Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

The sequel to Paper Mario. It features many improvements to battles and core gameplay that I greatly appreciated, but everything else was a bit of a letdown. The writers tried to do something different with the plot by using an all-new setting and villain this time, but I felt they lacked the charm of Paper Mario‘s. There was also a disconcerting rise in Anime Horniness.

I think the biggest issue I had with the plot is that unlike with The Legend of Zelda, Mario‘s main villain is very hard to improve upon. Bowser never gets old for me; he is an entertaining mix of goofy, cool, affable, and intimidating that somehow manages to work despite the inherent contradictions. There are so many directions you can take him in and situations you can slot him into that he works just about anywhere. Indeed, his segments were some of the funniest parts of this game (and getting to play as Bowser is always fun in a wanton destruction kind of way) — but they had nothing to do with the main plot and felt incredibly tacked-on, as if the writers felt obligated to include him but didn’t know how.

I just can’t work up the same level of enthusiasm for the X-Nauts. They have a very generic humanoid design and unlike Bowser’s menagerie of troops, they all look the same. They are about as incompetent as Bowser but aren’t nearly as personable, leaving nothing interesting about them. And maybe it’s just me, but sterile tech felt a much more boring aesthetic than Bowser’s castle. About the only interesting thing that could have been done with them would have been a tragic boss battle against a mindwiped TEC, but instead we just got yet another rematch with Lord Failvillain.

The other new settings and characters felt little better. Rogueport was kind of interesting, but after the prologue nothing’s really done with its supposedly seedy nature. All the other environments were just kind of meh. Petalburg’s diversity of residents just made it generic in contrast to Koopa Village; the Great Tree was a tedious mess of backtracking through repetitive environments; Twilight Town felt like it was checking off a box and the addition of a new but vaguely human species just felt awkward; Keelhaul Key lacked the liveliness of Lavalava Island; and Fahr Outpost could barely even be called a town. (Also, why are bob-ombs suddenly Russian and why do none of the bob-ombs outside of it act Russian despite supposedly all coming from there?) Every area in Paper Mario had so much going on and so many charming, memorable moments, but the areas here felt a lot more generic. Glitzville was probably the most interesting area; Rawk Hawk was cool because birds are great, and the plot was actually impressively twisty. But it doesn’t have a proper dungeon, and the unnecessarily long and unskippable cutscene every time you want to go there ground away most of my positive feelings towards it.

Which brings me to my next complaint: There is so. Much. Padding. In Paper Mario, you could unlock fast travel shortcuts in the hub town to every area in the game; all of them except two were in the same two adjacent rooms that could be accessed immediately from the hub town, and those two exceptions were still pretty close by. In this game, the fast travel rooms are several screens away from the hub town (many of which contain enemies), two areas have their warp pipes on the opposite end of the area, and one area doesn’t have a fast travel option at all — that would be the aforementioned Glitzville, which requires you to take a blimp from a completely different area of the hub and then watch a long cutscene of the blimp traveling every single time. And for some reason, the warp pipe to Fahr Outpost spits you out in the middle of the dungeon area, forcing you to trek through three screens of enemies every time you want to visit. This might not have been too troublesome if it weren’t for the glut of sidequests that all require you to visit multiple areas in succession. They clearly thought they were being funny, but just served to waste my time.

What’s curious is that Paper Mario had a lot of similar fetch quests, but they hardly bothered me at all, because traveling between areas was a breeze. There was a warp pipe right next to the quest giver that deposited you right into the hub room. Despite Koopa Koot being far more ungrateful and the rewards far less valuable, I found myself enjoying his sidequests far more.

The game also introduces the Pit of 100 Trials, a dungeon where you have to fight a series of 100 battles — and if you bail at any point, you have to start from the beginning again. What’s bizarre is that the game seems to expect you to make multiple runs through the course of the game — the enemies gradually increase in power to correspond with the various areas of the game, so you could conceivably do another set of floors every chapter or so. Except doing that is a huge waste of time because you have to fight through all the trivial enemies on the upper floors every time. They even disable the badges that let you skip battles with trivial enemies just for this dungeon! Why? What does it add to make you repeat challenges you’ve already mastered? They’re not even wearing down your resources, because you can often eliminate them in one round anyway.

