How Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door hit Nintendo’s Sweet Spot

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have some traditions that are very personal. I’m not talking about anything serious like a faith or a yearly reunion of friends; more like the way you tie your shoes or a favourite bath soap. For me, it’s a certain holiday I take every summer, to a run down seaside down, a sleazy sports arena, and a three day journey on the ritziest train imaginable. I’m talking of course about Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door.

Nintendo have long struggled to overcome an image of being overly childish. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being family-friendly, but the games industry’s key audience is one with a masculinity so fragile it would shatter into dust at the sight of the colour pink, so producing a console shaped like a cutesy purple lunchbox with dinky little discs (also handily ruling out DVD playback) did nothing to help. As such, despite some brilliant titles released between 2001 and 2003, by the time of Paper Mario’s sequel in 2004 the GameCube was in dire straits, Nintendo’s sales held up only by the Xbox’s xenophobically-induced unpopularity in Japan, and the unstoppable steamroller of the Game Boy Advance.

Necessity, as any bong-constructing stoner will know, is the mother of invention, and as a result of throwing a lot of ideas at the wall, the mid-2000s were a golden age of off-the-wall ideas gracing Nintendo, from the inherent novelty of their dual-screened handheld (released around the same time) to Zelda’s about-face from the cel-shaded lightheartedness of Wind Waker towards the dark realism of Twilight Princess.

Perhaps that explains the relative anarchy of The Thousand Year Door. In the first Paper Mario, released in the pre-9/11 afterglow of the Clinton presidency, there is a good injection of humour, but it accompanies a fluffy storybook version of the classic Mario story: Princess kidnapped, find stars, defeat Bowser. By the time of TTYD, the days of cynical internet weirdness had firmly taken hold, so we instead encounter a dilapidated post-industrial town riddled with crime and in the midst of a mob war, the princess is kidnapped by a race of aliens trying to revive an ancient demon from a base on the moon, while Bowser, bumbles his way through the world, bemused by his status as an also-ran antagonist and always two steps behind the heroes.

Bowser is just one example of the game’s penchant for self-parody. Sprinkled throughout Mario’s journey are appearances from Luigi, who pops in for breaks during his parallel adventures in the Waffle Kingdom, which are never shown but instead relayed to us by less-than-impressed companions.

Instead of the typical array of Mario levels with an environmental theme, we are instead (after an admittedly dry castle stage and an oblique Pikmin parody) treated to a series of increasingly inventive set of stages, from Mario’s career as a professional wrestler to wry takes on horror and pirate stories, and onto the best of the bunch, a three day Agatha Christie mystery with Mario at the centre, featuring ghosts, fake identities, an abandoned desert station, a family of wealthy Bob-ombs, and a yummy, sticky fate.

While the deliberately blocky pop-up book visual style is set up for visual gags, there’s a lot of love put into atmosphere building, with the Riverside Station, an otherwise small and inconsequential area, a particular joy, with its limited use of music and smattering of ragged old posters contributing to a unique and creepy air. If you have the chance, I recommend taking a poke around some of the stages using the excellent to see the love and effort put into it.

While the five-game Paper Mario series has experimented with gameplay styles over its various iterations, The Thousand Year Door strikes the best balance between player interactivity, with a complex battle system which moves at enough of a pace and includes enough player interaction (via timing puzzles and context sensitive button prompts) to keep turn-based combat interesting.

Where Paper Mario established this system, The Thousand Year Door builds on it, adding more special moves, badges and attack types and reaching what is commonly considered the series’ peak. While I don’t disparage the third game, Super Paper Mario, as much as some for its return to a simplistic platforming style, it’s hard to deny that the subsequent games, based on sticker and card-based combat styles, were sluggish and dull at best.

This was Paper Mario when Nintendo needed it as a roll of the dice to save a dying console. It failed, but produced a gloriously irreverent, off the wall game that is far more memorable than the boilerplate Paper Mario who has populated the far more lifeless Sticker Star and Color Splash (and the less said about Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, the better).

It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since Mario, Goombella and co. returned to give the GameCube the best game of its five short years. But if you’ve been itching for some classic RPG gameplay with a hilarious twist, you could do worse than giving it another look.

Freelance writer and graphic designer. Once worked in politics.

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