Nintendo's unassuming little mustachioed mascot stars in one of his greatest adventures yet in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, which follows in the footsteps of last year's Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga for the Game Boy Advance, as well as the original Paper Mario title for the Nintendo 64. This new role-playing game from Nintendo and developer Intelligent Systems is truly inspired. It's practically overflowing with wonderful, funny characters, memorable subplots, inventive gameplay, and beautiful visuals, and it's lengthy and quite challenging to boot.
Say hello to one of the best games for the GameCube.
The adventure begins conventionally enough: Princess Peach has gone missing again, and it's up to Mario to find her. She was last seen in Rogueport, a seedy and mysterious coastal town far from the familiar reaches of the Mushroom Kingdom, and this place serves as the game's central location. Mario will gradually uncover Rogueport's secrets as he attempts to decipher a treasure map that Princess Peach left in his care. Soon enough, the quest develops a clear episodic structure involving the search for seven crystal stars, each one a powerful artifact. The stars are all tucked away in different parts of the world. So, in turn, the process of finding each one is like a unique and self-contained storyline in which Mario will meet some colorful new friends and foes and solve various puzzles using his ever-growing number of special abilities. That means Paper Mario is structured much like classic Mario games, in which each main level has a distinctively different tone and style to it.
While the overarching storyline is typical of a Mario game, the smaller subplots are what give Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door so much of its own charm and personality. It would be spoiling some of the fun to even briefly describe these various episodes, since each one provides a thrill of discovery, and the stark contrast from one episode to the next makes for a great experience. On the whole, the world of the game is brilliantly imagined and fully realized: It's filled with just about all the weird characters you may have seen in past Mario games, and yet here they're mostly just going about their day-to-day business, trying to make ends meet. The effect is reminiscent of Pixar's computer-animated movies (such as A Bug's Life or Finding Nemo), whose fantastic storybook worlds are believable partly because, in a lot of ways, they're mundane--not so different from real life. That's exactly the effect that Paper Mario goes for, and it's hugely successful at achieving it.
The game has a terrific sense of humor, thanks partly to a first-rate English translation. Much of the absurd humor comes from how Mario is one of the only human characters in the game, and yet his constantly bright-eyed, cheerful, but nearly silent demeanor makes him the most enigmatic character of them all. There's also a great deal of comedy to be found in between the game's chapters, as Bowser, Mario's nemesis, haplessly follows in the footsteps of his foe...yet is always several steps behind him. Also, Mario's brother Luigi makes an excellent appearance. In each chapter, he'll fill you in on the latest of his own eerily familiar-sounding misadventures. The game's sense of humor has truly broad appeal--younger audiences will love the funny-looking, over-the-top characters, while older players will appreciate some of the subtler wordplay and absurdity. You'd never know this game originated in Japan, since the always-amusing, often-funny dialogue just feels so contemporary and reads so naturally. There's no speech in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, but that's actually a good thing--the onscreen text unfolds dynamically, based on the intended tempo of the conversation, and it's generally so well written that it's just better off in its original written form. Indeed, most every character has a distinctive "voice" here, despite the absence of speech. If you've enjoyed the excellent localizations in other Nintendo games, such as Animal Crossing, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, or Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga, then you can expect similarly outstanding results from Paper Mario.
The surprises keep on coming throughout Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. The theme of the game? Don't judge a book by its cover.
Paper Mario really isn't directly comparable to too many other games, though it's basically designed like other console RPGs. Gameplay is spent exploring various environments, encountering and battling foes in a turn-based combat system, and gaining experience levels and new skills. Exploration occasionally involves Mario-style conventions of having to jump from platform to platform, find hidden switches or passageways, or navigate around certain hazards. These action-type sequences are handled well in the context of the game, and--much like the action-oriented aspects of the combat system--they help make the experience of playing the game engaging (not to mention similar to classic Mario titles), rather than too slow and passive as in some other RPGs.
The game's storybook look also paves the way for some unique play mechanics, in how Mario actually has paperlike properties in the game. It's a level of abstraction that works beautifully in this surreal setting. Basically, Mario will learn how to slip through narrow gaps and gratings, glide like a paper airplane, roll up into a tube, and more. These unique abilities--which he learns in some of the game's funnier moments--allow you to gradually gain access to new areas. You'll also upgrade your hammer and your shoes during the course of the game, opening up even more venues to explore in the process. The gradual "unlocking" of the world is done quite subtly, actually. You'll gain some surprising new ability and then start to notice parts of the world in which the ability could come in handy. Of course, some of these abilities aren't just for exploration--they're also good for beating the tar out of Paper Mario's dozens of different bad guys.
Combat is frequent during some portions of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, though, fortunately, there are no random battles like in other RPGs. You'll see your foes out in the field, and if they spot you, they'll try to close in to initiate combat. If you manage to hit them with your hammer or jump on them when they're close (a question of proper timing), you'll get a free hit as the fight begins. Fights are turn-based, and involve Mario and his companions--you can have just one ally with you in battle at a time--taking turns dishing out damage with one or more bad guys. Over the course of the game, Mario will gradually learn a wide variety of jumping and hammer attacks, as well as some other special moves. Attacking is not just a matter of selecting options from a menu, either. Each technique has some sort of control input that's required for you to pull off the technique. Most of these are easy, timing-based affairs that you'll master after just one or two attempts.
Audience participation in Paper Mario's battles is just one of the game's numerous clever twists.
On the other hand, the timing for the game's defensive moves can be quite tricky. You can either press the A button just after getting hit to reduce the amount of damage you sustain, or, with perfect timing, you can press the B button as you get hit to nullify any damage and then counterattack. All enemy attacks can be countered, so you'll always be trying to get the split-second timing down, and it's satisfying to succeed at this. Having to constantly time button presses helps make combat an active and entertaining aspect of the game. For the most part, there's a good, fast feel to the combat, and like other aspects of the game, if nothing else, it's just fun to watch.