When Mario and friends appeared in their debut role-playing title nearly fifteen years ago on the SNES, it marked a significant new direction that the franchise would embark on and time has proved it's a popular one too. European gamers were understandably disappointed that Super Mario RPG never came to their continent, but they were compensated when it finally became widely accessible via the Wii's Virtual Console. When Paper Mario launched on the N64, it not only built on gameplay mechanics first experimented with on the SNES debut but also introduced key characteristics that would become distinguishing features in the Paper Mario series. With Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (PM: TTYD) being the second title in the franchise, how has it progressed from its predecessor?
The game's narrative starts off nice and simply: Princess Peach comes into possession of a mysterious map and wants Mario to join her in search of the hidden treasure. Upon arriving at the meeting place and talking to the locals, it becomes apparent that Peach is nowhere to be found because she's got herself kidnapped. Cue 'rescue Princess' obligation.
In order to discover where she is being held captive, Mario must find the seven Crystal Stars and, in doing so, the former can be worked out by deduction. One might think "yeah, heard it all before", but the game features several plotlines which intertwine nicely to keep hold of the player's interest steadily. The first few hours of play are understandably slow, with a lot of dialogue to get through! Once key plot-points have been reached, the game naturally gains momentum and there's significantly more 'playing' and less 'reading'.
The combat system is turn-based and follows in the footsteps of Paper Mario. Our moustached hero will always fight alongside a partner, with the ability to choose which one is in and/or out of battle. Actions will consist of normal and flower-point attacks, along with the ability to use items on yourselves or on enemies. Special star attacks that use up varying amounts of your star meter deal extra damage; with a new star attack unlocked every time you collect a Crystal Star. PM:TTYD introduces a new element within the fight sequences in the form of spectators: play up to the crowd by charming them with gestures or hit those well-timed commands and they will help replenish your star meter at a faster rate. They will also throw usable items to help you, as well as dangerous objects to harm you and it's this simple yet engaging addition that adds another dimension to the fight scenarios. The badge system is back and works exactly the same as before, which is a shame: although this allows players to modify their repertoire of moves, it's an area of the franchise that hasn't evolved.
The main themes are once again exploration, interaction and combat. What's great with Mario games is the familiarisation of their characters, and there's plenty in this game, that's for sure. Sprinklings of tongue-in-cheek humour can be found throughout the game, often straight from the dialogue itself, or from things happening in the background in conjunction with the foreground.
The game world is fairly expansive, covering ten different key locations with various interlinking regions that almost count as separate locations themselves. As you progress through the game, you'll learn new skills which will be beneficial as you back-track and gain access to new areas. A new feature in the series is Mario's ability to morph into different modes of transport. In line with the whole paper theme, Mario will fold himself into a plane, paper tube and even a boat in order to explore every part of the world. It's a nice concept but doesn't get implemented in puzzles enough; in fact, challenging puzzles are few and far between.
The presentation of the game hasn't changed much but that doesn't take anything away from the lush graphics and lovely blend of 2D characters in 3D environments. There are some nice special effects that are animated smoothly and look vibrant and crisp. When entering or exiting buildings, the walls will fold up and down and makes the transition between being inside and outside very smooth and near-instantaneous. Locations are identifiable from each other and an immersive world is created to house the narrative. At times, there will be hundreds of characters on-screen and on occasions like these, it really does show the quirkiness of the series in an affable light. The game not only follows the actions of Mario and friends, but the events led by the mysterious Lord Crump and his X-nauts, Princess Peach and her new-found 'relationship' with a computer not dissimilar to HAL, and Bowser as he plays catch-up to all the action. During these narrative tangents, the player takes control of these characters for a short time, seeing what they get up to. For example, Bowser will often appear in 'old-school' side-scrolling style mini-levels that resemble the old NES games. Well, 'mini-levels' is a bit of a stretch; more like minute-long teasers. This is unfortunate as 'proper' 2D levels would have been a nice deviation from the main storyline.
The sound design is the usual standard that one would expect from a high-profile Mario game like this. Tracks are often looped for an 'x' amount of time unless a new situation like a fight or the arrival at a new destination occurs. However, it's not something that you are conscious of as they are often quite catchy, in a non-invasive way. Each town has its own distinctive audio design that fits the mood of the location very well, further enhancing the atmosphere: Twilight Town, for example, has quite a minimalistic track that fits in perfectly with its mysterious appearance. Sound effects aren't exactly plentiful, asides from the fight scenarios. In attempting to defeat the first major boss, players will have to think carefully about the sound of a particular 'thing' in order to overcome it. This kind of lateral approach to puzzles could have been utilised much more than it was.
Although it might not be the most definitive RPG in the genre, it is a substantial game that will offer dozens of hours of gameplay. Even after finishing the final chapter, players will be able to continue playing for as long as they want should they decide to find every single badge, star piece, dish recipe and enemy profile via Goombella's Tattle attack. In hindsight, the dish recipes in this game are much harder to discover than its sequel, Super Paper Mario, as players aren't told what ingredients are needed, making it a trial and error process. Although a much more challenging method, this offers players more satisfaction when recipes are stumbled upon. There's also an additional playable character not featured on the main title screen that can be found somewhere in the game. Like all partners, this character will possess a unique ability; one that will come in handy should you find yourself hunting all the collectibles. There are several side 'missions' available, offering players enough replay value to keep coming back to the game.
It's a shame that PM: TTYD doesn't feel like it's evolved much from its predecessor: even Zelda games have explored territories other than the tried and tested Triforce route. With this game, the player will feel a certain déjà-vu with its game-play and narrative, and not always in a positive way. Even a portion of the ending seems to have been ripped straight from the first Paper Mario. Having said all that, it's not a bad game. As engaging as it is, the game is let down by the pacing of the progression: what starts off as compelling interaction slowly descends into easier-than-necessary gameplay by the third quarter of the game. The last quarter thankfully picks up again, both in quality of puzzles as well as the difficulty of enemies. There's no major innovation as far as the franchise is concerned, but what you have here is a solid action-orientated RPG starring the most famous plumber in the world. Even if you own the first and/or third instalment in the series, this is well worth picking up.