Traveling Thoughts on Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Chapter 6)

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Chapter 6

There’s a stark competition within my household upon the topic of what the best chapter is within this game. Before recently, I would have cited Chapter 3 as my favorite, while two of my younger siblings would have cited the chapter being discussed today: Chapter 6. To this day, they have a firm belief that this, of all chapters, trumps the others easily. Playing it again, I still don’t think so, but there are definitely aspects to it to be admired.

The beginning to this chapter, like many chapters after Chapter 2, requires the player to satisfy a condition before even setting foot within the area the chapter takes place in. This time—perhaps because they felt they needed to re-visit the Pianta Mafia—Mario once again has to obtain a ticket from Don Pianta in order to board the Excess Express, a fancy train that leads into Poshley Heights, the location of the next Crystal Star. Meeting up with the Don will lead the player into a chain of, you guessed it, fetch quests in order to advance further in the game. I would mention more about the topic of concern with this story arc, but I feel it’s ultimately unnecessary. Just know that it involves Frankie and Francesca and a lot of B-tapping. After receiving the ticket from Don Pianta, Mario can then ride in the Excess Express, triggering the beginning of the chapter.

Being on the train is where things start to become more entertaining. It requires the player to explore and talk to the denizens within the train in order to advance the story. Eventually, the player will meet up with a penguin character who fancies himself a detective. You all know where this is headed, right? Exploring further will transition into a chain of events that will serve as the lead focus of the chapter: mystery-solving. Ah! I forgot to mention, but before boarding the train, a cut scene plays showing Mario and whichever partner the player has out at that point discussing the Crystal Star being at Poshley Heights. Upon its mentioning, Beldam will rise up from the ground and thank them for revealing the star’s location as she fades away. Shortly after boarding the train, Mario will receive a note from “someone” foretelling a “sticky, yummy, gooey mess” to come upon all the passengers of the train. With all that in mind, the mystery comes to play and the race against time to Poshley Heights begins.

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I actually quite like this chapter for the activities incorporated into it. These activities? Backtracking and fetch quests. But wait! I’ve been complaining about these things almost all the way through my Traveling Thoughts, haven’t I? I have, me, but here’s the difference with this chapter: its design allows for these things to become less of a chore and more challenging through the prospect of problem-solving. In most chapters, one simply knew exactly what to do and went from one place to another without any sort of interaction with characters or any sort of playful distraction. The beauty of Chapter 6 is that it’s ambiguous. It doesn’t give you objectives to follow with clear-cut instructions. That’s where the mystery plays in; it encourages exploration, character interaction, and (minor) critical thinking skills. The environment is not just a background to look off, it’s necessary in order to figure out the mysteries that arise on board the train. Best of all, the train’s length is four rooms—five counting an area that’s blocked off for a majority of the chapter, so the backtracking doesn’t feel so obstructive. It’s quick, it’s painless, and there’re no enemies to fight. These things that become so petty and repetitive in previous chapters are suddenly a strength in Chapter 6.

Fortunately, this isn’t all the chapter has to offer. You didn’t think the chapter would only resort to this, did you? Halfway through the trek to Poshley Heights, the Excess Express makes an emergency stop at Riverside Station after discovering that someone had raised the drawbridge leading onward. Mario and co. are forced to explore the inside of the station and find the switch to lower the bridge. As a kid, I hated this part of the chapter. I wanted to continue the intrigue of the mystery inside the train, and I felt this was a break in the pace of all that. As an adult, I quite like this part. It gives a little variety and compensates the player for the lack of overall battling within the chapter. The puzzles inside the station are also not all one-dimensional. Some are tricky and require precise timing, while others need (admittedly simple) thinking skills. The Riverside Station is where Mario acquires the Ultra Boots, which allow the player to spring up to high places and grab hold of gutter pipes along the ceiling to traverse alternate paths within a room. In battle, they’re stronger than the Super Boots… though I don’t personally use them much.

The Riverside Station is almost like a mini-dungeon for the chapter. It’s not quite as big as dungeons in previous chapters, but with the combination of the train and Poshley Heights near the end, it makes up to be a decently-sized chapter. I recall as a kid thinking that running through the station dragged on forever, but it’s actually surprisingly quick. I also enjoy the labyrinth-like design it has near its base floors. It gives a sense of effort put into the design and structure of the station, when they could’ve just had it be a couple rooms from left to right. The overall appeal to the place is something I’ve grown fond of, with an abandoned station with sandy-yellow and brown heaps of architecture with a soundtrack mirroring its almost mystical emptiness. The selection of Pokeys and orange-hued Puffs outside (and sometimes inside) the station’s interior was a lovely touch… if they weren’t a pain to fight without wasting too much FP. I really liked the change of pace the chapter took in making the stop here. If it were a mystery all the way through without any chance of using the battle system, it may not have been as memorable—negative or otherwise.

