Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 46, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
To this day, the Thousand-Year Door is the best balance of all of the things that make playing Paper Mario games worthwhile.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
In a way, I’m still searching for the ideal Paper Mario experience. That is not to say that there is no enjoyment to be found in the Paper Mario games that already exist: the initial Paper Mario ranked 75th on this list, and its sequel is sitting here within the top 50. It feels like there is always something keeping these games from being better than they are, though, even if what they are tends to be, baseline, pretty good.
The original Paper Mario, great as it is, borrows heavily from its predecessor, Super Mario RPG, and, as is the issue with every single Paper Mario game in existence, just keeps going beyond the point where I want to be playing it any longer — just know I’m thinking this when I highlight a different issue from the other Paper Mario titles in the next graf.
Super Paper Mario cannot get out of its own way with the incessant dialogue, which ends up sticking out even more in this particular case because the game is more platformer than RPG. The hybrid RPG/platformer model works, for sure — Super Paper Mario was, at one point, on an incarnation of this list — but the wonderful dialogue that does exist in the game can be overshadowed by the sheer volume of text boxes. Color Splash’s battle system veers between fun and innovative and aggravating, since it sometimes feels as if there is no real point to battling, and it drags down what is arguably the best-written and funniest game in the entire franchise. (Color Splash, too, is a just missed kind of game for this project — noticing a pattern here?) Origami King is a return to form in a lot of ways, but the battle system is enough of an oddity that it still doesn’t hold up to the franchise’s now-distant past.
And Sticker Star… well, if you can’t say something nice, etc.
I love all of these (non-Sticker Star) games in spite of their issues, because games don’t have to be perfect to be a lot of fun or loved. (It’s healthy to be honest about what you dislike about the things you enjoy, you know.) Nintendo has existed as a video game developer for longer than I’ve been alive, and I might only spend about a month of this project on games of theirs I’d consider worthy of being called “perfect” experiences. With that in mind, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is not a perfect experience, not by a long shot. It is, however, the most balanced version of the Paper Mario experience going, the one that best represents what the series is and can be, and that’s why it’s the highest-ranking rep from the franchise on this list.
Unshackled from the need to reboot Mario’s role-playing adventures like its predecessor, Thousand-Year Door is able to focus on entirely new areas outside of the Mushroom Kingdom, and introduce non-Bowser enemies into the mix, too. You spend much of the game in the hub city of Rogueport, a den of poverty and thieves which also serves to scratch the itch of whoever it is at Intelligent Systems that loves to use Paper Mario as a way to discuss the gap between the working class and those who rule over and exploit their every day lives. Things start off traditional enough, with a grassy field leading to a castle full of enemies you recognize from other Mario titles, but the settings start to change in a hurry, bringing you to locales unlike any you’ve seen in those same games.
As is the case with Paper Mario games in general, the dialogue is a riot. There is a lot of it, but it doesn’t feel as in the way as it does in Super Paper Mario, even if it takes a little time for the story to get moving at first. While not the funniest in the series, and not the best-written overall, Thousand-Year Door still stands out for just how good all of those parts of the game still feel today.
What really separates Thousand-Year Door from the rest of the Paper Mario games, though, is the battle system. It builds on the setup from the original, which in turn had built on the timing-based system of Super Mario RPG. Now, it’s not just about getting the timing right on a jump or with a hammer or hitting a button just before an enemy hits you. It is still about that, sure, but now it’s more vital than ever that you succeed at doing so. Previously, you were awarded with an extra jump and the damage that comes with it, or a block that halved or completely nullified an enemy attack. Now, though, you have an audience watching you battle, and that audience demands to be entertained. If you miss the timing on that extra jump, the crowd might throw items at you to hurt you, or some audience members might leave. And you need audience members there, because their cheering and applauding helps to refill your special moves meter. And you will need your special moves if you plan on surviving the tougher fights and longest dungeons in the game.
Paper Mario already had an interactive battle system thanks to the timing mechanism, but with far more impetus for nailing it besides “this will do a little more damage,” Thousand-Year Door managed to make a turn-based experience feel like an active one. It’s a creative high that Intelligent Systems has been chasing for nearly 20 years now in followup Paper Mario titles, and they haven’t found it again yet. You have to be on your toes, or else part of the stage you’re battling on might come crashing down and damage or stun you or your partner. You have to be perfectly aware of what every enemy’s battle animation is so that you know just when to block and prevent as much damage as possible. You have to be paying enough attention to know if the enemy is coming for you or your partner, because misjudging this will screw with your timing. And you need to know just which partner to be using in which situation, as some attacks won’t be effective against certain enemies, just like sometimes, it’s Mario’s hammer or his jump that will work, and nothing else.
Battling feels necessary in this game in a way it does not in Color Splash, because without the right amount of hit points, without flower points (like magic points) to use skills, without enough badge points to equip the accessories that, more than anything else, improve Mario and his partner’s attacks and defense and stats? You’ll lose. Thousand-Year Door is not designed like Super Mario RPG, where you can break the game a little by avoiding enemies and still manage to finish the game based on a packed inventory and knowledge of systems. Eventually, you will not have enough hit points to survive what bosses can do to you in TYD, so, you must continue to fight, to impress the crowd, to rack up hit points and badge points and the skills that more badges allow you to equip. And then you’ll be able to stop the moon creatures that kidnapped Princess Peach so they can (spoiler, I guess?) let an imprisoned queen of evil possess her body.
