Sometimes it’s hard to compare sequels to their predecessors. For this reason I wanted to postpone talking about Thousand-Year Door for a while…mostly because the initial shock of discovering the original Paper Mario’s greatness has yet to wear off. Imagine my surprise when I find that not only is Paper Mario 2 a wonderful continuation of the innovative concepts the original introduced, but it’s one of the best RPG’s I’ve ever played. It’s this revelation which encouraged me to push the title straight to the top of the queue. Why would I want to stop talking about this series?
You see, Paper Mario 2 isn’t just a great follow-up… it’s a fucking study on how to make a sequel, an art that has never been a solid guarantee in any medium. But, if there isn’t a category of game making that Thousand-Year doesn’t improve on over Paper Mario then I didn’t see it. I reviewed the original by comparison with that other really popular Square Mario RPG, finding that Paper Mario was superior in many ways (read: almost every way). I did that in an attempt to ground Paper Mario familiarly for myself, mostly because I didn’t really understand how else to describe how the fuck that game was so good, or even what it was. Thousand-Year on the other hand, was the second game in a series. A work that drew directly from an established blueprint. That alleviated any sort of need to figure out what the concepts were or how inspiration became a working video game, because the foundation was already in place. Well…it wasn’t just in place, it was a phenomenal beginning. Thankfully, Thousand-Year has all that made Paper Mario great with that extra something that turns it from great into masterpiece.
Easy review, right? It’s just an enhanced version of Paper Mario.
Nope, it’s more than that. There’s stuff going on with Paper Mario 2 that deserves recognition. Mostly brilliant design, but also part traditional thinking. Thinking that has been lost on most developers for quite some time. You can make cases for bad and good sequels all across the board in gaming, and it’s not restricted to any particular genre, but that’s irrelevant because the case I’m trying to make is clear and hopefully simple: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is fucking fantastic…and better than Paper Mario, most RPG’s and most games out there, really.
– The graphics are superb.
I know that some people may scoff at the whole “cel-shaded” concept but being of an artistic mind I find that there’s a bit more appeal to a cartoon look. First of all, you can stylize your creation much more than something realistic. As much as you want to fight this fact, The Wind Waker is more expressive, more endearing and just plain prettier to look at than any other Zelda. Argue this point if you want, but you have no ground to stand on comparing the bloom effect riddled “realistic” world of Twilight Princess to the breath-taking and colorful cornucopia of style the is The Wind Waker. The original Paper Mario proved that a cartoon Mario can shine, but Paper Mario 2 showed without a shadow of doubt that cartoons can just do more. Everything in Thousand-Year’s world is refreshing and filled with life. Subtle animations from wandering citizens and party members alike just couldn’t be pulled off with the same flair in a realistic world. Is it me or is a goomba in 3D just not the same? There’s something about this style that harkens back to the older days of gaming, but is pulled off in a modern way. You get great graphics without jaggies, a huge world without long loading times, a super long and robust game without the need for repetition whatsoever (even the damn trees look different in each area).
– The characterization of the world and its denizens is charming and cohesive (what else should you expect from a Nintendo-made Mario game?).
I suppose this one piggy-backs off of the blurb about graphics, but art direction is critical in characterization. I was literally never bored with Paper Mario 2. Just wasn’t, and it’s a long game. Most of that has to do with the complete and utter distinction between all of the areas and towns you visit throughout your adventure. One chapter has you facing off in a sketchy tournament arena to unearth a conspiracy that has plagued that particular arena for some time. Next thing you know you find yourself in an eery sort-of monochrome wooded area with a giant tree filled with little buggers. There just wasn’t a single moment in this game that didn’t have something completely inspired going on. Add in that each distinct area usually provided you with an awesome new unique character and you have one of the most creative games I’ve ever played.
Which is funny because I considered Paper Mario 1 to be pretty clever with its characters and world. Being that Paper Mario 2 is a well-made sequel, these things were magnified just like everything else. Admiral Bobbery is a sea-faring old Bob-omb veteran who lost his true love somewhere along the way. In a chapter where you must travel to a haunted island there is no better man (or bomb) for the task. BUT FIRST, you must convince him to enter the harsh sea of memories that have caused him to give up sailing and motivate him once again to get aboard a boat. It’s touching in a way that shouldn’t be possible given the silliness of the world and this particular character, but it manages to tug at your heart strings just enough. The original Paper Mario’s Bob-omb character was a cutesy little girl bomb. You see where I’m going here? All of the characters see upgrades in the way of story-telling and characterization…that isn’t at all to say that Paper Mario’s weren’t great, but they’re even more interesting and dynamic than before.
