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Holism: the Theater of The Thousand-Year Door

Thanks to Cart Boy and NantenJex for edits.

In 2015, Shigeru Miyamoto confirmed a decades-old theory amongst fans of Nintendo and Super Mario, that 1988’s renowned Super Mario Bros. 3 was in fact a stage play. Its blocks nailed to the background, its floating blocks held aloft with wire, and most of all its curtains rising to start the proceedings were all elements revealing Mario as an actor portraying the events of a story the player told. As nice of him as it was to validate those fan hypotheses (along with others he answered during his promotional tour for Super Mario Maker), it was almost redundant. Those theories had been going on for years, but more than that, they tracked well with Mario’s own history.

For all that Nintendo “puts play first” and treats Mario himself as an easily approachable avatar, their mascot has always carried a highly theatrical flair. The original Donkey Kong from 1981 had some of the first cutscenes in gaming to express its rudimentary plot; last year’s Super Mario Odyssey referenced this in its greatest sequence, a brilliant, big band recreation of the arcade classic that was huge and performative in its own right. Yoshi’s Island was a chalky, interactive pop-up book, and one boss in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle performed an opera about the series. Nintendo even sent Mario through another play, in Mario Party 2. Miyamoto has characterized the Mario cast as an acting troupe, with every main character filling roles to facilitate the events of each game, whether it revolves around kart racing, tennis, or parties. But one game more than any other stands as a testament Mario’s theatricality: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Intelligent System’s 2004 GameCube classic about Mario and a group of new friends adventuring for seven magical stars front loads these motifs, making them central to not only the plot but the mechanics along with it.

The game’s excellent predecessor, 2000’s Paper Mario, laid the foundation. It was presented as a book (its Japanese name was even Mario Story, with the “Paper” moniker only introduced with The Thousand-Year Door), a fairy tale with eight chapters and even a prologue. Its RPG battles were set inside a massive number of stages that recreated the environment Mario was in, all with fake trees and rebuilt landmarks in the background. With the exception of one instance, where Mario can strike the root of a tree whose chestnuts hang precariously over an early boss, they don’t actually affect the battle at all. They’re just beautiful, and they make the game feel like a pop-up book. It does what Yoshi’s Story tried to do to get around the huge graphical limitations of the Nintendo 64, but with far more success and style. It even ends with an eight minute parade for all the characters, as though they were all actors taking an extended bow.

From the first Paper Mario. You can even see the clouds being held aloft in the back.

The Thousand-Year Door recreates these arenas (along with a much more subdued end credits parade) but goes a step further to include an actual audience, one comprised of Goombas, Toads, Koopas, Luigi, and a host of other species in the Mario universe. Every battle is like a quick, one-act play, with audience members filling seats early on and cheering for Mario as he puts boot and hammer to baddies all around. But far from incidental, the audience is both one of your most valuable resources and a contentious force with which you’ll constantly have to deal.

In the first two Paper Marios, one of Mario’s main abilities is to use Star Power, a reserve of mystical energy, to fire off incredible attacks. In the first game, this meter naturally refills slowly; it’ll only restore to full from certain healing situations, and in battle it only fills up a tiny bit at a time. Mostly, you’ll have to rely on the mediocre “Focus” move to restore a larger chunk, meaning that while these moves carry a lot of weight, they’re also frequently not really worth using. Ostensibly, it’s even harsher in The Thousand-Year Door, because the meter doesn’t refill on its own at all. This demands a new resource, and this is where the crowd comes in: their adoration of Mario is represented by stars emanating from their applause, which fill the Star meter directly. But the crowd isn’t going to just enjoy anything just on its own merits; you need to give them a show. And while that can come from using the Appeal action (which replaces Focus by pandering to the crowd and getting a big boost), most of it’s going to have to come from the fighting.

The various Mario RPGs are well known partially for a variety of mechanics collectively known as “Action Commands.” Introduced in their predecessor Super Mario RPG (in which they were known as “timed hits”), they’re sort of proto-quicktime events in which pressing a button or holding the control stick in a way during an attack will allow Mario and friends to deal or block more damage, such as holding left to charge a hammer strike or pressing A before being hit to block a point of damage. While the instructions for them show up on every move, they can be difficult to master and are downright necessary by the end of the game. But beyond attacking, they’re skillful and stylish, the kinds of action the audience wants to see. Doing an attack normally nets you a few weak cheers, while pulling off a better one is more exciting and fills that meter more quickly. You can even get a few latecomers into the theater with well timed moves, while others may get bored and leave upon seeing too many failed commands.

The Mushroom Kingdom’s three main species hanging out at a local theater.

Now, were this it, that’d be fine. The audience would be a perfectly adequate substitute for the slow recharge of the Star meter in the first game, and appealing to them would be a fine replacement for the boring Focus. But the audience ends up meaning a lot more to the battle system, and it comes from that word “style.”

Alongside the Action Commands you can see, there are secretly a number of invisible button prompts, at least one for every move you can make (there are ways to learn about them, though; one minor NPC mentions them, and an early game badge gives markers for them in fights). Instead of extra attacks, they’re cool poses the party can make: Mario making up to four backflips in a row after hammering a fool, Goomba coed Goombella making an extra flip as she performs a Headbonk, wind spirit Flurrie winking to the crowd after a body slam. The audience eats these “stylish moves” up, and doing even a few of them correctly on one turn can shoot up the Star Power you have exponentially more than you’d ever be able to do with normal attacks. Plus, they’re attractive enough to call more people into the theater.

