Some games come and go. They're quickly forgotten in the rush of other releases and fail to stand up to the test of time. I played Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door years ago, but when I slipped it into my Wii for this review, I was a little bit concerned that it might turn out to be one of those games. I think you'll see just how wrong I turned out to be.
In Thousand Year Door (TYD), Mario heads to the seaside city of Rogueport in search of Princess Peach and the legendary treasure that brought her to the city. In classic Mario tradition, the Princess gets kidnapped before Mario even arrives. The twist, however, is that Bowser isn't the culprit this time. As the story progresses, you'll spend most of your time as Mario, but will get to play for a few minutes as Peach and as Bowser between each chapter of the main story. These interludes are always entertaining (especially Bowser's), and some of them feature entirely different gameplay from the rest of the game (one of them could be best described as Super Bowser Bros), making them a fun break after an end-of-chapter boss battle.
TYD's story is charming and well-written from start to finish, with some clever twists and turns that you'll see coming as well as a few you probably won't. The companions that Mario gains as you progress through the game are distinctive, as are the villains. I was particularly surprised at one point when an evil boss got some bad news and actually responded in an intelligent way, rather than killing the messenger or blaming his underlings for something they couldn't possibly have affected. You know, the way most cartoony villains do. The level to which the random NPCs in town are different from each other is also impressive - they not only have their own lines to say, but if asked for, one of your companions will be happy to tell you the NPC's name and a little bit about them.
Of course, you won't spend most of your time following the story. You'll be dividing your time between generally light platforming and turn-based battles. I could have been happy with a little less of the platforming, but it's really a matter of taste. Although new territory opens up during each plot chapter, you'll also find yourself backtracking through certain areas throughout the entire game. You probably won't mind, though, as the abilities and companions Mario gains as you do so keep things fresh by opening up new paths to you - including some great shortcuts. The platforming controls are great, and the loss of just one HP each time you run off a cliff because you didn't push the jump button quickly enough prevents your mistakes from punishing you to the point of frustration.
Of course, the meat of almost every RPG is the battles. TYD features turn-based battles where Mario and his companion each take a turn, followed by any enemies they didn't manage to kill. Different enemies call for different strategies and for different companions, and that really helps keep this game from falling into the trap of having a million possible actions, but only three or four that you actually use. You will find that you favor some things over others, but not to the extent that battles become boring and predictable.
Of course, it helps that battles are held in front of an audience. Certain special moves cost star power, which is only regained by pleasing the audience. Everything you do earns you some star power, but there are a couple ways in which you can significantly increase the amount you earn. First, you can use one of your characters' turns to Appeal to the audience - it doesn't do anything but earn you star power, but there are times that it's worth it. Secondly, and more effectively, you can execute "stylish" attacks by pressing the A button at specific times before, during, or after an attack. Stylish attacks cause Mario or his companion to do something entertaining, such as following a hammer blow with a backflip. I mention these because they also help keep battles from becoming stale "choose your action and wait" affairs.
Of course, part of the fun of RPGs is equipment, and TYD doesn't disappoint in that regard. There's only one type of equipment, badges, but there's a huge variety even in that one category. Each time you level up, you have a choice to upgrade one of three stats: HP, mana, and Badge Points. Each badge costs a number of BP to wear, based on how powerful the badge is. Something silly like changing the sound of your attacks might be free, but the best effects, like raising Mario's attack power, can cost up to six BP. Managing badges is probably my favorite thing about TYD's gameplay. When I realized I was coming up against the final boss, I actually put together a spreadsheet of all of my badges and spent time strategizing how to maximize them for that fight. Nerdy? Without a doubt. But I still enjoyed the process of figuring out how to set myself up to get in there and just crush that boss.
The gameplay is the same on a GameCube or a Wii, on an SD TV or in HD, but the graphics might not be, and that made scoring the graphics really difficult. In the end, I decided it looks good enough that I'd give it a great score regardless of what I judged it against. I remember liking the graphics in SD on my GameCube, but I was really impressed with how good it looks in Progressive Mode on my Wii. The stylized look of the characters and environments absolutely holds up today. I did notice some slowdown on rare occasions where there were a large number of characters on screen, but it was so rare that it only merits mention so that I can feel like I found something to complain about. After all, isn't that part of my job as a critic?
Having said all of that, I think the only thing I haven't mentioned at all is how the game sounds. I've admitted it before, and I'll do it again: I just don't pay as much attention to sound as some of the other editors. That said, I really don't have big complaints. The minimal voice acting is done well, and I think it fits the game's style. The music is fairly catchy, but not annoying. The different pieces all match the mood of the areas where they appear, and they don't get in the way of what's going on. Finally, the sound effects match the game well, and in at least one case, they even factor into the gameplay in an amusing way.
As I said at the beginning, it turns out that there was no reason for me to be nervous about reviewing Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door so long after its initial release. Even five years later, it's an outstanding game that deserves to be played and enjoyed. If you've never played it and you own a Wii, get your hands on a copy of the game, a GameCube controller, and a memory card. Even if the extras bring the price up to what a current game would cost, it's worth it.