Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
I've just finished yet another Mario RPG (remember when this was a unique concept?) and it's time for discussion. I've played these games in fairly random order starting with Super Mario RPG, followed by Superstar Saga, Super Paper Mario, and then it's predecessor, Thousand Year Door. I haven't yet played the original Paper Mario, but after seeing everything it's follow-up has to offer, I'm not sure I want to.
Thousand Year Door is a fairly attractive game, which is apparently trying to be like a living storybook. Characters and creatures in this game are sprites designed like paper cutouts with detailed views from front and back, (and other angles when necessary) but unlike the world they inhabit, they don't have any depth to them. It's a very difficult thing to explain if you aren't already familiar with it, but when Mario changes direction, instead of seeing him turn normally, it's animated like a piece of paper being flipped over. These characters are inhabiting a 3D world that despite the visual style it has isn't really that remarkable. Sure, when you enter a new areas, you might see a page turn animation instead of a tradtional fadeout, or when you hit a switch and open up a new area, you might see a piece of the "paper" environment be turn off to reveal something underneath, but 90% of the time, it's easy to forget about that, and it feels more like playing "Super Mario RPG: NOW WITH SPRITES!" than it does anything else.
And I have to say that there wasn't really a lot that stood out to me as looking great. It was nice that many areas had good use of color, and the spooky Twilight Town and surrounding areas had some good atmosphere. Enemies, especially the bosses, were fairly well animated and enjoyable to watch. But there are just as many places with color schemes that are just plain irritating, such as Boggly Woods, or are completely generic, like the Excess Express. One major dungeon consists of nearly identical corridors with some unremarkable rooms with puzzles or enemies. Another chapter features an arena and you'll be looking at little more than your dressing room and the combat area for the duration of the chapter. You've also seen most of the environments before. It's a fair amount of variety, but Mario's already been to the moon, to a tropical island, to the arctic, etc.
Something that I don't feel strongly about either way, but struck me as odd and worth bringing up, was that for each battle, the viewpoint switches to a stage, as if your battle is a play that's being performed, and you have an audience seated there cheering for you. Sometimes a prop will fall or a stagelight will hit an enemy in the head. I wasn't sure how this really fit in with the storybook theme, and at first it was distracting me a little, making it seem like everything I was doing was fake.
So I have to say that I'm somewhat puzzled by the love fans have for this game. Perhaps it's a product of another RPG starved Nintendo system that finally saw a release.
It's got very little going for it other than it's style, which as I've said, isn't really that remarkable anyway. The battle system is decent enough, though a little on the slow side for me. A lot of things will seem familiar if you've played some of the other RPG's featuring Mario. Enemies are dealt with using timed button presses for attack and defense. While at first, it's the simple system from Super Mario RPG of pressing A at the right time, the monotony is eventually broken as more advanced abilities and more powerful enemies come into the picture. Some moves might require entering a series of button presses quickly without making a mistake, drawing a shape on the screen, quickly tapping the analog stick to the left, and a number of other things. Because some enemies can only be harmed by using certain kinds of attacks (a hammer blow versus stomping for example), the random battles never fall into the pattern of having you tap A while you daydream about something else until combat is over. On the other hand, this also causes battles to drag on a little longer than necessary as you might have to switch your party member during combat in order to be able to do damage to monsters with very specific vulnerabilities.
Bosses are the most enjoyable part of combat and indeed, the game itself. While only a few could be considered hard, most provide at least a slight test of your skill, and figuring out the best way to actually deal meaningful damage is a nice aspect, too. I usually had the best time when I either forgot to bring healing items or used them up in the dungeon before the battle and had to fight with defense in mind. The most challenging enemies feature multiple body parts and the ability to get in three or more hits on your small party of two characters. Having only two fighters at time also means that stopping to heal limits your offensive opportunities to half. Switching characters also counts as a turn, and it's in these ways that the tables can be turned against you if you aren't paying enough attention.
Dungeons have a fair number of puzzles, but rarely do they take more than a few moments to solve and they tend to repeat with small variations or new combinations of things from dungeon to dungeon. For the more obscure ones, you can usually get hints by asking Goombella for advice about the situation. Mario gains the ability to become super thin to fit through bars, can turn into a paper airplane and paper boat to access new areas, gains increasingly more powerful hammer attacks to smash blocks with, and more. Your party members also have abilities designed to apply to puzzles, like Flurry's ability to produce a gust of wind to blow something out of the way, or Admiral Bombery's ability to blow himself up at will. Some of these are greatly underutilized. When you first get Koops, there are some interesting puzzles involving using his shell to hit switches, but after that dungeon, you won't be using that skill again until you're almost at the end of the game.
Paper Mario is short as far as RPG's go, and the masses of people clamoring for 100 hour epics are sure to be disappointed. But despite a strong final dungeon and boss, I was honestly thankful to see it end. The 25 hour experience feels like twice that because it's padded with constant backtracking and time-wasting. I noticed this problem in Super Paper Mario, which I played first, but the trend apparently goes back a lot further. A lot of times it's simply having to walk back and forth between distant places for trivial reasons. Sometimes you have to go back to a part of the game world you've already explored to do something of little or no consequence. In fact, for most of one whole chapter of the game, you're a passenger on a train with little to do but wander from one end to the other talking to everyone multiple times and solving minor mysteries. Near the end of the game, you get to go on a wild goose chase through every town you've already been to, and your only reward is access to the next dungeon. Again, I'm not sure if this dull stuff is due to a lack of creativity or experience, a desire to make the game longer to please higher-ups and RPG fanatics, or some combination of those, but it feels insulting and I feel like I'm one of the only people who notices it. People should be angry about this, not encouraging it with "Best game ever 10/10" all over the place.
The Mario RPG's are known for having cleverly written and sometimes really funny dialogue, but I found this game to be the exception to the rule. The story at it's core is really no less absurd than usual and there are plenty of jokes and unusual characters to interact with. But I also felt that the story was sometimes being taken too seriously by your party members and it brought the amusement factor down a bit for me. It's like they kept forgetting that it was supposed to be a comedy.
You certainly have a very varied group of playable characters... a Goomba attending a university, a Bob-omb Admiral, a baby Yoshi, timid Koopa, and several other unique individuals. But they interact so little with Mario after their introduction, especially the ones not in your immediate party, that they start to feel more like tools for solving puzzles than other characters. Also very disappointing to me was the lack of a main villain that I cared about in any way. Grodus is the generic bad guy who wants to rule the world and he never changes or shows more depth than that. He's trying to gather the crystal stars before Mario and maybe rule the world somehow by opening the Thousand Year Door with those stars. But since we don't even know for sure what's behind that door, it's hard to find that prospect especially terrifying. Minor villains don't fare much better in the depth and interest departments. While it might have been seen as too predictable, I'd have rather seen them fall back on Bowser yet again, instead. But he's too busy being comic relief after each chapter and playing through impossibly simple sidescrolling levels to reach the level of a major villain.
I was really caught of guard by how generic this one was. I usually don't take a bunch of 9's and 10's too seriously, but with this game getting such universal praise, I was expecting something at least above the level of mediocre. I don't hate Thousand Year Door, but I don't feel much of anything about it. Completely forgettable, occasionally insulting, and I certainly recommend passing on it, even those of you obsessed with Mario and the gang. There are too many games worth your time to be bothering with this lazy attempt.