Despite all my complaining, I did enjoy the game overall. The battle mechanics received several much-needed improvements — in particular, the stat and level caps were raised tremendously, giving you much greater control over Mario’s build rather than just maxing everything by the endgame. I was particularly grateful for the increased badge point cap, which synergizes nicely both with the larger number of badges introduced and the new mechanic of badges being stackable. I tried out a “danger Mario” build this time by minimizing my max HP to exploit a bunch of powerful badges that only activated at critical health, and the knife’s-edge challenge was fun. (I do have to wonder if the developers realized people would do this, because it seems absurdly broken and poorly balanced, especially in the endgame. Tying critical status to a set value rather than a proportion of max health seems a pretty glaring oversight.)

The party members were more hit-or-miss for me, but I did enjoy the hits, especially the little yoshi tyke! Koops also had more personality than Kooper, and I thought his design and his stylish poses were very cute. You also get to fight Kammy Koopa properly in a very cool double boss battle with Bowser, which was highly enjoyable and made Bowser’s bumbling interludes all worth it.

I think they went overboard with the stage and audience mechanics, though. If there’s any way to control who you get in your audience, I didn’t find it, so it adds a large element of randomness. While I liked the new “stylish” action commands as a fun optional challenge, I think star generation should have been fixed rather than tied to the fickle audience. I did also enjoy the greater variety of action commands in general, though the ones for the special moves tended to go on way too long for something you were supposed to use regularly.

I also have to say: Wow was this shockingly horny for a Mario game. Virtually every female character makes a pass at Mario at some point (and of course acts catty every time someone else makes moves on him), and there are not one but two party members with an ability based around kissing Mario. There is even one party member who looks like this (and yes, the boobs are animated):

Most egregiously, Peach’s interludes this time have a disturbing obsession with her taking off her clothes, including her needing to strip naked while invisible and the base’s computer falling in love with her after it spies on her in the shower — yes, really. No nudity is ever shown, but it’s still deeply uncomfortable and made me want to dunk all the writers in a cold shower.

So. That was a lot of complaining but it’s still a solid Mario RPG. If you liked Paper Mario you will probably like this one too. It just missed the mark in its attempt to try a lot of different things — but hey, better to try and fail than not try at all.

3 Comments

  1. mcbender says:

    I see you largely agree with me about TTYD!

    This game does have its high points writing-wise (Rogueport is a compelling setting at times and the Pianta mafia are great, the Glitzville plot is interesting and an effective parody of wrestling, Twilight Town has Vivian and the crows, and there are some interesting nuances to the Shadow Queen), but for me they’re overshadowed by the low points. Overall, I hate the writing in this game and it annoys me more every time I see it. Who asked for Mario to be written as a harem anime? Why is this game so creepy and gross? (I do see a lot of people enjoying it, so it must be for someone I guess?) Where did the first game’s charm go?

    Also, frustratingly, possibly the best part of the writing was completely excised from many localisations, including the English one. In the original Japanese, Vivian is apparently a trans woman, and the reason she stays with Mario is that he’s one of the only people to accept and affirm her gender: Beldam’s abuse of her explicitly involved misgendering. It’s a real shame that they bowdlerised it in the international releases, my understanding is it’s handled surprisingly well, especially for the time.

    The backtracking is a common complaint (Chapter 4 and in particular Twilight Trail get the worst of the blame, but when I replay this I tend to be struck by how every chapter feels similarly tedious, it’s far from isolated to there). I’d go further and just say, overall, that most of the content in this game that isn’t the actual combat is incredibly tedious. (For instance, I advise everyone to skip the Trouble Centre except the one quest that unlocks Mowz, it’s incredibly tedious and unrewarding and doesn’t respect your time. And I say this as someone who’s usually a pathological completionist. This game loves to waste your time and rub your face in the fact it did so.)

    Although I do think you can at least partially skip the blimp-to-Glitzville cutscene? It’s still definitely more annoying to get to than other places, but not that much more in the grand scheme of things.

    People enjoyed and praised the Bowser segments of this game so much that it had an outsized influence on the next game (Super Paper Mario), to mixed reception. They were better in small doses, there wasn’t really enough there to carry an entire game.

