Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door - Staff Retroview  

Good On Paper And In Reality
by scanDallas Richardson

40-45 hours


Rating definitions 

   Mario can do just about anything. The famous Italian plumber has starred in a number of platformers, RPGs, and even sports games. Back in 1996, Mario starred in his first RPG, the successful Super Mario RPG, which comprised the talents of developers Square and Nintendo. Several years later, Mario continued his RPG ventures in the unique Paper Mario, the alleged sequel to Super Mario RPG, on the Nintendo 64. The title's theme was quite original, featuring 2D paper-like characters set against 3D backgrounds. With Paper Mario, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems had created something truly special; a spin-off that might actually rival the success of the platforming games that made Mario so famous. So, naturally, Intelligent Systems soon developed a sequel, dubbed Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Paper Mario 2 successfully retains the style and charm of the original, but, with the lack of a decent plot, the game turns out merely decent. In the end, it's the intellectual property that gives Paper Mario 2 any sort of momentum.

   Everything kicks right off before the player even presses the start button. Princess Peach and Toadsworth decide to take a vacation, visiting various cities in the Mushroom Kingdom. While touring the city of Rogueport, Peach stumbles upon a ragged, old map that supposedly leads to an ancient treasure, locked deep behind a thousand-year door. Peach, quite ecstatic, immediately writes to Mario, politely demanding that he help her find it. Fast forward a bit and Mario discovers that Peach has been kidnapped (after so many times, she might actually be enjoying this) and that he must collect seven Crystal Stars scattered around the Mushroom Kingdom, in order to unlock the mysterious door and discover its contents. Fortunately, like the original Paper Mario, the plumber won't have to set out alone, as he will befriend a number of allies that will help him on his quest. Though the story is absolutely predictable and shallow on just about every level, the NPC interactions are what give the game its charm and just might have a mnemonic effect on the player once it's all over.

   Paper Mario 2 has what the majority of modern RPGs and games of other genres so lack: personality. Characters in the game are dripping with life. It's amazing just how alive the characters feel, even with the omission of voiced dialogue. The character personalities make traveling through the different towns entertaining. Sometimes, it's fun just chatting with everyone just to see what they say, like with the young Toad who's hyped about the Fire Emblem game for his GBA, the crow whose son is preparing for his SAT's, or the Hip Hop Koopa who's much too cool to be seen without his shades. Characters like these litter the Mushroom Kingdom and almost read like actual people. The localization team deserves praise for successfully retaining the charm of the game and translating it for the US audience. A good amount of research likely went into the dialogue. Almost every character speaks incredibly realistically for their personality. The surfer dude sounds like a surfer dude, the businesswoman always speaks like a professional, and so on. It's hard not to like them. But, it's sad that the story doesn't really flow, which leaves all that characterization without any sort of foundation.

Poor Luigi. He never gets any love. Poor Luigi. He never gets any love.

    The game is separated into eight chapters, each with its own theme, just like the platform games, and all of which conclude with the acquisition of one of the Crystal Stars. The end result is that the story feels more like a sum of all parts instead of something complete. Each chapter seems like self-contained episodic content, exclusive from the rest of the game. Important events bleed in between chapters, but they take a very long time to get going. It definitely slows down the pace when the player is required to do a lot of filler backtracking and travel back and forth through the same areas during most of the chapters, especially near the end. It would have done the game well if the developers had just cut it short at 20 hours instead of dragging the adventure out to an artificially elongated 40+ hours. The real meat of the story is actually what happens in between the chapters, not in them, which doesn't make much sense. Also, party members don't interact with each other, at all. Mario is allowed only one partner at a time. As a consequence, party interactions are limited. Only the character that is with Mario will actually participate in the story. It's as if the other characters don't even exist. They never even meet each other. In fact, there will even be parts where the whole team will supposedly go somewhere all together, but it will just be Mario, the party member, and some NPCs.

