Boxed Away – A Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door Retrospective
For a company with such an impeccably rich back catalogue, Nintendo is often surprisingly hesitant to delve into it. Sure, the classic titles from the NES and SNES library have received 347 ports to every system imaginable, and the N64 has seen a respectable rehash of its most renowned hits, but one system seems to be regularly left to the annals of history – the Nintendo GameCube.
Enter – Boxed Away, a GameCube retrospective series.
To pay respect to the purple lunchbox, each fortnight I’m going to be taking a look back at a different GameCube game, focusing on titles that have never received a port or remaster to more recent consoles. The GameCube library has countless forgotten masterpieces, as well as plenty of oddities and hidden gems, and unless it featured Zelda it’s probably still stuck there. Heck, even Mario’s only outing still took almost two decades to get another look.
It’s unclear when or if we will ever see Gamecube games released via Nintendo Switch online, some type of Virtual Console or maybe even a Mini-Classic release, so in the meantime, we’re going to talk about them until Nintendo remembers they exist.
The chosen one. The forgotten son. The big kahuna.
When it comes to GameCube games that have fans frothing at the mouth begging for a port, remaster, remake, some vague acknowledgement of its existence…there’s none more prolific than Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.
Here was a game that took a novel concept from the original Nintendo 64 title, improved upon it in every way possible, and then watched as every sequel that came after it did things completely differently. It leaves this particular entry as a beloved concentration of pure nostalgia, something that simultaneously was outstanding in its own time and is arguably unmatched since. The Paper Mario series enjoyed its 20th anniversary last week, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to reflect on this absolute classic that
NINTENDO HAS ABANDONED AND NEEDS TO BRING TO SWITCH IMMEDIATELY sadly remains trapped on Nintendo’s purple cube.
For those who never had the pleasure of experiencing it upon release back in 2004, here’s a quick refresher. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is a charming turn-based RPG featuring everyone’s over-qualified plumber. Rather than taking place in the familiar locales of the Mushroom Kingdom, this adventure sees Mario exploring Rogueport, a somewhat shabby little place filled with denizens both new and familiar. Peach has gone missing again (though Bowser is innocent this time), so he jumps into action to try and track her down.
The paper in the title serves a dual purpose, inspiring both the visuals and gameplay mechanics. The entire world, from characters to buildings and scenery, are all made from paper. It allows for plenty of cleverly hidden areas and secrets, and also offers the ability for Mario to take different forms such as a paper plane or a boat to reach new areas. The game fully leans into the premise, making for a world that’s a joy to explore thanks to both smart design and a vibrant, striking aesthetic that still holds up incredibly well today.
What truly defines this series even more than its refined tree pulp look is the humorous tone and witty writing. This is not your usual Mushroom Kingdom escapade with a barebones plot and zero character development. What the paper cutouts lack in physical depth they more than make up for in character depth. There’s a lot of text to read in this game, but it’s almost always worth it. Every NPC has something interesting to say, and the way the size and speed of written text are manipulated manages to portray a surprising amount of nuance that you wouldn’t expect to be able to get without voice acting.
The starring roles undoubtedly go to the various companions that will accompany Mario on his journey. You’ll quickly cross paths with the sassy Goombella, who isn’t afraid to give an honest opinion or break the fourth wall as she provides her analysis to Mario throughout the game. Other companions include Koops, a timid Koopa out to avenge the death of his father and prove to his hometown that he’s not a coward. There’s Vivian, a ghost who suffers from an inferiority complex as a result of years of emotional abuse from her siblings. You’ll also meet Admiral Bobbery, a retired sea captain, drowning his grief in a bar over the guilt that torments him from his wife passing away due to illness while he was out at sea.
Your standard light and airy Mario game this is not.
That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom, it’s just that these characters are richly layered and complex, with interesting backstories and deep motivations for their actions. The often sombre tails of their origins don’t prevent them from providing a cavalcade of laughs along the way though. Even revisiting it today, I found myself laughing out loud consistently. There is just so much love and attention poured into every character and line of dialogue, and you’ll want to see as much of it as you can.
