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Paper Mario - The Thousand-Year Door
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Posted 2005-01-14, 03:55 AM
"I am Bowser, Businessman of Legend! Fear my accounting!"

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
Developer: Nintendo/Intelligent Systems
Genre: Role-Playing
Platform: Gamecube


In the later part of 1995, Nintendo announced what would be their final huge game to be released on the Super NES. When I read in Nintendo Power that it was an epic RPG featuring Mario and co-developed by both Nintendo and Square, I nearly wet myself. Others stared in shock, in disbelief that it could evr be a good idea. I, however, was rabid for it, and when I finally procured my copy of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars in June of 1996, every expectation that I had was met and exceeded. To this day, it remains one of my favorite games of all time because of it's gameplay, characters and light-hearted humor.

However, soon after, my hopes for the future of the Mario RPG franchise would recieve a massive blow. It was learned soon after the launch of the Nintendo 64 in November of 1996, that Squaresoft has severed it's ties with Nintendo in favor of developing for Sony's new Playstation console. The chances of me ever seeing a Mario RPG looked grim.

However, in mid-2000, it was announced that, in complete opposition to my beliefs, Nintendo would in fact release a sequel to Super Mario RPG, using their internal R&D group Intelligent Systems as the developer. In February of 2001, Paper Mario was released, and I was not terribly pleased with what I saw. The game utilized an odd graphical trait, in which the characters were flat, 2D sprites while the environments were full 3D landscapes. The title embraced a storybook-like presentation, in which the enviornments and scenery would open like pop-up book insterts and when the characters would turn around, you could see that they were like flat paper cut-outs. Needless to say, this was not the sequel I expected, and as such, I didn't pick it up.

However, since the release of Paper Mario, I'd had a change of heart. Just over a year ago, I played the third entry in the Mario RPG franchise, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, and I had to admit that it was probably the best handheld RPG I'd ever played. With a newfound interest in the Mario RPG series, I was ecstatic to learn only a few months later that Nintendo would be releasing a second Paper Mario game on the Gamecube, entitled Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Upon learning this, I immediately went out and grabbed a used copy of the first Paper Mario in order to beat it before the new game came out. In the end, it proved worth it, and in the span of maybe four months, I have become a full-fledged fan of the Paper Mario series, and a reborn fan of the Mario RPG franchise altogether.


Story

Millennia ago, there was a great costal city located on the Mushroom World. The city was massive, and thrived in terms of technological and sociological advancement. However, one day the sky grew dark over the city, and dread shadowed the hearts of it's people. Massive waves wracked the city walls, earthquakes crumbled the pillars and foundations of the city-scape, and in the end a massive cataclysm engulfed the town and drove it below the surface of the planet.

Hundreds of years later, civilization has returned to this once-desolate region. The town of Rogueport now sits on top of the subterranean ruins of the city, and it is a hub of thieves, brigands and criminals. For some unknowable reason, one day Princess Peach and her kingdom's Chancellor, Toadsworth, decide to take a vacation in Rogueport. Straying from the Chancellor's watch, the Princess makes her way to the hub of the city and is approached by a mysterious street-vendor selling a small collection of enigmatic items, the most interesting of which being a small ornate box that cannot be opened. The vendor tells Peach that it is rumored that the box will only open for one with a pure heart, and that inside is contained an ancient treasure map. The vendor offers to allow Peach to keep whatever is inside should she be capable of opening the box. Upon taking hold of the item, it begins to glow and slowly unlocks itself revealing it's contents to the fair Princess...

Some time later, Mario and his younger brother, Luigi, are sitting at home having a meal when the mail-koopa arrives with a letter for the heroic plumber. It's from Princess Peach, and it details her trip to Rogueport and explains that while there, she came into the ownership of a mystical treasure map. She has decided to use the map to find the treasure and she wants Mario to drop everything he's doing and join her in Rogueport for the hunt. As a safety measure, Peach has included the map with her letter because she feels that the map will be safer in his possession until he arrives. Intrigued, Mario sets sail for the port town.

Upon arriving in Rogueport, Mario learns that the Princess has abruptly gone missing. She cannot be found anywhere, and so far, the only clue as to her whereabouts is this strange map. Mario investigates the town and locates a local professor for the University of Goom named Frankly who is a specialist in archaeology and Rogueport lore. Showing Frankly the map, Mario learns that it is an ancient parchment meant to be used for the retrieval of the Crystal Stars, seven magical gems that have the power to unlock the Thousand-Year Door, a massive stone barricade located in the underground ruins of the ancient city. Frankly tells Mario that this "treasure" the Princess was seeking is undoubtedly behind that door, and that his best chance of finding her is to pick up where she left off and start acquiring the Crystal Stars. Map in hand, Mario sets off on yet another adventure.

