We all have that one game that feels like home to us. You know what I’m talking about. The video game that we pick up once a year when we’re feeling a case of the nostalgia Sundays. That game that we have logged thousands of hours into over the course of ten years or more. That game that we will always come back to with open arms and a smile, no matter how primitive it looks or plays. Feeling cozy yet? Got your hot chocolate? Good, because today, we’re gonna be spending a little time with my “ride or die” game: Paper Mario and the Thousand Year Door (2004).
It’s time to dust off your old GameCube, because we’ve got crystal stars to collect, baby!
If you have ever wondered what it would be like to watch your favorite childhood storybooks come to life, then Thousand Year Door is here to turn that fantasy into a reality in the most literal sense. Meaning, everything in this game is literally made out of paper, from the individual characters to the entire world map itself. Every little game mechanic oozes creativity and childhood imagination, taking full advantage of its DIY arts and crafts aesthetic. For example, overcoming obstacles requires bending and shaping Mario’s paper body. Need to get from one platform to another, but it’s too far a leap? That’s okay, because Mario can morph into a paper airplane! Need to get across a large body of water? No problem, he has a paper boat form! Even in combat, the set design is made of cardboard backdrops, and can play to your advantage by crushing your enemies when they topple over like flimsy cutouts.
I honestly find it surprising that this game hasn’t gotten the “HD remaster” treatment yet, or a 3DS port at the very least. It is widely considered to be in the “cult classic” category, along with titles like Super Mario RPG (1996) and Super Mario Sunshine (2002). It has an incredibly dedicated fanbase, and most, if not all fans would say that this game is the crème de la crème of the Paper Mario franchise. I would certainly consider myself to be a proud longtime member of this cult, ever since the baby Dorrie days when I would gather with my girls in one of our designated basements and do pretend “let’s plays” of our favorite RPGs (I’m talking old school let’s plays, you know, back when YouTubers actually knew how to play games).
It’s easy to see how this game has garnered such a large fanbase over the years. While the original Paper Mario (2000) for the Nintendo 64 took the more “classic” route of Super Mario storytelling, where you’re tasked to save Princess Peach from the evil Lord Bowser’s clutches, Thousand Year Door operates a bit differently.
Yes, it begins as your typical JRPG: Mario receives a summons from the princess, along with a magical map. He goes to search for her in the grimy city of Rogueport (complete with a giant noose as its main landmark), only to learn that – surprise! – she’s been kidnapped again, and now he has to collect seven ancient treasures from various locations spread across said magical map in order to find her and save the world from impending doom.
Only now, however, instead of Lord Bowser being the nefarious chief villain for the umpteenth time, it’s an entirely new group of faces known as the X-Nauts (as seen in image above.) Nobody knows where or how these strange, plump little naysayers came to be, but boy, are they an entertaining group of jerks! I would call them the perfect mix of incompetent and threatening, so while you may laugh at their antics at certain points in the game, it’s still cathartic when you defeat their imposing leaders, and learn more about their mysterious evil motives. It’s such a refreshing divergence from the “Mario vs. Bowser” narrative that we’ve seen recycled for the past 30+ years, and I definitely wouldn’t find myself complaining if the X-Nauts ever make a comeback to the franchise.
If you picked this game up looking to smash the great Koopa King’s face in, then you might be disappointed when you learn that he’s been pushed to the C-plot of the full story. That’s right, not even the B-plot, but the C-plot! Since the game plays in chapters, similar to how a storybook would, Mario isn’t the only perspective that you follow. Both Bowser and Peach become playable characters as well, taking part in their own journeys and having their own respective arcs. Bowser’s arc is played off as more of comic relief than anything, as he always seems to be one step behind Mario in the great Crystal Star pursuit.