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Once Mario and co. find the switch to lower the drawbridge, they discover a small collection of black clover-like creatures swarming around it. Mario makes use of his hammer to bat the things away before an automated cutscene plays showing the creatures retreating outside the boundaries of the station. Mario lowers the bridge and the Excess Express goes on its merry way. The next morning, something odd happens: no one is inside their rooms. No one is working their posts. Exploring the entirety of the train, only its conductor remains, and talking to him triggers a drastic turn of events: the clover-like creatures swarm the train like flies on a rotting corpse. Running to the caboose of the train reveals the creatures have invaded the inside of the train and captured various train passengers. Making use of the Ultra Boots, Mario and co. escape onto the roof of the train where a large collection of creatures are gathered. Hammering away and progressing near the front of the train will reveal a swarm of creatures transforming into a large, squid-like creature with all of the train passengers within its clutches. Thus, the boss battle of Chapter 6 begins.

I will give the “Smorg,” as its name is revealed, credit: he’s one tough asshole. This boss battle, had I not been unbelievably lucky with my Super Guards, would’ve taken a lot out of me. His attacks cause massive amounts of damage and the condition required to actually damage the beast takes massive amounts of FP. I found myself struggling near the beginning trying to find the most effective way of damaging its core, but I ended up wasting a lot of FP in the process, forcing me to use more FP-replenishing items than need be, which also cost me some turns. Thankfully, I also had some high-range attack items that helped ease my strategy, but they ran out quickly. The boss battle is a long one. I would put it on-par with the battle against Cortez from the last chapter, though it assumes less forms overall. It’s a great challenge considering the rest of the chapter, assuming you know what you were doing, was irritating, but easily capable.

Defeating the Smorg will have it disintegrate and fall off the train. With all the passengers safe, the Excess Express makes a safe stop at Poshley Heights. However, the chapter isn’t over just yet. Mario and co. must explore the entirety of Poshley Heights (aka go to the farthest room to the right) until they come across a sturdy museum with a lock on its door. With no way in, Mario is conflicted with how to proceed when their penguin detective friend reveals himself to be the owner of the museum. He unlocks the door and upon arrival, find the Shadow Sirens and Doopliss of all people taking the Crystal Star off a pedestal at the end of the room. But worry not! The penguin reveals that that Crystal Star was a fake! A red herring! And the location to the real Crystal Star was hidden in a secret location. With that in mind, it was up to Mario to find that secret, as the penguin wasn’t willing to tell him… for whatever reason.

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The secret location is basically taking advantage of the Ultra Boots’ ability and the museum’s large height to scale its walls and find a switch. Flipping the switch reveals a warp pipe that leads to the inside of a painting which leads to the inside of another museum. Now we’re throwing back to Super Mario 64 here! Inside the painting’s museum reveals a misty, almost spooky recreation of the museum Mario was just in, except this place has a large gathering of Dark Boos, purple and more powerful Boo enemies. There are two ways that players can go about this. They can either:

  • Defeat all the Boos and farm for experience, then get the Crystal Star located at the end of the room.
  • Skip all the Boos and go straight for the Crystal Star.

I like that they give you a choice. While I personally enjoy battling and grinding, I could understand the frustration of someone who hates that kind of thing having to face twelve or so Boos before getting to the end of the chapter. In any case, retrieving the Crystal Star will end the chapter… almost. The game requires the player to exit the painting’s museum before it transitions into the next scene. I’m not really sure why they chose to have that happen, but it does regardless.

While the tone of my writing may lead one into thinking that I had no issue with this chapter, there’s actually one major criticism I have for it that I intentionally saved until just now. Chapter 6 is incredibly short. Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be short, but I’ve played this game many times in the past. I know everything that I have to do to progress the story. With the inclusion of the events leading up to boarding the Excess Express, exploring Riverside Station, facing the Smorg, and running around the museum at the end, this chapter took me about an hour and a half to complete fully. Keep in mind, I talked a lot to people, too. I didn’t just go from start to finish without smelling any roses. I took the time to explore and interact with people. From all that, only an hour and a half passed? That’s so little! Thinking back on it, there isn’t actually a lot to do inside the Excess Express. You solve maybe four or five mysteries inside it, and assuming you know what you’re doing, each mystery can be wrapped up within 2-8 minutes. I enjoy the comedy and the intrigue of character interaction and the variety of characters present and their reactions to all of it, but it’s so short-lived unless the player takes the time to talk to each passenger a hundred times within a day. This chapter has a sort of abruptness by its ending that is ironically fitting for how fast the chapter flies by. I’m not sure if it’s the shortest chapter in the game, but it’s definitely one of them.

