Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door Review - Step Inside, The Plumber RPG's Back

  • First Released Oct 11, 2004
  • NS

A faithful enhancement of one of the best RPGs of its era, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is once again one of the best RPGs of its (new) era.

Let's get straight to the (unsurprising) statement: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door for Nintendo Switch is an incredible turn-based RPG that is every bit as charming, witty, and joyful today as it was two decades ago. Much like 2023's Super Mario RPG, Nintendo didn't mess with the formula so this is the game you know and love, only it's prettier, sounds better, and includes several meaningful quality-of-life updates. But whereas Super Mario RPG was quite obviously an old game reborn for a new generation, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door stands toe-to-toe with the best turn-based RPGs of the current console generation.

Considering Paper Mario's bizarre history over the past two decades, newcomers would be forgiven for not knowing what the heck to expect in The Thousand-Year Door. To be blunt, Paper Mario's original identity and soul disappeared in the wake of The Thousand-Year Door. Today, Paper Mario is perhaps best-known as the Mario series that can't seem to pick a genre. But The Thousand-Year Door, much like its N64 predecessor, follows the tradition of Super Mario RPG and is more aligned with the Mario & Luigi series--the now-defunct series that pushed Paper Mario out of the genre--than any of the Paper Mario games that came after it, including The Origami King. And The Thousand-Year Door's Switch version further solidifies its spot at the top of the Mario RPG tier list.

The visual upgrade is more of a fresh coat of paint than a total overhaul. Its storybook aesthetic with pop-up characters and environmental trappings had a timeless quality to it already, but the new widescreen presentation, with its vivid colors and crisp textures, brings memorable locations up to modern standards. The lush flowers and white-petaled trees of Boggly Woods are stunning, Twilight Town's and Creepy Steeple's gloominess is heightened (especially on Switch OLED), and better lighting and shadows make the waters around Keelhaul Key really pop. Environments aren't as richly layered as you'd find in The Origami King, but The Thousand-Year Door is still a beautiful game that could pass for a native Switch title.

It runs exceptionally well, too. I didn't experience a single drop in performance in my 41 hours (and counting) in docked or handheld modes. Snappy load times, instantaneous saving, consistently smooth animations, precise input recognition for timing-based Action Commands–this is about as good as it gets for an enhanced version of an all-time classic.

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The GameCube version had one of the best soundtracks beneath the entire Super Mario umbrella. I'd actually say the remixed soundtrack is more of a revamp than the visuals. Don't worry, you get a badge early on that lets you switch back to the original without using any Badge Points, for those who want the classic musical accompaniment. Nostalgia will likely prevail for some, but I'd strongly urge longtime fans to give the new OST a try in each chapter. Along with remixed tracks, individualized battle themes capture the vibe of each locale, so the new tunes elevate the already superb turn-based combat system.

For the most part, the Switch version mirrors the gameplay of the original. That said, the handful of newly implemented features make a meaningful impact, most notably with regards to respecting your time. If you played the original, you surely remember the General White wild goose chase that involved significant, tedious backtracking. The new fast-travel room beneath Rogueport town square remedies that annoyance and plenty more. After completing each chapter, a new warp pipe that can instantly send you back to the central area of each chapter appears. In addition to fixing the near-infamous General White fiasco, fast travel is extremely useful for quickly revisiting locations after more partners with new abilities join your team. Backtracking was always necessary to secure certain items, including a few key ones, and now it's a more streamlined and enjoyable process.

Similarly, Game Over no longer means automatically starting at the last save block. Along with numerous auto-save moments throughout the campaign, you now have the choice of whether to return to your last save or try the scene again after you fall in battle. Game Over in the original sometimes meant losing 30 minutes or more of progress, but now you can start in the same room you met your demise in. Critically, your stats return to what they were when you entered the room. So if you were in bad shape before, you'll still be in bad shape. You still need to reach a save block to actually record your progress, but restarting from the scene simply means you don't have to replay content you already conquered. And since The Thousand-Year Door is a 30-plus hour RPG, any feature centered on respecting my time is greatly appreciated.

