Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door - Cutting Through Convention

An example of the power of imagery to subvert our expectations

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door - Cutting Through Convention
Source: Nintendo.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is my favourite game of all time. With the recent announcement of the HD remake coming to Nintendo Switch next year, it got me thinking about why this game in particular is my favourite. Why is this one special? Was it the polished, skill-based gameplay loop? The timeless, colourful paper aesthetic? The satisfying sound design and memorable music? While those are all great aspects of the game to be sure, none were my reason for loving the game, not the predominant one at least.

Then I realised what it was that made me love the game the way I do, and in doing so, a single image sat in my mind. That image was the noose in Rogueport town square.

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The aforementioned noose, sitting in the heart of Rogueport. Source: Press Kit.

Now I know what you're thinking. That's a bit odd. And you're right. I was a bit confused when I first thought of it myself. And just to be clear, putting a noose in a game isn't suddenly going to make it one of my favourite games of all time. But this noose was different. It represented why I loved Paper Mario: TTYD so much.

It represented the game's writing and character, and how starkly it contrasted with the usual image we associate with Mario and Nintendo as a whole. It's the writing that makes this game so special to me; the quirky, funny, interesting, and clever writing. And it is so strange that this writing comes from a game about Mario.

Let me explain. I love Mario. He's a standup guy! Some of his traditional 2D and 3D platformers, like Mario Bros. 3 and Mario Odyssey respectively rank among some of my favourite games. But he's not a character known for, well, his character. People don't love traditional Mario games because of their plot, story beats, or overall writing since there isn't really much of that to be found.

What little writing there is in these games is usually very basic, simple, good guy vs bad guy sort of stuff. This is fine, and it works well enough for these games. But it is all very safe, very clean, and very predictable. Mario journeys from the grassy meadows, across the desert and the woods, through the icy mountains, a world of clouds, and this adventure’s fortress of choice (often with lava), before once again defeating Bowser. Then they all go home and eat cake or something. Bish bosh, new power-up, there's your new Mario game, for the most part at least. But Paper Mario: TTYD is nothing like this. In regards to its writing, safe, clean, and predictable just don't fit; it’s anything but those.

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This image of the world map from New Super Mario Bros. U shows many of the locations one might expect to find in a classic 2D Mario game. Source: IGN.

You see, Paper Mario: TTYD's writing subverts everything I would expect from a Mario game, and what I'd expect from Nintendo. The game oozes character and personality through its writing at every step. Mario goes on a pirate adventure, helps solve a mystery on a train, enters into a wrestling league, and saves a spooky town with a strange curse, just to name some of the creative, cool, interesting things he does in the game.

He interacts with an organised crime syndicate, defeats some aliens, is asked by a dragon if he wants to sniff its feet, he even gets mugged at one point! In a Mario game! It's weird. It's strange. It's brilliant. And this is all tied together with characters who are so charming, memorable, funny, and lovable. It creates a vibrant world of characters, places and events that are incredibly far removed from Mario's safe, Sunday morning musings.

To put it simply, it's amazing.

Mario finds himself amidst a mystery aboard a luxurious train, an idea that wouldn't usually be expected of the Mario series. Source: Press Kit.

To bring it back to the noose in Rogueport town square, you may still think it odd that this is the image that burned in my mind when I realised why I love Paper Mario: TTYD so much. But for me, it's because my normal, standard image of what Mario is, contrasted with a noose, might be the two least compatible, least synonymous things I could compare. They don't evoke any of the same thoughts or feelings.

When I think of the game, it doesn't evoke what I've come to expect from Mario, or Nintendo. The noose is one of the first things you see in Rogueport, something you see within your first five minutes playing the game. Its presence immediately shows the player that this game is not like other Mario games. You're in a completely different world now, one with the potential for darker, more risque, and more creative plot beats that have broken away from the safe, familiar Mario mould.

The noose in Rogueport town square has no plot importance. It doesn’t tie into the narrative at any point, and it is unsurprisingly never used in the game (that might be a little too dark). It is just an aspect of Rogueport’s design, used to show that it is a rough, unwelcoming, and dangerous place. But to me it will always embody the way that Paper Mario: TTYD broke the conventions of being a Mario game, and the brilliantly wonderful writing that ensued.


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