Who You Callin' Cute?
In the book On Games and Gamers, a Swiss psychiatrist outlined the four stages of gaming: Discovery, Denial, Distance, and Acceptance. 1) Discovery occurs as a child, when you’re indiscriminate about games and will grab anything that fulfills the simple criteria of fun. 2) Denial occurs in the teen years; overly conscious of image, gamers at this stage will dismiss anything that doesn’t qualify as cool, especially games they deem too childish or cute. 3) Gamers in their twenties, especially the college crowd, may play simple or cutesy games, but will do so at a self-conscious distance; they’ll play with detached irony, a pseudo-intellectual excuse at the ready (“this post-modern game is a deconstruction of the genre”). 4) Eventually, gamers will arrive at the final stage: Acceptance. No longer concerned about how their tastes appear to others—and too tired from their day jobs to give a damn—these over-30 gamers just want to relax and will grab anything that fulfills the simple criteria of fun.
What all this means is that Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (aka Paper Mario 2) will be automatically rejected by some gamers based solely on its art design. While the gameplay is classic Nintendo, the characters consist of solid lines, vivid colours, and skewered proportions. In other words, the game is cute—or, as Acceptance-level adults still possessing a modicum of self-consciousness would say: It’s charming.
This attitude isn’t held just by self-proclaimed hipsters. The entire gaming industry seems to associate graphics with maturity, to assume certain styles are inherently childish. It’s a shame, really, since the comic book industry dispensed with this erroneous thinking long ago. While superhero comics, with all their realistic musculature, can be incredibly predictable and simplistic, comics like Bone, Halo and Sprocket, and the classic Maus have demonstrated that simplicity in content is not determined by a cartoonish style. The Thousand-Year Door, with its sunglasses-wearing turtles and smiling clouds, has a depth missing from many games that feature state-of-the-art graphics and realistic physics.
With their flagship titles, Nintendo has honed gameplay to such perfection that repetition in story or goals are of little concern. The same hero (Mario, Link) continues to rescue the same princess (Peach, Zelda) from the same villain (Bowser, Ganondorf). Nevertheless, each instalment in these series contains at least one major development: Super Mario 64 and The Ocarina of Time went 3D, while Super Mario Sunshine and The Wind Waker altered their gameplay with water-based elements (a water cannon and a sailboat, respectively).
The Thousand-Year Door follows the same formula. There’s the rich gameplay, represented by a variety of activities (fight creatures, explore new areas, collect stars and badges) and continual rewards (level-up, gain extra powers and additional party members); there’s the polished production (smooth graphics, intuitive interface); there’s the bonuses (mini-games, side quests) and there’s the one major development (the characters are all paper thin). This last one may seem like a mere gimmick, but in both the original Paper Mario (for the N64) and its sequel, it’s more than an aesthetic addition.
In RPGs, the emphasis is on role playing; the more control you have over your character—especially during the creation process—the better. But when your main character is Mario, it’s difficult to project onto such a famous personality. Intelligent Systems sidesteps this problem; instead of playing as Mario, you’re playing with him. The thin characters resemble cut-out paper dolls, which emphasizes control over empathy. This is played up even more with a new addition to the franchise: All the battles are played out on a stage. As Mario increases in levels, both the stage and the audience grow larger. The player isn’t Mario; she’s the stage director, or the choreographer of the action.
One improvement The Thousand-Year Door has over the original is more strategic options. When on the combat stage, you have to contend with falling scenery and rowdy audience members whipping junk at you. But at the same time, you can pull off special moves that provoke cheers from the audience, which in turn increases your Star Power. Another added twist allows Mario to turn into paper airplanes and boats, as well as turn sideways to slip between buildings and drop into grates.
Some other improvements: SF elements have been added to Mario’s fantasy world. There’s a trip to a moon base, complete with low gravity, holographic screens, and a HAL 9000-type computer (though this one’s a lover, not a psychotic killer). There’s also more variety in the areas Mario explores. Besides the usual dungeon romps, there’s a segment that has Mario and his gang in a wrestling ring fighting their way through twenty battles to win the championship. In another segment set aboard a train, Mario engages in very little combat; instead, he becomes a detective in a Murder on the Orient Express-style adventure (sans the murder).
There are, however, a few drawbacks to the content. Firstly, there are the pronounced gender roles. It’s disheartening when even the females who join Mario’s group as fighters still have their femininity played up. The males—Koops, Yoshi, and Bob-omb—get to be rough and tumble warriors, while the females—Goombella, Vivian, Flurrie, and Ms. Mowz—are stuck with special attacks like Rally Wink, Infatuate, and Lip Lock.