– The music is great and oftentimes quite memorable.
I was so-so on Paper Mario’s music save for a few memorable tracks. I won’t say a lot about the music from the sequel because it’s nowhere near a Mitsuda’esque work of art, but the soundtrack for Thousand-Year Door is certainly better. I felt like there was a higher quality and quantity of tracks…overall pleasantly surprised going into it thinking I would be mostly uninterested.
– The gameplay, pacing and storytelling is absolutely flawless in execution.
I guess I also didn’t expect much new in the way of gameplay either. Boy was I wrong. There is a mile-long list of additions to the exploration and combat that I could tediously describe but I think I’ll stick to the main points in a numbered list:
1. The hub city is larger with much more to do…
2. …like a ruined underground city that serves as a secondary hub/large dungeon with EVEN MORE STUFFS TO DO.
3. The chapters are more robust and lengthy.
4. They added an audience mechanic to the battling, where enemies and friendlies alike will fill up the seats based on how entertaining your actions are (got your timing right?)…and throw things at you. Garbage and whatnot if they’re displeased or healing items and whatnot if they’re happy.
5. There are cool new fun and engaging paper functions (like rolling into a tube) that are actually implemented in the world/dungeons in smart and fun ways. I wish more games would use power ups as ways to grow the playable world instead of invisible walls that disappear arbitrarily when the game reaches some artificially scripted moment, ya know? It’s those kinds of things that connect you to the world and make it interesting.
6. THE BATTLE ARENA CHAPTER (one of the best in gaming, period)
7. The little visits from Luigi after each chapter where he details his parallel “adventure” that you never actually get to see are absolutely hilarious. Thousand-Year Door has some of the funniest moments in a game and these are a big reason why. The dialogue that you can initiate with his newest party member that he shows up with are priceless and usually out Luigi as the bumbling brother that we all know him as. PS. I want them to make a spin-off game about Luigi’s epic quest…that would be a day 1 purchase.
8. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door has one of the best writing/localizations for a Japanese-made video game that I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely up there.
– The Peach and Bowser portions.
I can’t wrap up talking about this game without describing my favorite part of it, the playable Princess Peach sections. They (of course) elaborated on the idea of being able to play as the captive princess once again and turned it into something even more awesome. You will play really funny Bowser portions too, where he always shows up to the place where Mario and Co. just completed the chapter and get’s frustrated. BUT, the Peach scenes are where I felt the real growth was. She ends up running into the super computer that our villains use in their base of operations…named TEC. The slow relationship that builds from chapter to chapter between this “computer that knows everything” and our lovely captured beauty begins when TEC asks her to explain what love means. In between the big Mario chunks you find yourself as Peach, being led to TEC’s room where he begins to inquire about love, how it works and why it happens. It’s actually fairly emotional and well-done for how ridiculous a sub-plot it is. TEC starts to see Peach’s devotion to Mario and it moves him…as much as a data based computer can be moved. It’s this perception of loyalty and feeling within the princess that not only causes TEC to question about matters of the heart, but slowly fall in “love” with Peach herself. Because of this, TEC slowly but surely agrees to help Peach not only contact Mario through the network, but help him and her in any way he can. You will come to anticipate what will happen in the mini drama that is TEC’s journey to discover love and you should, because it’s really well done.
And that by itself could sum up why this game is so superb. They managed somehow to pack an emotional and mature punch into a MARIO game, ABOUT EVIL TECHNO-ALIENS AND ROBOTS. No Mario game I’ve ever played has even begun to approach this level of nuanced storytelling. In fact, many games that pride themselves on being story-centric don’t even come near to what these stupid little Peach/TEC sections do so effortlessly. This is where I would normally cite examples of how games these days have failed us all and lost the ability to move me and etc…but I’ll leave that for another time. The warm and cozy feelings that the memories I’ve drummed up to write this review have left me too happy to delve into the negative side of modern gaming. Anyone who has avoided this series should make an effort to play through at least the original and Thousand-Year Door. It’s a slightly alternative RPG experience that puts almost everything in a similar category to shame, and does so with class, a progressive attitude and a bit of old-school flair. Plus it’s fucking fun, and Koops rules.