Challengers to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Expanded)

This is an expanded section that was a part of my original post on Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD).  For more details about my thoughts on TTYD, please read this original post.  The bottom line is that, for me, TTYD is the greatest Mario story ever told, which builds off of its IP’s rich history, combines it with iconic archetypes of light vs. dark, and reinforces all of it through its mechanics and characters.  It is the greatest interconnected, complex, thematic Mario narrative.

Basically, TTYD takes Mario characters + Mario structure + RPG Mario mechanics and builds on it.

But what about other Mario games?  I just recently played the most recent Mario title, Super Mario Odyssey, for the first time, and its narrative is not nearly as strong as TTYD’s, but other Mario games and other Mario RPGs over the years have come close. Let’s go through a few of them:

 

Super Paper Mario (Nintendo Wii, 2007):

Narratively Sublime, Mechanically Flawed

This is the most obvious counter-example. Because, on a pure story and plot basis, the main narrative is arguably more powerful than TTYD’s.

The story is about a LITERAL VOID (called the Void) that is opened up by the game’s main villain, Count Bleck, that threatens to destroy all universes and you have to collect all of the Pure Hearts in order to counter the Chaos Heart, which is powering the Void, and thus save all worlds.  At one point we actually see a world destroyed by the Void and reduced to nothingness, which might be the darkest  moment of the entire Mario canon.

The story employs Peach NOT as a damsel but as a playable character, as well as Bowser too! Luigi goes from captured hostage to brainwashed villain to party member to brainwashed villain again.

At one point, your party LITERALLY DIES and is sent to the Mario universe’s
version of Hell, and are forced to traverse towards Heaven, only to realize that one of the NPCs who was helping you, Luvbi, is actually a Pure Heart and must die in order for the Pure Hearts (and, by extension, you) to live (Like TTYD, however, if you look for her in the post-game, she has been miraculously revived).

In the final chapter, it is teased that members of your party (starting with Bowser, Peach, then Luigi) sacrifice themselves for Mario to continue (though they eventually survive and return in the tick of time to fight Count Bleck).

Finally, just as you defeat Count Bleck, the de facto main villain, the TRUE Villain, Dimentio, reveals himself having manipulated everyone to take control of the Void and remake the world in his image.

Dimentio himself is a fascinating character.  Every time he is on screen, he oozes charisma and the feeling that he is having fun with everything he is doing.  But behind his words, you can feel his manipulation and the joy he feels in tricking everyone around him.  Like Grodus, you begin to genuinely fear him, but are also mesmerized by his presence.

Most importantly with this game, however, Count Bleck’s backstory is teased out emergently in text interludes between chapters, and you eventually learn that he was a member of an ancient race, the Tribe of Darkness, who fell in love with a girl, Timpani, and when his father refused their union and erased her from their world, Count Bleck turned to hate, destroyed his race, and eventually used the hate to precipitate the universe’s destruction.

Then, it is revealed that the Pixl Tippi, who has been with you from the beginning and acts as your source of information (like Goombella did in TTYD), is actually Timpani – after she was erased/banished by Count Bleck’s father, she was found close to death by Merlon, your guide in the game, and was turned into a Pixl in order to save her life.

Finally reunited at the end, Count Bleck (whose real name is Blumiere) and his true love unite, destroy the Void, and save the universe. They presumably die, but the ending shot of the game is of the two of them off somewhere in the distance, suggesting that maybe they got their happy-ever-after after all.

It is a beautiful story.  It employs the tried-and-true Mario structure of chapters and collecting valuable objects, and employs light vs. dark again to great effect.

And the mechanics betray it.

The game tried to be a platformer and an RPG at the same time, and it just… honestly doesn’t work. Some of the niche moments of switching from 2D to 3D to unlock puzzles is mildly entertaining, but only Mario has the ability to switch from 2D to 3D, which then dilutes the joys of playing as  Peach, Bowser, and Luigi (i.e. it makes them feel less equal).

But especially, it becomes increasingly frustrating when a boss fight gets built up for hours and then, with a couple of nifty bounces (or using Bowser, who does 2x damage, as your main attacker), said boss is defeated in less than a minute.

This is most grating during the final boss fight. Dimentio, at this point, has been built up as a master villain, and has just spent a 2-3 minute cutscene revealing his plan gloriously and setting you up for a grand climax (with one of the greatest Mario villain songs put to reality).  And you can literally defeat him using Bowser in less than two minutes without breaking a sweat. So… basically… the cutscene that reveals the villain is longer than the final fight against the villain.  What?

The Paper Mario series often gets flack for a somewhat minimal difficulty curve, but at least some of the later chapters in the earlier games take strategy and time.

In TTYD, Shadow Queen is legitimately time-consuming and difficult.  She has 150 HP, attacks multiple times, and can restore her health easily.  You feel like you are Mario, tired, wanting to stop, but you can’t… because Peach and the fate of the world depends on it. Now, sure, there are badges in TTYD that, if used as cheats, can give you massive attack power, allowing you to power through the final fights. But these are for players TRYING to break the game.

