From the very first second of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, I was hooked. The game begins with a gentle twinkling music and a book opening to tell you the story of an ancient, ruined town lost to time, and the fabled treasure buried there; once you've listened to the whole story (and seen Peach herself buying a mysterious treasure from a dodgy-looking vendor) then the iconic fanfare plays, and the curtains draw back to reveal the title screen. This is your adventure, now.
It's not the kind of story that you'd expect from a Mario game — most Mario games begin with someone nabbing Princess Peach, or Bowser doing something dastardly — but TTYD sets its scene instead in the sordid and ramshackle town of Rogueport, built on top of the ruins of that city, whose legend has been long forgotten.
But all that depthy stuff doesn't make Paper Mario's second outing into a serious game. Thousand-Year Door is full of incredible setpieces, weird and wacky theming (train murder mystery, bottle episode in a wrestling ring, shipwrecks and pirate gold), and character moments that flesh out a fair few of Mario's pals, old and new.
Luigi, for example, is off having his own adventure where he tries to save Princess Eclair, the ruler of Waffle Kingdom who keeps getting kidnapped by the evil Chestnut King; the entire story is a spoof of Mario's own adventures, leaning heavily on the tropes that everyone has come to expect from a Mario RPG.
Mario's companions throughout the game have fascinating backstories, which is surprisingly rare for RPGs at the time — you're lucky if your sidekick gets much more than a name and a dead parent. Vivian is suffering from imposter syndrome, no thanks to her bullying siblings; Admiral Bobbery basically has PTSD following the death of his wife; the fantastic (secret) companion Ms Mowz is a semi-antagonistic, Robin-Hood-meets-your-grandma sort of figure who's a massive flirt.
RPGs are usually full of combat, story, and adventure, but the thing that set Thousand-Year Door apart was its lively, interesting cast and the inventive settings. It's a treat to find out where you'll be going each time, and although TTYD suffers from a lot of the same problems as most RPGs (backtracking, tedious escort missions, railroading), there's always something to be delighted by as you do the boring stuff. TTYD elevates and revitalises a lot of the series-standards, from Toads to Goombas and even Mario himself, giving each one of them personality and uniqueness beyond their usual roles as enemies and helpers.
But the combat isn't bad, either. The addition of timed attacks and parries turns the (in my opinion) passivity of standard turn-based battles into something much more active, making that waiting time in-between attacks much more vital to survival and success. The use of Flower Points (FP) for special moves and Star Power (SP) for showstopper moves made each fight into a matter of strategic balance; outside of battle, you could even change how Mario and pals fought with the use of Badges that changed and added attacks.
Different enemies required different plans of attack, after all — spiky shells meant no jumping; certain enemies were skittish and would run away or explode if you took too long; and right before boss battles you'd want to upgrade your HP and FP as much as possible. Add to that the strange but alluring Appeal system, in which the crowd would reward you with SP and even HP-restoring items, and the slot machine that would come up if you performed enough Action Commands perfectly, and it felt like there was always something going on.
It's strange that all the Paper Mario games that came after each tried to re-invent the wheel: Super Paper Mario went with real-time combat, Sticker Star and Color Splash used one-time-use battle gimmicks, and Origami King invented the confusing and divisive ring system that turned every battle into a spatial puzzle. Thousand-Year Door's combat wasn't perfect, but it was a lot more fun than all the other attempts in later games.
I personally think that Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is not only the best Paper Mario game, but one of the best games of all time. I'm not alone in this — the boxed game rarely sells for less than $100 second hand, and there's a petition with over 50k signatures to get it remastered — but I think that it still stands up today on a repeat playthrough, because of how timeless it is.
TTYD is the Wind Waker of Mario games: an entry in a beloved series that tried something really new and exciting, perhaps never to be repeated. Seventeen years on from its debut, I still treasure it as a game I could come back to at any point in my life and be just as entertained as I was back then. If only we could get another like it.