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Bend, Fold, and Roll
By: Anna Marie Whitehead
"Nintendo 64" is reason enough to have an RPGamer both giggle gleefully and shudder in revulsion; while the system lacked much in the way of RPGs, the few that did make it were, for the most part, stellar. Paper Mario, though released near the end of the N64's life, was one of those games that was of excellent quality, that just wasn't noticed. Now, with the GameCube comes the sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. With its innovative use of the paper idea, quaint graphics, and immersive battle system, there's little not to like about the game.
Stage fright is definitely something to avoid, as all battles take place on a stage, complete with lighting, props, and an audience; these all come into play in one form or another. The battle system is a little complicated and will take some time to get the hang of. As with the previous Mario RPGs, attacking and defending can greatly change the outcome of a battle. Defending against enemy attacks by pressing A just as an attack lands can reduce the damage received, all the way to none in some cases. On the other hand, pressing B at the precise moment an attack should land will cause Mario and his ally to counterattack and cause damage to the enemy instead. There's more to think about than just this one button press during battle, though. Attacks become more powerful with strategic button pushing during the attack phase. For example, pressing the A button before Mario jumps and lands on an enemy will gain a second jump, doubling the damage. Other moves are more complicated, some requiring mad tilting of the analog stick or rapidly pushing the R button. There are also special moves - these require FP (Flower Points) - for each of Mario's hammer and jump attacks, which can be accessed by equipping badges; badges may do other things as well, such as allowing Mario to jump on spiked enemies without taking damage. There are a finite amount of badge points available, so choosing which ones to wear into battle involves a bit of strategy. At each level up, HP, FP, or BP may be increased by 5, 5, or 3 respectively.
To round off the attack options, there are Star Attacks, which are gained by acquiring the Crystals Stars - their importance will tie into the Thousand-Year Door as the story moves along. Each Star Attack varies in effect and Star Power required. This is where the audience finally comes in. Audience members cheer, refilling the drained Star Meter. Attacks that are "stylish" will refill the meter faster. To perform a stylish move, the A button must be pressed at the correct time during an attack - outside of any other requirements for the attack to be successful. For example, when Mario performs the quake hammer move, the analog stick must be pulled back and let go once the meter fills. Once he drops to the ground, the A button must be pressed, and he will perform a backflip - if the A is pressed again at the end of the backflip, confetti will drop down as he poses, giving two opportunities for a stylish attack. As a stylish attack can fill half of a star point, it becomes increasingly important as the game goes by to perfect these moves, as star attacks can become part of a regular battle regimen. For those that are sticky-fingered, a badge named "Timing Tutor" can be equipped to show when to time these special stylish moves.
In addition to polishing off those perfectly timed and stylish moves, it's good to remember that the audience and stage are both interactive. Slamming around the enemies with the hammer or heavy-hitting allies can make the background, lighting, and other backstage props fall on the enemies, or Mario and his ally, or both! Thankfully there are some cues for this - the background will wobble, and most props will fall only when exuberant fans run behind the stage and kick them around. Blocking can be done as usual with A. The audience maximum begins at 50, and increases for every 10 levels Mario gains. Even though the max level attainable is 30, this can still mean by the end of the game there will be quite a full house! Audience members can be almost anything - from Koopas to Punies to giant Bob-Ombs that take up two seats. If there are rowdy audience members, they may choose to throw items at the stage. Some of these items are good - Koopas may throw Courage Shells, items that increase defense; other items are bad and will do damage if they strike, such as rocks and empty pop cans. A warning sign below Mario (or his ally, if it is their turn) will prompt the player to hit the X button. Mario will get down into the audience and hammer or jump on the offender, depending upon which attack was last used. An ally will attack defending upon their normal attack pattern; Bobbery, a Bob-Omb, will blow up the offending party. Remember, though, to look before leaping; if the item that is going to be thrown is a good item, it will be lost and audience members will leave in disgust. Kicking out audience members that have bad items (such as X-nauts, one of the primary storyline enemies) generally has no effect on audience level. Some audience members even get right into the battle. Boos may hop on stage and make Mario, his ally, or the enemies invisible for several turns, just to give one example.
The music also helps set the stage and for the most part is done very well. One of the biggest flaws in the music is that the battle music can become rather boring to listen to after so many hours of gameplay. Putting boring music aside, the sound effects are done in a quirky, fun fashion befitting the tone of the game. For those that get bored easily, there are badges which can change the sound effects of Mario's actions - one is actually key to defeating a certain boss with ease. Meanwhile, the graphics are a mix of 2D-looking and 3D-looking layers, with most characters being, unsurprisingly, made of flat pieces of paper. Occasionally there will be a break in this; in a later town, there are some pigs which are fully 3D. There's very little not to like about how the game looks, and the bright, frilly look will appeal to many gamers and it manages to offset some of the darker games available on the market.
The game's true difficulty depends mainly upon the actions of the player. Those that master the battle system's ins-and-outs will find that the game will be mostly easy. Those that don't get down the timing may find themselves slightly frustrated. To make things even more complicated, Shine Sprites can be found throughout the world, some hidden and some in plain view, and there is a place in Rogueport where a character can be upgraded for the low, low cost of 3 Shine Sprites apiece. Once a hidden = Sprites apiece; and once a special hidden item they can be upgraded again. With 7 characters and exactly 42 Shine Sprites, those that aren't as adept at sleuthing will find themselves short a few necessary to upgrade each ally. These secrets, plus an optional character, are why Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door actually has a pretty good replay value. The player can choose to continue after the game has completed or, with four save files available, have a fresh start again. An average game can take about 30 hours to complete, with more time added for hunting down secrets, or doing Troubles.
Thankfully there is no difficulty to be found in the navigation of the game. Menus are laid out easily, and include ways to check on Mario, his allies, a map, items, key items, and badges that are sortable, as well as records, such as how many enemies have been identified by Goombella's Tattle skill, and which badges have been acquired. The localization is also very well done, with no particularly noticeable problems. Considering the huge amounts of text that are actually in the game (Goombella's aforementioned Tattle ability can be used outside of battle to identify all areas as well as every person in the game), it's nice to see the time was taken to make this very smooth.
Much has changed in the more than three years since the first Paper Mario was released. The paper aspect of the characters is played up much more, and things that only a paper could do are used on a regular basis. 'Curses' such as the ability to roll up into a cardboard tube are required to get through some of the trickier areas and to find hidden items or powerups. While the story starts out at a slow pace, by the third chapter it picks up nicely - helped along by a growing crew of teammates - and the dialogue is personalized to each character that is with you. The one thing that does drag down the flow of the game is the required backtracking to pick up items that were previously inaccessesible when new abilities are learned. While these items are optional, often consisting of hidden star pieces to buy badges with, many of the badges that are offered for sale in only this way are quite useful. There's also a slew of backtracking if the Troubles quests are undertaken. Troubles are small quests, usually revolving around fetching or delivering something, and more appear each time a new Crystal Star is acquired. These are, for the most part, one of the best ways to earn money, so going back and forth trying to solve these puzzles, while tedious and time consuming, isn't a bad idea.
With a fun story, good replay value, a heaping serving of uniqueness and originality, as well as a battle system that sustains a high energy level, there are a lot of good things going for Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. While it may start slow and is occasionally dragged down by some bad music, overall it certainly stands out as a superior title with few flaws. With RPGs being so sparse on the GameCube, it's refreshing to see such a solid title emerge where one is truly needed. It will definitely go down as one of the primary reasons for an RPGamer to own a GameCube.
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