The original Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64 was a surprise hit. As a follow up to the surprisingly awesome Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, it took everything that worked about that game and added a wholly unique, too-cute paper art style to the proceedings. Who could have guessed placing 2D characters in a 3D plane and giving the game turn-based RPG mechanics would work so well? Any way you slice it, the original Paper Mario is a great, charming little game. The thing is, its follow up on Nintendo’s wonderfully purple little hunk of joy the Nintendo GameCube, was even better.
This is the only Super Mario spin-off we will be covering in our retrospective of the series, and that’s because not only is it arguably the best spin-off in the franchise, but it’s also a shining example of creative ingenuity, and stands tall as one of the all-time great JRPGs. Join me, friends, as I take a look at what makes The Thousand Year Door so good.
The Other Side of the Mushroom Kingdom
Thousand Year Door was not the first Mario RPG to take place in an entirely brand new setting. The also-great Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga took players to the hilarious and wonderful Beanbean kingdom. Coming just a year after the seminal handheld title, Thousand Year Door continued that trend by taking players to Rogueport, a shady town filled with criminals and mysterious surrounding areas. The reason being Princess Peach purchased a treasure map leading to ruins underneath the shady town. It isn’t long before she’s kidnapped by a mysterious bunch of space travelers called the X-nauts, and Mario must set out across the land searching for a bunch of Crystal Stars to open up the eponymous Thousand Year Door on Peach’s treasure map, all while finding a way to save the princess.
Like other Mario RPGs, the broad strokes are familiar to anyone who has played any game in the series before. The wonderful elements lie in the way it executes its adventure story. According to stuff I’ve read online, the game technically takes place in the Mushroom Kingdom, but Rogueport is so different from everything we’re used to with Mario. The Mushroom Kingdom is typically a bright, colorful, almost painfully cheerful place. Rogueport, in sharp contrast to that, has a noose in its town square. It’s a side of the Mushroom Kingdom we hadn’t seen up to that point. One filled with bandits and sleaze balls.
It takes the opportunity offered to give us a look at a whole bunch of unique settings. Kind of similar to the Dragon Quest series, Thousand Year Door has a very episodic format, telling a new mini-story in each area. While these start off straightforward enough (fighting a dragon threatening a small peaceful town, wrangling a bunch of little creatures inside a great tree), it isn’t long before the game plays its hand and goes all out with its wonderfully unique setting and ideas.
One of the game’s highlights is the third area, a city floating in the sky on a giant blimp known as Glitzville. The Crystal Star Mario needs to get is on the fighting champion’s belt, which means that Mario and friends must enter the ring and fight their way to the top. The thing is that Glitzville, underneath all the glamour, is a place filled with dark secrets. Fighters seemingly disappear or are taken out of commission. Mario can hear voices in his room through the vents. He gets mysterious emails from an unknown sender about the many dangers and mysteries of the place. It’s a dark, creepy mini-story, especially for a game as bright and colorful as this, and it works entirely as its own tale about the dark side of entertainment.
Another great premise sees Mario take a trip on the Excess Express, a train bound for a place called Poshley Heights. There are all kinds of affluent characters aboard the train such as a Toad pop star, and a penguin who just so happens to be a “master” sleuth. Mysterious events start occurring, like people going missing and the train breaking down. It’s a whodunit by way of Mario, and it’s a wholly entertaining tale.
The writing really is what makes the game so compelling. Not only is each area creative in its own way, but the top notch localization really helps flesh out the characters and world. I haven’t seen another game tackle the weirdly dark subject matter of the Glitzville storyline, which is creepy as hell. There’s a story about a ghost outside a town that has some really great twists early on, and a wonderful one-off villain in the form of Dooplis. There’s even a mid-game pirate adventure that stands out due to the surprising gravitas it gives your partner for the area, the Bob-omb Admiral Bobbery, whose back story involving his wife is genuinely affecting.
In other words, the creative team took full advantage of the fact that we were seeing a side of the Mushroom Kingdom that we’d never seen before, and used it to deliver some super creative and memorable scenarios. The overarching plot is pretty solid, too, with lots of hilarity and high stakes thanks to its shifting perspectives. Between chapters, the perspective will shift to Peach, who makes an emotional connection to the X-naut’s computer and tries numerous times to escape and help Mario. While it wouldn’t be until the next installment that Peach would become a fully playable character, she has some nice development and agency here that we haven’t gotten before. There are even some fun sections where you play as the dunderhead-ed Bowser in some fun side scrolling segments that give you an idea of what playing as the Koopa King might be like in a more traditional platformer. You can even listen to Luigi recount his oddly similar but slightly different adventures he seems to be having at the same time as Mario.
It all comes together to create a story that is more than the sum of its parts. It uses familiar JRPG tropes, such as episodic storytelling to frame a bunch of funny, surprising, and unique smaller stories that simply add to the weight of the main plot. It gets surprisingly dark at times, too, real stakes at play as the plot progresses. It feels like the best of kid’s fiction—simple enough for kids to enjoy and understand, but heavy enough that adults can get swept away by the storytelling, too.
