Creative gameplay and a charming cast of colorful characters amounts to one of the most memorable titles on the Cube.
The central location for The Thousand-Year Door is Rogueport, a rough town built on top of the ruins of a great city. Said city came to a mysterious and instantaneous end about 999.99786 years ago. What convenient timing! While sightseeing, Princess Peach obtains a map to the legendary treasure said to be buried in the ruins. She asks for Mario's assistance in locating it, but there's a slight problem - she's Princess Peach. Before Mario even gets to the town, she proves that she's a professional when it comes to being kidnapped. Now Mario must both rescue her and foil the plans of an organization that's up to no good. To do so, he must collect the seven Crystal Stars scattered throughout the world.
The most memorable part of the game itself is the trademark colorful characters and their sense of humor. The translation team did one of the best jobs on a game of the generation - it would be hard to tell the game was made in Japan at first glance. The dialogue is very natural, and each character has their own particular way of speaking. The diverse cast of characters is also great, from a sassy college-aged female goomba, a sailor bobomb, a newborn yoshi, and an unconfident koopa to name a few. Each quest for a star essentially brings you to a whole new world, from a fortress to a surreal forest, and a twilit town to a jungle island. Each area has diverse characters going about their day-to-day lives, from a peaceful koopa village to a fighting tournament full of would-be champions. The random characters themselves often have humorous lines. Perhaps the best are the crows, which discuss topics like the minimum efficiency conversion rate to make solar power economically feasible when they do not sense people nearby.
At its core, Paper Mario is a turn-based RPG. In each battle, you and your partner get an attack each, and then the enemies get a turn. Each attack has some timing aspect or button presses associated with it. Mario's two standard attacks are a jumping attack, which is improved if you hit a button right as he lands on an enemy, and a hammer attack, which you hold the stick left until a power meter fills to perform a better attack. You have one partner in each battle, whom has their own unique ways of attacking. Goombella the goomba can only jump on enemies, but obviously is of little use if said enemies have spikes. Koops the koopa can perform a sliding shell attack, but cannot hit flying enemies. Others blow, flutter, and explode to inflict damage. Similarly you can time an enemy's attacks to either reduce the damage it deals, or avoid it and get in a counterattack of your own.
Each time you gain enough experience to level up, you actually get to choose how Mario grows. You can either get an extra 5 hit points added to your maximum, 5 flower points (which are used to perform special moves by Mario or his partner), or 3 badge points. Badges are the way in which you can customize Mario's powers and abilities. Each badge equipped costs a certain number of badge points, and you can mix and match according to how you play the game. Some badges simply grant bonuses to hit points or attack power, some enable new special moves, some allow Mario to stomp spiked enemies without taking damage, some allow a slight regenerative effect, and so forth. In addition Mario can perform a new special star power each time he collects a Crystal Star. Each use up a set number of stars, which is part of its own special gauge. Some can provide a great healing effect, others great offensive attacks, or other effects. Like everything else in the game, these too have a system of button presses or other form of input in order to boost its effect.
Perhaps the most interesting concept is that each battle takes place on a stage, and the audience can either help or hurt you. The more successful attacks you perform, the larger your audience grows, and unsuccessful attacks have the opposite effect. When you perform successful attacks, the star gauge increases by an amount proportional to the audience size. As such, everything snowballs one way or another - performing stronger successful attacks will enable you to perform your star powers more frequently, while weaker unsuccessful attacks have the opposite effect. The audience can even sometimes toss items at you, either items in an attempt to harm you, or a restorative item to help you out. You can jump into the audience to stop them, but obviously you better pay attention to which item they're trying to toss your way. Some stronger attacks can even jar the background and knock it over, causing damage to either you or your enemies. Some special battles even interact with the audience in special ways. In a battle with a dragon, he'll chomp a mouthful of Toads in the audience to restore some health while the rest scurry away to safety. Anyone that finds Toad annoying will simply love said fight.