Peach’s sections, on the other hand, I found to be some of the most interesting parts of the story. In most Super Mario games, Peach plays the damsel in distress waiting patiently for her heroic boyfriend to come to her rescue. In this game, she chooses to take action, sleuthing around the X-Naut fortress for clues on her whereabouts, all the while conspiring with her captor’s artificial intelligence machine, TEC, who takes an immediate liking to her sweet and sassy character. Personally, I think Peach is a total badass in this game. She’s given so much more to work with, and while she doesn’t do any fighting, she doesn’t need to in order to prove herself as the competent, strong-willed princess that I always knew she was.
The central Mario characters aren’t the only ones that get their own arcs. In each chapter, Mario gains a new ally, one that tends to fit the mood of the chapter’s setting. These allies don’t just join to help you solve puzzles and take down enemies; they join to gain agency over their own dreams and futures. They all look up to Mario in one way or another. Whether it be courage, freedom, or even overcoming grief, each partner has something interesting to bring to the table, making them all delightfully endearing and loveable. Everyone I know who has played this game has a different favorite partner, and mine would have to be Vivian. I mean, come on, she’s everything that I want to be in life: cute and a little spooky.
As is the case in all Paper Mario games, Thousand Year Door delivers some insanely clever writing. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and surprisingly sharp at times. After all, since it’s supposed to be a playable book, it would make sense for the writing to be strong!
Most of the game’s humor is meta-based, something that I’ve always found to be tricky to execute well. I’ve never been a huge fan of the whole “DO YOU GET IT, THIS IS A VIDEO GAME/ TV SHOW/ MOVIE?” brand of humor, because if media is meant to be immersive, then why would you try to ruin the experience by reminding me that I’m taking part in an escapist fantasy? I already know that, leave me alone and let me forget about my crippling existential dread for a couple hours! I digress, but Thousand Year Door manages to pull off its fourth-wall breaking jokes really well, because it’s already a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It maintains a (mostly) consistent lighthearted tone, and any time someone does decide to go meta, the other characters treat them like they’ve lost their marbles.
When the game isn’t poking fun at itself, it engages in rather dry humor, which, as opposed to meta humor, is something that I am a big fan of. Here are a few of my personal favorite quotes taken out of context; ones that may have even subconsciously inspired my own personal writing style.
- “See, long ago, an evil spirit cast a curse on me, locking me in this box. I was bummed.”
- “I don’t know anybody named Gonzales! Stop speaking in riddles, you chicken nugget!”
- “Oh look. Da proverbial mustache.”
- “Well, I suppose I could apologize by letting you smell the bottoms of my feet. People pay good money to do this. I’m being completely honest right now. Really.”
- “She can also do a body slam in battle, squashing enemies with her… Stage presence.”
As much as I adore the jokes, my favorite aspect of the storytelling by far is how Thousand Year Door’s chapters feel like their own standalone stories. Each chapter evokes a completely different mood, spicing up the gameplay and preventing the narrative from ever going dull. Where the first couple of chapters ease you into the plot with more stereotypical RPG conflicts (slaying a dragon that’s been terrorizing a nearby town, taking a home back from invaders) the later chapters delve into more exciting, less typical waters. In one section, you’ll be fighting your way to glory in a high-energy WWE arena style tournament, and in another you’ll be putting your detective skills to work in a Hitchcock-ian mystery thriller, all while aboard a high-speed luxury train. Not one chapter is like the last, so you are sure to find something in this game that makes your inner movie buff emerge from its deep, ornery slumber.
I could go on and on gushing about this masterpiece of an RPG, but that would probably take up your entire day, and I know you have more important things to do and more modern games with nicer graphics to play. If you ever find yourself in the mood for a classic, however, then please let me direct you toward The Thousand Year Door. This is a game that was made with heart. There are so many fine details in the writing, the set design, the character dynamics, and overall style. Maybe I’m a tad biased because my heart will always choose a classic JRPG over any game made this decade, but I know for a fact that I am not the only insane superfan of this Nintendo GameCube necessity!
If you’ve made it to the end of this blog, then you deserve another hot chocolate. Go get your refill, and then go pick up YOUR favorite game that makes you feel like you’re home again, granted you haven’t sold it on eBay yet, of course.