Adding to this that you drive bigger and bigger crowds over the course of the game – every ten levels, you’re upgraded to a greater venue before maxing out with two hundred attendees – and a player who’s gotten a handle on these overt and hidden tricks can take charge of a rowdy audience for some fascinating gameplay. Exploiting and tantalizing a large audience can fill up the star meter so quickly that those special, dangerous moves just become a normal part of the rotation. They cost far more Star Power than the ones in the last game and remain the one power only Mario can pull off, though, so they still retain that strength and importance (they’re also more useful on the whole, too).

One neat part of the audience is that the diverse crowd that comes in for each show isn’t just to look distinct, because alongside cheering for Mario each of the thirteen character types can interact with him and the rest of the audience in different ways. Toads throw Mario items, and their cheers are far more intense than other audience members. Goombas and Hammer Bros throw trash or hammers, respectively, and Koopa Troopas have a chance to throw good and bad things. Dry Bones only throw bones, and they’re the only audience members which never give Star Power (other than through Appeals). Crazy Dayzees can sing, putting part of the audience to sleep, while Piranha Plants can attack people next to them and drive them away. Shy Guys can run onstage like the “Soy Bomb” guy and screw with the special effects, causing parts of the stage to hit random people on the stage. It leads to battles that can be incredibly rambunctious and wacky, especially as they go on. The entire makeup of the crowd can also change in some circumstances; the standout is in the boss fight of Chapter 2, where the crowd is evenly split between the army of Punie insects you’ve rescued and the villainous X-Nauts, the latter of whom cheer on their boss.

It’s not just a one-sided relationship, either. Mario can hit any ne’er-do-well about to assault him via the method of soda can or rock (he can also hit someone attempting to throw him money or health, so it’s important to pay attention). A few bosses do this as well; a few unlucky theatergoers get killed for the sake of a couple villains’ various super attacks, and one early boss notably goes into her second phase by eating over a dozen viewers, causing the theater to clear out and Mario to take the fight to the auditorium. That sequence in particular is exciting for how close it comes to ending the immersion entirely. But it’s not really breaking the fourth wall. Mario’s just a performer, after all; he always has been.

And while the audience is the greatest and most overt outside factor into these matches, it isn’t the only one, because the stage itself is a potential aide and danger. Mario, his friends, and his foes are can all fall victim to malfunctioning jets than burn or freeze, falling light fixtures that hurt and water that heals, and massive props from other plays collapsing into this one. They’re mostly not frustrating (other than when the smoke machine goes off, making it hard for anyone to hit each other), and that they can affect everyone onstage makes them more “fair” and acceptable an intrusion. That partially comes from the randomness not really being that hectic – the game usually avoids throwing too many things at you at once – but it feels wild and exciting, especially since each larger arena brings with it new and updated hazards.

Even for a series that has gone into strange places, several moments in TTYD feel downright disturbing.

This change in mechanics and style isn’t just because The Thousand-Year Door is a larger, mostly (though not entirely) more ambitious project than the first game; it’s also about presenting a world that’s wilder, tougher, and more complex. TTYD takes place in a nastier, darker corner of the Mario world than what we’re normally shown. Its hub, Rogueport, is the anti-Toad Town, a sleazy port of gangsters, cheats, and residents desperate for hope and treasure. The story drops many of the same beats as other Mario RPGs, but tinged with confusion, mystery, and regret. Plots include going undercover in a corrupt wrestling ring, stopping a train bombing, helping a young woman stand up to her abusive sister, leading an insect uprising, and Mario losing his own body and name to a fiendish, cruel Rumpelstiltskin. It’s the kind of world where you need to stay on your toes, where you can’t necessarily trust everyone around you. In that context, having to placate and watch out for an audience that’s rowdy, raucous, and rarely reliable makes a lot of sense.

It’s also a game that’s far more propulsive in its action. The first Paper Mario allowed a great deal of player expression through a battle system that stripped down RPG mechanics to their clearest and most concise, with those Action Commands, controllable stat raises, and a variety of equippable badges. This one takes those ideas further, allowing players to create widely unique and crazy setups suited to their personal play style in a number of ways. The pace in both games is very fast, but the fights in The Thousand-Year Door can be wonderfully absurd at points in how much damage is being dealt to both sides. At times, they almost deserve viewers. And those viewers, and the mishaps that come with them, end up helping to make the pace feel faster and the fights more exciting.

Truthfully, the audience and stage aren’t why The Thousand-Year Door is such an excellent game. It’s a great system and certainly helps make the game better, but it’s only one part. The writing is some of the best we’ve ever gotten from Nintendo, excelling in both humor and pathos. The visual style is gorgeous, even fourteen years later. The pace is generally fast and propulsive. But the theater is such an oddly specific and unique idea. There was no demand to add it, no obvious inherent value it could have shown. And yet, Intelligent Systems employed and explored it, with such polish and skill it’s nigh impossible to imagine it not being there. In that sense, it’s something close to the game itself in microcosm: an idea that almost shouldn’t work, but does with such panache you feel silly for having doubted it at all.