The story is relatively basic. Which is fine, because this is a Mario game. What the hell were you expecting, Shakespeare? However, in spite of the fact that the plot is fairly standard, the characterization is just flawless. This is a Mario game, and it doesn't take itself seriously very often, but when it does, you might actually find yourself moved by some of the things that happen. The quasi-love-story that blooms between Peach and a sentient AI named TEC is a perfect example of how flawless the characterization is.

The one really great aspect of this story that truly sets it apart from other Mario games is the sense of humor that it has in reference to itself. The characters involved know that this is completely ridiculous. The Princess herself knows that it's absolutely moronic that she's gone missing yet again, and comments on several occasions how the hell she keeps letting this happen. On top of that, throughout the entire game you'll run into a rather large load of self-referencing jokes and gags. One particular scene has a large parrot squawking the phrase "Shine Get! Shine Get!", which is a well-known chunk of serious engrish contained in the Japanese version of Super Mario Sunshine. It had me in stitches for a good five minutes.

In general, the game is just pretty damned funny. It's not a laugh-riot, chucklehut like Mario & Luigi was, but it's got some classic comedic moments in a videogame, and the dialogue is all very sharply translated. It's got a megaton of wit, and never feels redundant or lifeless.


Gameplay

Paper Mario is best categorized as an RPG, however it betrays that categorization in a lot of ways.

This game is an epic RPG, meaning that you'll be travelling all across the game world, from town to town and dungeon to dungeon, fighting massive bosses and uncovering ancient puzzles and traps. The game progresses in a series of nine chapters (ten, if you count the Pit of 100 Trials as an extra chapter) and any area you've prviously been to can be revisited. It's not a linear game, but it does have a linear progression, just like any other RPG.

In the field, Mario is capable of a rather impressive number of things. You move with the joystick, jump with the A button, swing your hammer with the B button and enter the menu with Start. Mario gets several other upgrades to these basic abilities like his Super Hammer attack, where you hold down B and rotate the joystick in order to twist Mario around like a noodle. Then you let go of B and he lets loose a massive spinning hammer swing that can destroy certain barriers.

In addition to these basic abilities, Mario also has a number of skills based around his paper form. He can turn sideways to squeeze through narrow cracks in walls, he can roll into a tube to slide under low arches and passages, and he can also transfrom into a few new modes, like paper airplane mode, which allows him to glide through the air over large distances.

But Mario is not alone in his adventure, oh no! What fun would that be? Throughout the nine chapters of this game, Mario will recruit about seven partners that will join his party and aid him with their own unique abilities. At any given time, Mario can only have one of them actually beside him in battles and in the field, but he can switch them out at any time with the press of a button. While in the field, Mario can press the X button to use his selected partner's special ability to help him bypass obstacles and solve puzzles.

Some of his compatriots include his first partner, a Goomba co-ed named Goombella who happens to be one of Professor Frankly's best students. In the field, if you press X, she will give you information about the surrounding area and will give you puzzle solution hints if you're stuck. Other companions of Mario's include a shy Koopa Troopa names Koops who uses his shell to attack enemies and objects from a distance, and a stage-diva wind spirit named Flurrie who uses her powers to blow away certain objects. My absolute favorite partner character is a miniature Yoshi that joins Mario about a third of the way through the game. When you recieve him, he can come in a variety of colors, and what color you get is randomly assigned by the game. On top of that, he's the only character in the game that you can name whatever you want (mine was green, and I named him Pike).

So, in field mode alone, Mario has a ton of skills to call upon to complete his objectives. In battle mode, however, things get even more intense. The combat system is turn-based, as is the case with most RPGs. In battle, Mario has two basic attack categories to choose from: jump and hammer. Both selections come with just a regular jump or hammer attack as well as several "special" attacks that burn Flower Points to use (Flower Points are the game's equivalent of MP). These attacks can range from anything like the Fire Drive attack, in which Mario slams his hammer into the ground, causing flames to erupt and damage all enemies, to the Power Bounce attack, which allows Mario to continuously jump on an enemy's head as long as you press the A button at the right times.