    I think the X-Nauts being disappointing was intentional (Beldam is the real villain behind everything, they’re just patsies), but it’s of a piece with a lot of this game prioritising trolling the player over making good design and writing choices.

    You may be surprised to learn that the Pit of 100 Trials ended up being one of the most breakout-popular elements of this game (to the point Super Paper Mario had two of them, and a majority of fan-made ROM hacks and mods revolve around it. People have even back-ported it into Paper Mario 64…). One of the most popular challenge runs is the Pre-Hooktail Pit (or completing the entire Pit before finishing Chapter 1). I think that goes to show that the combat mechanics, badges, etc are the best part of this game (my best guess as to why the Pit is so popular is that it gets everything else out of the way and leaves you to just crunch on those mechanics). I agree with your criticism that the intended experience of the Pit is poorly designed and wastes the player’s time, yet somehow it’s still my favourite part of the game to play (I’ve been messing around with jdaster64’s Infinite Pit mod recently and having fun with it).

    Danger Mario is totally busted and I don’t think the developers anticipated players intentionally exploiting it (even though that was also possible in the original, it was fairer there since you couldn’t equip arbitrarily high numbers of the badges). I don’t know the exact threshold, but it’s apparently possible to equip so many copies of Close Call that there is literally no possible string of random numbers that will cause an enemy to hit Mario.

    1. Yeah, I saw the translations for the trans Vivian stuff, and they are… not great. She is still referred to as a boy by the characters and system text, and there are a lot of “Ew, that hot girl is actually a boy” jokes from other characters. I couldn’t find any evidence for the “Mario affirms her identity” bit; Goombella’s tattle certainly doesn’t. It really looks to me more like her identity was just supposed to be a joke.

      Honestly, Twilight Town was one of the few areas where I would actually defend the backtracking, since forcing you to go through the same area without your partner really emphasizes your vulnerability, and the third time helps you get accustomed to Vivian’s abilities. The real annoyance is having to trek through the forest every time you want to get to Creepy Steeple after that; they should have unlocked a fast-warp after you finished the chapter.

      Beldam is the real villain behind everything, they’re just patsies

      I mean, technically yes, and I did like that reveal, but in terms of who occupies most of your time, it’s the Boring Aliens squad. There is apparently unused data for a battle with the Shadow Sirens in chapter 6, so it’s possible they were originally planned to have a larger role, which would have improved the plot.

      The Shadow Queen had a cool design, but overall the whole thing felt like something more suited to The Legend of Zelda.

      1. mcbender says:

        Oof. That source’s version is worse than it was described to me, yeah. I’ll withdraw what credit I was willing to give it, then.  I’ve definitely seen the “Mario accepts her” thing in a few places, but that could just as easily be silent protagonist syndrome (and people reading charitably into his silence) rather than the actual text. Or maybe I was reading into the visual design, since she’s very much coded feminine. (I don’t think I’d seen the Goombella text. It’s just about possible to project a charitable reading when her abusive sisters are the ones calling her a man, but Goombella is the authoritative voice of the game.)

        And now that I think about it, given how inundated with sexism the rest of the game is, it not being transphobic would be the bigger surprise. I don’t have any vested interest in defending the game, but I seem to have not wanted to admit to myself how bad it could get.

        For all that the Chapter 4 backtracking is the thing everyone complains about, you’re right that it serves more of a purpose there. It’s certainly more defensible than the hunt for General White (but then that’s not necessarily saying much). I think the issue is more that there’s a pattern of forced backtracking and not respecting the player’s time throughout than any individual instance of it, really.

        I think my fondness for the Shadow Queen mostly comes from the fact the scenario gave us Shadow Peach, which helped take a bit of the sting out of how unpleasant her role in this game is otherwise (having to spend the entire game winning over TEC with cliche femininity and sex appeal is gross, and a big step back from the degree of agency she had in PM64). But even that isn’t without problems, since it plays right into the “contrived scenarios that force the male protagonist to beat up his love interest” trope that shows up in far too many games. It’s probably more accurate to say I like the visual design of Shadow Peach despite everything surrounding it.

        This game has aged very, very weirdly.

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