Excellent. The game’s soundtrack is beautiful as well. Every tune in its place. Heck, even the title screen is great, and helps play up the game’s narrative contrast. It starts out grand, orchestral, like you’re going into a bold new world of adventure… then it dies down for a couple seconds before blitzing into an upbeat “yeah this a video game tune” song with a piano solo at one point. The music’s one of the best parts of this game.

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Also, Macho Man Randy Savage in oversized rooster form. The whole chapter is fighting your way to the top of a combat league to get to him. Under the wrestling name of Great Gonzales.

Unfortunately, not everything is perfect. The early game is much more challenging than the late game, due in part to your very low stats, though the same can be said of many other RPGs. You’re only allowed to carry ten items, unless you’re willing to venture fifty-levels deep into the extra dungeon, which is kind of a pain. Some of the more useful badges, like Quick Change, are strangely expensive – some badges will cost you up to nine BP to use.

And then there’s Chapter 4, which is the low point of the entire game. It uses a lot of back-and-forth on a linear path – you’ll cross up and down it at least four times – and while the framing story is hilarious, the setting of permanent twilight and dreary music will eventually get to you. It doesn’t help that it’s also a big difficulty leap over the fairly easy Chapter 3, especially when you get to the point where you lose all your partners and have to go it solo for a while against some pretty tough enemies. It’s fun enough the first time through when you’re seeing everything for the first time, and there’s a pretty clever meta-joke or two in there as well, but when you’re replaying it, it drags on a little too long.

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Not to be confused with the Twilight Town of Kingdom Hearts fame. Though they both go on too long.

So in the end, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is one of those GameCube classics that Nintendo were just pumping out like mad in the early 2000’s. Great writing, great art direction, great gameplay, great music, just all around great great great. This is the game that made people look forward to Super Paper Mario.

What a letdown, yeah?

 

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