Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
Mario's latest adventure unfolds on the GameCube. But is it worth the paper it's, er, printed on?
There can be no more universally recognized predicament than 'the damsel in distress'. It is a tired plot device worn to the nub by consistent and frequent use, in the gaming realm moreso than anywhere else. It is also a role that Princess Peach has all but made her own over the years. The woman is a peril magnet. Mario in turn, has the sort of job security he could only dream of as a plumber. Pipes take years to rust. Princess Peach, however, gets kidnapped every other week. And as long as she does, Mario (and consequently, we) will always have an adventure to busy himself with. His latest, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door also happens to be the finest, most enthralling Mario title on the GameCube to date.
Princess Peach is on holiday. At least, she was on holiday. Proving that like most royalty she is completely out of touch with the realities of her kingdom, the pink-frocked monarch (and perennial abductee) finds herself in Rogueport, a sea-side town renowned for the malfeasance which plagues it. While there, she comes across a treasure map and soon afterwards finds herself, yup, kidnapped -- not by Bowser and his underlings, but instead by an equally inept aggregation of cartoon villainy known as the X-Nauts. Before being captured she manages to send the map to Mario, who, true-to-form sets off immediately for Rogueport. One thing leads to another and eventually the fate of not only the princess, but the entire Mushroom Kingdom falls once more into Mario's gloved hands (and those of his partners' as well... even the ones without hands).
Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door shares a great deal with its N64 predecessor, not only in style, but gameplay as well. As one might expect however, both areas have been teased, moulded and tweaked considerably, the result of which is a title that is decidedly better than its forebear; no mean feat, given the quality of that game. The most striking aspect (though by no means the best) of the title is the visual presentation: true to its name, Paper Mario realizes a gameworld reminiscent of a pop-up storybook, not simply because it is rendered in 2D, but in that the environments and denizens of this world are 2D constructs that flip, fold, bend, tear and crumple with utter conviction. Still, it is the realization of the paper theme in gameplay terms, moreso than the art style, that makes Paper Mario so truly enthralling.
Though I am loathe to use the term, Paper Mario is very much an 'RPG-lite'. And while it is undeserving of the negative connotations usually associated with such a term, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door does eschew many of the more prevalent RPG conventions in favour of a more action-oriented, almost platformer-esque sensibility. Mario's basic moves are retained in this adventure, allowing players to run and jump their way through the Mushroom Kingdom in a manner not all too dissimilar to more traditional Mario fare. So too, Mario's adventure evolves in a mostly linear fashion. With Rogueport as a base of operations, so to speak, players find themselves setting off for remote parts of the Mushroom Kingdom in search of the seven fabled Crystal Stars.
As with most every RPG, battles are an intrinsic part of the game, unlike lesser titles however, these seldom chafe. In fact, suffused such as they are with interactive elements and subtle strategies, these remain the core incentive to continue Mario's quest and easily the most enjoyable aspect thereof. Encounters are initiated by touching an enemy character -- jumping on, or hitting foes with Mario's hammer will reward players with the initiative in battle; conversely, if an enemy strikes first they will be granted the opening attack.
The next most significant aspect of battle revolves around the fact that each encounter takes place on a stage in front of an audience. Purportedly as a result of Mario's fame, denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom flock to watch him 'perform' -- throughout the game the crowd and stage will actually grow increasingly larger and more elaborate. Playing to the crowd (repeatedly performing Action Commands; pulling off 'Stylish' moves; using special abilities), will earn players Star Power, which dictates how often the Crystal-Star fueled Special Moves can be utilized.
At the conclusion of each battle, players are rewarded with Star Points, a hundred of which will see to it that Mario gains a level. And in doing so, furnishes players with a modicum of leeway as to how they wish to 'shape' Mario as it were, by allowing you to choose to increase his health points, flower points (required to use many secondary abilities) or badge points, which dictates the type and number of badges Mario can equip. It's a system that appears almost rudimentary, but is structured, play-balanced and refined exquisitely. There is only one minor flaw: mastery of the various Action Commands makes battles far easier than they would otherwise be, and failure to acquaint oneself with them makes the battles that much more difficult, perhaps overly so for the younger players Nintendo seems perpetually concerned with addressing. But frankly, this is little more than a benign observation; it has no quantifiable effect on the enjoyment one is able to glean from the title.
Outside of battle, players are presented with puzzles that require the inherent abilities of one of Mario's partners or that can only be solved through the correct application of Mario's paper abilities. The first of these allows Mario to fold himself into a paper plane in order to traverse otherwise impossible chasms; another turns the usually rotund plumber wafer-thin, making it possible for him to sneak into small cracks and gaps in the environment; a third sees him roll up into a small tube that allows him to reach areas he would otherwise be unable to go. And another... well, no point in ruining everything, eh? More often than not, the situations that require these abilities are self-evident (the paper transformation, for example, can only be done when standing on particular 'pads'), but they are still a great deal of fun to perform and as you gain these abilities you find yourself noticing applications for their use in the world that previously you may not have.
The second dimension has become increasingly marginalized in an era all but defined by the polygon, so it's heartening to see a game like Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door not only embrace 2D, but put a unique spin on the concept as well. The world of Paper Mario is a wonderfully realized one, if not fully so; Intelligent Systems have worked the theme into tangible gameplay scenarios in a number of clever, imaginative and interesting ways, but there remains so much more that could be done with the concept. That said, the game is an exceptional 2D achievement, utilizing crisp, beautifully drawn and animated sprites and a host of well-conceived paper effects. For those able to utilize the feature, the game also provides support for progressive scan.
Though characterized by a relatively unique visual style, Paper Mario's personality is a consequence of a truly superb localization effort from the team at Nintendo. Dialogue is well-written and often humorous and coupled with dynamic text that changes in tempo, size and style based upon characters' emotions and mood, allows for a deceptively engaging narrative. Such is the quality of the presentation that it makes a solid case for the exclusion of voice-acting. What it lacks in voice-talent, the aural presentation more than makes up for with a recognizable library of effects, songs and themes from classic and contemporary Mario titles.
Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is unequivocally the best GameCube Mario title to date. It offers a lengthy quest, with relatively little filler, frustration or other such contrivances. It's simply pure, undistilled fun.
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Paper Mario 2
E3 2004: Direct feed gameplay (640x480, 1Mbps)
Paper Mario 2
E3 2004: Showfloor gameplay (640x480, 1Mbps)