Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Review: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (GameCube)
Posted by Shocker :: 1:36 PM

From time to time, I get to thinking "Maybe I don't like RPGs". This usually comes around the time a new Final Fantasy game comes out. Since they seem to be the current standard people judge RPGs by, games I like, such as Zelda, get squeezed out (into somewhat-more-nebulous "action RPG" category). I also think maybe it's the turn-based combat, but as a guy who has, unfortunately, played up to an entire hour of Dungeons and Dragons and has lived to tell, no, not really. Besides, KOTOR had TBC and it was awesome. So what is it?

The answer to that is a definitive "Who knows?" Some games get you. Some games don't. But when RPGs get me, they get me bad. There's something about the storylines, the characters, getting invested in seeing them through their quest that's not a part of the more impersonal action/adventure genre - Even in action RPGs, you're generally immersed in an interactive world where you talk to people, solve puzzles by gaining information and travel to fantastic worlds. The last RPG to "get me" was Skies of Arcadia (DC), which I'd put off until about 2 years after the system died. I loved it so much, I lugged my DC around with me so I could play it wherever I found a TV that took RCA inputs. I just had to beat it.

So yeah, I guess I do like RPGs. And Paper Mario was the first time I've been overwhelmingly addicted to a video game since Skies of Arcadia.

Paper Mario is an excellent blend of platforming and RPG elements, along with superlative design to combine both. RPG fans will find something to like: turn based combat, HP/Mana/EXP system, a party system, and plenty of people to talk to. Action fans will enjoy the platforming elements - getting to blow away walls and jumping puzzles, as well as finally being able to smash a few bricks every now and again. As a sequel to Paper Mario (N64), and a somewhat distant sequel to the Square-Nintendo collab Super Mario RPG (SNES), it combines elements from both games, using their innovations to create an awesome gaming experience.

Let me get one thing out of the way first: The story is paint-by-numbers. Princess is captured, Mario must save Princess by collecting the 7 Crystal Stars, and taking them to the Thousand-Year Door. Of course, these 7 Crystal Stars aren't just laying around, they're in 7 different lands that Mario must travel to. But, if the RPG genre is about any old Japanese (?) pearl of wisdom, it's not the destination, it's the journey.

Getting there is all the fun in Paper Mario. I don't think I've ever seen a game with a so-so storyline poke fun at itself, but Paper Mario does. Regularly (Just talk to Luigi). The characters are ... strange. As you play through it, you'll never guess some of the people you'll be hooking up with to be your partners later on in the game. The combat, rather than being a turn based roll of the dice, actually engages you to improve your performance. The graphics are superb, the music not over-grand. The puzzles are fun, varied and interesting, and the game is chock full of sidequests that can eat up your days.

Paper Mario asks you to use platforming elements to interact with the world. By pressing B, Mario uses his (always equipped) hammer, and a makes him jump. As you find enemies in the game, you can either walk into them to start up the combat, or you can fight your way in by smashing them with your hammer or jumping on them to engage a "first strike" (more on that when I discuss combat). The genius here is the blending of those aspects - utilizing your hammer and jumping skills to solve puzzles and begin combat: it makes sense, yet many RPGs, to the annoyance of action gamers, don't take advantage of it.

The combat is an expansion of the best turn-based combat I'd ever played back on the SNES: You select the move you want to use, the enemy you want to attack, just like in any standard RPG. But carefully timing your button presses as you're attacking your enemy - pressing A right before you hit him - allows you to perform an Action Command, doing extra damage to them. Paper Mario expands on that, and it's, on a whole, the most engaging turn based RPG combat system I've ever seen.

Firstly, as mentioned above, you can execute a "first strike" by attacking your opponent in the game world before they attack you. Using your hammer will cause Mario to run out and hammer his opponent - jumping on them sends him into a jumping attack. This is, at times, critical to getting through a battle, because you can get a crucial strike in to destroy or weaken an opponent who would otherwise take two turns to defeat. Once the first strike phase is done, it's Mario and his partner's turn to attack. Stats in the game are broken up into Heart Points (HP), Flower Points (the equivalent of Mana, FP) and Badge Points (BP). When Mario's HP goes to 0, the game ends. Mario's attacks, unlike in Mario RPG, are limited to jumping and hammer attacks. The balance is Jumping attacks can hit ground and air opponents, Hammer attacks can only hit ground-level opponents. However, many enemies can't be jumped on, such as Pihrana Plants, Cleftors (rocky creatures with spikes over them) and Spinys. Additionally, each player has a very simple set of internal statistics: Attack and Defense. Attack is equal to the amount of damage you can do, Defense is the amount of damage you can deflect. Early enemies like Koopas have defense of 1, but their defense is dropped to 0 by jumping on them (at which point they're completely vulnerable).

