Title: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
Developer: Intelligent Systems
July 22, 2004 (Japan), October 11, 2004 (North America), November 12, 2004 (Europe)
1 GameCube mini-DVD
E (Everyone), Mild Cartoon Violence
Nintendo has a long history of exploring different game genres, while using characters from their flagship franchises to boost the resulting games's marketability. Off-series offerings starring Yoshi (Yoshi Touch and Go), Wario (Wario Ware, Inc.), Luigi (Luigi's Mansion), and other supporting characters have surfaced over the past few years, but Mario himself headlines the lion's share of these games. Some of the best-known Mario games are the Mario RPGs, beginning with the Square-developed Super Mario RPG in the last days of the SNES. The original Paper Mario was one of the standout games of the late N64 era; a GameCube sequel thus became inevitable. Arriving a year after the 2D Mario RPG Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door carries on the surreal graphical style of the original Paper Mario and adds gameplay, style and structure all its own.
Plot (minor spoilers)
While travelling around the Mushroom Kingdom, Princess Peach finds a treasure map, which she mails back to Mario to get him to come help her find the treasure. Mario thus travels to Rogueport, where he finds that (big surprise) Peach has been kidnapped. While there, Mario befriends a Goomba girl named Goombella who helps him unravel the secret of the map, first in the sewers below Rogueport, and then in various locations near Rogueport. They also find that Peach has not been kidnapped by the usual Bowser, but rather by a new group called the "X-Nauts". The game follows Mario and his various allies as they attempt to find the treasure and save Peach, but also Peach as she works to escape the X-Nauts, and Bowser, who's royally ticked off that someone else managed to kidnap the Princess.
All of the Mario RPG games are traditional RPGs with some action elements mixed in, and Paper Mario: TTYD is no different. Mario travels through various free-roaming areas, talking to people, visiting shops and houses, finding treasure, solving puzzles, and fighting enemies, who are fought in a turn-based command-driven manner that incorporates various skillful timing exercises.
Mario's free-roaming field adventures are the usual RPG fare, enlivened by various puzzles to be solved using Mario's and his partners's special abilities. Mario himself can jump and swing hammers, both of which get upgraded to more powerful moves through the game, while his partners have their own abilities: Goombellla describes places and people (often with embedded hints), while Koops pulls into his shell and shoots across the screen, and Yoshi lets Mario ride him for increased speed and also to hover over gaps, just to give a few examples.
These (fairly) conventional platformer abilities are supplemented with a number of abilities that arise through the paper-thin nature of Paper Mario characters. Over his adventure, Mario finds several ghosts in chests that 'curse' him with new contortions, from the simple ability to turn perpendicular to the screen, and thus pass through narrow gaps, to the ability to fold into a paper plane or boat and travel through air and water in ways impossible before.
In the course of his journey, Mario encounters a diverse variety of characters, from the usual Mushroom People, Goombas, and Koopas to newer Mario races such as the Piantas and Paper Mario-specific races like Punies and Doogans. Rogueport serves as a hub from which Mario can visit numerous landscapes, from a fairly ordinary meadowed area to an eerie black-and-white forest and a ritzy luxury train. Overall, the cavernous field stages provide an ample ground for exploration, and also for battle...
Mario fights with one partner; this partner can be switched in the middle of battle for any other member of Mario's party, but no more than one of Mario's allies can be in battle at any given time. Mario gets two modes of attack, jumping and hammering, while all of the allies are limited to one. All attacks have basic forms and more powerful forms gained through level progression or by equipping special items called Badges. Virtually all non-basic attacks cost Flower Points, or FP, the stock of which is held in common through the party as is typical for the Mario RPG series.
A hallmark of Mario RPGs is Action Commands, better known as 'timed hits'. Each attack has some controller action that increases the effectiveness of the attack, usually involving accurate timing. The simplest Action Command is for Mario's jump attack and Goombella's functionally-equivalent Headbonk attack; if the player presses the A button right when Mario or Goombella makes contact with the enemy, he or she will jump up and down for a second hit. More powerful attacks often have execution of Action Commands as their central aspect. For example, Goombella's second level attack allows for as many chained jumps as the player can pull off. However, not all Action Commands involve timed button presses; for example, Mario's hammer attack requires holding back the Control Stick and releasing it at the appropriate time, Yoshi's jump attack has a meter that fills up with button-mashing, and Vivian's attack requires the player to press a random sequence of four buttons in a set time.
Action Commands also work on defence. If the player presses the A button when an enemy attack hits Mario or his partner, the damage from the attack is reduced. If the player presses the B button instead, the damage from the attack is completely eliminated and Mario or his partner counterattacks, doing a small amount of damage. However, the timing for a B button defence must be considerably more precise than for an A button defence; often much hangs on the snap decision to use one or the other.