Speaking of timed attacks, that's actually a huge part of the combat system. In battle, every attack that Mario or his partners use has what is called an "Action Command" that you can use to add extra damage or effect to the attack. When you use the regular jump attack, press the A button the very instant you land on the enemy's head in order to deal extra damage. For the hammer attack, hold the joystick to the left until the power meter fills and then release it for more damage. On top of that, you can also use the Action Commands to defend yourself. If an enemy hurls a fireball at you, press A to quickly defend and drop some of the damage you'd take, or you can be risky and try the much harder counterattack option. Press B at exactly the moment the fireball its you and it will nullify the damage entirely and deal damage back to the enemy. The counterattacks are much more difficult to do, because you have almost no wiggle-room for screwups.

And not all of the Action Commands are about pressing the button at just the right time either. Sometime you'll have to press A rapidly to fill a meter, or press a specific sequence of buttons shown at the top of the screen. So, there's a lot of variation in the combat system.

In addition to Mario's jump and hammer abilities, you can also use items like Mushrooms to heal HP or Honey Syrups to heal FP. There are a lot of different items in the game too, so what you stock your limited item arsenal with can be a very unique experience. Aside from items, Mario also has the ability to run from battles, spend a turn defending, swap out his partner and so on. On top of that, Mario can also use a selection of special Star Attacks that burn Star Power to use. You get one new ability for each Crystal Star you retrieve, and they can really do some damage in crucial battles. However, your Star Gauge cannot be refilled by using items. Your only options are to sleep at an inn or to let the audience refill your meter with applause.

Ah ha! You just asked yourself "Audience? The hell?" All of the battles in the game are presented as though fought on a theatre stage, and yes, there's an audience. During the fight, perfroming well will grant you applause which will refill your Star Gauge over time. You can also spend a turn to use your "Appeal" option, which draws in a lot of applause so you can fill the gauge fatser. However, that's not the only purpose that the audience serves. Dependant upon your performance, the crowd will either start throwing helpful items up to you, or if you perform badly, they'll add insult to injury by tossing rocks, cans and other garbage at you. Sometimes they'll even jump onstage and directly interfere with the battle by attacking your enemies for you, turning you invisible, dropping sandbags on top of the enemies and so forth. However, anything that the audience can do for you, can be done to you as well, so don't be surprised to see a Shy Guy suddenly jump backstage and drop a lighting rig on your head. Lastly, the stage itself can take part in the battles in various ways. Wobbly scenery can fall down and crush the combatants, fireworks can go off at the front of the stage and burn the fighters, or sometimes a fog machine will start up and make it difficult to even hit each other.

And let's not forget about Mario's partners. They too contribute to these battles with their own special attacks and abilities. Koops spins in his shell and slams into enemies while Yoshi can swallow an opponent and spit him into other enemies for lots of damage. Choosing your partners wisely can be a crucial part of the strategy in some battles.

Beyond the combat system, Mario and his pals get stronger as the game progresses. After each battle, you earn a certain number of Star Points (Experience Points) that can go towards bossting Mario by a level. When Mario levels up, however, you can only pick one of three stats to boost. He doesn't have a strength, speed, agility, magic defense or any of those other stats that seem to just clutter the game. You need 100 Star Points to go up a level, and when Mario levels up, you can boost his HP, his FP or his Badge Points (BP) by a certain amount.

Badge Points, you ask? Mario does not recieve armor, helmets or gloves with which to defend himself. He's got the overalls he was born with and his trusty red cap. In order to improve Mario's physical parameters, you need to equip Badges on him, each of which takes up a certain amount of his available BP to have equipped. Some Badges require as little as zero BP to use (which usually have cosmetic effects, like a different costume or altered sound effects) and some require as much as six BP to have equipped. The effects of these Badges can be anything from increasing his defense or offense to adding new special attacks like Fire Drive or Power Bounce to protecting Mario from status effects like poison or dizziness. Again, choosing which badges to have activated is an extremely important strategic aspect of the game, and can seriously save your ass if you know which ones to use in what situations.

Finally, don't go thinking that you're just going to be running around as Mario the entire time. In the first Paper Mario, after each chapter, the game gave you a little breather time to play as Peach trying to escape from Bowser's castle. These mini-chapters were mostly stealth-based and were a really fun diversion after playing through a tough dungeon as Mario.

