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Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door review: a worthy new version of a must-play classic

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is a richly-deserved, lovingly-crafted redo of a classic.

Remaking a classic is always tricky. Video game development is like alchemy; that anyone happens upon the exact right combination of elements to make a true classic title is practically a miracle. Even saying that is a slight disservice, though - as the process is undoubtedly less scientific than that. All this is to say: it’s very easy to upset the cart ever so slightly with a remake or even remaster, and bam - just like that, it’s a classic no more.

But when the process works, it’s a joy. Twenty years on from its GameCube release, Paper Mario: THe Thousand Year Door is back - and it’s as brilliant as it ever was. That makes it one of Mario’s best spin-off outings, by the way.

The Thousand Year Door stands apart from the Paper Mario titles since with a simple, vital fact: it is a role-playing game. A proper one. That to me is the template that the Paper Mario series should follow, especially given its status as a de-facto follow-up to Super Mario RPG, which also enjoyed a Nintendo Switch remake.

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Back when I covered that title, I described Mario RPG as something like baby’s first RPG - an ideal introduction to the ins-and-outs of the genre for those less familiar. You can see how that game would be a gateway drug that leads to Final Fantasy and the like - but The Thousand Year Door stands rather separately. It has its own vibe; a little surreal, a little snarky, relentlessly funny, and often darker and more profound than its paper cut-out characters might first suggest.

Across somewhere a little over thirty hours or so, Mario is shoved from pillar to post as he’s injected into various scenarios with a unique flavor. Equally unique companions join Mario on the adventure. 20 years ago, The Thousand Year Door felt like one of the key games that to me seemed to open up the breadth of the Mario universe significantly wider - and though the series is now more broadly embracing of this than ever, it’s still one of the best examples of letting lesser characters and newcomers shine, diverting attention away from many of the series’ core characters. In many ways, Mario RPG’s Geno walked so the likes of Goombella and Vivian could run.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
Image credit: Nintendo

A lot of this should be relatively familiar to newer Paper Mario fans, as these are elements of the series that remained intact over the years. Nevertheless, it’ll doubtless be fun for newer fans to see where many of those concepts began. But that isn’t what makes this game a classic, really: it’s the fact that the charming and humorous narrative is combined with actually engaging, decent RPG gameplay with a surprising amount of tactical scope.

This isn’t an RPG that reinvents the wheel or over-complicates things. At its core it is a deeply traditional turn-based battler with nary a gimmick in sight. Nintendo loves a new gimmick for a new game - you only need to look at the past two decades of Paper Mario follow ups to see that - and it’s refreshing to return to a game that just revels in its core genre mechanics and exploits them to the maximum without the rattling of keys that the insertion of some new, half-baked new-for-sequel mechanic represents.

Basically, the game is still excellent. As a visual do-over, this is the good sort: by which I mean that it broadly looks the way that those elderly enough to play the original will remember it looking, but if you put them side-by-side you’ll pretty quickly realize that it’s significantly changed and improved. The vibe is accurate, however, and the game enjoys a look that can happily truck with its more modern peers.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
Image credit: Nintendo

Nintendo has a bit of a habit of rebalancing games and making them overly easy, though compared to Mario RPG The Thousand Year Door manages quite well. I think the difficulty is on par with what I remember from the original, which does include some overpowered abilities and badges. But some lessening is actually welcomed, as some of the more tedious bumps in the road have been gingerly smoothed out. Lots of annoying backtracking has been eased with shortcuts and minor adjustments or additions; it brings to mind the changes made to the tedious Triforce Hunt in the WiiU version of The Wind Waker.

Like I said earlier, remaking a classic is tricky. It’s risky. But The Thousand Year Door’s Switch outing is full of smart changes and details that generally enhance what was great in 2004 rather than risk upsetting it. My favorite detail, in particular, is a musical change. The remastered soundtrack is faithful, but smart. Where the first game used the same base battle theme for the whole game, here there’s a different version for each unique area, injecting a glorious bit of variation. If that doesn’t take your fancy, though, you can flick back to the original score in the menus - again, smart.

That’s the word, right? A smart choice of game to remake - it deserves it. Smartly designed, smartly pitched - arguably smartly-placed, dropped here, towards the end of the Switch’s lifespan, a victory lap for a classic from generations past. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is a richly-deserved, lovingly-crafted redo of a classic. It takes one of Mario’s finest spin-offs and does just enough to refresh it while retaining everything that made it beloved in the first place. I only hope this leads to more Paper Mario games in this vein.

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