November 15, 2012 by Daniel
I’m ashamed of myself. Here I am with this blog, with this domain name I paid for, with these stacks of entertainment, and yet I haven’t really written anything substantial in almost a month. And here I am tsk tsking at myself daily, with my half-written articles boring into my soul, using those stacks as a crutch, saying to myself that “hey, spending the day playing this video game instead of writing or doing anything else substantial is the cost of being able to write about it later”. This line of thinking has led to the creation of a new stack, the very thing that I started this blog in order to get through – a growing Word document of “THINGS TO WRITE ABOUT”. Preposterous, I say! So in the interest of keeping myself in line, of attempting to win my constantly-raging battle against the forces of procrastination, I’ve got a new rule for myself – once I complete something, I can’t move on without first writing something about it.
Y’know, I wrote a couple hundred words on Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, which I just beat a couple days ago, a few hours ago. But a fair amount of what I wrote was totally meaningless – explanation of gameplay systems, plot description, things like that, that are symptomatic of simple reviews. I’m tired of writing those though; I would really rather write things that I would deem “criticism”, and so, out with the shit we go, and in with some hopefully better insights – if you haven’t played the game and want to know about the gameplay/plot basics, go to Wikipedia.
Anyways, I love the game. I have conflicting opinions about JRPGs – perhaps a topic to postulate on later – but as far as they go, this one is quite solid. The script is hilarious, the various worlds you frequent are interesting, the cast of characters is strong, and the game is suitably adventurous. And as far as gameplay goes, the battle system is simple while still containing a fair amount of depth and the dungeon design is absolutely excellent.
All of the gameplay stuff that’s unique is linked to how the game deals with the concept of a “party”. In most JRPGs, you’ve got a ragtag group of misfits, each with their own abilities, and before each dungeon you pick a group of three or four to come, leaving the other ones to rot until the next big area comes up and you have the ability to switch it up again. But the partner system of Paper Mario is a lot more interesting, having you swap out the characters on the fly both in and out of battle. The out-of-battle aspect is the important one. In most JRPGs, your diverse range of party members are chiefly there for two reasons: battle strategy, and character drama. Paper Mario effectively takes out that second part – because your two-person party is always made up of Mario and just one other character, your party members never interact with each other, so there’s simply no element of personal drama or relationship dynamic between them. To replace this, the purposes your party members serve are purely gameplay-focused, but they amp up the ability to which you’re able to use those characters since they each have specific abilities to be used outside of battle. In the process, you don’t grow attached to your characters through their individual character arcs – since those don’t really exist – but through their actions, and how the player is able to use them in a practical way. And since video games, at least as they are now, are all ABOUT actions, it’s actually a really effective and interesting storytelling element.
For example, take the character of Koops, the shy Koopa who joins you in order to impress his father and his girlfriend, Koopie Koo, by becoming stronger. After this initial motivation, you don’t get any more character development – there’s no moment where you’re in trouble and Koops saves the day, or a part where he loses hope in the journey but bounces back with renewed energy. If you travel back to his hometown of Petalburg with him in tow, even though you can go talk to his dad and Koopie Koo, the dialogue does not change – there’s never any acknowledgement that Koops is getting stronger, or even so much as a “how’s your quest going, son?” But as I equipped badges to power up my partners and his damage output got bigger, and as I found enough Shine Sprites to get him to his highest level and unlock his more useful skills, I could tell that he was growing stronger. Even if the writing of the game didn’t say anything of the sort, didn’t give me a canned progress report in the form of a cutscene where Koops goes “man, I feel so much stronger”, I could very clearly see it. And all of that storytelling information was communicated to me through the gameplay – which, from a video game, is really what you want.
Admittedly, The Thousand-Year Door is not my favourite of the Mario RPGs – I prefer the handheld Mario & Luigi series, for a couple reasons. I think the battle system is a little bit more fun in those games, with greater emphasis put on varied defensive abilities. I also think they’re just a little bit funnier, the peak of which is the insanity of Bowser’s Inside Story. That game also had a really interesting take on the Mario world that re-contextualizes the Mushroom Kingdom into a Tale of Two Cities-esque class war and Bowser as someone who isn’t really a villain – he’s just a stupid guy who happened to inherit a crappy, run-down kingdom, and one that has to live under the shadow of the hoity-toity high-class pretentiousness of the Mushroom Kingdom. In contrast, the plotline of The Thousand-Year Door, with its ancient evils and “collect seven stars” theme is more than a tad dull.
The way Thousand-Year Door makes up the difference is by focusing on throwing as many wacky one-note characters at you as it possibly can – and it actually works pretty well. What the game does is use short-term goals and missions to add a sense of depth and emotional attachment to a plot that is, by all the counts, about as standard as you could possibly get from a Mario game. So by the time you reach the final boss, you really do feel a connection with the various personalities of Rogueport – even though none of those individual personalities are particularly well-developed.
So yeah, on top of being a really good game in its own right, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door also manages to be an effective look at alternative methods of video game storytelling. Pretty sweet game.