    The lack of any party interaction isn't all that bad, but the fact that there is no true camaraderie does leave the story devoid of anything resembling depth. What's interesting, though, is that each event will unfold differently, depending on which party member is with Mario. For instance, one of the party members might be acquainted with a certain enemy, so, before the battle ensues, that party member will say a few interesting things about their past. If another party member is chosen, then that conversation will not occur and things will play out differently. This neat conversation system is intriguing enough for the player to change party members every now and then just to see what will happen, but not enough to add any real replay value. Practically no one will actually play the entire game all over again just to experience different conversations, but it's great that there's at least some variety to the story. Still, that doesn't save the story from ultimately being a real dud. But gamers will most likely ignore the mildly interesting story when they get a taste of the unique and innovative battle system.

   On the surface, Paper Mario 2's battle system might seem quite simple, but it's anything but. The game features one of the most involving battle system in all turn-based RPGs. Players won't simply select a target and let Mario and his partner do the rest. No, players must perfect timed button presses if they expect to make any sort of progress in the game. For instance, when Mario pulls out his hammer, the player must hold the control stick to the left until the red star lights up. At that point, the player must release the stick and Mario will damage the character. Of course, the player doesn't actually have to do this correctly to do any damage to the character; Mario will still cause minimal damage even if the stick is released too early or too late. But, as the game progresses and enemies become more difficult, players will definitely want to master their timing. Also, like Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga, Mario and his partner can lower or completely avoid damage if the player presses the A or B button respectively, at the right time. Completely avoiding damage also, in turn, might cause recoil damage to the enemy, but the timing here is much more precise. Timing is the true key to victory in Paper Mario 2.

   Each party member has a different attack and, consequently, a different button combination required to cause extra damage. Mario or his partner can use Flower Points, the game's MP, to perform special attacks, which also require specific button presses for that extra punch. The audience that watches every battle adds another layer of depth to the complex system. Members in the audience will either help Mario or try to hurt him. Sometimes, they will throw things at him or his partner, such as rocks and empty soda cans, or helpful items, such as Mushrooms, the Potions of the game. However, the player can have Mario or his partner stop them by pressing the X button when prompted, but they might actually stop something good from happening if the audience member was trying to help them. Also, the player must input the commands with great timing when attacking, and by pressing the A button at certain times to add some style, in order to please the crowd and fill up the Star Point gauge. With Star Points, Mario can use super moves to either heal the party or cause major damage to his enemies. All these interesting gameplay mechanics come together to create a very dynamic and innovative battle system that keeps the player on his or her toes, something uncommon with modern turn-based RPGs.

Spooky...So, Mario, you did bring the key, right? "Spooky...So, Mario, you did bring the key, right?"

   What really brings the paper theme to fruition are the graphics presented in the game. All characters are appropriately 2D sprites, whereas the backdrops look more like 3D pop-up books. The mixture of 2D and 3D works well here, though sometimes it's difficult to find certain entrances because they don't appear to be passable since everything looks so flat. Some sort of indicator that shows where the entrances are would have been nice, but it might have taken away a bit from the paper theme. Mario actually has some useful abilities that involve his paper-like qualities. For instance, he can turn into a paper airplane to cross huge gaps or roll into a thin tube to pass under small openings. Also, when Mario enters a building, the facade of that building will peel away like a sheet away. Overall, the paper-like graphics look great without actually pushing the aging system's capabilities. It helps that the game sounds great as well. A good amount of the music is remixed versions of classic songs from the Mario platform games. Though most of the original music is hit-and-miss, the classic tunes really drive the nostalgia home for old-school gamers.

   In short, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is a decent RPG that any Mario fan would do well to check out. What it lacks in story it easily makes up for in gameplay. But unfortunately, the game just wouldn't be much of anything without Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom. Someone who isn't all that interested in fighting Goombas and befriending Koopas might lose interest in the game, as it is clearly tailored for fans of the franchise. But who doesn't like Mario?

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