Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door Developed by: Intelligent Systems Published by: Nintendo ESRB Rating: E For: Nintendo GameCube

One of the best-kept secrets in the gaming world is Nintendo's contribution to the role-playing genre. Beginning with the Square-Enix-produced Super Mario RPG: The Secret of the Seven Stars on the SNES, and continuing with Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64 and Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga on the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo and its second parties have developed solid RPG's with great gameplay mechanics and clever plots. Now, Intelligent Systems ? the minds behind such great GBA RPG's as Fire Emblem and Advance Wars has continued that great tradition with the first Nintendo-produced RPG for the GameCube. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door certainly doesn't look the part of the epic RPG. But beneath that simple surface is a witty, lengthy, classic tale that makes this game one of the best of 2004.


Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door takes a familiar road, at least at first. Princess Peach is kidnapped, and it is once again Mario's job to rescue her. Your journey begins in a city called Rogueport, which becomes the hub for your various adventures. The game is divided up into eight chapters, but also features a myriad of sidequests and other possibilities beyond the main mission that can significantly add to the playtime. Many of the sidequests have some connection to previously-completed chapters, and feel like reunions rather than just busywork. Paper Mario is a reasonably lengthy game, and I completed it all, including most of the sidequests, in around 40 hours. And Paper Mario's cutscenes are relatively short, so this game's play time isn't inflated by long interludes as many other games in the genre are. The game is divided into two main views, the field screen and the battle screen. The field screen looks much like a three-dimensional platformer with a fixed camera. In this screen, you can run around, talk to people, sleep at inns, buy equipment, and do all of the other things you can do in an RPG.

Like a Mario game, though, you can also break blocks, jump onto platforms, hit switches, and enter warp pipes. Enemies are visible on-screen and combat begins when you touch them. You can gain a first strike by jumping those enemies, or they can gain a first strike by hitting you. Combat, once initiated, takes place on a separate screen, like most turn-based RPG's. The battle screen is essentially a stage, with an audience watching you. This audience is actually quite important, as they can both help you (by replenishing your star power) or hurt you (by throwing foreign objects at your characters). Actions are selected in a turn-based fashion from a ring menu. Most actions require you to input some sort of special button command, whether it be pressing a button at a specific time, lining up crosshairs, or pulling back on the control stick for a moment. In that sense, the game is turn-based but it is never static. Likewise, the game encourages you never to sit still, even when you are on the defense. Careful execution of specific buttons can allow you to defend or even counterattack against enemy assault, provided your timing is right.

The game uses two special meters for special attacks: flower points (FP) and the star meter. Flower points allow you to use your weapons in special ways, such as Mario using his hammer to create an earthquake. The star meter used for unique abilities that are learned as you collect ?star crystals? through the game, and range from healing and defensive actions to powerful offensive attacks. Between these different meters, the game offers rather deep strategic combat. Adding even more depth is the leveling-up that takes place in the game. Mario earns experience points (called star points, not to be confused with the aforementioned star meter) that allow him to gain levels. Each level-up allows you to increase Mario?s HP, FP, or his badge points (BP). Badges are items with special effects, ranging from passive (increased defense) to active (new special attacks). There are dozens of different badges to choose from, and each badge uses a different number of BP, so a large part of the strategy is customizing your badges to fit your gameplay style. Your partners are also a key component of the game. You will accrue several partners during the game, though you can only have one of them active at a time. (You can also swap partners on the field or in combat if needed.) Each partner has his or her own unique repertoire of abilities and attacks that fit their character, and they are well-balanced; I found most of them to be about equally-useful in combat. Your partners also have specific abilities on the field screen that are needed to solve specific puzzles. Each partner also has distinctive dialogue for different situations, so part of the fun is swapping characters to see their different reactions to unfolding situations. The script writing in Paper Mario is some of the best I've seen in a long time, something one would not expect from a game like this. 

The plot twists are very well-executed and the dialogue can be absolutely hilarious. I rarely laugh during a game, but during this one I laughed out loud on several occasions, much to the surprise of my neighbors, I'm sure. The game embraces cliche's  Peach, for example, wonders why she keeps getting kidnapped all the time and runs with them in a Galaxy Quest-type fashion that is so odd that it is believable. The localization is very good and the dialogue makes frequent allusion to ideas familiar to Americans. Expect to see clever references ranging from Vince McMahon to '2001: A Space Odyssey.' What astonished me the most about this game, from start to finish, was how wonderfully diverse it was.

