It's like a waltz, really. "One two three, one two three," I count as the mustached man hops from one robotic arm to the other. Sparks with numbers in them fly and I feel the rhythm underneath. Swiftly, yet so beautifully it seems almost choreographed, our hero kicks the robot in the chest. "GREAT!" proclaims an announcer without a voice. The crowd roars, and I'm not sure if I've just won a boss fight or performed The Nutcracker Suite. But whatever just happened, I like it. A lot.
Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door feels familiar, like a favorite pair of jeans does. Immediately I recognized its combat system, a mixture of wait-your-turn strategy and thumb aerobics seen in the original Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. And the game's premise would give even the most casual Mario fan déjà vu: Princess Peach summons Mario to show him a fun-looking treasure map and gets kidnapped before he arrives. Yes, I've seen these things before, and yes, I still paid full price for this game. Do I regret it? Heck, no.
Like many good sequels, this new Paper Mario builds on what the original did right and fixes (most of) its problems. I really like the Nintendo 64's Paper Mario; nevertheless I've always wished its developers had done more with the game's paper theme. Sure, it's cute when Mario floats into bed like the plastic bag from American Beauty. But couldn't he use those floating skills to fly across gaps? Can't he slide under doors, Flat Stanley-style?
Somehow the folks at Intelligent Systems have answered my prayers. This time around, Mario learns all kinds of paper powers on his journey. He can fold into a paper airplane; wedge between small cracks; roll up into a paper tube. Abilities like these make for some challenging puzzles, and encourage players to re-explore areas they've already visited. When Mario learns how turn himself into a boat, for instance, he can sail on previously impassable rivers.
But this sequel doesn't just give Mario new papery skills. It also gives him his own audience. Battles take place on a stage, and everyone from Bob-Ombs to Pirahna Plants comes to watch. As Mario wows the crowd with fancy moves—especially ones that elicit praise like "Nice!" or "Wonderful!"—he fills up a bit of his Star Power meter. Star Power is what Mario uses to unlock the might of the Crystal Stars, which are mysterious objects guarded by monsters. Each Crystal Star that Mario collects gives him a spectacular skill: destroying all enemies with one blow, let's say, or toppling them with an earthquake.
I had a great time playing Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. However, the game isn't perfect. Some of its quests had me running back and forth between the same two or three places. In Keelhaul Key, a man named Flavio wanted me to find one Admiral Bobbery. But Bobbery wouldn't come with me until I gave him a certain item. So I went back to Flavio, who had the item in question but wouldn't let me have it until I'd found another item to give him instead. In the immortal words of Charlie Brown, "AAAAAAUUUUUGGGH!"
I'm also of two minds about the cutscenes. Whenever Mario finds a Crystal Star, his story breaks for a little scene with Princess Peach. We find her in an undisclosed location, sneaking around to find out about her captors' plans. The player and a strange suitor help Peach uncover bits of information to send back to Mario via e-mail. (Not even the Mushroom Kingdom can escape the techno-invasion, it seems). On the one hand, I like how the Princess's scenes paint her as more than just a damsel in distress. She's brave, compassionate, and a vital aid to Mario's mission. But on the other hand—the trigger-happy one with the thumb posed tremulously over the "Start" button—I am too impatient for this. I've just beaten a boss and opened up a whole new world; I want to get back to the game now. These scenes (and those featuring someone whose identity I won't spoil) do indeed give the minor characters in Mario's story more depth. But they do so by putting the main story on hold just as it's getting exciting.
Still, these problems can't dampen my enthusiasm for Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. It's a surprisingly deep adventure, one that, even after beating the final boss, has left me with so much to do. It's cleverly written and humorous. ("Great. Just great," grumbles Bowser after almost kidnapping a life-sized poster of the Princess. "Now I look like the huge, mighty king of GUYS WHO TALK TO POSTERS!"). Its battles are strangely beautiful. Most of all, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is the most fun I've had spending 50 hours—and 50 dollars—in a long, long time.