Defeating enemies earns Star Points (EXP), 100 Star Points levels Mario up. After each level he can choose to raise his HP, or FP by 5, or his Badge Points by 3. After you find each Crystal Star, you gain access to special abilities, each one costing a certain amount of special points. New to this game is the crowd aspect. Every fight you have is fought on a stage in front of a crowd made up of various friends and enemies. Unlike almost everything else in the game, the crowd aspect is not immediately intuitive. When you start, you only have a crowd of a few, and gaining admirers is more difficult. But once you gain your first Crystal Star, you see that making the crowd cheer on, by executing Action Commands and performing "stylishly", the crowd renews your special points at a higher rate the better you perform. In an improvement over Super Mario RPG, instead of having Guard Actions (pressing A at the proper time to reduce damage), Mario can also perform counter moves by pressing B at an even more precise time. In later battles, where your success depends on hitting every action command and countering crucial strikes, you'll begin to realize how much better this system is than hoping you get a critical strike. Additionally since each move in the game requires your interaction, you're never just cycling through predetermined attacks by pressing A over and over again. You're deciding your attacks and carefully timing them to get the most damage out of them. Every time.

The game's graphical style is wonderful. There are some who might disagree with me, but, well, they're wrong. :) The game uses 2D, sprite-looking characters to interact with the 3D world. Everyone is "made of paper": they appear flat, and when they turn around, it flips them all the way around. This is initially a weird quirk, but it pays off: Mario gains skills such as being able to flip so he's paper-thin toward the screen to fit through tiny slits, like bars, or the separation between buildings. He can roll up, and roll under small openings, scrunch himself up and spring around or transform into a paper airplane or paper boat. Additionally, the less-taxing 2D element allows the developers to cram an INSANE amount of enemies onto the screen at once - a fact you'll find about 10 minutes into the game when you're attacked by 100 enemies at once. Later on, having a hundred or two hundred characters on screen is not uncommon, whether they're in the audience or you're fighting against all of them. It's so refreshing to see a game that wants to attempt something grand be able to pull it off- and this game is one of those who can do that. Smashing through hundreds of Dry Bones is as fun as anything. Watching a furious battle between 101 little Puni's and their 101 archrivals is one of the most chaotic scenes one will see in a video game. And when the game decides to throw around its 3D backbone, the contrast between the 2D characters you're used to looking at, and some of the huge, sweeping architecture really provides a beautiful contrast without trying to overwhelm you with vastness or pre-rendered cutscenes.

The environments are beautiful. The towns range from bright and green, to dark and purple - you'll play through beautiful black-and-white styled forests and desert isles. The way it integrates 2D elements is also amazing: If you see an item or distant locale in the background, there is a pipe around somewhere that will let you warp into the background of the stage while the camera stays fixed - Imagine one of those shooting galleries, where the duck is initially really close and then is way in the background. Excellent platforming element as well as design.

One low spot for the game, and one thing Nintendo MUST fix already is their unwillingness or inability to integrate full voice support in these games. There is almost no audible dialogue in the game - everything is done in text. Compounding this is the "silent hero" treatment that you'll find in both this game and Zelda, where everyone around the main character is talking, and he is mostly watching. This isn't to say that Mario doesn't make decisions, but there's literally, beyond making those choices, no dialogue written for him. It just doesn't make sense, and needs to be fixed.

The other music in the game is fabulous, though. Very RPG, and still very old-school and Nintendo. Additionally, alerts in the game are signaled by classic old-school Mario theme music, such as music from Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3.

The real charm of the game comes from its intuitiveness, style and humor. The game is flat-out hilarious. The translation team did a great job converting the game to the American audience. There are Mario references, movie referenes and geek references all over the game. As soon as I heard some kid tell me that his GBA really "ROCKS MY SOCKS!!!" I knew I was playing a great game. And if you ever need a laugh, every Bowser cutscene will make you cry.

Overall, I spent about 60 awesome hours with this game, running through every world and doing plenty of extra quests. I didn't complete or see everything there was to see, but suffice to say, Paper Mario will lead you through a pretty vast journey. Like most RPGs, however, I don't expect anyone to find a ton of replay value from it.

Paper Mario is likely the best RPG on the Gamecube right now, and will likely remain so. If you didn't catch Paper Mario on the N64, but did play Mario RPG, you'll feel right at home and really dig the new innovations. You may be a little less up on the game if you did play the 64 version, as this one borrows a lot of elements from its predecessor. The story and non-existent voicework, however, are the only downpoints on an otherwise absolutely engaging and fun experience. This is the most fun I've had with a game all year, and a solid addition to your Gamecube library. Just like Skies of Arcadia, another great game with a couple of unfortunate gaping flaws (in that game, it was the random enemies), I'll err towards the side of caution and score it

And eagerly await the sequel!

- Dan

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