Each chapter's adventure is very different from the others, both in terms of plot and in terms of actual gameplay. Without spoiling too much, expect a little detective work, and a little arena action, and good old classic dungeon-crawling, among other things. The game really mixes it up, so much so that each chapter almost feels like a new game. The overarching plot is never too far from your mind, though, and Paper Mario does a superb job of connecting Mario's smaller adventures into the overall story. Throughout the game, too, expect a familiar cast of characters to grace the screen; Paper Mario is a virtual cavalcade of stars from the original Super Mario Brothers, Super Mario Sunshine, and every NES, SNES, N64, and Game Boy game in between. This game is crammed with characters and references to all manner of previous Mario games, but it is done in such a way that fans who aren't obsessed with Mario lore can still pick up and play this game with enjoyment.


Most everything in Paper Mario is done in a two-dimensional style, emulating a sort of cross between a cartoon and a pop-up book. Buildings ?fold open? like a book when you enter them, and some obstacles can be ?blown away? as if they were a piece of paper covering an illustration. These moments are a big part of the game and add to the atmosphere of being inside of a two-dimensional book. While this game doesn?t exactly push the hardware of the GameCube, it is still really pretty and features some colorful character models that faithfully take their cue from previous Mario incarnations. None of the combat effects are exactly eye-popping, but there is still the satisfaction of watching your enemies go belly-up at the hands of a POW block. Some may argue that the game doesn't take Mario forward enough technically, while others may call it a 'classic' look. Either way, the graphics are still acceptably good for a GameCube game and run smoothly and steadily.


In terms of music and sound effects, the game does pretty well and is about what you would expect from a Mario title. The music borrows heavily from the tradition of Mario game tracks, with a few musical nods to previous games at different points. In my opinion, it is not the best score ever composed for a Mario-based game, but it is still pretty good and the combat themes have good staying power. The sound effects will be quite familiar to fans of the Mario games, with power-ups, warp pipes, and Mario?s own attacks sounding exactly like they should. That familiarity helps make this game feel at home in the Mario world. There is no voicework in Paper Mario. The game does feature extensive, and often hilarious dialogue that is enhanced by special effects (such as shaking letters or large fonts) but none of it is actually spoken. Intelligent Systems' decisions in regard to the game's voicework will probably inspire some controversy among hardcore Nintendo fans. Purists will laud the decision to keep the games as they have been in the past, untainted by potentially damaging voicework. Progressives will criticize Nintendo for remaining in the voicework stone age by keeping voices out of the Mario and Zelda series. For what it is worth, the absence of dialogue did not take away from my overall enjoyment of the game, and I suspect my mind's own rendition of the dialogue might actually be funnier than voiceovers anyway.


The controls are awfully good, adding real depth to the gameplay. On the field map, the game handles like a platformer and is every bit as fluid and responsive as previous Mario games. Jumping (A), swinging the hammer (B), using allied abilities (X) and other abilities are all very easy to perform. Inside of battle, the menu commands are easily accessed. Most of the game?s special attacks use some sort of special controls which are clearly explained on-screen. The game also lets you defend during combat by pressing A just before an enemy hits. Or, if you are ambitious, you can attempt a more difficult counterattack with the B button. But the controls always keep you closely connected to the combat.


This game is rated E, and it's overall content is clearly designed toward a broad, family-friendly audience. Just as Bugs Bunny cartoons once did so well, Paper Mario will wow the kids with its colorful visuals while the adults will laugh at the jokes that go right over the kids? heads. Most of those jokes are pretty clean, and unless calling a girl a 'hottie' offends you, you probably won?t find much to dislike about them. This game gets all of its laughs the old-fashioned way, and it works beautifully. Paper Mario follows in the footsteps of many previous Mario games by including ghosts, curses, spellcasting, and a few other paranormal references. Some of these instances, particularly in the latter half of the game, can be pretty dark and include references to spirit possession. It's unfortunate, too, because Paper Mario is otherwise a pretty clean game.

Closing Comments:

On paper (no pun intended), this game shouldn't work. It should be too cute to be epic, too clean to be intelligent, and too quirky to be engaging. And it isn't exactly the most technically robust game ever produced, either. But Paper Mario still manages to deliver an unexpectedly sharp plot and an outstanding action-packed gaming experience. I had absolutely no intention of ever touching this game until I played a demo one afternoon at Best Buy, but from that point on I was sold. And my experience with the full version of the game makes the demo seem like a cheap sideshow. In a year when RPG's like Tales of Symphonia, Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, and Baten Kaitos are plunging into the Cube library, Paper Mario stands tall right with them. But this game isn't a hardcore stat-fest, so many non-RPG fans will find its mix of adventure, humor, and action to be great fun. Plain and simple, Paper Mario is one of the best games of 2004. It is highly recommended for any Cube library or at the very least as a rental and is much fun for adults as it is for kids.

Final Ratings:

Gameplay: A Graphics: B+ Sound: B Control: A+ Appropriateness: B

Overall Score: 91%

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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