The magic of Mario-themed RPGs is nothing short of universally acclaimed. Aside from the roots of the Paper Mario franchise, the Mario & Luigi RPG franchise still chugs along without skipping a beat. Nintendo has that special spark with RPG games rivaling those made by Square Enix, though for different reasons altogether. Despite the differences, both have provided decades of enjoyment and verbal wit when it comes to the nitty-gritty of RPG fervor. What may perhaps be the shining beacon of passion for the genre comes in the form of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, the most beloved title in the Paper Mario series and the game all other Paper Mario games are compared to. It was among my most cherished and nostalgic games of my childhood; with twelve years between then and now, the magic of my own nostalgia has worn off and the game’s true value comes to light. Or more appropriately, the door is opened slightly further than ever before.
What has become a staple of the Paper Mario franchise over anything else is the level of commitment to making the dialogue as colorful and impressionable as possible. The amount of detail to running gags, quirky characters, flipping the script, and even some meta humor is more than heart-warming. Within Thousand-Year Door, the dialogue takes center stage in each and every chapter like a doting mother. The story is driven by dialogue, by characters’ expectations and motivations. There’s a noticeable force among every conversation, whether it be an integral aspect to moving the plot forward or even side characters with no point of existing whatsoever. There’s a love put forth that extends beyond the coding and technical jargon of making a game. There’s a harnessing of spirit and strength to ensure the player feels attached to every aspect of every snippet of the game. It helps improve the memorability of the areas, the characters, and what to reminisce going back upon replays. While not always funny, it has humor for a variety of different people, while sprinkling the clichés of other well-known RPGs with unabashed vigor.
With dialogue driving the plot, it becomes wholly apparent that dialogue can only do so much to drive the plot forward in different ways. Should one pay attention, the chapters being played out subsequently one after another have a noticeable familiarity to them that speaks volumes. While the characters and dialogue remain consistently sporadic enough to entertain, the situations are formulaic and don’t require a lot of effort to think up. A huge indicator of this is the extreme number of fetch quests and backtracking the player has to do in order to advance. It creates an emotional slog of probable cause, simulating the walls between the player and the end of the maze as a single straight line with minor hedges inhibiting progress. This issue isn’t so apparent that one would feel as though every chapter is exactly alike, but it happens enough to entertain the idea.
As I’ve noted a few times within my Traveling Thoughts of the series, Thousand-Year Door, despite being a Gamecube title released over ten years ago, rivals that of games released only a couple years ago in simplistic charm and vibrancy. Art direction is a major factor in the quality of the game, with a number of different skins and costumes to differentiate individual characters. While many are familiar with the original design of Toad, within the borders of Thousand-Year Door, there are a number of different kinds of Toads ranging from colors, costumes, and even hair styles. Not only Toad, but many different creatures and species within the Mushroom Kingdom return with their own private wardrobes, including (but not limited to) Goombas, Koopas, Piantas, and Bob-ombs. Even so, the number of new creatures present accentuates the feeling of being outside the range of the Mushroom Kingdom. Even said new creatures are given a variety of different versions—to the point where some may question the level of effort in creating more species. If nothing else, one might only need to look at the box cover and be enticed to at least try it out.
Despite all of the different factors to characters, dialogue, and settings, there’s a mundaneness in long stretches of playtime. Much to the chagrin of the charm of the dialogue and character count, the amount of traveling from place to place leaves much to the imagination. The player spends a good portion of their time walking back and forth from place to place, encountering enemies and little side-puzzles to keep them busy in the meantime—with only little of this changing as the chapter count increases. If one doesn’t have a specific way to keep themselves entertained and the dialogue doesn’t do much for them, they won’t find much fun outside of battles. The puzzles, while occasionally challenging, are pretty complacent. The level of effort put into the environment of each room doesn’t exude that same energy as the wordplay of the environments’ denizens. It almost feels like a big, empty room on occasion, depending on the situation. The interactivity one can do outside battles through the use of the Jump and Hammer abilities give a little shine to an otherwise darkened sanctuary, though not by much.
Inside of battles is a different story altogether. The battle system to Thousand-Year Door is simplistic at best, but immensely entertaining and satisfying when the player can bend their abilities to their whim. The number of items one can use can really turn the tide of battle, while also taking advantage of certain strengths such as high defenses or airborne threats. The number of different things one can do are within a certain scope, but can be expanded upon through use of badges, which allow Mario and his partners to do a variety of different attacks and benefits to the party. The inclusion of an audience that occasionally interferes with the battle is also a hilariously inconvenient way of loosening up battles. Whether they be for or against you, it’s almost random how things can turn out during long bouts. It’s an extremely addicting aspect to what could be aggravating in other RPG games, as I find myself clamoring for battle at almost all times. Every little bit of experience points are nice, but it’s decimating the opponents without a second thought that gets me going. The little things in life.
There’s a fine line between making fun of clichés by inclusion and simply furthering the clichés by inclusion. In terms of quantity and quality, quantity is a much more heavy factor in this case, with a number of different familiar elements to the genre making cameos within Thousand-Year Door‘s story. One will likely grow tired of the “Old people are cranky and hard of hearing” jokes that litter throughout the story, as well as the bad guy blasting off again. One would also likely be appalled by the ending sequences. It weighs down an already exuberant story with something most are already familiar with—or will be with time, assuming they still play video games afterwards. It adds to the monotony to every chapter despite being different enough to be differentiated.
At the end of the day, does Thousand-Year Door really add anything to the Mario universe? Does it give the impression of a favorably canon storyline worth going through? Altogether, I think so. There’s a lot of charm to the game that many hold dear, and with good reason. It’s an established and test-proven formula that works for a lot of people while injecting just enough Nintendo magic to boost it further than others. Even so, the game is simplistic in its approach to progression and storytelling, and is ultimately much more similar to others within the genre than it lets on—good and bad. If I were to cement its status with a single word, I would choose “effort,” as the game puts a tremendous amount of effort into making everything great about the game as great as possible. Unfortunately, effort can only do so much when leaning on basics and stereotypes as a crutch, leaving the game with a lot less substance gameplay-wise than I remember from my youth.
Final Score: 6.5/10
The rating for this title and more can be found on MyVideoGameList.
(All gameplay screenshots for this review and every individual piece courtesy of PlayingWithMahWii, Mojoz, gothwood9, PKSparkxx DatHottneSS, chuggaaconroy, NamiNami, and Yoshiller.)