Posted By Robert H. about 7 months, 3 weeks ago
When we last left our hero in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Mario had visited Rogueport, an off-corner of the Mushroom Kingdom, at the request of Princess Peach. Upon arrival, he naturally learned that she had been kidnapped and he was left to find the Crystal Stars in an attempt to both open the mystical Thousand-Year Door and find Peach along the way. The magical map left by the Princess directed Mario to a pleasant field area branching off of Rogueport called Petal Meadows. This sort of plain grassy field is one of the most common trends in practically any Mario series, always serving as a simple initial area to introduce players to the game and its mechanics without too much challenge to the player. However, Petal Meadows separates itself from the group in many ways, leading to one of the best introduction levels I’ve seen in a Mario game.
An initial glance around the area after coming out of the sewer pipe used to get there may give that simple impression that Petal Meadows, due to the very cheery and vibrant look full of flowers, trees, and other greenery. The music is a cheery tune that makes for great traveling music and gives the area a very welcoming impression. However, moving forward through the area quickly shatters that perception beyond repair. A short distance from the entrance, the music cuts out, the screen shakes, and an imposing dragon is seen flying overhead to a castle in the background, to the shock and awe of your partner, Goombella. Though incredibly quick, this small event is very effective in showing how the cheery air surrounding Petal Meadows is merely a façade. There is real danger around this place and a problem that obviously has to be fixed.
After traversing many grassy paths full of basic enemies due to there being no obvious way to get to the castle, Mario comes across Petalburg, a small hamlet of good Koopas where the initial hints of danger are only strengthened. Talking to many of the townsfolk prompts them to discuss how they live in fear of Hooktail, the aforementioned dragon, flying by and eating them at a moment’s notice. It’s not all gloom and doom, as the town gives off a very serene feeling through both look and musical accompaniment and many inhabitants are just glad to see a visitor. However, the presence of Hooktail clearly hangs over the town, having led to the constant fear and shoring up of visitors in the area. Although the town is a nice area to explore in its own right, it also further increases anticipation for the inevitable encounter with the gigantic dragon.
Following standard RPG procedure and talking to everyone in town exposes a few uniquely-designed characters that clearly have a measure of importance. Surprisingly though, despite the very limited interaction, they all leave a distinct impression that made me remember them for a long time after they had ceased to be important. For example, Kroop, the mayor, who gives you access to Shwoonk Fortress in an effort to get the keys to open the path to Hooktail Castle, has an entire talk that involves him mishearing everything said to him and mistakenly calling Mario “Murphy.” As you leave, one of the other unique characters, Koops, comes up to you and tells you to be careful, as the fortress has lately been invaded by monsters, before awkwardly walking off. The odd situation and uniquely designed eyes made him stand out in my mind in a very similar way to how Kroop did, a trend most of the secondary characters in Thousand-Year Door follow. Regardless, with the warning in mind, you depart and quickly begin to come across the different stone sections of the fortress.
Each of the three stone buildings that make up Shwoonk Fortress contains unique enemies, for the time at least, that must be defeated in order to progress. These enemies are all tricky to beat for the time, as the Clefts and Bristles blocking the path can’t be hit with the basic Jump and Hammer commands Mario has at his disposal due to their spikes and high defense. As such, the game requires cleverness to beat them, specifically the use of the POW block to get by the otherwise impenetrable defenses levied against you. I really appreciate the fact that the area is designed to make the player think about a way to get through, presenting special scenarios to make the area memorable and unique. The third enemy however, is an entirely different beast altogether.
Arriving at the end of the path presents another, seemingly tough battle. However, the enemy doesn’t come off its pedestal and attack like the others. When the Thwomp’s challenge is accepted, he merely spins around, takes the screen apart, and leaves behind a quiz show with himself as the host and Mario as the contestant. Yes, you did read that right. The final challenge to get into the fortress proper is a quiz show that asks questions about the game in general, from how many legs a group of different enemies would have altogether to asking which number question you are currently on. While completely ridiculous, it fits perfectly in line with the game’s sense of humor and presents a very different sort of challenge to the player. It’s both entertaining and fun, and I am sure that I’m not the only one who wouldn’t have minded more of this kind of challenge. Regardless, through either five correctly answered questions or victory fighting the enemies summoned if you fail the quiz, the path down is opened and you go down through the pipe to the dark unknown.
There isn’t much in the bowels of Shwoonk Fortress beyond the Sun and Moon Keys needed to progress to Hooktail Castle and a lot of the HP-absorbing Fuzzy enemies. However, the lower areas do present one distinct challenge to overcome: the first mini-boss fight of the chapter against the Gold Fuzzy. While he may not be very difficult, he does show off the unique nature that most of the boss fights in Thousand-Year Door share. The Gold Fuzzy fights alongside a massive group of Fuzzies that come together to form one targetable enemy, albeit with a stronger, multi-part attack. The small encounter is more a test of how well you can block attacks, with the Fuzzy Hoard and the Gold Fuzzy whittling away at your limited health as you attempt to knock out the main enemy and end the battle. It’s an effective tool to ensure you are ready for the dungeon ahead and a rather fun fight to boot.
