Some of the games in this series ain’t worth the Paper they’re programmed on

paper mario 1000 year door

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (2004)

I’ve hustled a few quid here and there from writing, but never so much that I might be able to embark on a career vomiting out pages and subjecting gazillions of readers to my creative mind. You have to want to do it, for the love of the craft rather than for the money and all that. They say you need to write over one million words before you get anywhere near good at being a scribe, right? Well, I’ve written in excess of that – mostly about myself or worldly woes in my journal. But I’ve also put myself at the cutting edge of games journalism on this site by revewing games that came out over 30 years ago. Whaddaya mean, no-one cares anymore?

It’s not all just irreverent stuff that I produce, though. I’ve tried my hand at writing novels – probably 99 percent of people have, if you ask them. And writing books ain’t just a matter of sitting down in a café with a laptop for a few weeks and hey presto, you’ve published Harry Potter – it consumed my life for a time. Writing was all I did in college, instead of what I should have been doing: socialising. Or learning, I can never remember which.

We all have stories to tell, but if we could get paid a rude amount in advances, royalties and movie rights for the privilege, then sign me right up. Better than that, not too many authors are very recognisable, so you can have fortune without the fame. You wouldn’t be able to pick Lee Child out of a lineup, would you? It’s not even his real name. But you’re probably a lot more familiar with his most famous creation, Jack Reacher.

Childy, as I call him, might not have been altogether pleased that the physically imposing Reacher is now forever associated with Tom Cruise, but hey – the money’s right. And because you’re only a Twilight fanfiction away from having more money than God, it’s a pretty tempting prospect to shut yourself away from society for a while until you’ve churned out around 70,000 words – 70,000 words that a sympathetic publisher might, in their very weakest moment, give a shot.

So that’s what I did in those college days when I had no money and bundles of free time, when I could be awake at 5AM and asleep by 5PM, when I’d even barricade myself in nightclub toilets to hammer down a few hundred words that’d come to me in one of those wonderful thunderbolts of inspiration that strike every so often. I’d write at home, on public transport, the college library, restaurants, pubs, even the beach. The end result was about 120,000 words across two very rough manuscripts that, obviously, will never see the light of day.

Why not? Well, take your pick from them being hackneyed, boring, predictable, unfinished and bursting with stilted dialogue, hollow characters who you’d never care about and each of them ultimately being on the same level as the rubbish, angsty lyrics and poetry you’d write down the back of double biology class. Maybe one day I’ll release them and they’ll be the breath of fresh air that fiction needs, a “where have you been all my life” moment and everyone will love them. I doubt it, but maybe.

But here’s the thing: I’ve been my usual self-indulgent self and droned on about my own works that’ll never get a release and consequently may as well not exist. But I’m sure everything I’ve just mentioned will resonate with an overwhelming majority of writers out there, whether they’re accomplished or not. Those flashes of inspiration; the collecting of interesting names you encounter; changing up writing locales to help the (yack) ‘creative juices’ flow; keeping your work hidden away in case you’re laughed at; crude maps and character relationship charts; sitting there with nothing to write; writing about not being able to write; acting your dialogue aloud in barely more than a whisper; that slightly unsettling realisation that you do your best writing while drunk and the new self-discipline this will require; and if you’re a leftie like me, wiping all the smudged ink off your hand.

Having an idea in your head is one thing, and it’s a great start. But you need to bring that idea through with non-wretched dialogue, and characters who aren’t paper-thin. Based on those criteria, it doesn’t look like a particularly inspiring start for Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, released on GameCube – and still only on GameCube. But you needn’t worry, because while the aesthetic may be wafer-thin, the personalities and players in this Mario RPG adventure are anything but. And while the general plot may be your usual ‘collect 7 trinkets and save the princess’ malarkey, I would call Paper Mario TTYD one of the best written games ever, solely because of its dialogue – and as a lot of writers out there will attest, writing good dialogue is the hardest thing to do.

Here, every single NPC you meet has a distinctive personality, with not just one textbox to make you smile but multiple ones. You’ve got existential crows, ghostly identity thieves, spoofing seafarers, Vince McMahon with a Southern twang, a Sherlock Holmes penguin, and even a whole other fully detailed side-story delivered by Luigi, that we’d all love to see adapted into a Paper Luigi game. How do you follow up characters like these?

I will say that this game has become just a little bit above criticism, like all classic literature I suppose. You and I both know that Jane Eyre is an awful load of old mithering tripe, but you can’t expose yourself by saying it, can you? But you gotta watch what you say around Paper Mario fans. In terms of gameplay, TTYD is chapter based, but in Chapters 4, 5 and 7 in particular you find yourself doing some pretty annoying backtracking several times. The best of the Chapters is the pro-wrestling flavoured Chapter 3, which has all kinds of mystery, conspiracy and parody to it, along with some killer music.

You’d better like the game’s battle system to enjoy this Chapter fully though – but I think you will, because although battling is still simple and straightforward, with small numbers like its N64 big brother, there’s plenty of strategy available especially when you take the large number of badges (equippable items that give you new moves or abilities for a cost) into account. Do you guard from enemy attacks with a well-timed crouch, or do you attempt to counterpunch them with an even better timed Superguard – not only negating all damage but clattering your opponent for having the sheer audacity?

There’s also Mario’s partners of course, 6 plus 1 optional, who take an active role in battling alongside you. You’d think it’d be a case of ‘original team wins’ and that the GameCube complement of Goombas, Koopas and Voluptuous Clouds wouldn’t top the eight partners from Paper Mario 64, but I’d say they’re about even.

That’s 15 memorable partners across two games, which is a lot more than can be said for Super Paper Mario or the ghastly Paper Mario games on 3DS and Wii U, that much is certain. You’ve even got a sassy Goomba partner who gives rich descriptions on each and every character, enemy and even every room in the game. A lot of the personality we see bursting through in the English text is down to the localisers of course, so a big bualadh bos for them too.

It all adds up to make The Thousand Year Door a game that’s still got die-hard fans pining for a proper sequel, 16 years on. But sadly, I think I know why we haven’t seen one, because I’ll tell you this: this game is a lot better than anything I could have written. And I’m pretty damn ingenious, so what hope does Japan’s answer to Tom Clancy-chan have?

17 April 2020

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