In The Thousand-Year Door, we get something even better than just playing as Peach in between chapters. After each chapter, you'll play as Peach wandering around the base that she's being held captive in. However, after completing her chapter, you'll get to do something that I've been wanting to do again ever since the first Super Mario RPG. You get to play as Bowser. Each of these Bowser sequences is absolutely priceless, because, as the tyrannical King of Koopas, you're following Mario's trail during his adventure, trying to get Crystal Stars, but always one step behind the plumber. Pound for pound, these sequences carry the biggest comedic paylod, because Bowser is just a riot. There are even a few levels where you'll play as the Koopa King stomping and using his fire breath through classic Mario sidescroller stages! I can't explain how awesome it is to be stomping over Goombas and eating meatballs (instead of mushrooms) to a Bowser-ized remix of the Super Mario Bros. theme song. It is a flash of absolute genius, and I want an entire game based on it. NOW.

All in all, the gameplay is superb. In a sea of RPGs that utilize traditional combat systems, standard weaponry and equipment systems, standard party configurations and very limited field abilities, Paper Mario stands in a world of it's own. The only other RPGs out there that present a gameplay scheme even similar to The Thousand-Year Door are other Mario RPGs! Paper Mario eliminates the need for cluttered stat-systems, overcomplicated equipment schemes and unbalanced party-configurations. You'll be using every member of your party constantly, you'll be using every ability available to you and you'll be switching tactics and approaches constantly in order to stay ahead of the game. Nothing is superfluous, nothing is fluff, nothing is extra padding. It's all vital, and it's all awesome. And on top of that, playing as Bowser in the in-between chapters is the single most-brilliant idea that the Mario series has employed for the last decade. I want more of it, and I want it as soon as possible!

I suppose the one big flaw with the gameplay is that it starts off pretty slow. The introduction chapter and first full chapter really feel like a retread of the first Paper Mario, and if you don't put in enough time to complete those first two segments, you might not think too highly of the game when you quit. My suggestion is to persevere, because once you hit the second chapter, things really start to pick up the pace and break away from the presentational molds the first two sections seem to adhere to.


Graphics

The big bone of contention with most people lies here. In terms of front-and-center technical firepower, Paper Mario is not a stunning title. The graphics are detailed, clean and full of character, but taking a look at a few screnshots is not going to knock you on your ass.

However, in spite of this, the game does feature a lot of really great paper-themed effects. When you hit a switch to make a staircase appear, it will suddenly fold out of thin air and topple into place like a deck of cards. When you enter a building, the obstructing walls will fold away like a pop-up book. Mario himself has a lot of great effects, such as his Spring Jump ability which, when used, causes Mario to accordion his body downward and then srping into the air for a huge vertical leap.

The character sprites are all very well-made, with a lot of great animation frames and special effects. The enemies look fantastic as well, especially some of the bosses, like the massive Hooktail, a huge red dragon that guards the first Crystal Star. His form is absolutely massive, and is constructed like a giant origami dragon, with long curled strips for his whiskers and folded, accordion-like chains for his "antannae" (they look like antannae, although I can't explain why a dragon has them).

The environments are extremely varied and have a lot of character to them as well. In the first Paper Mario game, the locations were very standard. You had your grasslands area, your desert area, your winter village area and so on. I was expecting more of the same with the new game, and I was pleasantly surprised to not get that at all. The second chapter, for example, is a screwy forest called the Boggly Woods, where everything looks like a photo negative. The trees are jet black, with iridescent white foliage, the ground is black and covered in thin, wavy, multicolored spiral patterns. The main dungeon in the area, the Great Tree, has bands of black tree trunk making up the walls, and in the spaces between the ropes of wood, you can see faintly-glowing blue water bubbling up through glass windows. It's a great artistic decision, because looking at everything in the region is just mesmerizing. Each chapter just gets better and better as you progress, giving you more and more interesting places to visit each time.

I suppose the only really huge flaw in the graphical presentation would have to be the fact that, for a current-generation title, it's not an instant jaw-dropper. It has a ton of charm, great art and some very cool effects, but on the surface, it looks like a really good-looking N64 game. Don't get me wrong, I think the game looks great, and each area is packed with little touches that add to the atmosphere and character of the game, but upon first seeing the game, I was not blown away. I thought it looked clean and devoid of blemishes, but without actually seeing the game in action, I thought it looked substandard for a current-generation product. You need to spend some time with the game in order to really appreciate it.


Sound

First and foremost, the music is great. There is an extremely large variety of pieces, and each individual region of the game has it's own distinct sound and aural atmosphere. Rogueport has a very hustle-and-bustle sound to it, conveying the crunch of life in a crowded and busy port town. Boggly Woods, on the other hand, has this weirdly tranquil feel for the most part. About halfway through the dungeon, the music changes and sounds so much like the music from a few areas in Secret of Mana (I'm thinking either the dwarf village or the mushroom village). Twilight Town has a genuinely unsettling sound. Kind of a dark, twisted western sound, maybe.