The female characters also either have a secret crush on Mario or flirt with him. They’re never allowed to be just warriors; we’re constantly reminded of their gender, which isn’t true of their male counterparts. The way females react to Mario in the game also points to something best not developed any further: A character as popular around the world as Mario can be many things to many people, but let’s not try and turn him into a sex symbol.
How the females react to Mario brings to the fore a disturbing aspect of Mario and Peach’s relationship. In a mini-game with a Puni (a welcome addition to the Mario menagerie), you receive a Mystic Egg for revealing what the player has always known: Mario likes Peach the best. And yet, while the other females are drooling over Mario, Peach never shows any real appreciation or affection for his constant loyalty. In fact, Peach’s comments are often of the “I knew you would come” variety, as if she expects Mario to continually risk his life for her. It’s simply accepted that a blue collar worker will throw himself on the line for a member of that repugnant group, the Monarchy. To make matters worse, the story is set in motion as a result of Peach’s casual, thoughtless actions. Because of the idle activities of the useless Monarchy, others place themselves in danger in order to clean up the mess.
Despite Mario’s relegation to monarchy lackey, Mario’s traditional archenemy Bowser has it even worse. Back in the 1930s, Universal Studios had a string of hits with movies about Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy. But due to overexposure, by the 1940s these monsters had become jokes, living (?) with the indignity of starring in Abbott and Costello movies (before being revitalized by Hammer Films in the 1950s). Bowser is at the Abbott and Costello stage of his career. Not only isn’t he the main villain, he’s been reduced to an undignified and pointless supporting role, as he does nothing but continually arrive late on the scene. It’s a long way from the titanic battles between Bowser and Mario in Super Mario 64. Although he spends more time in cut scenes than in the actual game, Bowser is also featured in a side-scroller mini-game reminiscent of Super Mario Bros 3. It’s a telling detail on the part of the developers that they’ve rendered Bowser as old-fashioned.
Many console games contain a leftover from the arcades: The inability to save whenever you want. This isn’t a problem in The Thousand-Year Door, since there are more than enough save points, and it’s even possible to get through the entire game without dying once. But this “pad out the game” mentality exists in other ways. There’s so much running back and forth that you’re often covering the same ground. Shortcuts eventually appear, but by then they’re no longer of much use. This problem is exacerbated when trying to accomplish side quests. They’re all conveniently listed in the Trouble Centre, but you can only do one at a time. Instead of loading up on quests and completing them as you move from one area to another, you must commit to one, do all your running around for that, and then return for the next quest.
And while you’re doing all that travelling, you run into enemies you’ve defeated earlier. With many console RPGs you can’t anticipate when combat is going to be initiated. Fortunately, Paper Mario doesn’t have that irritating problem. It is, however, still difficult to avoid some enemies when you’re retracing your steps. As you level-up, the lesser creatures become so easy to beat and offer up so little in the way of experience points and goodies, that they’re not worth fighting… except because they’re blocking your path, you not only have to fight, you have to sit through the entire combat sequence. The developers should have eliminated weaker enemies all together once you reached a certain level. For example, upon achieving level 15, any enemy offering only one experience point should just disappear right off the map.
In Final Fantasy VII you can get the devastating Knights of the Round summon, but only after a convoluted series of actions. More effort meant a bigger award. Surprisingly, for a company that’s so good at game balance, Nintendo doesn’t follow this reasoning in Paper Mario. Some early side quests end with a reward of thirty coins, yet quests that can only be undertaken later in the game reward you with a measly three coins. And when you finally figure out how to climb up onto the roofs of Rogueport, you meet somebody willing to sell you legends of the past. But your efforts have been in vain, for the stories turn out to contribute nothing to your quest.
Another ongoing problem with Nintendo is their insistence on not using voice acting. Although this means faster load times, it feels as outdated as watching silent movies. All the dialogue is in text form; for the longer cut scenes, it takes quite awhile to click through it all, long enough that you no longer care about story development and just want the characters to shut the hell up.
These complaints are not an indication that The Thousand-Year Door doesn’t come highly recommended. It’s just that when a game gets so many things right, its flaws become more pronounced. Nevertheless, it’s an improvement over its predecessor. And it’s an enjoyable gaming experience because of its art design, not in spite of it. So if you really can’t get past the graphics, don’t think of them as cute, think of them as charming.