In Super, just being an average player means defeating the final boss in less than two minutes.

One can argue that, in TTYD, the fighting is the climax of the story, whereas in Super Paper Mario (SPM), the climax is deeper in the connecting tissue around the fighting, but in-game it still feels cheap.

Also, the Pixls are a huge step down from partners with basically no personality at all (except for Tippi). And the rest of the overworld, outside of the most significant, named NPCs like Luvbi, feels less rich, with blocky characters replacing lovable Mushroom Kingdom denizens for the most part.

So, yeah – Super has a great main plot, great villain in Count Bleck, great twists, and great arcs for characters such as Luigi or Dimentio. But the rest of the game fails to support these elements.

NOTE: I have since replayed Super Paper Mario and, upon further review, felt that it was worthy of a deeper analysis, so I have constructed two new posts reviewing the game.  The first post applies A Nature of Order, as seen in the original TTYD post, to SPM, exploring its thematic depth and complications.  The second post explores SPM as the culminating entry of the Paper Mario trilogyand serves as a retrospective on the series as a whole.

 

Mario + Luigi Series (GBA/DS/3DS, 2003-15):

Nuanced Plots and Nuanced Villains Existing Outside the Mario Structure

This is actually a series that I like very much.  I am combining them here into one category to save some space, and also because these games, especially the first three, are similarly structured, with Mario and Luigi partnering together to explore an open world.  At a later time, I will be writing a post exploring the deeper differences between the Mario + Luigi series and the Paper Mario series.

In short, Mario has more of a personality (that of a somewhat annoyed, frustrated individual that keeps having to be the one to save everything and everyone, including his brother) in this series, and Luigi’s rich personality is always a wonderful addition to the narrative.  There has always been a case of Status usually used between Mario and Luigi, which gives Luigi low status and a colorful personality.  But in this game, we actually see what is it like, somewhat, to be the “high status” person.

Mechanically, the games are very sound.  Mario and Luigi have a lot of special moves that they can utilize, and each special move has a very precise action command.  Each iteration of the series then adds additional elements for you to play as.  Partners in Time adds Baby Mario and Baby Luigi, and Bowser’s Inside Story allows you to play as Bowser.  All very unique elements, but elements that feel connected to the game.

The main plots of these games, particularly the original, Superstar Saga, are  quite strong.  In the original, there are strong central mysteries regarding the witch, Cackletta, who is stealing people’s voices, and then you have a whole kingdom (the Beanbean Kingdom) to save from her.  The sequel, Partners in Time, tells the story of an alien race called the Shroobs that invade the Mushroom Kingdom in the past, so you have to go back in time and team up with younger versions of yourself (Baby Mario and Baby Luigi) to stop them.

Devastation seen in Superstar Saga

In both of these games, you see the effects of the villains on the world.  In Superstar Saga, you see the devastation that Cackletta’s plans have brought to Beanbean Castle Town, for example.  In Partners in Time, you see the Shroobs slowly populating the Mushroom Kingdom more and more in the past, and the fear in the voices of Toads that you speak to.  In both of these cases, this helps make the world more of a character in the story.  This is similar to the original Paper Mario (PM64) and TTYD, which show the effects of Bowser’s minions and the X-Nauts on the world, respectively.

The Fear of the Shroobs

The last of the three original games, Bowser’s Inside Story, features less intense worldbuilding and shows less of the effects of its villain, Fawful, on the world at large.  However, Fawful makes up for it due to his charisma and manipulative tactics directed at the heroes themselves.  Fawful very much is the Dimentio of the Mario + Luigi universe, someone who will answer every retort with a smile and a witty comment, but is actually a very skilled manipulator who knows how to play the long game to get what he wants.  But even more so, Fawful takes the fight to you in a very personal manner.  Having been a side villain from Superstar Saga, he knows Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Bowser quite well.  And as such, his threats, while harmful to the world, are more personally directed and focused.

In general, the original three Mario + Luigi games succeed very well in the villain department.  The original’s Cackletta is aided a lot by the plot.  Midway through the story, Cackletta is defeated and you’re thinking “Wait, I just killed the main villain… now what?”  But she is then able to return having been used to possess Bowser’s body, which keeps you very much on your toes in wondering how she will use any means at her disposal to keep her plans, and thus the narrative momentum, going.

The Shroobs, as well as their leader Princess Shroob, are great villains particularly because of the devastation they cause.  They speak only one, alien phrase repeatedly throughout the game, which is revealed later on to mean “Destroy!”  The grim way that they take over the Mushroom Kingdom (in terms of brainwashing common enemies, possessing Toads to turn them into Shroobs, and later sucking out their essences to produce energy) creates a very visceral feel to how dangerous they are.  Even though it’s not personal, the effects create the stakes.

And then the aforementioned Fawful is the villain at the most personal.  In the original, he is Cackletta’s servant.  By Bowser’s Inside Story, he is the main antagonist.  His effects on the world do not feel as dangerous as Grodus or the Shroobs, but his screen presence carries him very far here.

