Mario’s Best RPG Adventure Returns

Mario’s Best RPG Adventure Returns

Review: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door

When it first released on the GameCube in 2004, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door felt like an appropriate entry for a new era of the Mario series. References to the recently released Super Mario Sunshine abounded, and the game’s narrative expanded the world of Mario in new directions, fleshing out characters and deepening the world in exciting ways. The game iterated on its Nintendo 64 forebear – which is now available through the Nintendo 64 Switch Online app, and holds up very well – with new mechanics, improved graphics, and better level design. 

Twenty years later, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is still comfortably the apex of the Paper Mario subseries, the game that all subsequent entries suffer in comparison to. It’s a good choice for a remake, then, and that’s exactly what Nintendo has given us. The Switch version of The Thousand Year Door introduces a few touch-ups and changes, but it is, for the most part, the same game it was back then. Thankfully, it has held up extremely well. The game opens with Mario traveling to Rogueport, a city filled with colorful characters (which is to say thieves and scoundrels), following both Peach’s instructions and a mysterious map that is said to point towards a great treasure. In typical Mario fashion, it soon transpires that Peach has been kidnapped – although not by Bowser this time – and Mario soon finds himself on the hunt for the legendary Crystal Stars. 

The plot is less important than the characters that drive it, though. The Thousand Year Door has, perhaps, the best cast of characters – and writing – in the entire Mario canon. There are even sections where you can play as Peach and Bowser, characters who are given much more characterisation than is typical in a Mario game. This time around, Mario is the only character who doesn’t speak – everyone else has plenty to say, and most of it is pretty funny.

This new version of The Thousand Year Door included a touched-up English localisation, which changes a few scenes and characters, generally for the better. You won’t notice most of them without comparing the two versions side-by-side, with one excellent exception – Vivian, a ghost character who was always transgender in the original Japanese version, now talks about her experience with gender in the English version, too. This shades her character, always a fan favourite, with greater depth, and restores a key part of her backstory and identity. It makes for one of the more moving plots in a Mario game. 

The game’s graphics and soundtrack have been completely rebuilt, and this is one of those cases where the remake brings the game in line with my rosy memory of what the game looked like. When compared side-to-side, it’s actually surprising how substantial the upgrade is – environments boast extra details and effects, and the storybook, and the cardboardy aesthetic is better realised than ever before. It’s a gorgeous game, one where I found myself hitting the Switch’s screenshot button often. 

The battle system, on the other hand, is essentially unchanged – but that’s not a problem, because it’s excellent. The core battle gimmick of the (good) Mario RPGs is that most attacks, and your defenses, can be augmented with timed button presses and stick movements. If Mario does a jump attack, for instance, pressing “A” right before you land on your opponent’s head will do double damage. If you’ve augmented Mario with a badge that grants him a different ability, the mechanics will change, as will the “Flower Point” (think magic power) cost of the attack and the associated risk/reward metrics. The Badge system, which allows for some customisation of your “build”, is a really clever way of rewarding experimentation without overcomplicating the experience, and I found changing my team’s stats and mechanics with different combinations very rewarding. In each battle you control both Mario and one of his companions, and the system never gets too complex, even as more layers keep getting added in. Battles transport your crew and their opponents onto a stage, where audience satisfaction charges up your biggest and best abilities – it all makes for a very smart, engaging system.

Across the 25-odd hours it takes to finish The Thousand Year Door, you’ll get to visit a lot of interesting locations, solving puzzles and unlocking new traversal methods. It’s in the dungeons and exploration that the game most betrays its age – the scattered save points, small segmented spaces, and occasionally abstract puzzle solutions feel a bit outdated, as does the amount of backtracking involved early on. Thankfully, there are a handful of modernisations to make the game flow more effectively – being able to swap support characters at a button press is a big one – and the core design is still extremely strong. 

If you are one of the very few people who bought, played, and finished Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door on the GameCube, and have no desire to revisit it unless there are huge changes, then you do not need this version. For everyone else, this is an excellent remake of one of the GameCube’s best, an immensely charming, funny, and weird RPG. It’s a time capsule, but one that still feels fresh and exciting – it’s the definitive version of one of Nintendo’s all-time best games. 

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is available now on Nintendo Switch. A copy was provided by the publisher. for this review. 

James O’Connor has been reviewing and writing about games since 2008.

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