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[I think for a lot of gamers my age, Final Fantasy VII was the game that really introduced us to RPGs. Cedi, on the other hand, cut his teeth on our dear friend Mario’s papertastic adventures and learned to love the genre as a result. Why is this blog being posted on Destructoid’s Front Page? Because it’s awesome. Also, because Cedi joined us for this month’s Bloggers Wanted prompt! Tell us in the comments which game finally helped you to understand a new genre in gaming! – Wes]
RPGs are a fascinating genre of games. Their biggest draws to fans involve a lot of reading, doing math, and sometimes bawling uncontrollably. They’re things that many kids don’t like doing, but somehow, they’ve captivated large audiences of all ages. If you described RPGs like that to me decades ago, I would maybe have treated them like Brussels sprouts. And yet, as I said last Sunday, one particular game won me over to this genre from an early age. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door lured me in with the platforming icon every kid knows, and I left the credits sequence having learned to love this genre. But Paper Mario, in all of its iterations, is very far from the standard RPG. So how did this game lure me into the genre as a whole?
I know this game is pretty much ancient at this point, but fair warning: I will be discussing TTYD story spoilers. If you’re fine with spoilers, cool, but if you’ve never seen its story and you think that doesn’t matter in the slightest? Just gonna add that I felt the same until I played this game myself. I urge you to play it if you can. It’s worth the experience points.
But before we dig into that, I should briefly explain my experiences with the only other RPG I played before TTYD, which was Pokémon Gold. What other RPG series were kids more likely to get into first? It’s a great game with a lot of writing and turn-based battles. The creature collecting and raising mechanics are deep and fun. And yet, I never really took much notice of that. I enjoyed the writing, but only in the same way as an average Saturday morning cartoon; just as an entertaining vehicle from one battle to another (though the postgame final boss was a climax even little Cedi understood the awesome impact of). Similarly, I didn’t bother training up other monsters because I didn’t want to spend that much time doing so, especially since my Typhlosion was strong enough to nuke every enemy trainer alone. Yes, I was one of those players. I wasn’t excited by anything other than the creature collecting at this point, but I was acclimated into what basically defines the genre.
Also, I used a Master Ball on a Doduo. That’s a solid indicator of how much I understood about the whole thinking part of RPGs.
Then in the early 21st century came along a shiny new Nintendo system, and with it, a metric ton of games starring our favorite plumber. Dozens of new Mario games I was destined to rent and buy, but one of them didn’t have Mario as I knew him. Why was he flat? Why was he friends with a cute Goomba girl and silly Koopa dork? How come I never played the original Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64? “Who cares, it’s a Mario game, I gotta play it!” said little Cedi, as he enthusiastically inserted the disc into his GameCube. The back of the box told me it was going to be a very different type of Mario game, but I had already accepted that going into it. “It’s a lot like Pokémon but without the monster catching,” little Cedi guessed.
Little Cedi guessed wrong. And like any good teacher, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door was determined to make him not just know the right answer, but understand it.
The gameplay was my first lesson. Pokémon taught me a few of the fundamentals; you take turns selecting actions, you can level grind to get stronger, and you want to exploit elemental weaknesses everywhere you can. That’s what I always did back in Gold, playing only with my starter and abusing the heck out of TMs. Much to little Cedi’s surprise, TTYD didn’t allow either of the latter two, at least not to the extent of ignoring other aspects of the battle system.
You can grind, but levels don’t make everything stronger. You never gain attack or defense from leveling, and you can only choose one stat to increase every level. I was quickly forced to accept two very important facts about this RPG: You can’t level grind to instantly overpower every encounter, and you have to make choices that matter for your play style in the long term.
