Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door looking out of a blimp..
Screenshot by Destructoid

Review: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

Laminated paper.

My time as a Nintendo fangirl playing on a GameCube feels like the halcyon days. Between Metroid Prime, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Eternal Darkness, and F-Zero GX, I was always deep into something that would endure as an all-time favorite.

Recommended Videos

Then I remember those were also the years I was in high school, which were years of trauma that helped shape me into the mess I am today. That’s maybe why those games shine brightly in my memory; they were backed by total darkness.

Speaking of which: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. A 20-year-old high-water mark that the series may never return to.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door battle
Screenshot by Destructoid

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Switch [reviewed])
Intelligent Systems
Released: May 23, 2024
MSRP: $59.99

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is the second in the series, and the follow-up to – bear with me here – 2000’s Paper Mario. The series started off as something of a successor to Super Mario RPG. In fact, the original working title of Paper Mario was Super Mario RPG 2, and that’s how I first saw it in an issue of Nintendo Power.

What the series have in common is a simplification of the JRPG format. Aside from that, they’re almost entirely different approaches.

However, the story is rather familiar. Mario has to collect seven stars. Stars tend to be the solution to all of Mario’s problems. At this point, the narrative framework has been so well-trodden that it actually points fun at it, by having Luigi embark on an extremely similar MacGuffin gathering quest that he’ll tell you about at the start of each chapter.

Luigi’s quest actually sounds a bit more interesting. Not that the one in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is terrible or anything. But everything is better when Luigi is involved.

The story kicks off (and largely takes place) in Rogueport. The characters describe it as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, which is already kind of a hilarious concept in a Mario game. Sure enough, the infrastructure is crumbling, people who skulk in dark alleys talk about how much they love crime, and gangs talk about holding dominion over a small chunk of the town’s four blocks.

The town sits on top of ancient ruins, and in these ruins is the eponymous spooky door. Allegedly this door holds great treasure, so Princess Peach, like all monarchs, wants this treasure for herself. But also like all monarchs, she doesn’t want to do it herself, so she mails it to Mario while she pursues her passion of getting kidnapped.

Mario, the ever-obedient working-class hero, sets off and immediately starts solving people’s problems in return for Crystal Stars and things you can just find on the ground. Really, the story doesn’t throw any huge curveballs that you can’t see telegraphed from a mile away. In fact, one of its best pieces of exposition has you guessing the twist in dialogue.

But it’s the journey, and not the reason for it, that makes Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door so memorable. Each of the game’s chapters could be their own episodic game, as while they’re linked by the central mechanics, they are each largely self-contained and entirely unique. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who didn’t play the original ‘04 release, but you’ll probably come away with your own rankings of all the chapters.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door Night Sweats
Screenshot by Destructoid

The combat uses a unique system where everything is played out in front of a live audience. Your party consists of Mario and his partner, though that partner can be swapped out mid-combat. It brings in the hallmark of all Mario RPG systems, by which I mean “timed hits” or “actions” as they’re simply called. You perform these by either pressing a button at the correct time during an attack, or playing a short mini-game.

There are also stylish moves for appealing to the crowd. Your ultra-special moves require star power to perform, and that means exciting the audience. The more audience members you have, the more star power you get when you rile them up. It’s not as complex as it maybe sounds, but it’s a fun extra layer on the otherwise simple turn-based combat.

Outside of combat is similarly simple. Dungeons don’t get too devious, though there are plenty of secrets enticing you to stick your finger into every nook. It makes use of the paper aesthetic to have you peel away scenery or turn into a boat to traverse water hazards. 

What I find interesting is that, while Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door lacks complexity, it’s also not as signposted as modern games. You can get a hint from your partner, but there are times when it will stop you and force you to think about what you’re supposed to be doing. I don’t just mean when solving puzzles, either. It will sometimes ask you to recall where you met a specific character or what happened earlier. You can always ask for a hint from your partner, but sometimes they’ll just tell you to think hard about one particular spot. It struck me that a lot of modern mainstream games won’t ask this of you.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door stepping on a contact lens.
Screenshot by Destructoid

The dialogue is what makes Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door really excel. Like most RPGs, the world is infested with NPCs, but most of them here are given a loving touch to bring them alive. Each one has its own priorities and fixations, and they’re all just so bitchy.

You generally expect that a Mario game is going to keep on its kid gloves, and to an extent, The Thousand-Year Door does. There’s nothing graphic or explicit, but some of it pushes the line. It can often be quite cutting, or just extremely clever. There’s a depth to it that makes even Mario’s bizarre, fungal-centric world seem real. But most of all, you can tell that the writers had a lot of fun with it. It’s awash with personality, something else that tends to be lost in mainstream games of today.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door Mom turns into a pig.
Screenshot by Destructoid

For those of us who did play the 2004 original, there’s enough in the Switch version to make it worthwhile. While much of what made the original so special remains unchanged (though, I didn’t see the scene where the robot spies on Peach showering), there are some additions that go beyond just being a simple upscaled port.

The weirdest is actually the graphical upgrades. A lot of small details have been redone, which is nice. But for some reason, part of the overhaul is to make everything slightly reflective. Like, it’s still paper, but it’s glossy or laminated for some reason. To be fair, it looks really good. It was very pleasing to my brain to see these gentle reflections on every surface. However, I think the idea behind the Paper Mario aesthetic is that it’s a collection of hand-crafted dioramas. I don’t know anyone who crafts with glossy paper.

The new soundtrack is extremely helpful, however. There’s a badge you can get early on that allows you to change to the original soundtrack, but I don’t think the nostalgia is worth it. The new compositions generally stick to the tracks from the original, but it’s greatly expanded. This is best demonstrated through the battle theme, which changes depending on the section of the game you’re in. It’s always the same tune, but the instrumentation is different in each area, providing a new twist. Considering Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door can take around 40 hours to complete, not having to listen to the exact same music every time combat starts is welcome.

Beyond that, there are other tweaks to the gameplay, some of which I can’t really get into. It’s not a complete overhaul, but it is a slightly more comfortable experience.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door Bowser Section
Screenshot by Destructoid

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is the series’ concept delivered with maximum effectiveness. The games have seen their ups and downs since then, and that’s partially because they had to find a new direction. They could keep revisiting the same formula, but it’s hard to improve on perfection, and even that would get old after a while.

But the fact that Paper Mario did diverge after The Thousand-Year Door makes this remaster even more effective. It’s been absent for 20 years, and the new territory that has been covered since then hasn’t resulted in the discovery of the same magic. It’s a new opportunity to see the series’ apogee. It’s a reminder that while the JRPG-lite approach has its limitations, with the right voice, it can really sing.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

Impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.

Destructoid is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more about our Affiliate Policy
Image of Zoey Handley
Zoey Handley
Staff Writer - Zoey is a gaming gadabout. She got her start blogging with the community in 2018 and hit the front page soon after. Normally found exploring indie experiments and retro libraries, she does her best to remain chronically uncool.