Another useful new feature is the Partner Ring, a wheel you can pull up with the press of a button and scroll through to instantly swap partners instead of opening the full menu. This may sound small, but since only one of Mario's six or seven partners (one is optional) can accompany him at any given moment, instant swapping is ultimately an impactful change. Partners play a big role in solving puzzles and making progress through each area, as they have unique abilities that are used regularly to interact with your surroundings. For instance, former stage actress Madame Flurrie can blow gusts of wind that remove peeling paper from walls to reveal hidden passages and treasures. Hopping on Yoshi's back increases movement speed and lets you flutter across longer gaps. Meanwhile, Koops, a brave little Koopa with a long-lost dad, has a shell toss move that snags unreachable items and activates time-sensitive switches. Admiral Bobbery, a sailor Bob-omb with a thick mustache and a broken heart, can blow up cracked walls. There are times when you need to use multiple partner abilities in fairly quick succession, so the new wheel, however small it may sound, really made a difference in terms of keeping me in the flow.

The other main improvements make The Thousand-Year Door more inviting to new players and limit the number of progression roadblocks. If you get stuck at any point, pressing ZL initiates a partner hint. Many of the general progression hints are relayed by Mario's first companion Goombella, but other partners will chime in if the task at hand relies on their abilities. A new NPC also points you in the right direction for Trouble Center sidequests if you need help. These fairly sophisticated systems add many, many new lines of dialogue. It's one of the better hint systems I've seen in a game, as it provides truly useful clues without fully spelling it out for you. It's a nudge in the right direction and will keep those who don't care for puzzles moving along to the next story beat or battle sequence.

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Speaking of battles, the turn-based encounters are unchanged, which means there's a huge catalog of Action Commands to master, each of which requires nuanced and well-timed inputs to inflict maximum damage and block incoming attacks. The user interface and on-screen prompts received a facelift, but the movesets for Mario and his seven partners, special attacks, and library of badges align with the original. For newcomers or those looking for a refresher, that's where the Battle Master can be helpful. The new NPC hangs out near the new fast-travel warp pipes in each main area. The Battle Master will set up dummy enemies on a rehearsal stage so you can practice Action Commands, and they also have a long list of tips and explainers that steadily grows as you unlock new partners and moves.

It's easy to understand why the battle and overarching progression systems weren't altered. The Thousand-Year Door has the best combat mechanics of any Mario role-playing game, Paper variety or not. On defense, Action Commands adhere to the single button press timing mechanic of Super Mario RPG, but Mario's and his partner's moves evolve far beyond that straightforward action. Some ask you to hold and release buttons with the right timing, others involve flicking the analog stick or pressing a sequence of buttons. Story-based upgrades and badges further modify Mario's comically large hammer swings and famous jump attacks.

Badges modify stats and essentially act as the gear system. Outside of basic attacks, all battle moves consume FP (Flower Points). Since I loved using some of the high-cost FP moves, I made sure to equip badges that lowered the consumption of FP and regenerated points with successful strikes. The badge system is quite versatile, allowing you to tailor your setup to your play style. While there are 86 badges in all--one more than before due to the original soundtrack badge--you are limited by Mario's BP (Badge Points).

When Mario levels up, you can choose one of three core stats to upgrade: HP, FP, or BP. Mario is the only character with a traditional leveling system, so FP and BP are essentially shared pools for the whole seven- to eight-character team. It sounds peculiar, but it works exceedingly well. On top of that, this quirk rewards exploration, as you need three Shine Sprites to "level up" each partner to unlock new moves and remain on mostly equal footing with Mario in terms of attack power and HP. There are 42 Shine Sprites scattered across the Mushroom Kingdom, so you can level up each partner twice. If you don't increase the stats of your partners in the back half of the game, they will likely get wrecked by virtually any of the many dozens of enemies, from Hammer Bros and Chain Chomps to Magikoopas and Frost Piranhas. And if not by any regular enemies, late-game bosses will probably do the trick--unless you are really good at Superguarding.

