Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
Developer: Nintendo/Intelligent Systems
Year of Release: 2004
Preface: I will say here that I barely played the original Paper Mario for the N64 and as such you will not find any comparisons between the two herein. The cheese stands alone, as it were, but I think it works out better that way.
I don't need to tell you that it's been quite some time since we've last seen an actual Mario game in his mainstay platform series. Interestingly enough, this fact in itself is currently shaping the franchise to this day. Lately, the RPG entries in the Mario series are the only games that have been even remotely quality, its interesting to think that the modern Mario game is more well-known for incorporating series nostalgia and ironic series in-jokes than for the original platforming games that supplied the material that made the series in-jokes to begin with. Given this, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, is conscious of its roots and the expectations the player has going into the game, and the substance of its story (and occasionally its gameplay as well) revolves around the games ability to play with them.
While as a medium, videogames can deliver a variety of experiences, there is one experience that rarely works: humor. Videogames rarely make me laugh. Especially RPGs, which tend to use jokes based on awkward situations that poke fun at the respective characters personality traits which are pretty trite to begin with. Or if the scenario writer is particularly desperate, the jokes will pander to the average anime otaku and rely on shower scenes and awkward sexual moments in order to amuse the player. Whatever the case, the humor in role-playing games is generally stupid, occasionally charming, and rarely, if ever, actually funny.
However. The writing in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is absolutely brilliant.
Honestly, there are few games that have made me laugh the way Paper Mario did. The initial game in the series (a collaboration between Nintendo and Squaresoft) took an angle that stressed seamlessly integrating the gameplay of the Mario series into its battle system and incorporating various series nostalgia against the backdrop of an original (if somewhat cliché storyline). And in that regard, they were successful. The later entries in the series, developed by Intelligent Systems, take a different route. Instead of merely incorporating nostalgia, they turn it upside down. They reinforce the dichotomy between the player and the game rather than blur the line. The result is a game that manages to take the already well-implemented gameplay of the Mario series in RPG form and set it against a countertype of the kind of story the player would expect from a Mario game.
The games location itself is a good example of this. Most of Paper Mario takes place in the town of Rogueport. Not your typical Mario RPG town with primary colors and clouds and beanstalks, Rogueport is, put bluntly, a shithole. Home to thieves, mafia hitmen, and other such degenerates, it is here that Mario begins his quest to collect the Crystal Stars, open the Thousand-Year door, and of course, rescue Princess Peach. But the Paper Mario’s plot is not where the genius of the writing comes in. This actually comes from its eccentric cast of supporting characters and witty banter that comes from the townsfolk in each locale, as well as that of your own party members, who often do the talking for Mario. In one town, for example, a child informs me that he has been playing his Nintendo Gamecube a lot lately, and goes on to call it the “BEST SYSTEM EVER, am I right?” Its things like this that make Paper Mario’s humor work. It’s entertaining, not simply amusing. You’ll find yourself talking to everyone in towns because you’re genuinely interested to see what people will say next. And, Paper Mario not only manages to make this humor work, but it manages to do so consistently from beginning to end.
Generally speaking, the game’s sense of humor revolves around its ability to turn the stereotypes of the Mario universe in on themselves. Instead of the happy, fairy-tale Mushroom Kingdom, the game takes place in a crappy little town filled with debauchery. The characters are the opposite of what one would expect them to be, and your motley crew includes an air headed college student goomba, a depressive, self-depreciating koopa troopa, an old Bob-Omb sea captain, and more. Additionally, Luigi, the understudy of the series, has hyperbolic, grandiose tales of his own to tell each chapter and even gets books about him published while most people can’t even get Mario’s name right.
There are times when the player controls Bowser and Peach as well. The former is far more interesting, though the latter, in which Princess Peach sneaks around the X-Naut fortress and attempts to give life lessons to an AI, has its moments. The Bowser stages are carbon copies of stages from the first Super Mario Bros. game, except in this version, Bowser collects a few powerups, grows to the size of the screen and turns invincible within a few seconds. Following this, he plows through everything in the level and even knocks over the flagpole at the end of the level that we’d jumped on so many times in our youth. It’s in these juxtapositions that Paper Mario uses, its willingness to play with your childhood memories of the series and turn them inwards that the game's humor works. It is fearless, unwavering, and not at all afraid to mess with you.
