Today, the Mario RPG scene tends to be synonymous with Mario & Luigi, a rather fun series that finds its home on Nintendo’s family of handhelds. It’s easy to forget that there’s another flavor of Mario RPG, typically on consoles, one that’s been missing in action for quite a while (or so we’d like to pretend, because I’ve heard Sticker Star wasn’t very good at all). Of course, I’m talking about Paper Mario. We had 2007’s Super Paper Mario, and as much as I remember enjoying it as a kid, it’s not really an RPG, so we’ll have to take a look back even further, at 2004’s The Thousand-Year Door.
Yes, you heard right, 2004. That’s over ten years ago, that’s the year Halo 2 and Half-Life 2 came out, that’s the year Spider-Man 2 and Harry Potter 3 hit theaters, that’s the year Samurai Champloo started airing (may Manglobe rest in peace). A decade is a long time, and video games in particular have taken great strides since then, but every so often it’s nice to step back and relive a classic… or just live it if you never managed to play it in the first place, as is the case with me and The Thousand-Year Door. So, from the perspective of a jaded 2015 gamer, let’s see how it holds up.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below.
Oh and, by the by, I’ve undergone some renovations and removed the “ugly” segment to present a more streamlined experience, so don’t go thinking that this game is automatically fantabulous just because I mention only “good” and “bad”.
One day, Mario receives a letter from Princess Peach, saying that she has discovered a treasure map in Rogueport and asking for Mario’s help to find the treasure. Once Mario arrives, however, Peach is nowhere to be found, and suspicious X-Nauts are harassing the citizens about something called Crystal Stars. With the help of the locals, Mario proceeds to collect these Crystal Stars, unraveling the mysterious connections between the Stars, the X-Nauts, Peach’s disappearance and the ominous thousand-year old door beneath Rogueport.
Yeah, I know. That was short. It’s a Mario game, what’d you want from me? It’s not exactly a Pulitzer prize winning manuscript.
The Badge System
At its core, the battle mechanics of Thousand-Year Door are very simple. You have two basic attacks, the jump and the hammer (each of which are varyingly effective depending on the type of enemy), and Mario’s partner brings a special third attack, ranging from a simple headbutt to a large-scale explosion. Where things get interesting is when you level up, because there is no way to directly increase your offensive or defensive power. Mario’s jump and hammer will always do the same amount of damage (except for a handful of items you’re forced to pick up as you go). So, it falls to the player to select what they can upgrade, being either HP (health), FP (flower points, which power special moves) or BP (badge points, which allow you to equip more badges).
Pro-tip: Always upgrade Badge Points. Badges are where any customization and depth to the battle system comes into play. They’re items that, when equipped, deliver a wide range of effects. One badge could simply give you a more powerful hammer swing, another could make you immune to poison, a third could let you switch partners without taking up a turn (a very useful ability, I must add), and a fourth could let you attack enemies indefinitely as long as you have good timing. The point is, the number and variety of badges available, especially if you’re willing to work for them, lets you shape Mario into a man that can fit any playstyle. Do you find yourself not using that special move? Just get rid of it, and use the badge points on something else! It’s not a revolutionary battle system by any means, but it worked and was more than fun enough for the game that Thousand-Year Door was trying to be...
An Un-Mario Mario
… which just so happens to be a very atypical Mario game, especially in terms of setting, subject matter and even tone. Rogueport is not a pleasant town; it’s grimy, downtrodden and packed to the brim with thugs, pickpockets and Pianta mafia, but once he steps outside of its borders, Mario wanders into some even stranger areas. One chapter that vividly comes to mind is Twilight Town, a village in perpetual near-nighttime that is cursed to have its inhabitants slowly turn into pigs, an act that occurs right in front of your eyes. Another is literally the moon. Mario is shot via cannon to the moon. The impact of this moment might be dampened a bit, with the advent of the Galaxy games and Super Paper Mario’s own moon trip, but it’s important to remember that Thousand-Year Door predated both of them by years, and even so is only one memorable location in a game dotted with them. When you think “Mario”, the average gamer wouldn’t think of a WWE-style fighting ring or a supernatural mystery on a high-class train ride, but Thousand-Year Door doesn’t care, and in doing becomes, if nothing else, a very unique Mario game.
That uniqueness is exacerbated by the lineup of characters, particularly Mario’s battle partners. Again, this is Mario, so you’re not gonna see any people that stick with you for years thanks to the depth of their personalities (nearly everyone is in fact very one-note), but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun time. Where else could you see Mario team up with classic enemies like Goombas, Koopas, and Bob-ombs? What’s that? The original Paper Mario? Well, uh, yeah, that’s true, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it I guess. And, as someone who’s never played the original, I liked the cast. A standout character, for being one of the “realest”, was Admiral Bobbery, a former ship captain stricken by grief after the death of his wife while he was away at sea. Coincidentally, Bobbery was also one of my favorites in battle because of his high attack and HP values.
Despite being over a decade old, Thousand-Year Door’s memorability is accentuated by its graphics. The visual style of Paper Mario lends itself to a true timelessness, reminiscent of a well-made cartoon more than anything else. Putting aside the relatively low 480p resolution inherent to the Gamecube, Thousand-Year Door is a game that will look good almost indefinitely, because it emphasizes design over actual technical acuity, which is a threshold I wish more creators would shoot for.
LIke most of the Mario RPGs I’ve played, Thousand-Year Door has a very active sense of humor… I struggle to say much more on the matter beyond that. It’s just a funny game, with an effective mix of both subtle and, er, less-subtle jokes with wonderfully absurd moments sprinkled throughout.