Fawful in Superstar Saga (left) and Bowser’s Inside Story (right)

In general, the games in this series mix up the narrative arguably even more than the Paper Mario games do.  Although each game indeed involves the collection of star-shaped MacGuffins, this collection process is not chapter-based, and you often get sent around an open world on more nuanced missions.

However, while this makes these games very interesting from a plot perspective, it actually makes them feel less like “Mario” games.  Remember, the original structure going all the way back to the original platformers employs direct chapter boundaries.  Whereas the Paper Mario series expands creatively within this structure (and also employs Strong Center “hubs” like the 3D Mario games do), the Mario + Luigi series plays it much more loosely.

Additionally, the Mario + Luigi series has more ridiculous characters than the Paper Mario series does.  This is not to say that PM64 and TTYD doesn’t have ridiculous characters, but the characters and enemies in these games are typically echoed by the worlds surrounding them.  In the Mario + Luigi games, extremely wacky characters like Jojo, Trunkle, or Broque Monsieur show up more or less out of nowhere and feel like they are just passing through in order for you to fight them or talk.

Also, the characters themselves, outside of a handful like Bowser, do not feel as rich, especially compared to those of TTYD. The games often reuse canon Mario characters like E. Gadd or Petey Piranha that are nice callbacks to the main series, but actually make the story feel less original honestly.  These characters feel like they showed up in the game, instead of feeling like they are part of the game reinforced by everything else.

Funnily enough, this makes the Mario + Luigi games feel more like advanced, tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, where you traverse back and forth through an open world, and fight a series of dangerous creatures as you go.  Where there are set Mario characters to interact with in the world, plus otherworldly creative characters that may not 100% “fit” with the world, but that that’s ok given the genre.  This feel, which is passed down from Super Mario RPG (see below), makes the Mario + Luigi games the more difficult games mechanically, but make them feel more like “RPGs in a Mario world with Mario characters,” whereas the Paper Marios feel like “Mario games that are RPGs.”  It is a very slight difference, but a significant one.

This is why I see that the plots of the Mario + Luigi series are more nuanced than the Paper Marios, but the Paper Marios have stories that are more connected by theme, character, world, and the Mario structure.

Again, I enjoy these games very much, mainly because Mario & Luigi probably have the MOST personality in them compared to any of the other games. And the plots are intricate enough to satiate. But somehow the world around our protagonists and plots feel less developed, and, well, less “Mario.”

 

Super Mario RPG (SNES, 1996):

The Original that Had Everything, Literally

I played this game long after playing the original Paper Mario series, so whereas a lot of other people use this game as a lens through which to view its successors, I had its successors in mind while playing this game, their predecessor.

Regardless of its successes and flaws, I give this game a lot of credit.  It was Nintendo’s first Mario RPG, and its success directly led to the Paper Mario series as well as the Mario + Luigi series.  Without this game, the rest would not be possible, and the game is extremely ambitious to boot.

For the uninitiated, the story is set up as a basic Mario adventure, with Bowser kidnapping Peach in the opening cutscene.  Mario rushes to save her, but while he and Bowser are fighting, a giant, sentient sword named Exor falls from the sky and crashes into Bowser’s Keep, sending Mario, Bowser, and Peach flying away to different points of the kingdom.  The sword is revealed to be a member of the Smithy Gang, an evil group of pseudo-mechanized people (not dissimilar from the X-Nauts in TTYD) who begin to wreck havoc on Mario’s world.

It is later revealed that Exor broke the Star Road above the clouds into seven pieces, which have scattered around the lands.  Mario now must collect these seven pieces to restore the Star Road, or else the power of wishes will not exist anymore (not dissimilar from the main hook in PM64).  Soon after, Smithy’s minions learn of this, and begin looking for the pieces themselves for their own nefarious purposes.

In this game, you eventually team up with Bowser and Peach (like you do in SPM), as well as two original characters – Mallow and Geno.  Mallow is a cloud prince who has his own mini-arc of learning that he was raised by frogs, and now must find his true parents among the clouds.  Geno is a doll brought to life by a literal shooting star that is on the direct mission of collecting the star pieces to save the Star Road.

You can see the aspects that the rest of the Mario RPGs draw on – Mallow and Geno very much represent the “original characters” from the story world who get drawn into Mario’s party due to their own missions and arcs, and then help in saving the world, a precursor to the Paper Mario party members.  While Bowser and Peach become precursors to the Mario + Luigi series, in which well-known Mario characters join your party whom have unique abilities that you can utilize.

Also, SMRPG has the overarching plot of collecting seven star-shaped MacGuffins in order to restore a magical artifact and prevent chaos, which every Paper Mario game employs in some form afterward.

The world itself you see shades of in the future games, especially the Mario + Luigi series, as SMRPG has more of an open-world than the Paper Mario series does.  But, whereas the Mario + Luigi games move around a lot in their open worlds, SMRPG has a fairly linear progression.  The areas are not strictly bounded like the Paper Mario chapters, and there is no true hub world, but you do move through them one-by-one, which feels more akin to the traditional Mario structure.  In this sense, it is closest to Mario + Luigi: Partners in Time, which is the most linear of its series.

