Nintendo yet again had the urge to feature their timeless mascot in a genre not fitting for him. The Mario RPG series has been rather hit-or-miss since the debut of Super Mario RPG: Legend of The Seven Stars for SNES. While Paper Mario 2 serves as a charming sequel for the N64 original, it ends up falling more toward a "miss" and does not add much to the GameCube's meager RPG library.
The area where the game truly shines is in its gameplay. The battle system is the same timing based combat from all the Mario RPGs, but it still feels fresh and fun. The game is incredibly simple to pick up, and while the battles are usually very easy, pressing the various buttons at just the right time to maximize damage will keep you on your toes (more on that later.) However, it really boils down to whether you should jump on an enemy or whack it with your hammer.
Exploration is quirky and fun. Enemies are visible, and the initiative can be gained by striking the enemy before it strikes you to start the battle. In dungeons, you must use the game's paper gimmick in different ways to solve puzzles. Throughout the game you pick up abilities that allow you to do such things as folding into a paper airplane to glide over a chasm or rolling up into a tube to get under a tiny space. Your party members aren't without abilities either. Whether you use Goombella's ability to give hints or Bobbery's power to blow up destructible items, figuring out which comrade to use in various situations is enjoyable.
Levelling up can be slow, but once a level is gained the player chooses whether to upgrade Heart Points (health), Flower Points (MP), or Badge Points. While the first two are self-explanatory, Badge Points are a great way to customize your Mario. Throughout the game, you'll collect badges, each with its own effect. Some raise your partner's HP while others make you invulnerable to spikey enemies, to name a few.
The most impressive aspect of the entire game is the audience. Setting the battle screen on a stage gives the game a distinctive feel. The crowd adds a new layer to combat. To use the special moves, Mario needs to acquire a Crystal Star and Star Points. To earn Star Points, you need to impress the crowd. Whether you use your turn to appeal to the crowd or impress them by smiting thine foes is up to you, but running from battle or doing the same move over and over will bore the crowd. Depending on the mood of the audience, they may throw hurtful objects at you or your enemies as well as special items. As you progress, so will your fame and with it, audience capacity. At times the outcome of the battle can depend on how into the show your fans are.
But the gameplay isn't without flaws. Mario can only hold up to ten items at a time, and you can only level your party members up once. This means constantly having to get rid of items and having party members that are nearly useless. It can be very annoying, but not too detracting from the overall gameplay.
The unique art style is the main gimmick of this game, and for the most part it works. The graphics are sharp, colorful, and vibrant to the point of feeling like a playable cartoon (reminiscent of how Zelda: The Wind Waker felt.) The character designs are funny and at times even cute, especially the 2D protagonist Mario. However, I felt at times that the graphics were too clean. A trivial complaint, I know, but nothing looked particularly like paper. This left the game looking less like an origami wonderland and more like a clump of undetailed environments. I was hoping for more comedy along the lines of Bowser glued to a popsicle stick, as in the last entry. Still, the game is a visual feast.
Legend tells of an ancient civilization that existed a thousand years ago where the town of Rogueport now resides. The town was wiped from the face of the earth by some tragic cataclysm, and the only remnants of the long lost city lie in the rumors of a magical door buried beneath the city. This sets the scene for the story, but never really goes beyond that.
Princess Peach, while off doing whatever, happens upon a mysterious map that shows the location of the seven Crystal Stars (a concept borrowed from previous titles.) She sends it to Mario and is then immediately captured (again.) Mario then obligingly sets off to save the princess and heads to the town of Rogueport, a vile lair of villainous scum where the legendary Thousand Year Door is said to be.
I could elaborate on the story more, but I see no point in doing so. The plot is so tired and boring that it fades into obscurity within the first hour. The few so-called "plot twists" are easy to expect. The game simply crawls on with Mario going to random places to collect the Crystal Stars and save the world. I know this game is supposedly for children, but I found more depth in Mother Goose stories.
I found myself in disbelief regarding the dialogue. Developer Intelligent Systems touted the huge script and hilarious lines, but there's hardly anything. The Mario brand of humor is there, but you really have to strain to see it. Hearing people exclaim "How...LAME!!!" or "SHA-ZIBBY...SHA-ZOOBY!!!" just didn't sit well with me. I like nonsensical humor as much as the next guy, but this is ridiculous.
Story is key to the RPG genre, but I found Paper Mario 2's story quite weak. The "save the princess" stuff doesn't fly outside of the Zelda series. The only two characters with any real depth whatsoever are Bobbery, the salty bomb-omb sailor who laments the loss of his wife because of his lust for the ocean, and a random raven in Twilight Town who speaks of wings being his gift to escape the mundanity of this life. But they are totally eclipsed by TEC, the villain's computer who, in an attempt to further his artificial intelligence, falls in love with Peach. These scenes are unforgivable, intolerable and I found myself actually groaning through countless cutscenes.
While I know I've droned on about how much I hated this story, the game isn't without laughs. The scenes when you talk to Luigi to hear his own quest are awesome, and the portrayal of Super Mario Sunshine's island race of Piantas as a mafia syndicate had me in tears at times. The greatest bits though, are when you play as Mario's eternal nemesis, Bowser. Intervals in the story allow you to play through levels from the original Super Mario Bros. in a whole new way. These parts are beyond cool, and merit several chuckles.
I found myself switching between loathing the soundtrack and humming the tunes all day. I really enjoyed some of the new remixes of the old school themes (the Super Mario World theme plays whenever you receive an e-mail), but nearly all of the original music composed for the game is, while fitting to the mood of the game, instantly forgettable.
However, the audio trait that stands out most in the game is Mario himself. While the game lacks true voice acting (which was quite irritating for a Mario title), the bits of spoken dialogue and sound effects by Charles Martinet are absolutely hilarious. Those of you with a Mario fetish will giggle each time Mario exclaims "Oh yeah!" or squeal as a piranha chomps on his butt. The simple addition of the Mario voice made this game inexplicably more enjoyable.
The control in this title is the glue that holds the gameplay together. The timed combat controls are perfect, from pushing the A button as you jump on an enemy to deliver another blow, to mashing in the button combinations on the screen. The only complaint I have is that Mario's jumping in the dungeon screen is too limited. I found myself missing ledges too easily. As a platformer hero, Mario should be a little more agile than this when exploring.
My feelings are still mixed on this title. While I know I berated the story quite harshly and seemed pleased with many aspects of the game, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door as a whole is simply garbage. "Kiddie" stuff should be just as enjoyable to an older crowd, but this is not. The technical triumphs and funny sections are not what will remain in your memory when the credits roll; only the thought that you just wasted thirty hours of your life on a game that I can only summarize as "boring" will. Those of you desperately searching for a GameCube RPG may be better off playing something else.