It's one of the most well-written, fun, funny, endearing, satisfying and memorable experiences you can find in a game.
As The Thousand-Year Door begins, Princess Peach is visiting the colorful town of Rogueport, where a mysterious merchant offers her a box which is said to open only for the pure of heart. Mario soon gets a letter from Peach telling him that she's come into possession of a treasure map, but when he arrives in Rogueport, he learns that she's vanished. It may sound like pretty standard stuff, but in fact the storyline for The Thousand-Year Door is anything but. For inspiration it draws on mafia movies, pirate stories, professional wrestling, Murder on the Orient Express, the sci-fi classic 2001, and many more sources, and turns out something that contains many trappings of traditional role-playing game plots but at the same time feels wholly original. The quality of the writing keeps things interesting from the get-go. The game is frequently hilarious and occasionally touching, and it's constantly introducing wonderful new locales and terrific new characters that keep things engaging throughout. By the time this lengthy adventure reaches its very satisfying conclusion, it's likely that you'll have grown so fond of the game's characters and settings that you'll be sorry to see it end. Thankfully, the game does give you the option to keep playing after the credits roll, and there's no shortage of optional quests to take on should you want an excuse to spend more time in this world.
You'll be doing lots of battling in The Thousand-Year Door (with classic Mario enemies like Goombas and Koopas and plenty of new foes as well), so it's a good thing that the combat system in the game is both deep enough and fun enough to keep these fights interesting throughout. There are no random battles here. Rather, you see enemies onscreen as you go about your business, and you can try to avoid them, or you can get the drop on them by jumping on them or whacking them with your hammer, giving you the first attack in combat. (Enemies can get the drop on you, too, if you're not careful.) This is fundamentally a turn-based combat system, but you do a bit more here than just select your characters' actions and see how things play out. Well-timed button presses can mean extra damage to your enemies, or less damage from attacks. You'll also steadily learn new techniques throughout the game and see your existing attacks grow more powerful as Mario periodically comes across stronger hammers and spiffier boots. Also, some of your most powerful techniques require star power. All of your fights take place onstage in front of an audience, and by appealing to the audience and doing stylish moves to impress them, you can fill up your star meter considerably faster. What's more, Mario always has one of his companions with him, and he can instantly switch between them during combat. Each of his friends has their own unique abilities that are very useful in certain situations. Don't assume on account of the game's cute visual style that all the enemies will be pushovers. There are some memorable boss fights in the game, a few of which are legitimately challenging and require you to think carefully about what you're doing. As you defeat enemies, you earn star points, and for every 100 you collect, Mario levels up. Leveling up requires some thought as well, as each time you do so, you must choose which of Mario's attributes to increase. You can increase his heart points, allowing him to take more damage, his flower points which allow him and his companions to pull off various techniques in battle, or his badge points. Badge points allow Mario to wear more badges, and there are dozens of badges in the game that do all sorts of different things, like unlocking new combat techniques, increasing attack or defense, making heart points or flower points regenerate over time, and more. It's a great system. The fact that each level requires 100 star points to reach means that, so long as you're fighting enemies that are commensurate with your level, you're never too far off from leveling up again, and by only being able to power up one area at a time, it requires you to think more carefully about the process than in many other games which allow you to improve in many fields at once.
Of course, fighting enemies is far from the only thing you'll be doing. As mentioned, there's a really terrific adventure here. In addition to all the endearing characters you'll meet and all the memorable locations you'll visit, the gameplay is just exceptionally well-crafted from start to finish. There are puzzles throughout the game that are tough enough to be satisfying without bringing the action to a grinding halt, and if you ever do find yourself truly stuck, there's a fortune teller who will usually point you squarely in the right direction. In a hilarious fashion that's best left unspoiled, Mario will also acquire new abilities throughout the game that really make the most of the Paper in Paper Mario. For instance, pretty early on he gains the ability to fold himself into a paper airplane, making previously unreachable areas accessible. A bit later, he becomes able to turn himself sideways, allowing him to fit through paper-thin cracks. There are a number of equally inventive abilities he gains later on.
It almost seems silly to level any criticisms against a game that does so much so well, but if one had to point out any flaws here, it could be said that towards the end of the game there is a bit of mandatory running around to all the locations you've already visited which slows things down and doesn't really add anything to the experience. Still, the overall game is so outstanding that things like this hardly seem worth mentioning. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is simply a terrific-looking game. The graphics may not be among the most technically impressive visuals you've ever seen, but they are positively bursting with charm, and are a large part of what makes the overall experience of playing the game such a delight. All the characters and locales in the game share the same papery art style as Mario himself, but every so often the camera will swing around and pull you into a certain area or follow you around a rotating staircase or the like, creating a surprising sense of depth within the game's world. The game's sound is nearly as terrific as its visuals. There's no voice acting in the game, and why should there be? It is supposed to be a storybook, after all. (You will hear periodic shrieks from Princess Peach and occasional exclamations of "Yeah-yeah!" or "No-no!" from Mario, and these little exclamations provide all the sense of the game's characters you really need from the sound, as the writing is vibrant enough to do the rest.) The music in the game, which includes just enough little references to classic Mario themes, is consistently catchy and memorable, and is one of the best scores for any game Mario has ever had the good fortune to star in. Game reviews need to focus on things like graphics, sound, and gameplay, but ultimately, although each of these elements contributes to make Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door the terrific experience that it is, there's something more to this game that truly makes it special. There's a level of care that went into making the game really worthwhile, that made the characters endearing, the story inventive, the gameplay accessible, deep and fun, the dialogue humorous and sometimes touching, and the conclusion really satisfying. This is a very special game. This is one of the best games ever made.