World-wise, it is not as strong as the Paper Marios, as many of the towns that you access over the course of the adventure very much blend together.  At one point, in the town of Marryme, for a split-second I thought I was in the Mushroom Kingdom.  As opposed to the towns in Paper Mario which are more aesthetically and tonally distinct.

From left to right: Mushroom Kingdom, Marryme, and Seaside Town

Also, once you access a town once, you then can hop along on the world map to get from town to town to save time.  I am… mixed on this device.  On one hand, it saves a lot of time from a mechanical perspective, and keeps the game’s momentum moving swimmingly even during lulls in the narrative.  But it also makes the game feel very much like a game and less like a lived-in place.  This device betters the pace of the gameplay, but weakens the worldbuilding.

If there is a Strong Center to SMRPG, it is Bowser’s Keep, which is the first area you explore, is the area where you first come in contact with a Smithy Gang member (Exor), and is the area that you are separated from (because Exor destroys the bridge to Bowser’s Keep) and need to return to.  It is later revealed that Exor is acting as a portal that the creatures from Smithy’s dimension are using to travel to Mario’s world, so thus Exor (and thus Bowser’s Keep) is acting as a nexus to the main villain too.

If anything, this speaks to the fact that, of all of its successors, TTYD is actually the most similar to it.  Like TTYD, SMRPG involves an alien-esque race invading a Mario-esque world.  Like TTYD, the villains’ plan changes over the course of the story.  Smithy’s minions at first are in the game at first just to cause chaos, but later, after they find out about the Star Pieces, begin battling you to collect them.  Additionally, the final chapter involves you crossing a threshold to a dark area held beyond the game’s Strong Center, where the final villain is waiting for you.

Of the two main villains, Grodus is slightly more fleshed out than Smithy, comparatively.  In TTYD, Grodus is characterized as cruel and manipulative, and has a lot of agency in trying to direct the plot in awakening the spectre that is the Shadow Queen.  In SMRPG, Smithy is the dark spectre that looms over the plot and isn’t seen (only mentioned) until the final battle.

Grodus (TTYD) vs. Smithy (SMRPG)

You almost can feel that, when Nintendo made TTYD, they deepened the skeleton of a complex plot they already had worked on in SMRPG.

Because, make no question, TTYD is the deeper game of the two, which is why SMRPG is one of those games that comes close to TTYD’s brilliance, but doesn’t fully capture it.  Because TTYD connects its characters, villains, and world to a more singular, deeper theme.

Yes, in SMRPG, Geno represents the ideal of the Star Road needing to be repaired, and he represents the power that the stars can have on the world if the world is at peace.  This feels like the game’s central message, especially because Geno is the character that “leaves” the group after the final battle, mission complete and at peace (also, he is centralized during this resolute moment).

But then, it can seem that there are other plots vying for control of the game’s central message:

      • Mallow, whom you meet before meeting Geno and finding about his mission, needs to find his birth parents, and is connected to the character who seems to be your guide, his adopted grandfather Frogfucius.
      • Peach is set up to be the central damsel we all know and love, but continually subverts this expectation.  By the time she joins you for real, it’s clear that she is more than just a damsel (an idea that each RPG following SMRPG will employ).  But again, Peach is not connected to the theme like she is PM64 or TTYD, more a plot-based red herring.
      • Bowser is the villain you fight first, it is his castle that gets overrun, and under that ideal, he could be the Strong Center.  He undergoes the most character growth at least, willing to put differences aside in order to help.
      • There is the Smithy Gang plotline itself, which, independent of Geno’s mission, is endangering the Mushroom Kingdom by having mechanized cause havoc in the villages they reach.  Also, keep in mind, Smithy’s minions are not the only strong bosses you fight in SMRPG, so sometimes there is a disconnect over who is more dangerous – Smithy’s Gang, or the ordinary villains that make up Mario’s world.  Is there evil everywhere?

As one can see, there are a lot of plots in SMRPG that need to be resolved.  But notice – these feel like plots moving together in parallel, less unified together.  Other than ridding the world of mechanized evil, Smithy’s forces maybe being worse than the standard enemies of the kingdom, and the threat of star-wish magic being erased, these plots are not 100% cohesive.  By the end, Geno’s mission feels the most centralized, but not at first.  Like the games in the Mario + Luigi series, this makes the game indeed feel somewhat cinematic with an element of exploration, but again – makes them feel less like “Mario” games.

One can see that the Paper Mario games are more unified thematically.

PM64 takes the core of the SMRPG plots – the threat of star-wish magic being erased – and expands it to the entire Mushroom Kingdom, making an entire game about this threat in an expanded Mario world, and connecting it to Peach in the process.  Most of the characters you meet reinforce this theme, whereas SMRPG has it as one of many.  Its smaller plots then become more self-contained as well, and thus become less distracting to the main plot.