The Stage of Battle
Paper Mario: TTYD's battle screen is unusually set up as a theatre, where the battle between Mario's party and their enemies is on stage, being watched by an audience. This has a variety of effects. The simplest is that various on-stage incidents affect the flow of battle. Scenery can tip over damaging all combatants, for example, or objects can drop down from above the stage and hit someone.
The most significant part of the theatre setting is, of course, the audience. Audience numbers vary depending upon the skill displayed on stage, and the bigger the audience, the better. The audience affects on-stage action in several ways. The most direct is that certain types of audience members throw objects at Mario. These may be beneficial items, but they may also be hazardous objects such as hammers or rocks. Mario can rush off stage and knock an audience member out of the stands by pressing the X button before the audience member is able to throw the item, but there may not be enough time to tell which kind of item it is. Different audience members throw different things, from X-nauts who always seek to harm Mario, to Luigi who throws only items that will help Mario (and fairly frequently, too).
The audience also contributes to Mario's battle efforts in a more powerful way. Through the course of the adventure Mario finds powerful abilities called Special Moves, which draw on Star Power rather than Flower Points. Star Power is gained through the approval of the audience. Completing Action Commands and defeating enemies pleases the audience, but they are more pleased about additional actions specifically directed to them. Mario or his partner have the Appeal command, which uses up a turn and brings in large amounts of Star Power, which is useful in a pinch since the only useful healing abilities are Special Moves, but it costs a valuable action. More economically, the regular attacks have additional, secret Action Commands called Stylish moves, whose sole purpose is to excite the audience and pump up Mario's Star Power.
Graphics, Sound and Music
Paper Mario: TTYD's apparent graphical simplicity belies both attention to detail and consistency in applying the 'paper' motif to the entire world. Mario, and for that matter all other beings in this world, are portrayed as paper thin figures, identical on the two sides, that almost always remain parallel to the view direction. Although they 'flip around' when doing a 180 degree turn, different perspectives appear when they move toward or away from the camera; though this is a departure from a strict paper figure appearance, it does provide needed feedback. Larger boss enemies, rather than appearing as paper figures, appear as complex origami figures that often do not even fit within the bounds of the screen.
The characters are not the only things designed around the paper theme, though. When Mario and company enter a building, a wall folds down like paper to give us a view inside. Travelling through a pipe is accompanied by the scene appearing to roll up and flow off the screen. Dungeon walls may have loose parts that can be blown off to reveal secrets, and changes in the world are revealed in flip-book style a frame at a time. Overall, the paper motif is followed with remarkable consistency.
The surreal world of Paper Mario is not only based on the paper motif, but is also influenced by the compromises made by early video games in the matter of realism. Like an old-school platformer, virtually all the places in the field are built on hexagonal platforms suspended above an unseen (but presumably present) void. Many screens have a foreground and a separate background, which Mario can warp between using pipes, mimicing the limited 2D layers of SNES- and especially NES-era side-scrollers. This theme, like the paper theme, is applied consistently, and without a hint of irony.
The sound effects in the game are functional and good, but not massively immersive. Attacks thump and bump and slap and boom and generally give good feedback, but there is little of the 'extraneous' sound that makes, say, Final Fantasy X's battles seem more real. Music is a mix of new ideas and classic Mario tunes, which in general is catchy but not especially memorable, in contrast to Yoko Shimomura's wonderfully whimsical score for Mario and Luigi, which recalled her score for the original Super Mario RPG.
One major criticism given in the sound department is its lack of voice acting for the vast quantities of text in the game. Nevertheless, it is in keeping with the generally retro style of the rest of the game, and is compensated for by its marvelous text engine, similar to that in Mario and Luigi. Font size, animated characters, and bolding are implemented in such a way as to convey much more than just the literal text, which is useful for Paper Mario's large and idiosyncratic cast.
One thing about Paper Mario that is difficult to classify is its developers's skill in presentation. Longtime Nintendo fans will spot many references to earlier Mario games, as well as older games by Intelligent Systems, including the original Paper Mario and Fire Emblem. At the end of each chapter, there is one sequence with Princess Peach and one with Bowser, with a strong contrast between Peach's earnest and serious attempts at escape and Bowser's humourous struggles against both the X-Nauts and his and his minion's utter lunk-headedness. Three of Bowser's sequences involve him moving through imitations of stages from the original Super Mario Brothers; outside, underground, and castle. At one point Mario and company transform into 1985-era forms, with authentic-looking sprites for all of Mario's partners. All of this is done with a gentle good humour; though not an outright comedy like Superstar Saga, Intelligent Systems clearly had their wits about them while making Paper Mario.
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is one of the standout games in the first-party GameCube catalogue. Upon its release, it somewhat outshadowed Metroid Prime 2: Echoes to become the major GC release of fall 2004. Along with Tales of Symphonia, it finally brought quality traditional RPG gameplay to the GameCube, and should be in the collection of any RPG fan with a GameCube.
This writeup is copyright 2005 by me and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.5/ .