Bowser, despite his relatively infrequent appearances, is (as always) a highlight. He’s a bumbling fool of a Koopa King, completely confident in his superiority despite being trounced by Mario at every turn. At this point I suppose it’s worth mentioning that Bowser is in fact playable for a couple brief moments that parody the original Super Mario Bros. I’m frankly not exactly sure why these bits were thrown in, but they were a nice change of pace and never overstayed their welcome, so I won’t complain.
The Music (kinda sorta)
I also won’t complain about the soundtrack, though I’m not as enamored with it as some other people. It was fine and functional in the moment, and rarely if ever outright bad, but I really wouldn’t go out of my way to listen to it now that the game is over. It just didn’t have much staying power for me. With the exception of the battle theme (which, in a JRPG, you’re pretty much guaranteed to memorize from the number of times you’ll have to hear it), I can only remember maybe one or two songs. To be sure, certainly not a bad soundtrack, but not terribly noteworthy either.
The main antagonist of Thousand-Year Door is the X-Nauts’ supreme leader, Sir Grodus. At a glance, he seems like a pretty cool villain. Visually, he has what it takes, with the machinery and whatnot in his skull plus that ominous fashion sense, with a staff to cap it all off… but that’s about the only thing you’ll remember of him. Grodus is a boring villain. His brilliant master plan, get this, is to take over the world by awakening an ancient, supernatural power. If you want an idea of how well that works out, I refer you to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
A villain’s colorful demeanor can overshadow their lackluster plans, but Grodus is as generically stoic and fist-shakingly evil as you get, right down to his almost absurd level of self-confidence and disdain for underlings. In a game as consistently funny or at least weird as Thousand-Year Door, Grodus sticks out like a sore thumb for being so utterly unremarkable. And you can’t even use the excuse of “it’s a Mario game! How can you expect the villains to be good?” because Super Paper Mario had a fantastic villain, in the form of Count Bleck.
Wait, Where Do I Go?
For better or worse, I have no further complaints with the story or characters of Thousand-Year Door. The rest of my issues are focused solely on the gameplay. The first is that, on rare occasions, the method to progress is difficult to discern. To put it more simply, I didn’t know how to continue. Go ahead, laugh all you want about how I got slipped up by a family-friendly game, but you’d understand if you’ve played Thousand-Year Door for yourself. Every so often, the criteria for progression is almost frustratingly unfair. It got to the point where, as a young child who did actually give Thousand-Year Door a shot, I had to drop the game and leave it for over a decade, until now, when I’ve decided to come back… and I still had some problems.
Let me paint you a picture. I am in the second to last chapter of the game. To proceed, I must meet up with Goldbob and General White, two Bob-ombs of exactly the coloration you’d expect. And that’s it, that’s all I have to go on. The whole of the game world is open to me, and I have to find these two with no guidance whatsoever. Goldie isn’t too much of a hassle, because you’re forced to directly interact with him at least once prior. White, on the other hand, is the biggest pain in the ass. For one, you’re expected to somehow remember a random, unimportant civilian from the very first chapter of the game and then, once you travel to his old location, talk to the one specific person who knows where he went. For two, once you do talk to this person, Whitey sends you on a wild-goose chase across the entire map, a literal chain of visiting every area in the game, only to hear “oh, ya just missed him! I think he was going to this other area,” and the whole affair is one of the dullest, most annoying bits of padding I’ve experienced in quite a while.
The odyssey with General White is symbolic of a larger issue that regularly plagued Thousand-Year Door: backtracking. You’ll be lucky to come across a chapter of the game that doesn’t force you to navigate through the same scenery at least once, and sometimes as many as five times over! What’s worse is that the reasons for this backtracking are often incredibly contrived. Here’s an example. You start at a castle and discover an enemy’s secret weak point. You leave the castle and travel all the way through a forest to confront the enemy. Once they realize you know their weakness, they flee to the castle, forcing you to go all the way back through the forest to get to them. Oh, and did I mention that before this point you’d already navigated through the forest thrice?
It feels awfully lazy, as if Nintendo wasn’t happy with the length of their game but didn’t have the time or money to design more levels, so they resorted to looping pre-existing maps as much as they could. I honestly would’ve preferred a shorter game, rather than forcing me to replay the same sections again and again. Alternatively, they could’ve at least changed up the enemy formations even if they absolutely had to recycle the environments. Sadly, that is not the game we got.
Even when Thousand-Year Door doesn’t reuse its architecture, it can start to drag, as in chapters go on for a bit too long and I start to get bored. However, I would say this is a small issue because, comparatively, it is. The game was designed well-enough that (outside of the aforementioned backtracking), it had a tendency to shake things up just as tedium was beginning to set in. (It’s certainly no Persona Q, where repetition was the name of the game.) Ultimately, while not being a problem I can completely overlook, the final dungeon was the only point where the length and pacing really started to get on my nerves.
Thousand-Year Door wasn’t a bad game, for sure. Generally, I have fond memories and the experience, as a Mario game, was unique. The dialogue was funny, the combat deep enough, and my only major gripe is the appalling amounts of backtracking - but even so, I can’t help but feel something was missing, something that held me back from enjoying the journey to its full potential.
So, after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S, I award Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door a B rating. This is where that “subjective enjoyment” bit has a stronger influence than usual. On paper, everything about the game leans slightly towards A, but I just can’t. I never had that “wow, I love this” moment or even that “wow, I really like this” moment. My emotions were fairly neutral for more or less the whole time, and the rating reflects that.