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Throwback Thursday - Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 11:47am 30/07/15 | Comments
Throwback Thursday is a weekly column here on AusGamers where Kosta opens up the proverbial gaming industry attic, has a poke around, finds dusty copies of games from a different time – and plays them!

Watch Kosta, no wait Mario, no wait The Great Gonzales, fight his way through the minor leagues

The Game: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
The Year: 2004
The Developer: Intelligent Systems
The System: Nintendo GameCube

As a mascot for Nintendo, Mario has done virtually everything. From playing tennis, golf, taking part in both seasonal Olympics, to hosting hedonistic parties where people have to duel for position, he’s even moonlighted in a career dispensing pills at the rate of a corrupt doctor. At a glance, you wouldn’t fault someone for seeing Mario as a Krusty the Clown sized sell-out. Of course in reality, the Mario games are fantastic. Those developed in-house by Nintendo are some of the greatest of all time, and even stuff like Mario Party 2: The Pajama Jam are fun diversions and rarely if ever dip into the mediocre territory of something like Krusty's Fun House -- The Simpsons videogame from the 8-bit era that would prove the show’s running gag. That Krusty would attach his name to just about anything.

For Nintendo, Mario is its one character that can do anything. Apart from starring in a successful live action blockbuster movie of course. By that token though, Mario could be the star of just about any type of game and find success. Including a Japanese-style turn-based role-playing game. In 1996 Nintendo published Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo. Coming from Final Fantasy developer Squaresoft, the game strangely didn’t see a release outside of Japan and the United States. Probably because this was around the time of the Nintendo 64’s launch. Even so the game, overseen by Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, was a critical and commercial success. Its blend of Final Fantasy style mechanics with whimsy and a generally humorous and light story proved to be quite the formula, and resulted in the game turning up on many best-of lists after its release. Which it still continues to do so today.

Like many of you, we're still waiting for the hot new Mario toy line from Ertl.

But Nintendo’s decision to stick with cartridges for its 64-bit console left many developers out in the cold, including Squaresoft. The Nintendo 64 was best suited to fully-rendered 3D graphics and action-based games that kept cinematic storytelling elements to a minimum. The limited storage space of the cartridge format was basically the worst possible news for RPG fans. But when Nintendo unveiled Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64, the spiritual successor to Super Mario RPG, many people were excited to see the return of role-playing Mario. If somewhat confused. The presentation blended the 3D worlds of something like Super Mario 64, but with all the characters appearing in 2D. As paper cut-outs of past sprite-based glory. Developed by second-party studio Intelligent Systems, Paper Mario distilled the turn-based RPG to its simplest mechanics, blended them with puzzles and platforming in a game designed to be played by just about anyone. In other words, it was pretty easy.

Although it didn’t receive the same critical acclaim as the 16-bit original, Paper Mario took the formula established to its most fun and logical conclusion. With a focus on humour as opposed to a grand and epic story, turning Mario and company into pieces of paper that could then interact with a 3D world in the way that a regular piece of paper folds, bends, and slides under cracks, proved to be one of the most creative uses of Mario in years. But it wasn’t until 2004’s Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door that the Super Mario RPG experiment would get its true masterpiece. Released for the GameCube, The Thousand-Year Door would firmly establish itself as not only one of the most fun and playable turn-based RPGs of all time, but also one of the funniest.

Don't let her small stature fool you. Goombella is a street-smart Goomba

Does the idea of playing a hefty 50-hour or so RPG starring Mario sound appealing? Probably not, as the genre is usually associated with building a character and then taking part in a long and involved story. Two things that you usually doesn’t associate with a Mario game. The original Super Mario RPG went a long way to address this, but did so in a way that felt more Squaresoft than Nintendo. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on the other hand is as easy to get into as its Nintendo 64 predecessor, but underneath its bright colours and simple interface lies one of the funniest videogames ever created. This is a comedy through and through, but instead of relying on visual gags and puns, of which there are plenty, the true brilliance comes from the well-developed characters that join Mario on his adventure.

Broken up into different Chapters, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door deserves a lot of credit for remaining fun, surprising, and thoughtful throughout. The writing, which a lot of credit probably needs to go to the talented localisation teams at Nintendo, is continuously fresh and funny for the duration of the game’s considerable play time. With all these credits being thrown around we should probably throw a few demerits into the mix too, of which there aren't really all that many.

The only real problems with The Thousand-Year Door lie in the Prologue, which spends a bit too much time establishing the world and its characters and quirks. It’s a little bit of text overload and leaves little room for exploration and taking in the colourful world. When the story kicks in though, the game is a sight to behold. Regardless of how perfunctory the nature of having to collect a certain number of special Crystal Stars and then going to save Princess Peach from the clutches of an evil villain may initially seem. You’ll be surprised at how deftly it’s all handled.

And by how funny, and consistently entertaining it all is.

A side of Goomba thugs we haven't seen before

From moments between Chapters where you get to control Princess Peach as she falls victim to the world’s smartest computer that falls in love with her after being tasked with monitoring her every move, or getting to control Boswer as he feels left out and decides to go after Princess Peach, save her, and then kidnap her all for himself – there’s rarely a dull moment. In fact, when Mario becomes an amateur fighter called The Great Gonzales and has to fight his way up the ladder in order to take on the champion and win the title belt, all because it’s decorated with the next Crystal Star piece, you’ll have virtually no idea where the whimsical nature of the story will head next. More importantly though, you’ll be excited to find out.

The turn-based battles, which takes on the form of theatre performed in front of a live audience, are simple to grasp yet provide the additional depth that was lacking in the first Paper Mario. Developer Intelligent Systems, the talented studio behind classic strategy and turn-based fare like Fire Emblem and the Advance Wars series, have instilled The Thousand-Year Door with one of the most accessible systems ever seen in this style of RPG. Even though you only get to issue commands to two characters (with one of them always being Mario) that share a unified magic bar (in the form of Flower Points), the wide variety of items to use, specialised badges to equip, and crowd interaction leads to a number of varying and satisfying strategies.

Talking to the boss, even henchmen have trouble

The only real problem, which effects a large number of Japanese-style RPGs, is the sense of battle fatigue. Where, backtracking and exploration leads to a number of seemingly unnecessary and repetitive encounters.

But, as The Thousand-Year Door is absolutely hilarious, you won’t mind too much. In fact, little touches like Mario not being able to speak yet his companions will talk endlessly on his behalf is something that adds a genuine feeling of connection to the character and his relationships. The likes of which you’d only really associate with an RPG from a studio like BioWare or Bethesda. Yeah, it’s that good.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is an utterly charming RPG from Nintendo, and is still an absolute pleasure to play a decade after its initial release. It’s hilarious. Take the Nintendo-staple power-ups as an example, which are new abilities earned that open up new paths to explore and areas to reach. Not only are they funny in the way they play on Mario being a piece of paper, they’re presented in The Thousand Year Door as curses. Afflictions so detrimental that Mario will have no choice but to live out the rest of his days in misery. Or not.

Throwback Rating:

Best Forgotten / A Trip Down Memory Lane / Timeless

Comedy Gold

Previous Throwbacks:

Kosta Andreadis remembers a time when in order to get the best out of a console game you had to blow gently into it and whisper sweet nothings like "please work, I’m up to World 8-3, for fudgcicles sake". Situated in Melbourne, Kosta is a freelancer who enjoys playing RPGs, strategy, adventure, and action games. Apart from investing well over 200 hours into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim he’s also an electronic musician with an album recently released.

Find him or follow him on Twitter - @toadovsky, Steam - toadovsky and Xbox Live - Toadovsky.