Structurally, Paper Mario is broken up into 8 chapters, each with a different goal in mind. Each new locale is accessed directly through Rogueport, which essentially functions as a “hub” for the game. Underneath the surface of Rogueport lies a complex labyrinth which contains pipes and passageways that lead to all other towns and locales. As Mario unlocks new field abilities and gains new allies, he can access new areas. While linear, this also works well enough given Paper Mario’s structure. It isn’t an overly long game, but it doesn’t really need to be either. Linear or no, it ensure that things run smoothly, and as a result the game is a blast to play from start to finish, save for a few, brief patches of redundancy. In order to keep things interesting, each chapter in the story has its own separate focus and gameplay mechanic. Chapter 3 has you as a prize fighter fighting enemy after enemy in pursuit of the Crystal Star. While the whole “arena tournament battle sequence” is no stranger to the Role-Playing Game schema, Paper Mario just really nails it, and the result is one of the best reiterations of the archetype in an RPG. Another chapter takes a hint from an Agatha Christie novel and has you doing detective work on a train ride with a penguin detective named Pennington. The different gameplay mechanic each chapter not only keeps things interesting but keeps the player entertained and eager to proceed.
But Paper Mario’s battle system is the most entertaining feature of all. Battles in Paper Mario take place on a stage. But the audience in the background is not just for show. They play a very active role in the battle system. As Mario recovers Crystal Stars, he learns new special attacks, but the energy to use them (called “star power”) is stored in a meter that is filled only by pleasing the crowd. There are several ways to do this. As usual, timed button presses, a staple of the battle system in previous entries in Mario’s RPG series, returns. This time however, there are new ways to use this called “stylish” moves. If you press the button at the right time, it adds extra flair to the attack and causes the crowd to award you star points. You can also appeal to the crowd using a command in the command list. There are even enemies in the crowd who, if go unnoticed, throw objects on stage at Mario which can cause damage and status effects. When this is about to happen, an X button icon appears over Mario’s head, and if pressed, Mario jumps into the crowd and forcibly removes the offender. Even enemies may interact with the crowd, and will try to get rid of them in order to prevent you from getting star power.
The rest of the battle system works as previously established in the Mario RPG series. Mario has both jump and hammer attacks, and he fights with one extra party member at a time (who can be switched out at will). Timed button presses, called Action Commands, return. Pressing the A button a split second before landing a jumping attack will increase damage, pressing it before an enemy attack will reduce damage. In fact, pretty much every attack in the game, both normal and special attacks, requires a button input from the player. This may seem like a small detail, but it gives the player an active role in the battle system and a subsequent feeling of accomplishment. When a grandiose and visually stunning special is completed, the player feels as though he/or she is actually responsible for the spectacle on screen, as opposed to merely issuing a command and watching the result. Specials especially require a lot of input, and can range all the way from drawing circles around the enemies with the analog stick to shooting targets with crosshairs.
Ultimately, the battle system is as chaotic and unpredictable as the games humor. Anything can and will happen, and this keeps the player actively interested in fighting. Instead of merely selecting from menus and acknowledging when damage is given, there are so many factors that the battle system absolutely demands your attention: you may need to input a button command at any time, be it to defend against an enemy attack, enhance your own, or to stomp out an audience member acting up.
Atmospherically, the game is stunning, a feat made possible by Paper Mario’s simplistic but effective visual style. As the name suggests, the characters and locales are sheet-thin, like paper. The game uses this effect to make the world of Paper Mario truly come to life. Houses and buildings unfold like pop-up books as you enter them. And all of Mario’s field abilities make use of his razor-thinness. By turning sideways, he is a straight line and can sip through iron bars and cracks. He can roll into a paper tube to roll through low passageways, and even turns into a paper airplane to cover great distances. The characters and NPCs look simplistic but are well animated both in terms of movements and facial expressions. Each locale is exotic and has its own distinct look, from the city of Rogueport to the Halloween hues of Twilight Town to the sparkling town of Glitzville, each one vibrant and well-colored to fit Paper Mario’s “storybook” motif.
Paper Mario’s flaws are few, but notable nonetheless. The largest and most obvious hindrance to the experience is the abnormally large amount of backtracking required in certain chapters of the game. In one such chapter, for example, the first half consists of quite literally going to every previous location in the game to search for a certain character, only to find that he has left each town moments before you arrived. In the chapter that takes place in Twilight Town, you are forced to traipse back and forth between the town and the haunted church that serves as the chapter’s dungeon multiple times. Such occasions aren’t enough to hinder the game, but often end up feeling like filler or superfluity. Additionally, the beginning of the game shows promise, but Chapter 2, which contains a long trek through an uninteresting big tree dungeon, is by far the lowest point in the game. Such moments are thankfully short lived.
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door takes a bittersweet blend of humor that is one part irony and two parts self-referencing and sets it against a juxtaposition of the Mario universe we know and love. Paper Mario’s goal is not merely to keep the player busy, but to keep the player entertained. Its shortcomings arise from its occasional failure to do so, but such instances are few enough not to mar the overall experience.
Ever read a book that just read so goddamn well that upon finishing it you immediately felt sated? Paper Mario is the same way. It's the kind of game where upon completion, all you can do is put down the controller and say "Damn, that was a good play." And hey, it made me laugh, right? That's gotta be worth something.