TTYD does this as well, linking its themes of Roughness and light vs. darkness through its characters, and subverting the traditional villain in Grodus by separating Grodus from the game’s central mystery and true villain.  While maintaining the back-and-forth complexity present in SMRPG.

The bottom line is that almost all of the elements that Nintendo would deepen in later games are present in SMRPG, and the game feels as such – the game has so much in it, it is bursting at the seams.  The game has so much in it, it is almost too much.  The gameplay and battle system are fantastic (which Nintendo would expand on with the Mario + Luigi games), arguably the most challenging of the series right from the start (this isn’t a joke, the boss fights in the later chapters are some of most strategically difficult battles in the Mario RPG canon).  I am also a fan of the music, especially the battle themes, which progress from basic fights to minor boss fights to major boss fights to the final fight with increasing intensity.  The A plot is complex with a handful of nice subversions, but the characters are not as deep as later installments.

Also, some of the boss fights in SMRPG can be very ridiculous (like some in Mario + Luigi), with an enemy showing up with little explanation and then never reappearing again, like Punchinello or the Czar Dragon.  Whereas every boss in TTYD (except maybe Smorg) has a deeper explanation as to why they exist.  This speaks to the fact that there is a lot happening in SMRPG, and the game indeed leans into its zany, chaotic tone, but that sometimes the game can be all over the place.

Who knows?  Maybe if I grew up with SMRPG instead of Paper Mario, I would be hailing this game as the king of Mario narratives.  Its plot is certainly as complex as TTYD, and there are indeed enough character-driven and thematic elements to satisfy.  Even with its sometimes-scattershot elements, the game is fantastic.

And given when it came out, it deserves a lot of praise.  We’re talking about a game that precedes all other Mario RPGs, and it tried a lot of ambitious, nuanced, challenging gameplay and story elements that still hold up all these years later.  In a way, SMRPG had to run so PM64 could walk, so that then TTYD could jog in balance.

 

Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo Wii, 2007):

A Simple Game with a Simple, Cosmic Message, and One Perfect Character

These next games being discussed here are not RPGs, and their stories are simpler, but they deserve to be discussed.  Especially Galaxy.  Because, for me, this game actually comes to closest, narratively speaking, to the thematic depth of the original two Paper Marios. Firstly, it employs a mechanic that, at its time, was wholly original: planet-hopping and using gravity in nifty ways.

Bowser, like in the original Paper Mario, feels menacing. Like in Paper Mario, he lifts Peach’s Castle from the sky and disappears into space, leaving (you guessed it) a thematic void that you have to go and save.

And the theme – that of the cosmos themselves being in danger – is reinforced by Rosalina. If Count Bleck is the richest Mario villain put to the screen, Rosalina is maybe the richest supporting Mario character put to screen, and especially the richest female supporting character.

In slow, emergent side-readings, you learn how Rosalina became connected to the cosmos and the Lumas, for whom she now cares for. She comes to represent a “Mother of all the Cosmos” type of character – basically, she cares for space itself. And, from the very beginning, she has been kind to you in your own journey.

So, yes, you need to rescue Peach because you need to rescue Peach. And you need to save the world because, well, it’s a Mario game. But additionally, you’re also doing it for Rosalina. The story becomes as much about repaying her kindness with your own heroism.  And through her, the game becomes about fighting for the essence of all cosmic life in its calm, spiritual beauty.

Also, I’ll be honest: it is refreshing to see a female Mario character used in an elegant way – a woman who represents knowledge, love, wisdom, and knowledge without a HINT of romantic overtones. She represents love on a grander, much more powerful level that in some ways is hard to put to words. But you feel it when you play the game. Her backstory surrounds the game’s hub (its Strong Center) – the Comet Observatory. So, if Rosalina’s backstory bounds the game’s Strong Center, then, in truth – SHE is the true center of the game.

Also, like the Paper Marios, the music is practically perfect, arguably the best Mario score ever created, reaching a level of grandeur that’s hard to compare it to. You literally feel like you’re flying through the sky. And when you fight Bowser, you feel like you’re fighting for the state of the world.

The plot in Galaxy is not as complex as TTYD, SMRPG, or any of the Mario + Luigi games.  But like the original Paper Mario, it employs a simple story structure at the beginning that is reinforced by original mechanics and powerful music.  What elevates it above PM64 is that Galaxy has one supporting character that transcends everything else.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 doesn’t hold a candle to its predecessor, as it sacrifices Galaxy 1’s Strong Center of the Comet Observatory for simplistic level-by-level design.  Mechanically brilliant?  Yes.  Narratively driven?  No.  And it loses Rosalina.  Galaxy is the best traditional Mario game, and it is not even close.

 

Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch, 2017):

Mechanically Sublime, Narratively Flawed

The last game on this list I am including due to it being the most recent mainstream Mario game.  Again, the traditional Mario games don’t usually have narratives as deep as RPGs but, then again, Galaxy, while simpler by comparison, was able to touch on a similar level of depth.  So, why not Odyssey?