With all that’s been said and done, I’m not quite sure I can admit that this chapter is better than Chapter 3. It certainly has less irritating qualities to it, but Chapter 3 had more meat on its bone. It’s hard to choose, really. Putting that aside, Chapter 6 is absolutely one of the better chapters in the game, and one well appreciated after the back-and-forth indecisiveness that Chapter 5 provided. It didn’t have the appeal of a new character or have much innovation to the game’s formula, but Chapter 6 provided a “flurrie” of entertainment… while it lasted.

(All gameplay screenshots courtesy of PKSparkxx DatHottneSS.)

An Ode to Metal Slug X

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I haven’t done an “Ode to _____” journal in a while. The only thing I’ve ever had an ode to was Toradora!, and re-reading that makes me want to vomit. I kinda want to do more odes, more with things that brought me up as a kid and mean a lot to me nostalgically. One thing’s for sure though, there won’t be many like the Toradora! one. That was far too sappy for my current approval.

So, here we are with Metal Slug X.

The thing one may ask themselves about this specific choice may not be “What’s Metal Slug?” as much as it could be “Why Metal Slug X?” The honest answer would be that Metal Slug X, for the longest time, was the only game in the Metal Slug series I’ve played. It was the only one we had growing up and the only one I assumed my father could find. It was the only one I was ever exposed to, so whether this may be a weaker title in the series or if Metal Slug 2, the game X was remade from, is better doesn’t apply to me, because I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t have that context. I have all the nostalgic value from X, so it’d be hard to say it wasn’t my favorite, even if other titles were better.

Now, for those who don’t know, Metal Slug is a “run and gun” game where a player takes control of a single soldier and shoots his way through waves of enemies and obstacles. It originated as an arcade game (hence the shortness of the game), but was later ported to home consoles. Basically, somewhat similar to the Mega Man series, you run and shoot, progressing from left to right. It’s a game that needs no more explanation than that.

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As a kid, I found the way this game was presented as charming. The design of the entire game was super appealing to my weeb eyes and the story was just stupid enough to keep my interest. Good army goes against bad army, but then it turns out that aliens are working with the bad guys and you have to go around shooting all sorts of things from soldiers to aliens to mummies to mummified dogs to mutant creatures to giant machines with giga-rocket launchers. Holy shit. It’s this sort of basic plot mixed with all of these insane elements and subtle humor that makes the game so memorable, even if the gameplay feels somewhat underwhelming.

It’s fast, it’s goofy, it’s nice to look at. It’s a bombardment of explosions and gunfire and crazy weapon capabilities. Lasers and homing rockets; fire and heavy artillery. Fat guys with pioneer cannons that explode upon death. Prisoners of war that shoot energy balls. Tanks and airplanes and a fucking camel with a machine gun strapped to its hump. Bloodshed and massacre, but it’s okay because you’re on the superficial “good side.” It’s one long stretch of everything stated before. You’ll finish it all before you even know it.

The one major drawback from the game, playing it again at my age, is that the game is far too short. Not only that, but the game doesn’t have a lot of immediate replayability. When you play it once, you’ve played what you’ll play anytime afterwards. It’s a game to play when you’re in the mood to re-open the wound, so to say. The only thing worth doing to spice it up would be to implement your own challenges, as it doesn’t do anything to challenge you aside from standard gameplay. Speedrunning or No-Death runs would be good for adding more replayability, but as it stands, Metal Slug X doesn’t encourage any of this. Once you know the secrets and can memorize where the enemies come from and what they do, the game doesn’t have that same feeling of grandeur it once had. It’s predictable; a quick burst of energy that doesn’t last.

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Nevertheless, that burst of energy is a fun one, especially more with a co-op partner. The game is simple fun that doesn’t require a lot of wayward thinking. You run, you shoot, you hope you don’t die. You laugh at the fat perks and you fear your mummification. Every bit of this game has color and flare and creativity poured in, but again, it’s only within the limited span the game has to offer.

Metal Slug X is one of the more nostalgic titles within my long history of games. It’s also one that I wish I could know more about. It’s gone through a cycle of games that aren’t much different from the others (another similarity with Mega Man), with little to no backstory concerning the enemies, the characters, or anything else. It’s not a game to get immersed in for gripping storytelling or character empathy. It’s full-on, guns blazing action from left to right, and damn anyone who could stop you. Still, a little more info would be nice to have, if even to some degree. Motivations, backstories, how the war has affected the characters. Anything like that could effectively revitalize an already flashy and memorable game. It’s a long shot, but Metal Slug knows a thing or two about shots.

All gameplay screenshots courtesy of AmitDabydeen.