Why is Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door so brilliant? Because it embraces Mario for the blank slate he is

May 23, 2024
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This piece is a retrospective rather than a review and contains spoilers for Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door.

Simply the thing I am? Oli Welsh, gone and much-missed (he didn’t die), once made an excellent point to me about the Mario RPGs. There’s this brilliant running joke in some of them that I had not spotted until he mentioned it. The joke’s simple: nobody recognises Mario when he first arrives in a new location. They don’t recognise him up to the moment when he jumps. Jumping is Mario’s thing. Jumping, the games seem to be saying, is Mario. Without jumping, he could be anyone.

What this joke gets at is the notion that there’s this…how to phrase this? I don’t think it’s fair to say that there’s a hole at the centre of the character, because lots of people feel very strongly about Mario, particularly if they grew up with his games. He hasn’t got a hole through the middle of him! But there is a plasticity to the character that allows you to do a lot of different stuff with him. Look at his visual design, which is brilliant but was also originally conceived because of animation limitations. Look at the ease with which a brother was conjured from him via a simple palette swap. Look at the way he’s been dropped into sports games, educational games, RPGs over the years. It’s because we know who he is, but there isn’t so much of him to stop things from being harmonious wherever he ends up. Trevor Phillips from GTA 5 is a huge star, particularly in our house because my wife loves him. But you couldn’t put him into an SSX. (Okay, bad example, that actually sounds freakin great.)

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