I thought Mario was supposed to be the portly one, but apparently he’s paper thin. Don’t worry, though, it’s a good thing.
Paper Mario, released February 2001 on the aging N64, is often considered the system's last hurrah. Intelligent System's simple but charming pseudo-sequel to Square's Super Mario RPG (SNES) gave Nintendo fans something unique to play during the driest months in Nintendo history. Like Pokémon, it was designed for younger gamers, but its no-frills battle system and adorable art style also appealed to older RPG fans looking for a farce. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TYD for short) builds upon Paper Mario's firm foundation to provide a fun but familiar sequel great for RPG newbies and Mario fans alike.
TYD's story is as straightforward as they come. Princess Peach finds a magical treasure map while adventuring in the foreign town of Rogueport. She mails the map to Mario, hoping it will entice him to join in the hunt. But upon reaching the city, Mario discovers she has been mysteriously captured. Mario subsequently learns that his map is linked to a legendary unknown treasure behind an ancient subterranean door. This door can only be opened by gathering seven Crystal Stars, which will appear one-by-one on Mario’s map as he adds to his collection. Hoping the Crystal Stars will lead to Peach's whereabouts, he sets off on his adventure. While there are a few minor plot twists later in the game, it is a simple tale a player of any age can wrap his or her head around.
The paper theme introduced on the N64 is fully realized on the GameCube. Mario doesn’t just look paper thin anymore--now he capitalizes on his composition. He can now turn sideways to squeeze through a wall crack and, as he continues his adventures, fold into a paper plane, paper boat, and paper tube. TYD extends the paper-ness of characters to environments, as well. Warp Pipes can send Mario into a silhouette background for some refreshing 2-D platforming action. When you uncover hidden secrets, they don't just magically appear--the screen is ripped to reveal another layer of paper. During a cut-scene a character might bust through the background. The game harbors a refreshingly dynamic interaction between its crisply drawn sprites and 3-D environments, blurring the two graphical styles together.
The Thousand-Year Door is a spiffed-up sequel, and anyone who played the first Paper Mario will recognize it. The field layout matches the original to a T. Much like Toad Town, Rogueport, with its pipe-filled sewer system, is a central hub for all of the game’s locales. The world’s towns contain many
people friendly monsters to talk to, as well as item stores and inns. The world’s inhabitants have a variety of things to say, and while the game doesn’t feature Mario & Luigi’s zany humor, it does have its fair share of amusing references and comedic situations, such as Luigi's own subplot. Especially charming are the brief chapter interludes where players have the honor of controlling Big Bad Bowser in his witless attempts to collect the Crystal Stars.
A handful of the individuals Mario meets in his travels will join the party, which initially consists only of Goombella (Goombario's counterpart) and the bushy mustache himself. Only one ally may accompany Mario on-screen, but allies may be swapped at any time. Each partner provides a unique service outside of battle needed to solve puzzles or gather information. Most partner moves are actually stolen from the N64 game, but TYD unarguably puts them to better use, especially as the game draws to a close. Disappointingly, while the original had eight partners, TYD only has six—seven if you count a secret, optional ally.
Battles are similar to the original’s, with a few additions. When Mario runs into an enemy on the field, or when a cut-scene dictates, a battle ensues. If Mario or the enemy made contact using an attack, the attack initiates the battle. After this first strike, the battle is turn based, with Mario’s party always going first. The partner from the field joins Mario in battle, and can be swapped at the cost of one character’s turn. True to Mario RPG form, every attack has an interactive component called an Action Command. For instance, Mario inflicts more damage when jumping if the player pushes A right as Mario lands on an enemy, and the player must tilt the control stick to perform a hammer attack. When enemies attack, pushing A at the right time can reduce the damage sustained, while pushing B can further improve defense or even counterattack (though the latter is more difficult to pull off). Partners also have their own heart meters now, and will take damage when hurt instead of becoming stunned as they did on the N64.
The biggest addition to battles is the stage on which they take place. Seating in front of the stage is occupied by the game’s various enemies, and as battles escalate, so does the attendance. An audience member will sometimes throw a present to an ally during the player’s turn—but more often it is a projectile the player must dodge, either by attacking the enemy or the audience member, to avoid taking minor damage. If someone “backstage” turns on the fog machine, accuracy will be severely reduced for all characters. And if the player pulls off an impressive attack, it could shake the scenery, causing it to topple onto the fighters! The stage doesn’t add much to the gameplay, as these events only happen occasionally, but it certainly gives the game more pizzazz.
Powerful moves and character stats work—that’s right—just like in Paper Mario. Fancier moves such as Mario’s spin jump cost flower points, which are shared among allies. Mario can perform Special moves learned as he earns Crystal Stars by spending energy stored in his Star Power Gauge. The power gauge recharges when allies pull off crowd-pleasing attacks and even more quickly if a character usees his turn to appeal to the audience. The larger the audience, the more quickly it fills. When Mario levels up, the player must choose to upgrade either his heart, flower, or badge points. Each partner’s stats and moves can be upgraded twice using Shine Sprites scattered throughout the game. Mario can only become more powerful through progress-driven weapon upgrades and the excellent badge system.
Various badges boost character statistics (such as defense or maximum heart points) and provide Mario with extra battle techniques. Each badge has a badge point cost, and the player may distribute Mario's badge points among any badges acquired. This centralized customization system lets the player tailor Mario and his partner without the hassle of juggling three accessory types or committing to a final decision. Want a stronger defense? Then equip a Defense Plus badge. You say you’d rather have more life? Then take that Defense Plus badge off and equip Happy Heart and Heart Plus instead. Have a fire enemy to face? No problem! Just trade that Multibounce for Ice Smash. The badge system’s versatility makes for a powerful tool, and badge points are almost always the level-up upgrade of choice.
In addition to badges, the strong variety of enemies and allies provide the rudimentary tactics one would expect from any decent turn-based RPG. Most enemies exhibit various tactical advantages and vulnerabilities. Paper Mario includes predictable scenarios such as jumping on rogue koopas to knock them on their backs, but Mario’s partners provide a few interesting twists. For instance, certain enemies have remarkably strong defenses, making them difficult to destroy quickly. Charging an attack for a few turns might work, but smacking one enemy into another using a special attack can take both out in one fell swoop. Partners also play a more significant defensive role in TYD than they did on the N64: swapping character positions (and turn order) can help defer damage from Mario to his partner, and since partners are no longer stunned whenever they are hurt, they can be relied upon for defensive measures or as item users.
The Thousand-Year Door is around six hours longer than the N64 original--the game took me just over thirty hours to complete. However, this value is artificially inflated by TYD's numerous backtracking sequences. Young players will not mind traveling the same path four times to complete a chapter, but older ones will be less tolerant of such attempts to bloat the game. TYD is designed as an introductory RPG, though, so most users will fall into the former category. Even with this vice, the game’s core contains at least 24 hours of true substance, and side-quests help extend its longevity. Mario can search for one hundred star shards (traded for badges), offer non-playable characters his heroic assistance through the game's Troubles system, and fight his way through one hundred battles in a bonus dungeon full of prizes, which can be very challenging if attempted earlier in the game.
Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is a good game with great art direction. The borrowed battle system will mostly appeal to current fans of the Mario RPG series, but it will not let those fans down. It is a wholesome holiday gift for 10-year-olds, and is perfect for any gamers who want a RPG experience without the chores of leveling up and inventory micromanagement.