Usually, RPG means a dramatic and drawn-out plot, intense and/or brooding spiky-haired heroes, and big numbers. We’re talking in the thousands.
However, the Paper Mario series manages to pull off fun turn-based combat with none of those traits. The height of the drama, for me, was walking around as Peach – wearing no clothes. The spikiest hair you’ll see in Thousand Year Door is that of a little Yoshi, or maybe a salty old bob-omb. And the numbers are always manageable. Never more than 200!
The last game I beat was Paper Mario, the Thousand Year Door (TTYD), for the Gamecube. I’m a big fan of Paper Mario on the N64, and for a long time, I thought, “Psh! TTYD can’t be anything as good as the first one.” Then I took the time to play the game, and I can honestly say that I want to keep playing it, even though I’ve finished it.
Fans of Paper Mario will know that the defining trait of the series is the action command. Thousand Year Door does something a little bit interesting to the action command, which – in my opinion – is in overall, an improvement. Before I explain why it’s good, I’m going to say why it’s bad – sometimes, hilariously so. Action commands are timing-based button presses that can increase your attack when stomping or whacking enemies, or increase your defense when huddling to avoid getting spikes jammed into your stomach. “Press A now,” the tutorials say. In Paper Mario 64, action commands were only that. And if you pressed A at the wrong time, you wouldn’t get your bonus.
The Thousand Year Door takes Action commands to an entirely new level: first, they add stylish commands, which are additional timing events that give you extra Star power from the ‘audience’ when you execute them correctly. Stylish commands are fun and make the combat even more exciting and interactive. However, my theory is that you could mash A all day and get every stylish command without any skill. It just bothers me that they didn’t make some sort of caveat by which you would forfeit the action command bonus if you pressed A at the wrong time. That’s the bad news. Whew! Now onto the good news. In addition to giving you more events in the form of Stylish commands, there’s a new special blocking system – because honestly, what good is huddling going to do you when Bowser breathes that rank breath on you?
Superguards, as they’re called, give an extra challenge to those who think they’re too good for just merely pressing A around the right time. Superguards are executed by pressing B during the inner half of the duration during which you could execute a normal Guard command. By that, I mean that it’s Super-Hard to get a Superguard, but it’s also more rewarding and much more effective. You’ll take no damage, and instead harm the enemy that tried attacking you – even if it’s one of those annoying flame bubbles! Since they’re trickier than the “mash all you can” stylish commands, I’m a big fan of Superguards, not that I can perform them reliably.
Another piece of gameplay that is changed from PM64 to PM:TTYD is the spindash. Anyone who’s played Paper Mario will know the spindash, and know it fondly. The spindash was awesome. It was perfect. It was everything anyone could ask for. Press Z, and you’ll spindash your way to Star Haven. It was the best way to get around, and you could even get a badge to speed up your spinning. Well, unfortunately, the spindash does not make an appearance in TTYD. There are a few other options for getting around, but I’ll tell you right now: They’re not as good. You might be tempted to roll around on the ground, but I’ll tell you right now that’s not the same. Neither is riding on your Yoshi, because then you have no jumping capabilities to speak of. Though I mourn the loss of the spindash, it hasn’t stopped me from loving this sequel as much as its predecessor.
If I’m on the topic of gameplay still, I’ll give a shoutout to the partners in this game. None are quite the same as the partners from the first game… but yet they fill their roles in similar ways. The partners in TTYD are a bit different, and probably have more depth in terms of both gameplay and characterization than their predecessors. Each partner has their own defense, attack, and health. That’s right, no more “your partner can’t attack for three turns” nonsense. (Except for when they become dizzy, frozen, stopped, or fall asleep.) In TTYD, partners feel more like fully-fledged characters. It’s a nice feeling and it’s fun to pick your favorites.
The leveling system from the first game has largely remained the same – and this is a good thing. You have freedom to limit yourself how you like. That might sound stupid, but it’s really not. It’s one of the great things about Paper Mario. If you want to give yourself a challenge, start up either of the first two games and only choose Badge Points when leveling up – but never equip any badges. I can’t even conceive of it being possible to beat the game this way. Having only three categories makes the game simple, but gives exactly enough freedom to challenge yourself. On the topic of numbers and simplicity, that was the final trait of typical RPGs I mentioned before. One thing I hated about Super Mario RPG when I tried to play it was that the attack values were so much greater than that of the Paper Mario games. I don’t mind doing 143 damage from one attack, but it’s just so much simpler to keep track of these things when you do something like 3 damage per jump, and you know an enemy has 9 health. It’s very similar to what one of my friends has said about Magic: The Gathering as opposed to Yu-Gi-Oh! – the simplicity of the numbers just makes the game more playable.
Now that I think I’ve given the gameplay enough thought, I’ll talk about the graphics and the music. Sorry to disappoint those looking for a plot summary, you won’t find it here. If you were to ask me about it, I might say cynically that it has no plot. (Of course it has a plot, but does it really have a plot?) The graphics in Thousand Year Door are great. It’s not hard to find flaws, but like many other timeless Nintendo games, the graphics age well. Like Paper Mario 64, the simple style is effective. Each area is effectively a diorama, a paper-maché world that folds and unfolds as you move around. The colors are bright and eye-catching, and the interactive environment aspects give me a glint in my eye that can only be described as the ‘star piece shimmer.’ The world is about the same size as Paper Mario 64’s world, although it’s probably bigger since I assume the GCN had more memory to spare. One humorously obvious concept that they decided to really capitalize on was the idea of a “mob” – they added mob scenes, cramming in as many sprites as they could, wherever appropriate. It’s not that I dislike it, it’s just that I find it a really cheesy way of showing off what the Gamecube can do. The only other notable graphics change that I really loved (and hated) was the addition of water. “But there was water in the first game, obviously!” you will say to me. And I will respond, “There was. But did you fall in it every other time you thought to yourself, “Jeez this water is really beautiful and adds a lot to the scenery of this game?” The water visuals are great in TTYD. The drawback is that when you jump into a fountain thinking that you’re going to have a bird bath, you lose one health and are chewed up by some kind of water-chomp. In summary – the graphics have improved in a good way. Not a huge way, just a good way.
I’m a bit torn about the music from Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. A lot of it is really cool sounding – Rock Cock’s theme, the opening Menu theme, the underground theme, to name a few of the good tunes – but the trouble is that it loops. The songs are not nearly long enough for me; what sounded good when I heard it the first few times now sounds cheesy and annoying. There’s only one song from this game that I could listen to on loop, and it’s the song that plays in the underground exploring area. I say that having listened to the music from Shooting Star Summit for the past 30 minutes while writing this, too.
That just about wraps it up for my thoughts on this game – because really, I’m done talking about it. Although I beat it, I still really want to get to the bottom of the Pit of 100 Trials and collect all of the badges. In the end, this is a great game because it never makes you feel like you hate it. You always want to come back and play again.