Funnily enough, upon playing it, the game reminded me of PM64 at first.  Like PM64, Odyssey has your favourite “Mario” worlds but with some twists thrown in.  A grass land, desert land, water land, forest land, and ice land are all present, but then there is a food land… and a metropolitan land too!  If we’re making comparisons to TTYD as well, the Metro Kingdom comes around at a similar time in the narrative as the Glitz Pit, in which you feel like you are in store for expected Mario worlds and then get subverted.

Also, like the Paper Marios, each chapter has a world or town that has been overrun with Bowser’s minions and you need to defeat these bad guys to restore order to the town.  The towns don’t necessarily build on each other, but tell interesting mini-stories in and of themselves.

Also, like PM64 and somewhat TTYD, the story involves the nuance of playing as traditional Mario “enemies.”  PM64 gives these “enemies” personalities, turns them into your friends, and has them join forces with you.  Odyssey involves you using a magical hat named Cappy to take control of these enemies to then be able to play as them mechanically.  Take note of that sentence.  In PM64, this is a psychological twist.  In Odyssey, it is mechanical.

Taking control of Goombas

The plot, in general, of Odyssey involves you running after Bowser across these kingdoms onboard your hat-shaped ship The Odyssey before he can marry Peach.  Like PM64, you start off by losing to Bowser with him escaping to the sky with Peach – but with a key difference.  In PM64, you play as Mario before and during the initial fight, whereas Odyssey opens with the initial fight.  Thus, PM64 feels like you taking the loss to Bowser.  You have enough time to nuzzle into Mario’s skin to feel like you get the gut-punch of a loss.  Whereas Odyssey feels like watching a cutscene.

Take note of that sentence as well, because this “being somewhat removed” then carries over to the main action, especially compared to Paper Mario.

Paper Mario is an epic with intense world building, in which, by the end of the prologue, Bowser has won.  He has the Star Rod.  He has Peach.  He has the castle.  The town is in the ruins.  Mario is close to death.  The horrible event has happened.  It’s over.  And the game is all about REPAIRING the world that has been gutted by Bowser’s actions.  Talking with the Toad Town denizens that FEEL the loss of Peach’s Castle, and the loss of the Star Spirits and the ability to wish, to an extent, then reinforces that loss.

The game is all about fixing the world that has been broken, symbolized through Peach and the Star Spirits. So therefore seeing all of these worlds, the NPCs, and exploring their stories and wishes is immensely connected to the theme.

Odyssey, by contrast, is a chase story – a story in which you are trying to PREVENT the horrible event from occurring.

I give the game tremendous props for making you LOSE in your attempts to beat Bowser to the various MacGuffins – wedding accoutrements like special dresses and flowers that he steals from the various worlds.  But while you feel that Paper Mario takes place over many weeks or months of time, Odyssey just feels like days, if not just one day. You’re on the bad guy’s tail. But he’s getting away.  The main plot is more important than the worlds.

I enjoyed the first act of Odyssey the most, which had the most momentum regarding this aspect – being on the bad guy’s tail and being a step behind, which climaxes in your first battle with Bowser in the Cloud Kingdom.  I loved the first battle where even though you “win,” Bowser fires on your ship and leaves you further behind.  So the entire first act, it feels like you’re getting closer to Bowser, and then you finally get there…. and you lose.

In this first act, the fact that the main plot seemed more narratively important than the worlds was ok for me, and then the fact that the game mixed up this narrative at the end of the first act was very satisfying.

Immediately after losing, you have to repair The Odyssey, which takes time, and then you feel even further behind from Bowser.  It then is especially brilliant that the first kingdom after this is the Metro Kingdom, which is the kingdom with the most nuanced mini-plot, in restoring the city from rainy dystopia to sunlit metropolis, among the game’s worlds.  It is the kingdom that is the most expansive, and is the kingdom that has the NPC that most connects to you – Mayor Pauline.

This is not just because you can recognize her from Donkey Kong, the very first Mario game in existence (which is brilliant in its own right), but because she personally expresses a need to help save her city.  The Metro Kingdom unifies its mini-plot around one central NPC who bonds with you, unlike other worlds in which the NPCs that speak with you are more or less nameless.

In this kingdom, you feel more than any others the effects of Bowser’s actions on it.  And it is the kingdom you are most motivated to save even though you still have to chase Bowser.

Unfortunately, the game peaks with the Metro Kingdom.

As stated previously, the worlds feel less significant to the main plot.  Odyssey is a chase story at heart, and because the fear of being too far behind Bowser is too great, it’s like “okay, that’s great, NPCs, saving you is one thing, but I have to collect Power Moons quickly and chase Bowser.” So the plights of the mini-worlds feel less connected to the main plot, and therefore makes the time you spend in them feel like “breaks before the action” as opposed to “the action itself.”