Thousand-Year Door is still a Paper Mario title, so it is burdened by the “why isn’t this over yet” curse the rest of the series has been afflicted with. It’s not as much of a burden in this game as it is in others in the franchise, though, mostly because the other systems all work so well that it’s more annoyance you can move on from than, say, the torture you feel while just trying to finish Super Paper Mario, why will you not let me just finish Super Paper Mario.
And it should be noted that you can finish Thousand-Year Door in 20-30 hours if you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t linger too long trying to complete everything you come across: this isn’t a massive, sprawling RPG. But even that 20-30 hours can feel long because of pacing issues that, for some reason, Intelligent Systems can’t quite rectify in this series. I’m honestly baffled by it, that the same company that can perfectly pace most of its Fire Emblem games for three decades can’t seem to find the right balance with Paper Mario, but hey. At least this enters more into the realm of “this game could have been better than it is” than “this game is bad.” There’s only one bad Paper Mario title, and Thousand-Year Door is the best of the good ones, as well as the best Mario RPG from any series out there.
The most significant problem with Thousand-Year Door is that you can’t find it anywhere. The 2004 GameCube release is the only one in existence. Nintendo didn’t make a port of it for the Wii, because there was no need for an updated control scheme and second life like there was for the Pikmin titles or Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. The Wii U never made GameCube games available digitally: in fact, it’s the only home console not available on that system’s eShop, as the NES, SNES, N64, and Wii all had their own sections on the Wii U’s Virtual Console service. There has been no word of a remaster on Thousand-Year Door for Switch, the 3DS’ entire lifecycle went by without a remaster… Nintendo has failed their fans on this one, and there is no arguing otherwise.
It’s not just that this game has been kept from an entire generation of potential fans, but it’s that even for those who do not want it, there are barriers. GameCube games are expensive to buy from secondary markets, because the GameCube only sold 22 million units in its lifetime. So, while many PS2 games are readily available, coming from a system that sold 155 million units, in addition to being sold digitally on Sony’s modern consoles, GameCube greats are comparative rarities. There are over 100 million Wii systems out there, in addition to the 22 million GameCubes — so plenty of systems capable of playing a GameCube game — but just 1.63 million copies of Thousand-Year Door to go around. Sure, there aren’t 125 million people looking to play Thousand-Year Door right now, but still: this has caused problems.
This is a screenshot of the top of the “Buy It Now” ebay listing for Thousand-Year Door, at the time of this writing:
I snapped to attention when I saw a $49.99 listing below this, but that was just for the case and manual, without a game. The Thousand-Year Door at the top of the auction list has an opening bid of $49.99 as well. Regrettably, I sold my Thousand-Year Door in an age before you could use the profits to buy an entire retro console, so for the purposes of this project, I had to revisit it through the Dolphin emulator. I’ve got a decent setup, with a USB Wii U GameCube controller adapter that works on a PC so that I can still use the authentic game pad, but things shouldn’t be this way. Thousand-Year Door should be available elsewhere, in some other form. But it’s not, so here we are.
This is a problem for far more games than just Thousand-Year Door, of course. Luckily, many of the GameCube games that have already been discussed on this list or are to be discussed have seen re-releases or remasters, so you don’t have to budget $150 to revisit a game from two decades ago. Chibi-Robo!, though, has multiple $200-plus copies on ebay right now. Mario Kart: Double Dash!! costs as much as a brand new copy of Mario Kart 8 right now, and that’s true even for secondhand copies without the case. For the love of God, do not look up how much Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance costs on ebay if you don’t already have a copy yourself. Hell, don’t look it up even if you do have it, not unless you’re planning to bequeath it to whichever kid of yours doesn’t inherit your house.
Anyway, I had to get that aggravation out on this list eventually. Nintendo has shown itself capable of striking a balance with opening up their present to the past, one that makes a lot of sense for them as a profit-driven company and yet should satisfy most consumers who want the occasional reminder of their youth, but mostly care about what’s new. There are times, though, too many of them, where Nintendo is much too closed off from their past, where they keep us from being able to access it without having to pay ridiculous prices on the secondhand market or going looking for a rom of a game we can’t otherwise play. (And don’t get me started on Nintendo cracking down on roms, either.)
It would be nice if Nintendo was a little more like Microsoft when it comes to making sure their past is available to everyone now: the irony of Microsoft, the console maker with the least past to offer, being the one to make backwards-compatibility and digital availability a priority, is not lost on me. At the least, they should try to be a little less Nintendo about it going forward, because the current path leads to $150 Paper Mario games on ebay for people who aren’t collectors, and me spending one-third of a game ranking complaining about the problem with gate-keeping an illustrious past.
You should play Thousand-Year Door, though, for sure. Just don’t take out a personal loan to get a copy, alright?
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