Though I wouldn't call The Thousand-Year Door an exceedingly challenging game, it's superbly balanced, with enough bite to add tension to many battles. Limiting Mario to fighting alongside one partner at a time and arranging enemies in a straight line, rather than side by side--which effectively shields the back of the line from certain attacks--makes your battle partner and move choices matter. Despite routinely countering enemy attacks, I still saw the Game Over screen a handful of times. More importantly, I was pushed to the brink on many other occasions. Perhaps most importantly, I fought nearly every enemy I saw wandering the overworld, and I never felt underleveled or overleveled.

Unfortunately, the quality-of-life enhancements don't extend to difficulty sliders or accessibility options. While badges like Simplify make Action Commands easier to execute, equipping it makes your special move gauge refill more slowly, so you're negatively impacted in a way for using them. On the flip side, the Unsimplify badge shrinks timing windows and hastens special meter regeneration. Adept players reap the rewards, while those who may need some assistance with Action Commands make concessions. These badges and others like Double Pain (Mario takes double damage) existed in the original game, and it's great that they're still here. But badge modifiers won't change the fact that some Action Commands will be tricky (or impossible) for some players with limited mobility. For instance, Yoshi's Ground Pound and several other moves are straight button-mashers. A setting that alters the more mechanically involved quick-time events to be single-button taps ala Super Mario RPG would have been a nice addition.

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Though the story falls within familiar Mario territory--Peach is kidnapped by the X-Nauts, an evil alien-robot (something like that) organization led by Sir Grodus--the writing and characterization are sublime. Mario's role-playing games have always featured zany dialogue, memorable characters, and a lot of heart. The Thousand-Year Door is no different. All seven partners are marked by the desire to prove something to themselves and the world. Though they're all great, it's somewhat ridiculous that all four female partners--Goombella, Vivian, Madame Flurrie, and Ms. Mowz (optional)--clearly have the hots for Mario, whereas Admiral Bobbery and Koops have emotional ties that extend beyond the unavailable mustachioed hero. At least in Vivian's case, Mario is seemingly the first person to show her kindness. Yeah, there are depressing undercurrents beneath a lot of the humor.

The Thousand-Year Door has so many great lines of dialogue that touch on the full range of human emotions that it's absolutely worth your time to talk to every NPC you encounter and read the messages sent to Mario's Game Boy Advance SP communication device--there are some real gems in there. A few lines of dark humor actually made my mouth drop, and it's hard to believe that the words of a Bob-omb with a steering wheel attached to his back got to me more than any game in a long time. There's even a conversation about the need for renewable energy sources--as a reminder, this game is from 2004.

The pacing remains uneven in spots–Creepy Steeple still has some tedious backtracking and the Glitz Pit still features 20 mostly simple battles with nearly identical preambles between each–but the vast majority of the 30-plus hour adventure keeps the story moving while gradually adding new mechanics to combat as well as exploration, such as Mario's ability to turn into a paper boat to move across water and roll into a small cylinder to access small passageways. And the interludes between chapters featuring (briefly) playable characters Peach and Bowser remain fun breathers between hunts for the Crystal Stars that open the eponymous door beneath Rogueport.

The Switch version of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is the definitive way to play the best turn-based RPG starring Mario. More of an enhanced HD remaster than a full-fledged remake, The Thousand-Year Door has small yet meaningful quality-of-life features that ease some of the bloat from the original GameCube version. The catchy remixed soundtrack wonderfully complements the thoroughly entertaining and dynamic turn-based battle system. Throw in a stellar cast of characters and consistently playful writing, and The Thousand-Year Door has all the ingredients of an incredible turn-based RPG. Well, it always had them, but now they are blended a bit better.

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The Good

  • Turn-based battle system is joyously dynamic and superbly balanced
  • New fast-travel system removes the tedium from backtracking
  • Beautiful HD visuals are complemented by the lovely remixed soundtrack
  • Humorous and heartfelt writing holds up all these years later
  • Hint and training systems make it more approachable to newcomers

The Bad

  • Lacks accessibility options, which could make some of the rapid quick-time events difficult to perform for some players

About the Author

Steven first played Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on holiday break from school when he was 13. Though this fact makes him feel old, he's nearly positive he saw the Game Over screen more times as a kid. How embarrassing for 13-year-old Steven. Review code was provided by the publisher.