Just because I'm a JPRG doesn't mean I can't have fun!
The opening statement to this review should clue you in on my hatred for the house of Hironobu Sakaguchi and all its shabby, unkempt denizens. Let's face it the RPG in Japan as we know it is in dire need of revival and/or renovation, with overindulgent cutscenes, overly complicated battle mechanics, and an unwieldy length that would rival any Final Fantasy delay. These traits are all commonly shared between modern JRPG's, and the sad thing about these games is their unwillingness to grow beyond the technology they have clearly outgrown. Much like an ancient Samurai Warrior or a Yakuza boss clinging to the old ways, these stubborn old men of game design seek to squash the up and coming competition with their sheer girth (fanbase) as they are too old to put up a good fight. Enter Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, a muscular and lean ambassador who wishes to honor those who came before him, while gently suggesting to those who are older that they might perhaps need to move on. Leading to a glorious revival of all that you loved about those JRPG's of yesteryear while providing fun and engaging gameplay for those who aren't acquainted with the old ways. (If you like JRPG's disregard this entire paragraph, and know that this is a JRPG with all the trappings you could ever want plus Mario's charm at its best.)
So while Paper Mario does cling to the "old ways" it certainly doesn't waste an opportunity to amaze with its amazing visual style, impressive 3D/2D synthesis, snappy new orchestral/chiptune sountrack, and remixes of old tunes. This is perhaps where my concept of an ambassador between old and new is most apt, because the game looks phenomenal, but still remembers and uses the visual trickery of those that came before it. Often you'll stare in awe as a boss bigger than the stage you fight on (more on that in the next paragraph) stoops down to fight little old you. You also might find yourself laughing at the vaguely fourth-wall breaking antics of a ship turning around by being lifted up out of the water and turned around as if you were actually turning around a piece of paper. In all the visual package is so well done that you may find yourself thinking "man who needs 3D when you've got a virtual pop-up book like this?". That's not even mentioning the amazing renditions of old Mario themes, while still providing enough new chiptune music that the new seems old, and the old seems new; it's a crazy, crazy coexistence that, no matter what your position on Mario is, will sweep you off your feet and carry you to a magical dreamland where everything sounds like an 8-bit orchestra from heaven.
Hey remember that stage I was talking about in the last paragraph? Yeah, that's where you'll spend most of your time fighting baddies (aside from hilarious side-scrolling Bowser sequences) and earning SP (star points) to level up. Most of what you'd expect from a Mario themed RPG are here, action commands, a flower-point system for special attacks, star points for super-special attacks, and a badge system to learn new attacks. In addition to all these old favorites that would've been okay on their own is an audience dynamic and roulette system. The audience recharges your star power, and the more audience members there are the faster you recharge your star power. There are little things you can do to speed this along like wave to the crowd, pull of a stylish move, (another, more complicated action command system that's not spelled out for like the regular action commands) or win a roulette spin. The roulette adds a really nice random element to battles, every turn one of two roulette wheels spin and if two of the tiles match up you can control the third spin. If you manage to actually win one of these during a boss fight it can turn the tide of battle in either direction, sometimes refilling every meter you could possibly think of, to dropping your health and flower points down to 5 (or 1, I'm not sure).
Regardless of all these great battle mechanics, the story has and always will be the driving force of any RPG. However, Mario's not been known to volunteer at the Shakespeare Tavern on weekends, so how could any possible good come of it? Well, it certainly is a ham-fisted, overdramatic, mess of a second-grade school play...but that's why it's genius. Paper Mario does all this with a wink and a slightly self-aware nod that pokes fun at more gladiatorial arena scandal, Russian stereotyped Bob-Ombs!, and terrorist attacks on trains then you can shake a stick at! All this is supported by an amazing supporting cast that you meet and recruit in all but one or two of the ten, meaty chapters. In fact, you almost get the sense that these characters were more important than the world-ending "Shadow Queen" that the game fails at building up to until the last chapter, because after you've finished the game you don't cut to Mario and Peach waving at you from the top of the Mushroom Kingdom, but rather we get epilogues for all of our supporting cast instead. Add to that the computer that wants to get in Peach's...dress, the crazy story of King Bowser and Kammy Koopa always pulling up one step behind in the race for the Crystal Stars, and the sub-plot of a mysterious mousy mistress and you have one crazy fever dream of a Mario story that is loads of fun to play through.
At the end of the day this review will come down to whether or not you like having fun, because that's what this game is all about. It wants so hard to make you like it that it streamlines the traditional JRPG systems and the Mario story to get you as fast as possible to the stuff that this team put their heart and soul into building, that is unconventional battle mechanics and an interesting supporting cast. Add to that a 20-plus hour adventure, an in-depth quest system, a well thought out extra partner side-quest, and a challenge survival "hall of the challenges" thing and you've got a total package of JRPG/Mario goodness that you could play into the next century. So whether you're a Sakaguchi Samurai or a Miyamoto mob-boss you will have played THE best of both worlds.