After defeating the blooper, the player gains access to a warp pipe that sends them directly into Petal Meadows, an upbeat little splash of, well, meadows with some darkness lingering within. Shortly after leaving the pipe, the player is immediately introduced to the main antagonist of the chapter: Hooktail, a large red dragon who flies overhead into her castle shown in the distance.
The entirety of Petal Meadows isn’t too expansive. Only including the trek to Petalburg, the main rest area of the chapter, it spans three rooms, even with the room the player comes into through the pipe. Running from end to end (while not battling enemies) takes roughly ten seconds. If not for a bridge you have to construct in the third room (done via secret switch), this area would go by in a flash, as there’s nothing much to gain rather than experience, an item block in the second room, and a few star pieces. All of the other goodies are restricted until the player acquires their next partner.
On an aesthetic level, this section is lacking, but has a nice suitable accompanying track. It has a nice vibe with the vividness of the greenery and the scattering of leaves everywhere, but seems to be shown as an afterthought without any additional effort. There are a few obviously placed secrets that a baby could figure out and only the most basic of enemies appear, making it almost like another trial run within a new area. The aforementioned track that accompanies it does well enough to keep the area memorable with its upbeat and festive nature, but it also plays past Petalburg as well, so it leaves little impression for that particular area.
Petalburg itself is the highlight of the overall calm and serene atmosphere the area tries to convey. It houses a variety of species such as Koopas, Bob-ombs, Toads, and a few Bub-ulbs. The music is much slower than that outside of it and focuses more on harmony than catchiness. It may be the first time in the game thus far that a track improves the mood through means of pure ambiance. The buildings and surrounding area of Petalburg are typically paper-like and simple in design, but colorful enough to make the area pop. Much like the area before, Petalburg isn’t too expansive. It spans a total of two rooms and has about five or six buildings the player can enter, including the shop and the inn. As a rest area, it serves as just that: a rest area. It isn’t meant to be explored or researched, but it still feels like a blip on the overall map of the chapter.
To advance further, the player has to talk to the (one of very many throughout the game) old leader of the town/residence/clan. After going through most “old people” jokes, he tells Mario about two stone keys needed in order to enter Hooktail’s castle, and gives him permission to travel outside Petalburg along the path to Shhwonk Fortress. Before departing, a young Koopa named Koops tries to grab your attention so that he can join your team, but chickens out at the last moment.
Further on, Petal Meadows becomes a little more grim, complete with archaic architecture and dungeon-like remnants along the path. The music stays the same as when the player enters the beginning of the area, so the area doesn’t imply anything more than what it shows. There are fewer secrets to unveil within this area, and the path, aside from a few jumps to higher grounds, is almost a straightforward left-to-right line. It fuels variety aesthetically, but little for overall level design. The only saving grace is the addition of Koopa Troopa enemies that add a little variety to battles. However, within two rooms along this path come enemies that cannot be harmed unless the player uses Power Smash (for the first room) or a POW Block item. This comes off as somewhat cheap, as the game gives little indication that these enemies are practically invincible to most attacks beforehand, almost as if letting the player fall into a pitfall to have them try and dig themselves out. The only hint is an item block that you can get along the way that harbors a POW Block.
Once the player gets to the end of the trail, they are met with a Thwomp statue that challenges them to battle. And by battle, it means a quiz show. Remember that in the original Paper Mario? Yeah, they brought it back. The questions (aside from one) are pretty simple and shouldn’t be an issue with anyone actually paying attention to the game. Once defeated, the statue will reveal a pipe that leads down to an underground chasm of Shhwonk Fortress. I always found this part particularly annoying, seeing as you’re simply running from the farthest left point to the farthest right point collecting each stone key while battling against life-sucking Fuzzies. There are no objects or any interesting indications of ruin or decay. It’s just a standard underground sewer. Pro tip: Fire Flowers are a lovely item to have in store for this section. The battle against the Golden Fuzzy is a nice mini-boss battle, though.
And thus the player has to backtrack all the way back to the beginning of the area, from whence they came out of the first warp pipe. The one good thing about the areas being relatively small is that the travel time isn’t too time-consuming. However, it does feel a little like padding, personally. The Thousand-Year Door has a bit of an issue of requiring the player to traverse back and forth from certain points in a specific area in order to advance the game. A lot of the necessary actions require fetch quests and most cutscenes are triggered upon conditional specifications that require the player to go back and forth between rooms. Not only does it pad the game’s playtime, but it shirks the player’s motivation to continue on with the game. It’s easy to feel deflated when you’re going through the same rooms with the same enemies and defeating them the same way two or three times over only to advance the game.