Of course, as with many RPGs, the keys aren’t actually enough to unlock the path to Hooktail Castle. You would need the ability to hit two switches at once; a hole that gets filled before you even know you need it. On the way back to the unlocking area, Koops confronts you beyond the front gate of Petalburg. More or less, he asks you to take him along to Hooktail Castle so he can both prove himself braver than everyone sees him and avenge his father, who once went off to stop Hooktail himself and never came back. Naturally, you accept the offer and get a new partner to assist Mario in his travels. Koops can be shot in his shell outside of battle to hit things that Mario cannot and provides the best ground-based partner in combat, both of which are used well throughout the chapter to introduce the player to Koops’ abilities. Unlike some RPGs with party members that feel useless in the grand scheme, every partner in Thousand-Year Door is useful and has a clearly defined advantage; a rule that Koops is no exception to. As such, with Koops’ help, the path to the castle is opened and you get to the first real dungeon of the game.
Hooktail Castle is also actually one of my favorite dungeons in the game, as it provides such a great contrast to the preceding area with its gloomy atmosphere, accentuated with a slow, plodding theme and numerous skeletons scattered all over the castle. There are also so many tiny events that add up to a great overall experience. Koops proves a constant help with his shell shots being necessary to flip many switches to activate the many floating blocks that allow further progression in the castle. Activating a red skeleton that blocks a particular door fills the room with innumerable weaker enemies that must be bashed through in the room proper in order to start an actual mini-boss battle against the Red Bones. Koops comes across a skeleton that he is sure is his father, finds a note in its hand that hints at an exploitable weakness of Hooktail’s, and then realizes the note is addressed to the skeleton’s son Kolorado, leading to another awkward moment with Koops and a nice reference for those who played the first Paper Mario. All these small events tie together to make every section of the area memorable in its own distinct way.
Naturally though, all the buildup comes to a head when you actually arrive at the boss room and have to battle Hooktail herself. With strong attacks, defense in a game where any defense can be considered significant and a couple more tricks in her repertoire, Hooktail presents a significant challenge to the beginning player … unless you were paying attention throughout the dungeon. From the note found earlier and an encounter with the mischievous Ms. Mowz in a storeroom, you are well aware that there is a badge in the dungeon that can help with the battle. Specifically, by equipping the Attack FX R badge found in the dungeon and making a cricket sound with every attack, you make Hooktail sick to her stomach due to a bad experience eating a cricket that led to food poisoning. Aside from being a rather entertaining concept in the first place, this decreases her attack and defense power significantly, making the battle much more manageable. This isn’t necessary to win the fight, but the multiple possibilities presented to the attentive player make the situation all the more interesting.
Also interesting are the further surprises the fight has in store. After depleting Hooktail’s health bar, she will start trying to make deals with you to spare her. From an extremely rare badge to the incredibly desperate option of smelling her feet, something that is “apparently” very common, she makes her attempts, getting a quick attack if you accept and merely backing off if you continuously refuse. At least, she backs off until she jumps into the crowd watching the battle, thanks to the stage audience mechanic, and actually eating your audience, restoring her health by half. After a second health depletion with her now weakened state, you finally knock out the giant beast and, after having a touching reunion with Koops and his father, grab the first of the seven Crystal Stars. The surprise final phase of the fight not only leads to more entertaining dialog, but also uses the unique battle mechanics of Thousand-Year Door to great effect, causing a situation that wouldn’t be possible in any other game. I love to see a game use its special qualities well, and this is a prime example of just such an action.
As stated before, the plain grassland is one of the most cliché starting area in the all of video gaming, let alone the Mario series itself. However, Petal Meadows managed to separate itself from the vast majority in many ways. There was a surprising undercurrent of darkness to be found in many areas, from the overrun Shwoonk Fortress to the ever-looming threat of Hooktail. In fact, even without considering the more shadowy areas, the traditional areas still managed to stand out with their vibrant design and the personality inherit to the game itself. Petal Meadows may not be my favorite area of Thousand-Year Door by a significant margin, but it is still a level to be appreciated. The first real level of any game sets the tone and standard for the rest of the experience to be judged on, and Petal Meadows does a good job at leaving a great impression.
I am sorry it took so long to get back to this mini-series. A few things happened that had me take a break from writing AAA and this series first section was left high and dry because of it. Regardless, it’s back on schedule now and if you want to catch up on my journey through the levels of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, be sure to check the link at the beginning of the article. Hope you all enjoy.
Awesome Area Analysis is a bi-weekly column by Robert Heck that talks about great levels from all walks of gaming, exploring how and why they work so well. Look for a new AAA to be posted every other Thursday. Comments, constructive criticism, and suggestions for other levels to look over are always welcome and always appreciated.