From the first second of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, I was hooked. The game begins with soft, sparkling music and a book opening that tells you the story of an old, destroyed city and the legendary treasure buried there. Once you’ve listened to the full story (and seen how Peach himself bought a mysterious treasure from a seedy looking salesman) the iconic fanfare plays and the curtains pull back to reveal the title screen. That is Her Adventure now.
It’s not the kind of story you’d expect from a Mario game – most Mario games start with someone snapping Princess Peach or doing something devious to Bowser – but TTYD is set in the filthy and ramshackle town of Rogueport, which instead on it was built the ruins of this city, the legend of which has long been forgotten.
But all that deep stuff doesn’t make Paper Mario’s second game a serious game. Thousand-Year Door is full of incredible set pieces, weird and crazy themes (train-murder mystery, bottle episode in a wrestling ring, shipwrecks and pirate gold) and character moments that concretize some of Mario’s old and new pals.
Luigi, for example, goes on his own adventure in which he tries to save Princess Eclair, the ruler of the Waffle Kingdom, who is kidnapped again and again by the evil Chestnut King. The entire story is a parody of Mario’s own adventures and borrows heavily from the tropes that everyone expects from a Mario RPG.
Mario’s companions throughout the game have fascinating backstories, which is surprisingly rare for RPGs at the time – you’re in luck if your buddy gets a lot more than a name and dead parent. Vivian has impostor syndrome, no thanks to her harassing siblings; Admiral Bobbery basically has a PTSD after his wife’s death; the fantastic (secret) companion Ms Mowz is a semi-antagonistic Robin Hood-meets-your-grandma character who is a massive flirt.
RPGs are usually full of battle, story, and adventure, but what made Thousand-Year Door stand out was its vibrant, interesting cast and inventive attitudes. It is a pleasure to figure out where you are going every time, and while TTYD suffers from the same problems as most role-playing games (tracing, tedious companion missions, railroads), there is always something to look forward to when you do do boring stuff. TTYD elevates and enlivens many of the series standards, from Toads to Goombas to Mario himself, and gives each of them personality and uniqueness beyond their usual roles as enemies and helpers.
But the fight isn’t bad either. The addition of timed attacks and parries makes the (in my opinion) passivity of standard turn-based combat much more active, making the waiting time between attacks much more important to survival and success. The use of Flower Points (FP) for special moves and Star Power (SP) for show stopper moves made every fight a matter of strategic balance; Outside of battle, you can even change how Mario and his friends fight by using badges that change and add attacks.
After all, different enemies required different plans of attack – spiked grenades meant no jumping; certain enemies were nervous and would run away or explode if it took too long; and just before boss fights you want to improve your HP and FP as much as possible. Add to that the weird but seductive appeal system where the crowd rewards you with SP and even HP recovery items, and the slot machine that pops up when you’ve executed enough action commands perfectly and it felt like it was always something goes on.
It’s strange that all of the Paper Mario games that came after tried to reinvent the wheel: Super Paper Mario went with real-time battles, Sticker Star and Color Splash used one-off combat gimmicks, and Origami King invented the confusing and divisive Ring system that turns every battle into a spatial puzzle. Thousand-Year Door’s battle wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot more fun than any other attempt in later games.
Personally, I think Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is not only the best Paper Mario game, it is one of the best games ever. I’m not alone with this – the boxing game seldom sells second-hand for less than $ 100, and there is a petition with over 50,000 signatures to have it remastered – but I think one still does it today Playing through endures because it is timeless.
TTYD is the Wind Waker of Mario games: an entry in a popular series that tried something really new and exciting that may never be repeated. Seventeen years after its debut, I still cherish it as a game that I can return to at any point in my life and be entertained just as much as it was then. If only we could get one more.