The Metro Kingdom is an exception because you feel connected to wanting to help Mayor Pauline in particular, and Odyssey would have worked well if the worlds that follow the Metro Kingdom had NPCs as strong as her, but they do not.  After the Metro Kingdom, the NPCs are just as nameless as those you meet before the Metro Kingdom.  However, in the first half pre-Metro Kingdom, you are hooked by the tension of the chase.  By the second half, this momentum feels stalled.

If the back half of the narrative had given you more named NPCs to feel pain with as a result of Bowser’s actions, then the first half would have been the chase movie that you lose, and then the second half, now that you’re well behind Bowser, would have been all about feeling the effects of his actions on the worlds, and spending time in those worlds.

Because the worlds are gorgeous.  The colors sparkle, each one is distinct.  Each one carries a unique musical score to truly stand apart.  And each world is filled with content and things to do.  The Mario structure beams in color and beauty.  It just would have been a bonus if this part of the story (exploring the worlds) wasn’t clashing with the driving momentum of the main story (chasing Bowser).

Odyssey could have leaned into its namesake, and created a Homer-esque story in which the theme of the story is the exploration of different worlds while trying to reach a specific destination, and the vivid worlds that the games creates gets it halfway there.  But what it needed were more vivid characters in those worlds to leave an imprint, and therefore make the idea of stopping the chase to spend time in the worlds more appealing.  Again, from an aesthetic and mechanical perspective, it is appealing simply to get to spend more time in the worlds exploring the creativity the game has to offer.  But less so narrative-wise.

But again, Odyssey is not focused on a worldbuilt theme like PM64 is.  So, when the momentum of the chase stalls, there is less of a narrative to lean on.

However, the worst narrative culprit in Odyssey comes just before the climax.  If you look at the pre-Metro Kingdom as the chase movie, and the middle worlds as a lull in which you are collecting Power Moons but with less momentum, there then needs to be a kick to jumpstart the narrative into the third act, and, for a moment, it appears like there is.

After the post-Metro Kingdom worlds, you reach Bowser again on the way to Bowser’s Kingdom, but he doesn’t let you fight him.  Instead, he harnesses the power of a literal dragon, wrecks your ship again in one shot, and then flies away.  For a moment, I was floored, because it seemed like the game had introduced a new level of high stakes (Bowser on a dragon) that would pay off in the game’s climax.  Instead of being a repeat of the first Bowser fight, it was progressing the stakes of the narrative.

But this doesn’t happen.  Immediately afterward, you fight the dragon alone whilst repairing the ship for a second time in the Ruined Kingdom, defeat it, and then chase after Bowser some more before fighting him finally just before the wedding.

The dragon wasn’t a major threat.  Just a plot device and an obstacle.

As cool as it is to fight the dragon mechanically, imagine how cool it would have been if fighting the dragon and Bowser together had been the game’s final boss?

This hurt.  Because instead of feeling like the stakes progressed, it felt like the potential for higher stakes were teased, but then immediately removed so that the game could comfortably return to a traditional chase-and-fight-Bowser pattern.  Why is Bowser dangerous now if you’ve already defeated the seemingly stronger foe?

It would be like if Grodus reawakened the Shadow Queen at the end of Chapter 7 in TTYD, and then you killed her first, but then had to continue chasing Grodus to get Peach back.

Notice that I haven’t really been comparing Odyssey to TTYD, and that is, unfortunately, because it doesn’t really come close.  It is on the same level as PM64, at first, but not TTYD.  TTYD is all about complex, progressed stakes on top of expanded, echoed worldbuilding along with a subverted main Mario plot.  Odyssey seems like it is harnessing at least one of those (an interesting Mario plot with some twists), but then chooses to ignore progressed narrative stakes.

Now, the gameplay is excellent, if not perfect.  Odyssey might be the most mechanically sublime game I’ve ever played, and the nuances of the different enemies you play as are fantastic.  Many people have written about how smooth the controls are, how perfect the aesthetics are, how the sound effects have small, light touches (like the music getting a touch muffled when you go underwater) that make the landscape feel truly real.  The worlds are vibrant, the pace is very brisk, and, even with these narrative criticisms, it was a very rewarding experience.

And the true climax, in which you get to play as Bowser to escape a collapsing underground lair and save Peach, is a wonderful culmination, mechanically-speaking, of the game’s core elements.

But story-wise, it is not in the same ballpark as other Mario games like Galaxy or the RPGs.

 

The Elephants in the Room

Lastly, in mentioning the last two elephants in the room, Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Paper Mario: Color Splash, I’m not even going to talk that much about them, because enough people have. Nintendo sacrificed its story completely in these games in favor of gimmicks that actually harm the traditional mechanics.  Of the two, Color Splash is the stronger game.  It has the better soundtrack, Huey the paint can is somewhat less annoying than Kersti the sticker fairy, and he has a mild character arc.  The game, admittedly, is as humorous as the other RPGs that preceded it, and the worlds – while veering very close to completely basic – at least have touches in ingenuity.  I also give it credit for just how gorgeous its aesthetics are.

