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Mon, 01 Nov 2004 Paper Mario: the Thousand Year Door (Amazon review)

I'm a 37-year-old husband and father; probably not the game's biggest target demographic, but more adults play these games than you may think!

I played (and completed) the excellent Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64 a few years ago, along with my young son. It was very close to a perfect game: visually spectacular, original, engaging, moderately challenging, and filled with goofy cut scenes. The episode-based play worked perfectly to keep both of us from getting bored or frustrated; it was impossible to go too far down a dead end, or "lose" the game.

I'm happy to say that this sequel is worthy of the original. There is again an elaborate plot and back-story; there are more engaging Mushroom Kingdom characters, and lots more great paper effects. The papery world can get peeled back like Post-It note, torn like a Kleenex, folded like origami, and spring out like the pictures in a pop-up book. The characters have more to say (sometimes more than you want them to say!) The game's designers paid a great deal of attention to user interface and playability, and it really shows.

The Paper Mario games are not terribly difficult. That's a good thing, especially if the game-players in your household are young or less experienced. If you're an adult and at all good at figuring out strategy-based battles, you may rarely lose a fight. This may make the game seem too easy, but there are still plenty of silly cut scenes, animations, mini-games, and side quests to keep you entertained.

This is also the kind of video game that is enjoyable to watch someone else play: the beautiful color palettes, animations, and secret objects are enough to occupy two peoples' attention, so try trading off with your kids and showing off your stylin' moves (and don't bogart that joystick!)

The original Paper Mario game had a few drawbacks. The large number of battles could occasionally become tedious. This game improves on the original in giving you an audience to distract you and cheer for you during fights. The menu of available moves, badges, and items is even more elaborate than in the original, so you can focus on clever strategies. In fact, you have to pay at least some attention to careful use of your party members and special attacks: some enemies are impervious to all standard attacks, and will require cleverness to beat, just as many of the worlds contain areas that will only open to you after you've gained additional special abilities.

One last comment: these games are short. I think I finished the first one in about twenty hours of play, and I did not rush. Twenty hours may sound like a lot, but not when compared to a game like Donkey Kong 64, which might take a player ten times longer. If you are a hardcore gamer, you might want to look elsewhere, but if you have a life outside of video games, and don't have a lot of free time to spare, this is the game for you. You might find yourself, like me, wishing at the end that there were more secrets to uncover and more silly mini-games to play. I have not finished this new Paper Mario, but I've found most of the stars, so it will probably not be long. I'm looking forward to what I expect will be a spectacular ending!

P.S.: Addendum to the above, added after posting the original.

I may be mis-remembering how long it took me to finish the original Paper Mario for the N64; it may have been more like 40 or 50 hours; still, compared to some of the more elaborate platformers, it was a relatively short game. In any event, this game is proving to a bit longer than that.

I've gotten past the thousand-year door, but decided to backtrack before confronting the final bosses so I could go rack up some additional levels, find all the shine sprites and boost my party members' levels to maximum, solve "troubles," and in general extend the playing experience. In other words, I'm not in a hurry for the game to be over.

I've also decided I won't want to finish the game until I've beaten... (chilling music)... the Pit of 100 Trials. The Pit is a sadistic device designed especially to appeal to compulsive perfectionists like me. It is basically a one-way sequence of battle rooms. To finish, you must win consecutive battles of increasing difficulty. Every tenth room contains a treasure and the opportunity to bail out and return to the start. There is occasionally the chance to skip ahead a few levels or buy some items, but for the most part you just have to slog through; there are no save blocks available along the way, and if you give up, you will have to start again from the beginning.

While you start out with low-level Goombas, by the time you reach the 80s you will be confronting black steel chain chomps and magical creatures who carry many special abilities and items. You'll find yourself and your partner paralyzed, confused, or frozen, and then attacked multiple times by creatures who can do ten or twenty points of damage with a single blow. By the time you reach the 90s, your foes will make the boss fights to date look easy. Also, you can't easily pump up your experience by bailing out and restarting the series; completing a battle you've already won will only give you a single star point.

This challenge is in here just for those who, like me, want the fights to be a little bit harder, requiring a little more careful strategy and planning. But taking on the Pit is entirely optional, so as not to ruin the fun of those who don't enjoy the tougher fights. Yesterday I gave out at level 93, but I will prevail!

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