However, it also has platform elements to it as well. On the world map, there are jumps to make, pipes to warp you to new areas, question blocks that contain restorative or attack items, and many other familiar Marioesque features. Each enemy is also shown on the field as well, and touching one will initiate a battle. Normally, you go first, and then the enemies get an attack, and repeat until the battle is finished. However, if you stomp or hammer an enemy on the field, Mario performs the attack at the start of the fight before you get your normal turns, which will often enable you to win without taking damage. If the enemy attacks you from the rear on the field, they get an attack in at the start of the battle. Also each character has a special move they can do in the field. Koops can do a shell attack to hit out-of-reach switch blocks, Flurrie can blow away "paper" covering hidden areas, and riding the yoshi will let you flutter across longer gaps.
Of course, that's not all - they don't call the game Paper Mario for nothing. You control 2D characters in a 3D world, and they put that 2D to good use. You learn abilities that lets Mario fold himself into a paper airplane to glide long distances, or turn sideways to squeeze through a tight space, among other abilities. Mario will even be able to scrunch himself to perform a spring jump, or twist himself around to do a swinging hammer attack to smash bigger blocks. The only issue with the 2D characters is the depth perception - it can often be a tad difficult to land exactly on enemies when trying to get in the opening attack.
The Thousand-Year Door may not have the most impressive graphics from a technical standpoint, but it sure can be hard to notice at times. While the characters are 2D and relatively simple, they are shaded in a great art style. Not only does this make the same familiar characters stand out in a new way, but also it enables more characters to fill the screen than in other modern games. At one point in an early chapter, you are literally leading an army of 101 slug-like beings in a long involved puzzle, and audiences can have up to 200 members. The wide range of different environments also provides a nice change of scenery that keep things fresh and lively, especially the bright and colorful locations like the tropical island and rolling fields. The music is generally strong, with an overall intentional synthetic feel, much like the music in the classic Mario games was. Some of the tracks are remixes of familiar themes, but most are new and tie into the locations well. There is no voice acting at all, but the game works just fine without it. Most of the sound effects are the standard Mario fare, from kicked turtle shells to stomped enemies and the like.
Overall, the game should take roughly 30 hours to complete if you do not avoid many battles. There is a secret character you can recruit, and a few other side quests. However, most of these quests involve little in the way of useful rewards. There are a number of star pieces scattered and hidden through the world, which you can use to buy specific badges from a vendor. For those looking for a challenge, the Pit of 100 Trials will certainly up the difficulty level a bit. Other than that, the main quest is certainly the vast majority of the game. The different game scenarios do a good job of keeping things from becoming repetitive - of particular note is one chapter where you spend most of your time doing some detective work than actually fighting. The fact that your on-screen partner does most of the talking for Mario, who doesn't have a line in the game, each playthrough can result in different lines if you use different characters. However, they usually say essentially the same thing, just with their unique manner. Of particular note is that between each chapter, you play Peach for a very short time as she tries to teach the world's perfect computer what love is, followed by a similar-length bit with Bowser as he tries unsuccessfully to both capture Mario and collect the Crystal Stars himself. Unfortunately, there is a bit of backtracking through a few chapters in particular that does little but pad the game length.
The Thousand-Year Door is a charming and worthy follow-up to the original Paper Mario, and meets the high quality of the Mario RPG games. The wonderful merging of a turn-based RPG and the platforming and world of Mario creates a unique experience that can be enjoyed by all, and feel fresh relative to its two parent genres. It appeals to all ages too - younger players might enjoy the colorful over-the-top characters, while older ones will certainly appreciate some of the humor found throughout. The GameCube is known for its overall small library of titles, but the top tier of that library is easily among some of the best titles the generation has to offer. The Thousand-Year Door can certainly quality as such a title. Despite some little issues, the game is overall of great quality, and you can certainly tell that the designers put a lot of time and care into the overall game and the level design itself. If you enjoy Mario games and don't mind a good turn-based RPG, then The Thousand-Year Door is a very easy title to suggest. It's one title that you will remember long after you quickly forget other generic games.