Special mention also needs to go to Bowser, who goes out of his way to insert himself into the ongoing situation with often hilarious results. You’ll also get the chance to take control of him in some simple side-scrolling levels, which act as a nice break between chapters.
Those chapters each take place in a new location and closely intertwine with the introduction of each new companion character. Every chapter feels fresh with a unique location and style. The first chapter is your typical starting chapter with a bright and colourful town, a castle to storm and a dragon to defeat. Things get steadily more interesting as you progress. Chapter 3 is set against the backdrop of a fighting tournament with a mysterious underbelly, chapter 4 deals with a monster who has set a curse upon an entire village, and the last chapter sends Mario and crew to the moon.
Completing each chapter will reward Mario with a Crystal Star that he needs to solve the ongoing mystery and rescue Peach. These stars not only act as the McGuffin required to progress but also provide some nice juicy powers in combat, the other key piece of the Paper Mario puzzle.
The combat of The Thousand-Year Door is probably the main reason that this game is still considered the pinnacle of the series. Combat takes place on a theatre stage with a live audience and is defined by its active timing-based combat. Mario has a standard repertoire of jumps and hammer whacks, but the extra crinkle here is that pushing the attack button at the correct time will increase the damage done by each attack. The same goes for guarding and parrying, the latter of which allows you to return an attack sent your way back to the sender, albeit with a much tighter timing window than standard guarding.
You also have a range of special abilities that can be accessed via items, your partners or using the aforementioned Crystal Stars. Each of these has its own best use scenario and requires unique types of button inputs to be as effective as possible. You’ll also be able to equip various badges that you acquire throughout your adventure. These can be selected to suit your playstyle, choosing from options such as boosting your stats, giving you healing abilities or providing you with an advantage over certain types of enemies. There’s no right or wrong way to play, and it allows a nice level of customisation to battles.
Most importantly, completing battles provides experience points and leads to levelling up. Whilst that’s pretty standard for an RPG, it’s worth mentioning as it’s a system that the Paper Mario series has moved away from in subsequent entries, making combat in the sequels seem like an optional afterthought as opposed to an integral part of the experience. In its original glory here, the combat remains immensely satisfying and it stays fresh throughout the game.
Despite how much the game gets right, it’s not quite perfect. As the game goes on, the amount of backtracking you have to do starts to become a little tiresome. It can make things a little plodding towards the end of the game. The Troubles board – basically a bulletin board full of small quests – also involves plenty of trudging over old areas. It makes you wish for some sort of fast travel system. There are some warp pipes, but they are in somewhat awkward places themselves and only lead to specific points. If Nintendo ever decides to port this to Switch, I hope this is one area to which they give some minor tweaks.
Ok, so before we wrap this up, I have a personal story to share about this game and a subsequent confession.
I’ve never finished Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played through almost all of it, and have seen the ending, but never finished it myself. There’s one reason for that. A reason that, despite my love for the game and everything that led up to this point, remains to this day one of the most painful gaming experiences of my life: The Pit of 100 Trials.
The Pit of 100 Mother-F***ing Trials.
The Pit of 100 Trials was an optional challenge available to you very late in the game which tasked you with taking on 100 floors, each containing battle challenges to clear. Reaching the end would reward you with the best item in the game. The floors started easy enough, but by the time you were approaching the end, each battle was a steep challenge. It also wasn’t a quick task. It was a long time ago so I don’t remember how long exactly I spent in there, but if I had to guess it was probably around a 5-hour journey with no saves or checkpoints getting to floor 100. Then this chap was waiting for me on floor 100.
Long story short, after 99 floors that had depleted my item reserves, I died. There were no do-overs here. You start again from floor 1. That was 5 hours down the drain. I turned off the GameCube, took the disc out, put it in the box, and placed it back on the shelf. I didn’t touch it again until I started writing this article.
So Nintendo, to help me settle a grudge I’ve had for more than half of my lifetime, how about a Switch port, ey? Maybe I’ll actually beat it this time.
Do you have a suggestion of a GameCube game you’d like to see us look back at next? Drop a comment and let us know!