During your travel back to the first room, Koops will return yet again and will actually ask this time if he can join your party so he can seek revenge on Hooktail. Because you
‘re forced‘ll obviously say yes, he jumps for joy as the game tells you his benefits. For this section of the game, he’s a lot more useful than Goombella (he’s supposed to be) and his ability is also incredibly useful for battle. The player can shoot Koops at certain switches and enemies and can even hold him there when holding the “X” button. I’m a fan of holding him in place and luring an enemy straight into him. Continuing along, the player puts the stone keys into their places, honors the conditions that are basically letting the player practice Koops’s ability, and a pipe appears leading to the front of Hooktail’s Castle.
Hooktail’s Castle is exactly that: a castle. I’ve never been a huge fan of the overall design of the place, but can appreciate that the challenges faced within make up for it. There are a variety of things such as new enemies, time trials, floating blocks, and taking full use of Koops’s ability. I really enjoy the importance that Koops has within this chapter, and by chapter’s end I feel he was as reliable a partner as I could possibly have throughout that chapter, which can’t be said for every acquirable partner. Hooktail’s Castle offers a nice amount of challenges and only minimal amounts of absurd backtracking, while also sufficing to build up the legend of Hooktail herself, all that chose to combat her, and some nice foreshadowing (albeit blunt) geared towards Hooktail’s weakness, despite how trivial it may be. The one true complaint I have for this first dungeon is the soundtrack. The ambiance is fine and the tune itself is, too, but after spending so much time within this first dungeon… it gets repetitive very quickly. I found myself slowly losing my sanity the more I hummed to the tune. There’s something about it that gets to me.
Another small note about Hooktail’s Castle is that it’s the first area in the game thus far that actually feels BIG. Not only does it span a large number of rooms, but the rooms themselves are large, making the ground floor and the upper levels of a few rooms just as important to explore to advance the game or investigate for secrets. There’s even a point where Mario goes outside the castle and along its edges. With as much ground you cover, the build-up to the top of the castle where Hooktail looms becomes all the more appreciative.
Oh, by the way, you find another Black Chest in this dungeon. It makes Mario paper-thin so he can slip through cracks and bars. The shtick is the same. This is also the first time you meet Ms. Mowz, a mouse-like badge thief that is one of 673 female characters to kiss/swoon over Mario. She hints at Hooktail’s weakness (though by that point one could’ve already gotten it) and provides next to nothing plot-wise. I guess the game just wanted a female thief… because RPGs never have those lying around.
Let me make this abundantly clear: if you found Hooktail’s weakness (which I always do), the boss battle against her is a piece of cake. The item makes her attacks weaker, her defense weaker, and her attacks sometimes outright miss you. It makes the boss battle somewhat dull, but satisfying in an almost “I found out your secret weakness!” sort of way. When you drop her health to zero, she’ll try to convince her way out of your onslaught by trying to entice you with coins, a rare badge, or the prospect… of smelling her feet. All of these are lies in order for her to get a free shot in at you. Denying all of these will have her burst into the audience of the battle (more on them in another entry) and eat some of them, allowing her to regain health. This is pretty gruesome for a game that’s rated E, but I loved it as a kid. You continue the battle without an audience until you finally defeat her. If there’s anything else to note about her battle, it’s that her battle theme is pretty uninspired.
The chapter ends as Hooktail spits up Koops’s father, who has been missing for ten years and Koops’s main motivation for seeking revenge on Hooktail. Koops and his father have a semi-corny reunion as his father explains (badly) how he was able to survive being in a dragon’s digestive system for ten years. Koops then mentions the Crystal Star, which his father realizes was in his possession the entire time, despite not knowing its identity. He gives it to Mario as the “End of Chapter” animation plays with the Crystal Star spinning around Mario to the point where it appears over his head.
The entirety of Chapter 1 is one of stark contrasts (which is a bit of a running theme in this game). Within the depths of the sunny and bright Petal Meadows is a dark and dull fortress and a castle harboring the corpses of many Koopas. It shows the cliché nature of “Not everything is as it seems on the surface” in a standard fashion without really highlighting it, which may be better in the long run. The characters within the chapter are pretty relatable and have a magnitude of growth to them (even if their original state is easy to develop). The only real complaints I have are with the overall length and depth of Petal Meadows and the overabundance of backtracking before reaching Hooktail’s Castle. On top of that, the choices of music for certain areas could also be improved. Otherwise, Chapter 1 is a huge improvement over the Prologue and serves as a nice starting point for the rest of the game. The battles outside of Hooktail Castle (and even inside it, to a degree) still aren’t too invigorating with the overall lack of badges and small variety of enemies and partners, but are difficult enough to at least pay attention to your plan B’s. It’s a fun chapter and a memorable one, especially in terms of character relation, but is still far from the best moments of the game. But before we get to the best parts, we have to get through the worst parts.
(All gameplay screenshots again courtesy of PlayingWithMahWii.)