A playable storybook in the form of an RPG that reveals outstanding characters, sharp writing, inventive story scenarios, and fantastic humor with every page that is turned
Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is one of those games that understands what fans want, and then proceeds to give them exactly what is expected. Acknowledging the overwhelming success with which the original Paper Mario was met, Intelligent Systems and Nintendo set out not to reinvent the wheel, but to replicate that experience with punctual improvements and the ambition to make it bigger; goals that are certainly not as straightforward as they sound given how Paper Mario often flirted with perfection and, in the process, came off as Mario’s most epic adventure up to that point and also one of the very best.
Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, then, is a game with a whole lot to live up to. However, it is greatly aided in that task by the fact that while its prequel was forced to mostly fly blind, having to be constructed without the support of Squaresoft and consequently being forced to look for a brand of role-playing gameplay that stepped away from the tradition built by Final Fantasy, The Thousand-Year Door stood on solid well-defined ground. Therefore, with the title’s bases established, writers and developers alike were free to focus on coming up, respectively, with new scenarios and gameplay elements; which explains why The Thousand-Year Door manages to, during the course of its forty-hour quest, achieve what its prequel had masterfully done, only in a much larger scale: be relentlessly entertaining, fun, and engaging.
The first statement such freedom produces comes in the game’s story. The Thousand-Year Door shuns Mario adventures’ usual setup of Bowser-kidnaps-Peach for something far more intriguing and intricate. Truthfully, Peach does still get taken away – not by Bowser, but by the X-Nauts, a goofy-looking race of aliens. However, below Peach’s latest abduction lies a relatively unique premise. 1,000 years before the game’s events, a town was destroyed by a dark cataclysm of unknown origin and it sunk into the earth. Later, a new port town – Rogueport – was built on top of it. Unaware of said history, Peach visits that town, purchases a treasure map after being approached by a mysterious hooded woman, sends Mario the chart, and gets taken away.
Much of the plumber’s quest, then, deals with discovering the lines that join those seemingly unrelated dots: the X-Nauts, the cataclysm, Rogueport, Princess Peach, and the titular door. As it happens in Paper Mario, though, the greatest gems of The Thousand-Year Door’s writing are not found in its core plot, but in the underlying chapters that make up the game’s meat. Mario, once more, will be tasked with gathering a set of seven stars – this time around, dubbed the Crystal Stars – and in order to do so he will have to travel to different locations of this strange land that lies far away from the Mushroom Kingdom.
Each chapter, then, holds a standalone story arch that must be followed until a boss is defeated and the Crystal Star is acquired; and each one of them is absolutely bursting with brilliancy. On one hand, The Thousand-Year Door does do some recycling: case in point, two of the chapters involve storming a fortress and reaching a tropical island (settings that will certainly ring a bell in the minds of those who went through the original Paper Mario). On the other hand, even in those two instances when it is reusing rough structures, The Thousand-Year Door is able to infuse so much creativity, originality, and charm into what it does that every chapter feels like a completely different monster.
In perhaps what is the most unexpected setting to ever appear in a Mario game, for example, the plumber will visit a cursed town whose inhabitants are turning into pigs whenever a bell tolls; a situation that gets creepier and weirder the deeper Mario delves into the riddle. In other chapters, the hero will be forced to become a fighter in a wrestling-like arena where something blatantly fishy is occurring; spend seven days inside a train where what was supposed to be a leisure trip will be disrupted by mysterious occurrences; and much more.
The Thousand-Year Door, as a consequence, is constantly bent on motivating players to keep on going, whether it is to figure out why in the world the X-Nauts need Princess Peach, what the cataclysm was all about, or why there is a dragon terrorizing peaceful a meadow. In terms of gameplay, the title uses its fantastic stories to create situations in which Mario needs to perform a surprisingly creative mixture of platforming, puzzle solving, exploration, and investigation. Once more, he will be accompanied by some partners – six of them this time around – who have distinct powers to help him in his quest, such as Admiral Bobbery’s ability to blow things up, or Flurrie’s capacity to create small bursts of wind.
Those skills are complimented by the fact that Mario, besides being able to jump and use his hammer both in battle and outside it, can now take advantage of his paper-cutout look to explore the environment. The game’s signature art style, then, is more than an aesthetic element this time around; it interferes directly with gameplay. It is a feature that adds another layer to the game’s exploration vein, not to mention that it is quite amusing to watch Mario become a boat, a plane, turn sideways and sneak into places as if he were a sheet of paper, or roll himself up.
Gameplay variety is further augmented due to the brief light-hearted intermissions that happen between chapters. In addition to the Peach segments that are responsible for a great deal of the main plot’s development and like those of Paper Mario have the princess sneaking around the place in which she is being help captive, players will now also take control of Bowser. The Koopa King spends a good portion of the game tracking down Mario and being absolutely flustered with the fact he was not the one who kidnapped Peach, and he channels much of that anger to wreck havoc in brief easy, yet entertaining, sidescrolling levels that transit between making a homage to Super Mario Bros. and mocking it, an ambivalent nature that is pretty much perfectly aligned with the self-aware aura of Paper Mario.
In battles, the delightful simplicity of Paper Mario has been kept. Mario still fights alongside a partner against well-designed enemies and bosses. Action commands add a flavor of action to the turn-based affairs given they allow players to, with timely button presses, diminish the effects of incoming blows or enhance the attack power of their own moves. Mario’s simple arsenal is complemented by the incredible variety of attacks that his six partners carry and the power of the Crystal Stars, which can be summoned to deliver special moves of their own; meanwhile, his lack of deep stats is compensated by badges of varying effects, which can be equipped to give players a degree of customization over the plumber.
The one change that battles do bring is the audience. During The Thousand-Year Door, all encounters take place in a theater; the better Mario fights, the more inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom show up to watch. Rarely, the audience will throw items or harmful objects towards the stage; its main role, however, is – whenever players do well – helping fill up the energy bar that allows Mario to call the Crystal Stars, making it critical – especially during the moments leading to confrontations with bosses – that the audience be packed an pleased.
Technically, The Thousand-Year Door retains much of the simplicity that characterized Paper Mario, but has considerable visual improvements. Although the art style is, as a whole, inspired, some of its moments are particularly noteworthy. While sprites are as great as they could have possibly been, a few scenarios could have used a little more work. The music is also slightly improved, even if truly outstanding tunes are rare and, in particular, the battle theme gets quite repetitive after a some time.
Similarly, The Thousand-Year Door also slightly topples Paper Mario in terms of extra content. The few sidequests that do exist still suffer from a general lack of significant rewards despite their fun nature, and the same applies to collecting all Star Pieces scattered around the world. However, it is the addition of a Bestiary to be filled with all of the game’s enemies and The Pit of 100 Trials – a 100-battle challenge that ranks as the hardest task in the whole saga – that puts the game, which is quite lengthy on its own, over the top in that regard.
With minor improvements, and powered by a wheel of creativity that puts Mario in a series of situations that are absurd, engaging, and intriguing, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is not only one of the GameCube’s finest titles, but also one of Mario’s best adventures. It is a playable storybook that reveals outstanding characters, sharp writing, and fantastic humor with every page that is turned, and complements those elements with a great battle system and smart level design. It takes advantage of the fact it stands on ground that was firmly prepared by its predecessor, and uses it to fly towards an incredible set of ideas whose coexistence in the same tight package is the proof that lighting can indeed be captured in a bottle.