Paper Mario returns for a new adventure, but a little too much backtracking makes the journey longer than need be.
The Thousand Year Door begins with Princess Peach sending Mario a treasure map and requesting his services in locating the treasure. Mario boards a ship and makes way to the dock town of Rogueport and begins his quest. Knowing this is a Mario game, you're expecting, "Ok, so then we see Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach while Mario's away," but no! Surprise, surprise, it ISN'T Bowser this time that has pilfered the pink princess. It's the X-naut's doing, a league of space pirates lead by the glass-domed Grodus. They're holding her on their base, all while Mario learns that what he's seeking is far more important than mere treasure. Mario's looking for the seven Crystal Stars, which just so happens to unlock the mysterious Thousand Year Door. How about that! A Mario game without Bow-. Oh wait, there he is. Turns out, Bowser's big nose has sniffed out what Mario's up to, so he begins his own search for the stars. Who will find them first?
If you've played Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64, The Thousand Year Door will feel very familiar. After all, it features the paper-thin Mario jumping on goombas, koopas, boos and other baddies while also walloping them with his hammer. For those who haven't played the original, The Thousand Year Door is a turn-based RPG with platform and puzzling elements. Like its predecessor, it lets you see your enemies, so you can decide whether or not you wish to engage them. Returning also are a cast of ally characters that help Mario overcome obstacles such as blowing up walls, floating over gaps, hiding in shadow, blowing away hidden panels and more. If that weren't enough, Mario has been given his own set of abilities where he can morph into a paper airplane to cross expansive gaps, roll up into a tube to roll through low openings, turn sideways and slip through gratings and even become a paper boat.
The battle system plays out pretty much the same as the original. Mario can jump on enemies, whack them with his hammer, or use special abilities. Each one of these actions has its own unique Action Command, such as well-timed buttons presses or releasing the analogue stick when a meter fills up. You end up doing more damage with a well executed Action Command, but now you can also damage your enemy when they attack you if you pull off a Super Guard with a perfect press of the B button. Star Powers return, but now they also come with their own Action Commands, which may be frustrating when you don't perform well, but will be much more rewarding when you do. Your ally partners now play a larger roll in battle as they have their own HP, can be called to the front line to take direct hits in Mario's stead, and can also use items.
The battle arena where everything plays out has been revamped and now features an audience that reacts according to how well you pull off Action Commands. If you nail a command, they cheer and throw stars your way to fill up your Star Power meter. Sometimes you might get a heckler who will try to throw a rock at you, which you can then defend against with a prompt press of the X button. They may, however, throw an item that you can use, so you need to be careful before you react. The stage itself will act randomly, sometimes dropping a stage light on you or the enemy, cover the stage in fog which makes both parties miss attacks, or a background will teeter and fall damaging both you and your enemies. With so much going on both during battle and on the stage, the action is kept fresh and exciting.
The leveling system still works the same. Collect 100 Star Points and you level up where you can increase your HP, FP (Flower Points for abilities) and BP (badge points). What's new, though, is that even though you beat weak enemies that no longer yield Star Points, you still get a point just for battling, so it's not a complete waste. The badge system, which governs which special abilities you can use as well as numerous bonuses, has also returned with a lot of old favorites and several new ones. Your ally characters can now equip their own badges as well, which adds to the game's customization.
The Thousand Year Door starts its journey eerily similar to its predecessor. You start off with a goomba companion that has the same abilities Mario's first ally had in the older game, and you set foot across green pastures to venture through a castle. The game then very quickly begins to change things up with new sets of scenery. You'll be sent to a giant tree, a floating city where you climb your way through the ranks and become a champion fighter, investigate a dark town afflicted by a curse that's turning everyone into pigs, and participate in a luxury train mission. There are the cliche jungle and frozen levels as well, but for the most part, The Thousand Year Door is a breath of fresh air.
Even the freshest of air becomes stagnant if you breathe it for too long, however. The game makes the mistake of having you backtrack to and from point A and point B. Fetch this, fetch that, fetch this again. One chapter even has you on a wild goose chase returning to every single town you've been to. The game is much longer than its predecessor, and there's a lot more to do in between each chapter, but because you're backtracking so much, it just seems like filler. The problem is also exacerbated with the Trouble Center. The Trouble Center is a billboard of people who post troubles, which serves as the game's side quests. You also cannot select more than one, which means even though you're in an area where you could help someone else, you cannot until you finish the trouble you're working on and then return to the Trouble Center to start a new quest.
The Thousand Year Door is a huge step up visually over the original, as it should be since it's on a much more powerful machine. The sprites are smoother, animate better and the environments themselves are more detailed. The colors are brighter and richer and it looks much more like a cartoon now. Some bosses also take on a third dimension as folded paper models, making them seem that much larger. You can see that the developers really enjoyed the extra power the GameCube offered, because there are several instances where the screen is swarmed with multiple sprites. The special effects are even livelier thanks in part to the extra processing power. On a standard definition television, The Thousand Year Door would still be a looker to this day.
The audio department also benefits from the GameCube's extra power. The sound effects make bigger impacts from the stomping of Mario to the bashing of his hammer to the explosions from your bob-bomb ally. Mario now makes his famous yips and yaps whenever he jumps. The soundtrack, however, is hit or miss. It still contains some music that is inspired by Mario games of old, but some of the original music just isn't as good as the Nintendo 64 original. It's still good music in its own right.
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is a greatly improved sequel to an already memorable classic. Tweaks to the battle system and added abilities to Mario himself make the game feel just as fresh as it is familiar. Improved visuals and audio make for a far better presentation, so you would think it should automatically be a better game. Unfortunately, it's the constant backtracking during some of the chapters and the most often than not useless side quests that disrupt the pace of the game; the original never had that problem. Even with the game's one major flaw, The Thousand Year Door is still worthy of being played in this day and age of high-definition super machines.