Thin Characters, Deep Aesthetic
While I can’t say for sure, I would imagine that the whole paper aesthetic was conceived due to the limitations of 3D gaming at the time. The N64, while a great console, was still an early 3D piece of hardware. In other words, as great as something like Ocarina of Time is, the graphics haven’t exactly held up the best. I’ve said before that unrealistic/ creative aesthetics will always, no matter what, hold up better than sheer realism. Hence, the paper motif. The original Paper Mario, while rough around the edges, still looks great to this day thanks to the simple but effective nature of making everything paper.
Thousand Year Door took the aesthetic one step further by making everything paper craft. The title screen pops up like a storybook. When you enter a building, the walls unfold like a paper house and then everything inside pops up and folds itself appropriately. Big bosses look like crafts made by someone with a lot of skill. It really takes the whole “paper” idea and realizes it to its fullest, charming extent. And the aforementioned title screen implies that, like the second and third entries into the whole franchise, this might not necessarily be “real,” and instead is story being told to someone.
There’s that, and the fact that battles take place on a literal stage. This ties into the gameplay, and we’ll get to that in just a moment, but it’s a nice little cherry on top of the charming cake that is The Thousand Year Door. I don’t know the full reason behind the paper look, but it pays off magnificently here, and the game remains good looking even today.
Traditional Gameplay with Some Twists
At its core, the gameplay is fairly standard JRPG stuff, minus random battles (like many contemporaries in the genre, enemies appear in the overworld and touching them initiates battle). There are loads of little touches that give the game its own unique identity, though. Returning from the first game is the idea of timing-based attacks. You can jump on enemies easy enough, but you do more damage if you press A right as you land on them. As you go through the game, you can learn more and more complicated moves that require your undivided attention to pull off successfully.
And while you don’t need to be an absolute master to get through the game, it does provide a pretty decent challenge. Even early on, repeatedly failed hit checks can result in a quick game over. It makes each battle feel significant. Even as a JRPG fan, I’ll admit that there are times when turn based battles can wear thin. At the very least, these interactive elements keep the player engaged in even the smallest battles.
Your partners act as solid supplements to Mario in battle. Positioning of enemies is a huge element, with, say, airborne enemies only able to be hit by jumping attacks or a partner who floats. Each partner serves a different role. For instance, Goombella is your first partner, able to tattle on enemies and reveal their strengths, weaknesses, and HP. In the aforementioned Glitzville, you get a baby Yoshi (who, depending on how long it takes to hatch, can be a variety of colors) who is all about racking up as many hits as possible. Each partner is unique, and it makes each one feel important, even the optional party member who can join you late in the game. Like Mario, their attacks require precise, careful timing for maximum success.
As mentioned above, battles take place on a stage. Rather than just being a unique visual choice, this actually factors in to battle in some crucial ways. For instance, hitting an enemy with a hammer might shake the ground, causing the scenery to fall on top of the enemy and deal extra damage. Events like this are mostly random, but give a nice unpredictable edge to the fights. The crowd is an important factor, too. With each Crystal Star, you gain a new, super powerful ability to use in battle. Each one costs a certain number of Star Points, and these are gained through effective battling. As the crowd cheers, you gain back more power and can use more abilities.
Outside of combat, exploration is key. Not only can you find plenty of useful healing items, but there are other, more permanent upgrades you can find. For instance, there are Badges, which can enhance Mario in a variety of ways. These can range from visual changes like making Mario wear Luigi or Wario’s clothes, to more prominent effects like the ability to randomly dodge an incoming attack or increasing your damage output with hammer attacks. Badges can be obtained in a variety of ways such as simple exploration or completing Troubles (which are the game’s versions of side quests). These troubles feel rather substantial for the most part as well, with some of them leading to optional boss fights and more.
There are also Shine Sprites peppered throughout the world which allow you to upgrade your partners as you see fit, as well as the returning Star Pieces which can be used to get more Badges. These upgrades are fairly standard for the genre, but are still fantastic incentives to explore every nook and cranny of the world. All of this adds up to a JRPG that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but stands as a shining example of how classic game design can remain satisfying when done right.
Granted, there are some segments of the game that can grate. A late game quest to find a character sees you running all over the world to find them, and it feels like a waste of time. Certain bosses can feel absolutely brutal in their difficulty, particularly near the end of the game, and in the final dungeon. The second scenario, involving the Boggly Tree, feels rather bland when compared to the outstanding stories in other areas of the game and requires managing the cute Punies in order to progress, which sadly isn’t much fun.
But none of that holds the game back from greatness. The gameplay is still rock solid, but it’s the aesthetic and writing that really elevates the game to legendary status. It takes advantage of a very traditional JRPG structure and uses it to tell the many stories of the darker corners of the Mushroom Kingdom. The game’s follow up, Super Paper Mario, has similarly great writing, but the gameplay feels like a chore and gimmicky for the most part. Thousand Year Door stands tall as a great blend of story and gameplay, and is an absolute highlight among the seemingly endless Mario spin-offs. It makes me yearn for Nintendo to drop the gimmicks of the more recent Paper Mario games and just give us another solid RPG with top notch writing. Or, at the very least, release some kind of collection of the first few games. As of right now, you can only play Thousand Year Door on the original GameCube, and for a game this good, that’s a crying shame.