Sure, some similar stipulations regarding what you should and shouldn’t do exist in the positional/situational attacking mechanics. Your hammer can only hit the first grounded enemy, and your jump can’t hurt spiked enemies. But these were limitations to work around, not advantages to exploit. My party may have had much more HP, but the enemy had an advantage I mostly couldn’t turn to my own. Instead, I had to ask myself how I could use my skills and resources to overcome those disadvantages, or even create new opportunities. Jumping on Koopas flips them over and renders them defenseless, so I learned to prioritize them over less easily incapacitated foes. Hyper Goombas can charge to deal a crapton of damage, so I learned to either take them out pronto or shield up from their counterattack. Pink Fuzzies can suck FP to nuke you the following turn, so I learned to not be stingy with my special moves against them. The game acclimated me towards understanding little tactics like that.
I never got really deep into strategies such as with Danger Mario builds, and I didn’t need to. Paper Mario is still a simple and easy RPG. But I was actually strategizing in a sense. I was reacting to my foes’ actions, utilizing a wide array of abilities, relying on my party members, and building a character who can do a lot but not everything. It was much more engaging than just spamming Earthquake on my overgrown fire mouse (no hard feelings Typhlosion ilu). I learned to love the element of making choices in gameplay, both in battle and to prepare for future battles.
By the time I finished the fortress east of Petalburg, which taught me the vital importance of items in battle, I was getting the hang of the game’s basic mechanics. Then a bit later, I got my second party member, Koops. I liked Goombella and her tattling a lot already, but he brought his own interesting traits I would come to appreciate. They included a long-range first strike, the defensive capabilities of the Koopas I’ve fought up to this point, an AoE attack, and a quest to avenge his father and overcome his self-esteem issues.
“Wait, what? But… this is a video game!” Little Cedi exclaimed. “People don’t have problems like that in video games! You just gotta have fun, beat the bad guys and save the world!”
Mrs. TTYD took a deep, long sigh, and tapped her chalk against the TV screen. Midterms had begun.
Gradually, the chapters of this game dragged me into more deep and personal plotlines. Koops had a heartfelt reunion with his father. Mario uncovered a conspiracy in the Glitz Pit with the aid of a vendetta-carrying secretary. One of my own enemies became my sworn ally after I consoled her from her sister’s abuse. A depressed sailor spent a moment in the adjacent room after I delivered him the late dying message of his wife. Despite the slapstick and on-point jokes keeping me laughing, this game was bold enough to dive into subject matter that was dark, serious, and most of all, emotional.
I can feel the tears trying to come back right now.
I was beginning to see my partners and the cast members around me not just as party members and NPCs, but as characters and people. They had personalities. They had goals. They had fears. They had roles to play. Even Mario kinda had his own role to play, depending on how I played up his multiple choice dialogues. I felt their relationships, their camaraderie, their grudges, their excitement, their depression, their relief. The writing had pulled me into their story. I learned to love video games not just for gameplay, but for storytelling.
Sure, stories of similar, if not greater calibers exist somewhere in every genre these days. But a great story with great writing and great characters is considered the core of a great RPG, not an optional extra. TTYD is the game which showed me that, through a series that I never expected any such thing out of.
Mrs. TTYD felt like a cruel teacher at times. Her lessons challenged me. Her demonstrations crushed my understanding of things. Her lectures broke my enthusiasm. But she didn’t do it just to make me suffer. She did it to help me understand something I should appreciate knowing in my future.
It might be a thousand years old, but this was the door that led me to another realm of gaming. I’m not sure where my appreciation for games would be today if it wasn’t for that. I’d eventually come to play Kingdom Hearts II for completely unrelated reasons, and I love that game in different but related ways. I never even knew that Kingdom Hearts was an RPG series until I picked it up. Who knows, maybe destiny would have led me down this path sooner or later?
But I ain’t complaining. I played Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. What better gateway into RPGs could I have asked for? Regardless of the future of the Paper Mario subseries, I’m simply glad that I had the opportunity to explore such a wonderful RPG.
As long as Paper Mario’s future stays away from the battle system used in Sticker Star and Color Splash. I might be less glad if they make a third game like that.