But the core mechanics, and the story that surrounds it, are not on the same level as its RPG predecessors.

 

Final Thoughts

I still retain hope that a Paper Mario 3 will eventually come into the world that actually honors its predecessors, though with the direction Nintendo is moving in (favoring more “fun” party games or reboots with twists on them, instead of more mature content), I also have my doubts that this will ever come to pass.

It struck me that, of all of the games I have played, the game that genuinely came the closest to TTYD’s brilliance is the original itself, Super Mario RPG.  Galaxy and Super Paper Mario had more of an emotional effect on me, yes, but Galaxy isn’t trying to be as complex as TTYD or the other RPGs.  And Super Paper Mario, for all of its powerful, emotional storytelling, has more clear-cut mechanical flaws that keep it from rising above its predecessor.

Super Mario RPG, like TTYD, tells a more emergently complex story.  Like TTYD and the games of the Mario + Luigi series, its story is complemented by its core gameplay mechanics, a true difficulty curve, and its features almost all of the core Mario RPG elements that we’ve come to love over the years.  Additionally, it adheres to the chapter-based Mario structure slightly more so than its Mario + Luigi successors, and features characters like Geno that leave a legitimate imprint on you.  Is it as thematically cohesive as TTYD?  No, but it is close.  And given that it was the first game of all them, that is saying a lot.

All of the other games mentioned here have one thing that stands tall among the others.  Super Paper Mario has the series’ deepest villain, Count Bleck, as well as maybe the most emotional story.  Galaxy has the series’ deepest female character (i.e. maybe its deepest supporting character), and has the best storytelling of any traditional Mario game.  Every game in the Mario + Luigi series showcases its titular protagonists at their most personable.  And, even though I highlighted its narrative flaws, Odyssey might be the most mechanically sublime game of all of them, from a purely game design perspective.

But, having said that, it is slightly troubling that the trend is moving backward from a narrative perspective.  SMRPG tells a complex, mechanically-supported story, an ideal that TTYD perfected.  Since then, Nintendo has yet to capture this magic with all of the elements in place.  As of now, my order of Mario narratives in terms of ranking are:

      1. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
      2. Super Mario RPG
      3. Super Mario Galaxy
      4. Super Paper Mario
      5. Paper Mario
      6. Mario + Luigi: Superstar Saga

Most of these games were long time ago, and Odyssey is the only recent Mario game that even has the skin of a new story.  Even with Odyssey‘s flaws, it at seems that Nintendo is at least experimenting with some story elements, which it hasn’t seemed like it has wanted to in the past ten years.  Maybe this is a harbinger of better Mario narratives to come in the future.  And rumor has it, a new Paper Mario is in the works that is going to be the spiritual successor to the original two games of the series.  These are rumors, so we can simply hope a little until these rumors become more crystallized.

NOTE (Updated 5/17/2020): These rumors have since become crystallized, with the newly released trailer of Paper Mario: The Origami King, and, first thoughts on the game feel… mixed.  The game looks like it has the first original Paper Mario plot since Super, and it indeed carries the potential of a deeper, darker story.  However, it’s hard to call it “based off of the originals,” because the mechanics and battle system still seem experimental.  In this case, it very much feels closer to Super than it does PM64 or TTYD: it feels like a game with a potentially deep story and experimental mechanics.

I am remaining optimistic, but it is unlikely to match TTYD‘s combined brilliance.  However, if it ends up feeling like a spiritual successor to Super, I will be ok with that, as I have come to very much appreciate that game in its own right.  Please see my Super Paper Mario post for a deeper explanation on what this represents for fans of the series.

Until then, it is comforting to know that there are a lot of Mario games to choose from when we want to don the red cap and the blue overalls, but also want a good story to experience too.

 

The Rest of My Mario Narrative Series

The Greatest Mario Story Ever Told (and Why It Still Isn’t Perfect)

Deep Analysis of Super Paper Mario: A Nature of Order Applied to a Complicated Narrative

In Defense of Super Paper Mario within a Series Context: An Underrated Narrative Masterpiece That Could Have Been the Greatest of Them All

 

Additional Analysis

The Controversy of Super Paper Mario – Nintendrew, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euZscfTm1qU

The Decline of Mario RPGs – ThrillingDuck, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O89Bd1dIlCY

Why Super Mario RPG Is Still the Best – Daniel Kurland, ScreenRant, https://screenrant.com/super-mario-rpg-nintendo-square-enix-best-rpg/

Super Mario RPG Review – Resonant Arc, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOVrNz3v6ic

The Quiet Sadness of Mario Galaxy – Jacob Geller, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZ1y75vxO0o

Good Game Design – Super Mario Odyssey – Snoman Gaming, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3LQ0pAGHqk

Super Mario Odyssey Surpasses Super Mario Galaxy in Every Area… Except One – Nadia Oxford, USgamer, https://www.usgamer.net/articles/super-mario-odyssey-surpasses-super-mario-galaxy-in-every-area-except-one

 

2 thoughts on “Challengers to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Expanded)”

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