Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door Switch review: Even better with age

The Thousand-Year Door on Switch is just as strong as it ever was.


A lot changes in 20 years. Fashions come and go, tastes mature and diversify, and things we once loved look a bit less shiny and lovely when viewed from such a distance. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on Switch isn’t one of those things. If anything, the nearly-two-decades since it first launched on the GameCube only underscore just how much of a treasure this RPG is.

Tale as old as 1,000 years, like the door

Paper Mario and friends standing in the middle of Petalburg

The Thousand-Year Door begins with a letter from Princess Peach, a common enough occurrence in the Mario household, except this time’s a bit different. The princess is in another country and wants Mario to help her track down an ancient mystery – but when he gets there, her royal person is nowhere to be seen.

Off he trots on another journey to save the princess, find Crystal Stars, and make some new friends along the way. If you’ve played any Mario RPG, you have a vague idea what to expect here. Narrative complexity, deep emotions, and personal revelations aren’t high on The Thousand-Year Door’s list of narrative boxes to tick. Instead, it trades deep ideas for one of the more imaginative collections of stories in the genre.

It does a good job hiding that creativity in the opening hours, though. Mario’s travel partners and their quirky personalities carry the first two chapters through a rather bland castle and a visually striking forest, both of which include lots of backtracking and some tedious puzzles, and then things pick up in a big way.

Hooktail breathing fire on Mario and Koops in The Thousand-Year Door

The Thousand-Year Door’s strength is in its willingness to try anything and everything and to embrace the ridiculous. There’s a gladiator-style tournament featuring a really large and obnoxious bird; a chapter that strips everything away from you; a haunted castle; an Agatha Christie-inspired mystery on a luxury train; a Robert Louis Stevenson-style island full of pirates and treasure. Some chapters end with well-designed dungeons and challenging puzzles. Others buck tradition and have no dungeon at all or one that someone else cleared before you.

There may be a definite rhythm in how The Thousand-Year Door’s broader structure unfolds – find a Star, go back to Rogueport, repeat – but it throws tradition out the window and just does what suits it for the most part. 

It helps that the English script is just so good and holds up so well even now.  It’d be easy to fumble jokes or landing on the wrong side of ludicrous, but The Thousand-Year Door deftly balances its humor across every chapter, a varied bunch of party members, and even minor NPCs. The editors gave so much attention to details, from weird little laughs and overdramatic accents to daft jokes that know they’re daft and end up being funny as a result. Saying something is bursting with personality sounds trite, but it’s actually the truth in this case.

Paper Peach standing in front of Grodus, leader of the X-Nauts in Paper Mario

Each chapter ends with two perspective shifts. Peach takes center stage in one of them, as she learns the truth about her kidnapping from an emotionally charged computer system through a series of mini-games. The other features Bowser and Kammy Koopa, usually in brief platforming levels that clearly draw on older Mario games. The Peach sections give her more agency and personality than most other Mario games, Showtime aside, and she even has a proper personality for most of it – a basic character concept, sure, but one Nintendo so often denies her.

The Bowser sections are just fluffy fun, as much a chance to smash through previous stages as it is for the localization team to write the best version of the Koopa King in the series so far. They’re refreshing little interludes, and even if Thousand-Year Door would work fine without these, it’s so committed to telling the story it wants to tell, in the way it wants to tell it, that they feel like important additions anyway.

All the world's a stage - for Mario

Paper Mario and Goombella deciding which attacks to use

The Thousand-Year Door was ahead of its time in 2005, and nearly 20 years later, few RPGs have found a similar balance with combat encounters. All enemies are visible on the screen, and you can flee from almost any of them without much trouble, which is handy, since there’s a frankly overwhelming number of battles in most areas. That’s an important feature, as The Thousand-Year Door uses a scaled experience system that means you get as few as one point after winning a fight if you’re at the area’s max level cap.

Battles in The Thousand-Year Door light the brain up more than your usual standard RPG encounters thanks to a few small, but influential features. Mario has jump and hammer attacks in battle, along with access to classic items such as the POW Block or Fire Flower, and his partners are a more varied lot with specialized skillsets. How effective your attacks and guards are depends on whether you press the action button at the right time. 

There’s also a set of stylish moves – that’s literally their name – you can pull off with different timings for every skill. These get the audience riled up and fill your star meter, which you use for special moves powered by the Crystal Stars. It’s hard to overstate how much more interesting these elements make each battle, just from the seemingly simple fact that you have to properly pay attention in combat.

Kammy Koopa speaking with Paper Bowser about a picnic

Mario can equip badges that augment his abilities, either by granting him new skills or boosting his stats. Each costs badge points to equip, and a limited number of available points means you end up making choices that define Mario’s battle style. Maybe you’ll specialize in jump attacks or strong attacks or even pick badges that add useful status effects to your moves. Either way, Thousand-Year Door’s broad variety of enemy types and behavior encourages flexible playstyles that you have to adapt regularly as the journey continues, and it adds a welcome layer of strategy even to basic encounters.

Earning experience points from battle isn’t what makes Thousand-Year Door fresh and exciting. Some boss fights give you so few that you don’t even level up. No, those feelings are born from the puzzle-like nature of every battle and deciding which partners, moves, and badges might work best for every situation, be it a row of Koopa Troopas or a blob of sentient smog. They come from the wild and unexpected ways a boss behaves, the set collapsing, or a random audience member pelting you with a rock.

Of all the Paper Marios since, Color Splash came the closest to recapturing those feelings, but drowned its clever ideas in gimmicks that punished you for engaging in battles. Thousand-Year Door isn’t concerned with gimmicks, and it’s not consciously trying to give itself a distinct identity. It’s just confidently itself, and that’s more than enough.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door might be ever so slightly dated in its first two chapters and its insistence on loading every area with too many enemies. Its bizarre cast, excellent writing, and inventive battles mean it earns its reputation as one of the best and most inventive RPGs, though, and it’s just as fresh and imaginative now as it ever was.

The publisher provided the copy of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door used for this review. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door launches for Nintendo Switch on May 23, 2024.

Contributing Editor

Josh is a freelance writer and reporter who specializes in guides, reviews, and whatever else he can convince someone to commission. You may have seen him on NPR, IGN, Polygon, or VG 24/7 or on Twitter, shouting about Trails. When he isn’t working, you’ll likely find him outside with his Belgian Malinois and Australian Shepherd or curled up with an RPG of some description.

  • Inventive battles
  • Creative narrative structures
  • Strong level and world design
  • Excellent character writing
  • Early chapters lack the imagination of the later game
  • So many enemies
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