This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.
Oh, dear. It's one of those "gap-in-the-schedules" kinds of weeks. Well, there was Battleborn, but, you know... multiplayer-focused, MOBA-inspired, by the guys who made Borderlands, the Pepsi to Overwatch's Coke. "That's not my bag, like, three times over," as the frustrated old woman said to the forgetful lost-property attendant. And I doubt my opinion holds much value. Of course, the game does say we're perfectly welcome to play it single-player, but I've fallen for that one before, haven't I? Like with Evolve and Star Wars: Battlefront, which technically do have single-player in the same way that a hotel room does technically have a bidet if they hire someone to lie on the bathroom floor and spit up your asshole.
So, it's been a while. Let's retro-review! And since we just did a Nintendo game, let's remind ourselves of a time when Nintendo didn't gargle quite so much hot motion-control piss-gravy and spat it out all over our aching wrists. It's 2004, it's the GameCube (a console with several very decent games which you'll find very difficult to get hold of and play these days, which is in some way in service of progress and, incidentally, you could run faster if you weighed less, so why not cut one of your legs off?) It's a game that I'm constantly bringing up whenever we talk about RPGs, Mario games and RPG Mario games: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. The second game in the Paper Mario series that continued the Mario RPG tradition that began on the SNES with, brace yourself, Super Mario RPG, a collaboration between Nintendo and SquareSoft, which explains why it was simultaneously cutesy and fucking incomprehensible.
Paper Mario, meanwhile, was developed by Intelligent Systems, who, it turns out, had some pretty good ideas despite their company having the dreariest fucking name in the history of game development. The paper-puppet-theatre aesthetic was a lot more appealing than Mario RPG's 3D pre-rendering, a style that looked good for about the twelve nanoseconds after Donkey Kong Country came out and then looked like Playmobil people sliding around a breakfast tray. But the reason why I hold up Paper Mario 2 as the peak of Mario RPGing is that while Nintendo are a stubborn lot that retread their old ground so much that they've worn down a trench deep enough for a fucking fallout shelter, something magical happens on the rare occasions when they do try building some continuity.
Look at the N64 Zeldas! Ocarina of Time had to reestablish all the same old shit: Link, Zelda, burble, bom, Ganon, Triforce, bomble, boo. But once they'd gotten that shit out of the way, they did Majora's Mask in the same continuity, and that actually had some really good original ideas and themes. And the same thing happened with Paper Mario. The first one had to get all the tired, old status-quo bullshit out of the way: Bowser kidnaps princess, Mario mounts highly circuitous rescue attempt that will inevitably involve collecting stars (for it is always stars). But once that was established, they could do Thousand-Year Door: same continuity, some actual new fucking ideas. For, you see, Nintendo, you'll never break your shoes in properly if you keep rebooting every five minutes.
How's about this for breaking the mould: Princess Peach gets kidnapped, right, by somebody other than Bowser. Bam! And the seven stars you have to collect are seven crystal stars this time. Fucking hell, guys! Rein in the creativity before it starts triggering miscarriages! All right, admittedly, the broad strokes in the game aren't that much different to Paper Mario 1 and it was Super Paper Mario that really shook the formula up. Thousand-Year Door still applies Paper Mario 1's turn-based combat of the temporary-pocket-dimension variety with the usual Mario RPG innovation: that you can press a button in time with the hits to do more damage or take less, which is about as far as turn-based combat can innovate without turning into one of those godawful turn-based/real-time hybrid systems of the Ni no Kunis of the world. Still, over time, the Mario RPGs couldn't resist escalating mechanics so that attacks require more and more ridiculously elaborate minigames. The Mario & Luigi series has run this right into the fucking ground and now the super attacks in those games are like supervising a temperamental Heath Robinson machine.
But in Thousand-Year Door, the worst it gets is probably the earthquake attack (which is the best all-purpose damage-dealer for most of the game, but getting the full effect requires playing five minutes of PaRappa the Rapper). The combat's also lent depth by the badge system that allows Mario's fighting style to be heavily customized, but considering virtually every enemy has some specific immunity, the only practical fighting style is "all of them". But the fact is, the combat almost doesn't matter. An RPG must have some and, hey, there it is! It's the story and writing that have the edge. Considering that Nintendo these days treat their first-party IP like it's the priceless family silver and don't even use it for special occasions now because it's just about the only thing they have left to pawn, it's amazing to look at what Thousand-Year Door and other Mario RPGs managed to get away with while flying the official Mario flag.
Thousand-Year Door pretty swiftly goes off the usual rails. You know what I mean: grasslands, desert, ocean, jungle, my Sharona! Yeah, the first stage has much of the grasslands about it and then you fight a dragon in a castle, but it's not too long after that before you get to the chapters where Mario takes up a career in professional wrestling or investigates Agatha Christie mysteries on a moving train. Super Paper Mario was even more offbeat with its settings, but Thousand-Year Door found the best balance between the irreverent, funny laughs and building an actual cohesive world that's more than just a vehicle for the silliness. The hub town around which the game revolves is not a cheerful Smurf village where the generic mushroom people live the eternal paradox of how one builds a pastel-coloured sugar-plum cottage with no opposable thumbs, but a cosmopolitan pirate town in the grip of sleaze and organised crime. There's even a dirty great gallows in the town centre, which is a bit dark, although considering all the Mario monsters that can fly or have no discernible neck, there's only about five dudes it could've been used on!
This is also the game in which Princess Peach is about as sexualised as she'll ever be in an official Mario game, and in that I include Super Mario Sunshine, in which Bowser's kid claims to have come out of her vagina and, tellingly, she doesn't deny it. In between Mario's chapters, you briefly play as Princess Peach in the villain's hideout, finding a way to send help or information to the outside world and she's able to do this because, early on, the villain's computer spies on her taking a shower and then spends the rest of the game contriving new reasons for her to take her clothes off. It might sound exploitational to you, but I think she comes across rather well. She's a diplomat, not a fighter, and she's finding opportunities to leverage the upper hand, making full use of the assets she has available. Both of them, in fact. She'd last longer than Mario in Game of Thrones. She'd have a strategic marriage in the bag before you can say "nudity clause".
More like Raper Mario: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I could imagine Luigi doing alright in Game of Thrones 'cos he could sort out the White Walkers with his vacuum cleaner
Personally I know exactly what has and has not come out of my vagina