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I shamelessly admit that a not insignificant amount of mental preparation was required for me to even fathom trying to write about this game without going full fan-girl mode.
Let’s see if it worked.
So as you may remember from my article on Team Fortress 2, I am absolutely in love with that game, for reasons you can read about on the article itself.
That being said, there exists another game out there that fought tooth and nail with Team Fortress 2 for my heart. And while Team Fortress 2 ultimately won that fight, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door left the battlefield with an enormous, almost equal piece of it.
My earliest memory of this incredible, on-going journey with TTYD began as early as age six. I brought it home one day, plunked myself down on my dinosaur-decorated futon, popped that beautiful tan disk into my GameCube, and prepared to play, completely unaware of the brilliance I was about to let into my life. My latest memory? Playing through it once again just months ago, falling in love with the characters once again, and letting the music bring tears to my eyes once again.
Where do I even begin? TTYD is so incredibly well-done in just about every aspect, there’s relatively nothing that I can fault.
One thing you should know about me is that, when it comes to RPGs, I typically consider them to be my “dark horses” of gaming interests. By this I mean that, even though I both enjoy playing and appreciate RPGs, I’m mildly turned off by turn-based battle systems in the sense that I feel disconnected from the battle; after selecting what do to, I just let fate run its course, and I don’t really feel like I accomplished much. I can almost always overlook this aspect, but it’s kind of annoying all the same.
TTYD (and most if not all Mario RPGs, for that matter) fixed this for me in such a simplistic way, I think it crazy to not take notice of it. By timing certain inputs with its corresponding attack, the damage output is maximized or, in some cases, made possible. When being attacked, it’s possible to time the press of the A button with an enemy attack to reduce the damage, or even press the B button to counterattack, resulting in no damage taken while inflicting damage on the aggressor. I would argue that learning these commands are essential to completing the game, and I feel as though anyone who’s played it would agree.
This one, tiny mechanic allows players to stay completely engaged with the game, whether in the field or hammering foes, and that was merely a blip on the radar for what makes TTYD so great.
I don’t believe there are many adventures out there as diverse as this game. Each chapter introduces a brand new setting, a brand new subplot, and a plethora of memorable characters, each with their own unique design and dialogue. From battling the dragon terrorizing Petalburg to getting washed up on a haunted island to literally launching a two-man attack on the antagonist’s moonbase, the landscape that the developers laid out for us is quite the rollercoaster.
So what’s next? Mix up the combat of course! Throughout the game, various members of this colourful cast of characters will join Mario in his quest to fight by his side, each with their own unique (and upgradable) movesets like Koops’ grounded, shell-based, defensive game or Bobbery’s damage-heavy, explosive approach. This brings diversity to the player’s cast while also providing them with new ways to play and strategize, as each partner’s attacks have their strengths and weaknesses from battle to battle.
Mario himself also has access to customization via badges, which are equippable items that have effects ranging from stat boosts to giving access to a new attack or resource. These badges require badge points (BP) to equip, however, and BP can only be upgraded by levelling up via experience points. I found out very late in my life just how unique each playthrough could be depending on the kinds of badges you use.
For example, there’s a badge in the game known as “Power Rush,” which increases Mario’s attack power by two whenever his health is at five points or below. By finding and equipping several of these badges (a large plethora of BP is required), and using a certain “respec" station in the game to lower your max health to five, Mario can potentially pull off 100 damage per hit, making for a devastating build at the expense of always being in some kind of danger on the off chance that the first hit isn’t enough.
Much like changing up partners, it’s also wise to equip different badges for certain situations as well, such as the “Ice Power” badge that allows you to safely jump on fiery enemies, but takes up precious BP otherwise.
Mixing up your arsenal throughout the game via badges and partners was one of the more under-appreciated aspects of TTYD, and this fun, engaging approach to turn-based combat mixed with the interesting subplots of the various chapters in the game made for a grand adventure that was just straight up fun!
And even though this is among the funnest games I’ve ever played, what makes TTYD stand out from the rest is its personality, which is a quality that I find largely absent from games nowadays.
As I said before, the amount of distinguishable characters in this game is absolutely astounding, but this is made even more so when you consider the fact that each character has their own unique lines of dialogue coupled with their own energy and attitude, and some even portrayed varying dialects in their text boxes. As astounding as this is, you also have to remember that Mario is in no way obliged to speak to well over half of the characters he meets along the way, and yet the developers took the time to include these characters and their personalities anyway. There was even a whole other story going on throughout the game in the form of Luigi’s novel, which can be purchased in the hub world and read in-game. Let me say that again; they literally wrote a whole other story that has absolutely nothing to do with the game itself, complete with its own characters, just for fun. I think this really speaks to the amount of effort, thought, and dedication that the team put into this game; the main story and gameplay were already fantastic, but all of these extra steps were taken to make sure that this game was not only enjoyable, but memorable as well.
And if memorable was what they were going for, they certainly succeeded. My mind goes back to when I played TTYD for the first time; I casually followed along with the game’s opening cutscene, where Mario takes that fateful glance at his magical map, and the screen cuts to the ocean. Immediately following that was this heartsqueeze of an audio clip:
I could hear it: a brand new adventure opening up before my very eyes, its wonders absolutely relishing the opportunity to throw themselves in my path, and constantly whispering for me to keep going.
Well, after revisiting this little treasure last summer, I was again greeted by those same 20 seconds of music, and it brought tears of joy to my eyes. Here I was, 19 years old (at the time), going back to years and years ago before I had any idea about what my young adult life would be like.
What I find so amazing about that theme was, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, a beautiful, inspiring piece of art was placed in my mind many years ago, and rediscovering it opened up a wave of nostalgia that my tear ducts clearly weren’t prepared for. Just like I was exploring a new adventure in TTYD all those years ago, now do I recognize that my own life was and is its own beautiful, quirky little adventure, with amazing characters of its own.
And this auditory miracle comes full circle by the time you near the end of the game. Just when it appears that all hope is lost, the seven Crystal Stars that you spent all game collecting fly from Mario’s body, going all over the world to the beat of the most inspiring symphony I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. As characters from all over the world send their wishes to our hero, so does the background music sing at the top of its lungs, relentless in communicating its message to never give up!
In some of my darkest hours, I play this song as a reminder to never quit this game we know as life. Just as Mario—the one that everyone counts on—is the champion of his world, I can’t ever forget how much this life—my world—counts on its own protagonist: me. No matter how terrifying the Shadow Queen may be, we always must remember that the beauty and love in this world will always be worth fighting for, no matter what.
So that’s why I love Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. It’s a marvel at storytelling and gameplay, its world and the people in it have a voice that no game in my experience has come close to matching, and the sheer emotion that it’s managed to unlock in me personally is a gift that I only wish I could share with everyone.