The situational score is also awesome as well. Individual villains have thier own themes, so there's a lot of familiarity to repeatedly encountering certain characters like the three Shadow Sirens or Lord Crump. My absolute favorite selection of music is the various Bowser themes you hear, simply because I love Bowser and any scene that involves him is a surefire-winner in my book.

My one big complaint with the game is the major lack of voice acting. That's not to say that there isn't any, because Mario is actually probably the vocally chattiest person in the cast. He spouts off a constant stream of "Ha"s and "Whoo"s as he's jumping around. The trade-off is that Mario, like every game he's ever been in, doesn't actually ever speak. If a character asks him a question, he responds with an audible "oh yeah!", followed by the character saying something like "what's that? You don't like pancakes? I'll be damned!" It's a natural concession of the series, and I personally would be pissed off if that changed.

However, aside from Mario's cornucopia of spoken exclamations, almost none of the other characters ever vocalize anything. Bowser laughs and roars, Peach gasps, Toadsworth makes a worried groaning noise, but that's about it. I was really hoping that Nintendo would just bite the bullet and do what they did with Mario Sunshine, and have Peach, Toadsworth and the entire cast besides Mario speaking full, audible lines. Instead, we get a lot of text to read through. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I would have crapped my pants to hear Bowser telling some random mushroom kid to "fear his accounting!"


Flaws

1) The story isn't anything world-shattering. It's a Mario game, so you shouldn't be expecting anything that will change your perspective on life or the world in general. However, in spite of the fact that the plot is really basic, the characters and wit make up for it in spades. Bowser alone makes up for the cookie-cutter storyline.

2) The game starts off pretty slowly. Put in only an hour of gametime, and you likely won't be overwhelmingly pleased. Stick with it until the second or third full chapters and you'll be hooked.

3) This game is not a graphical powerhouse. It's a current-generation game, and with the exception of some really great effects, it doesn't ltechnically look up to par with a lot of games on the market currently.

4) This is my biggest complaint. I want voice-acting dammit. The writing is so well-done that the comedic value of the dialogue would have just skyrocketed with solid voice-acting behind it. As it stands, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is the funniest of the Mario RPGs. Had this game had full-blown voice acting, it could have taken the number-one spot.

5) This is a flaw that I did not list above simply because there was nowhere to put it. It's not something you can blame directly on the game, it's just my explanation for why this game isn't going to score higher than what I give it. It's standing in the shadow of Super Mario RPG. SMRPG is one of the greatest games ever concieved, and a lot of it had to do with Square's characters, plot and scenarios. TTYD is the closest that Nintendo has come to topping SMRPG, but they still have a little ways to go before they can usurp the first game from it's throne.


Overall

Honestly, what the hell else can I possibly say about this game? When the first Paper Mario was announced, I was positive that it would not be of a high enough caliber to best SMRPG. I was right. The first Paper Mario is an awesome game, but it is my least favorite of the four. Mario & Luigi proceeded to one-up Paper Mario with greatly expanded gameplay and more rib-splitting comedy than I have ever personally encountered in a videogame before or since. The Thousand-Year Door trumps both by bringing the best graphical presenation of the entire series, a ton of great comedy, and a ridiculous number of gameplay expansions and alterations. On top of that, TTYD features the best characterization and atmosphere of the three, and has a lot of genuinely touching and dramatic moments to offer the player.

However, something is still missing from the whole package. Maybe it's the environmental structure, maybe it's the retreading of character types like Goombas and Koopa Troopas instead of creating brand new types of characters like Frogfucius or Mallow, or maybe it's the lack of a character parade at the end of the game (seriously, every Mario RPG besides TTYD features a full parade during the credits with floats, fireworks and everything. What the hell, Nintendo?). Maybe it's the fact that Booster is still nowhere to be found! One way or another, something is still not clicking in the same way that Super Mario RPG did.

But, standing on it's own merits, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is a fantastic game, and anyone who has even the slightest speck of interest in the title should give it a shot. You will be completely devoured by the character, atmosphere and presentation of the game. You will obsess over your Badge collection. You will search every corner of the game in order to uncover every last crumb of extra crap that you can. You will play, replay and re-replay the Bowser levels until your eyes cross. You will enjoy this game, because if you don't, your heart is made of ice and God hates you.

Score: 9.3

Last edited by Raziel; 2005-01-14 at 04:34 AM.
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