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Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door review: GameCube remake is as iconic as ever

Mario in a hot cut cutout in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door's Nintendo Switch remake.
Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
MSRP $60.00
“Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door stands the test of time and is fantastic on Nintendo Switch.”
Pros
  • Hilarious writing
  • Memorable characters
  • Approachable RPG combat
  • Intuitive action commands
  • Gorgeous visuals
Cons
  • Lacks ambition as a remake
  • Battle system gets repetitive

One of the first things players see when starting a new save file in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is a gallows in the center of Rogueport, the RPG’s central hub.

While The Thousand-Year Door isn’t a dark game by any means — it’s actually quite hilarious — seeing a gallows where someone could be hanged to death should be players’ first indication that this isn’t like other Mario games. The Thousand-Year Door stood as one of the boldest Mario games when it first launched for the GameCube in 2004, and the same applies to its Nintendo Switch remake being released now, 20 years later. Although I’ve never played it before (I only watched playthroughs of it on YouTube), it has been a joy to experience for the first time on Nintendo Switch.

This isn’t a remake that completely redefines its predecessor, unlike Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil 4. This is much more in line with Nintendo’s recent Super Mario RPG and Mario vs. Donkey Kong remakes that refurbish and update the visuals with some small quality-of-life tweaks. Those with a working GameCube and a copy of The Thousand-Year Door don’t need to worry about picking this up. Still, anyone grabbing it for the first time or in a long while on Nintendo Switch is in store for an off-kilter and memorable experience from the moment they see that first image of a gallows in Rogueport.

The funniest Nintendo game ever

All these years later, you won’t find a Nintendo game as sharply written as Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. It’s a full-blown comedy. The adventure begins when Princess Peach calls Mario to the town of Rogueport. Of course, she gets kidnapped before Mario can get there, so he sets off on an adventure to find her. He uncovers the mystery of the titular door and obtains the Crystal Stars that are the key to unlocking it. It’s a by-the-numbers quest, but Nintendo infuses the whole adventure with comedic delights.

The Mario universe rarely feels this lively.

Each chapter is dedicated to Mario obtaining a Crystal Star and has a unique theme. One has him making his way up the ranks of a wrestling federation while uncovering the nefarious force that’s causing its fighters to disappear. Another sees him stranded on a deserted island after a supernatural force attacks his ship. These are fun scenarios we don’t get out of Mario’s typical platforming adventures, and Nintendo buffs them up with memorable characters.

There are Mario’s Partners, who range from the bookworm goomba Goombella to Vivian, a purple ghost who Mario helps stand up against her abusive family (a new translation more explicitly implies that Vivian is transgender). They’re all great, but even the random NPCs Mario comes across sometimes have unique designs. The Mario series plays it very safe when it comes to creating new characters and concepts or getting too deep narratively, but The Thousand-Year Door is not held down by that. That makes this remake feel refreshing, as do all of its lighthearted comedic moments.

My favorite bits include ghouls who keep cursing Mario after he frees them from captivity, only to give him a useful new gameplay ability in the process, and the Pianta mafioso who hires Mario to track down his daughter after she ran away with one of his subordinates. I’m not sure how these jokes will land if they’re already ingrained in your memory, but I enjoyed rediscovering The Thousand-Year Door‘s novel sense of humor as I played through this remake.

A recurring ghost gag in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.
Nintendo

On top of all that, intermissions between each chapter give us a view into Princess Peach and Bowser’s escapades during Mario’s adventure. I love Peach’s characterization here even more than the one in her standalone game released this year, and Bowser’s segments often provide a nice break after the adventure’s most climactic moments. The Mario universe rarely feels this lively.

An approachable RPG

Like its Nintendo 64 predecessor (and unlike the four Paper Mario games that followed), The Thousand-Year Door is a traditional turn-based RPG with spurts of exploration and light platforming. There are some things I really appreciate about its interpretation of the formula, namely keeping the health and damage numbers relatively low. My eyes tend to glaze over in RPGs when I see the enemy has hundreds of thousands in health, and my attacks deal 9,999 damage.

By keeping these numbers down to Earth, it’s easier for me to comprehend how much damage I’m doing and how much health my enemy probably has left, even if I haven’t yet used Goombella’s Tattle ability to reveal that information. Speaking of abilities, Mario and his partners can perform both normal attacks and spend Star Points during battle to pull off special abilities. On top of the action command system that Super Mario RPG players will recognize, each of these abilities requires a little minigame to pull off.

This is the rare Nintendo game where both the gameplay and narrative are on equal footing.

When a lot of modern RPGs like Thirsty Suitors do this, the prompts required to attack get long in the tooth and feel like chores whenever they pop up. The Thousand Year-Door circumvents that issue by making all of its attack commands take only a few seconds to pull off and intuitively feel like the attack players are choosing to pull off at the time. I have to mash a trigger to make my baby Yoshi companion double jump or press and release the A button to take breaths before I try to blow enemies away with Madame Flurrie.

It’s an approachable RPG system, although it can get boring at the times when the game forces players to do a bunch of fights in a row without much variation. Most of the time, it breaks up the pace with exploration. Across each of the colorful locales I explored, there were some light platforming challenges and puzzles that often require the use of a partner skill, like using Koops’ shell to hit a switch Mario can’t jump to in order to progress.

A Blooper squirts ink at Mario in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.
Nintendo

Because of the thin nature of its characters, managing depth perception can be a bit difficult. This isn’t Celeste, though, and after a few attempts, I always got wherever I needed to go and appreciated how these segments called back to Mario’s roots and broke up the pace between battles. This is the rare Nintendo game where both the gameplay and narrative are on equal footing.

A straightforward remake

So far, most of what I’ve written applies to the game that was released in 2004. But what about the game you can buy for $60 in 2024? As a remake, The Thousand-Year Door is gorgeous, but fairly underwhelming. Its biggest improvements are on the visual front. The Paper Mario series has always stood out because of how cleverly it finds ways to incorporate arts and crafts into its worlds and theater stage elements into its turn-based battles.

The Thousand-Year Door still holds up 20 years after release

Everything in the game feels like a paper cutout or part of a delicately crafted diorama, and the world will fold or unfold itself at times so Mario can progress. A quick look at videos for The Thousand-Year Door on GameCube demonstrates that it still holds up very well, but the Nintendo Switch version of it drastically improves the lighting in particular. While it’s a shame that the game appears to run at 30 frames per second (fps) with occasional frame rate drops when the screen is crowded, this is one of the prettiest games on Nintendo Switch.

The Thousand-Year Door’s content offerings have barely been touched outside of some localization tweaks, a reorchestrated soundtrack, a Toad that offers up a battle practice mode and general gameplay tutorials, a partner ring that makes it significantly quicker to switch between Mairo’s compatriots on the fly, and a few other minor additions.

Mario in a spooky dungeon in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door's Nintendo Switch remake.
Nintendo

If you were hoping that Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on Nintendo was a thorough remake that redefines a classic, you may come away from this Switch remake disappointed. Thankfully, The Thousand-Year Door still holds up 20 years after release, thanks to some hilarious dialogue, timeless visuals, and an approachable RPG battle system. While it’s a bit of a bummer that Nintendo’s 2024 game lineup is mostly comprised of remakes, I’m glad Nintendo is giving The Thousand-Year Door a second shot at life. It truly isn’t like any other Mario game out there.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door was tested on Nintendo Switch.

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Tomas Franzese
Tomas Franzese is a Staff Writer at Digital Trends, where he reports on and reviews the latest releases and exciting…
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