About half a year on from that, the first images of Paper Mario 2 arrived. It looked (and still looks) like the original but at a much higher resolution. All of the rather fuzzy looking sprites are now very clearly defined. Although the sequel shares quite a few similarities with the first game, it's by no means a simple rehash however as I shall attempt to explain now.
The story begins when Princess Peach, on holiday with her faithful 'shroom butler Toadsworth, sends a postcard to Mario saying that she bought a strange looking map from a shady looking merchant in Rogueport (you'd think the name of the place would give her a clue that it's not the safest of areas, but she's a bit of a ditz). No sooner has she bought said item and shipped it off to Mario for safe keeping, then she's kidnapped by the X-Nauts (evil scheming alien guys). Mario, being the clever chap he is, realises that she's probably got herself in trouble again and sets off to Rogueport to find out what's going on. When he gets there, he discovers Toadsworth in a state of distress, and soon the map leads them to the fable Thousand Year Door, which according to local legend holds back a demon with the power to destroy the Mushroom Kingdom. It's up to Mario and the assorted pals he meets along the way to travel the world and gather the seven Crystal Stars in order to gain the power to hold the demon, the X-Nauts and Bowser at bay.
The game plays in a similar fashion to the original. Firstly, when not in a town, you can see enemies wandering around. If you jump on them then you score a free hit before the main battle even begins, but if they hit you the same thing applies in reverse. Battles are turn-based affairs, but instead of just pressing the button and watching Mario & Co. attack, you get to participate in the form of action commands. These vary from holding the stick left and then letting go on the count of three for a hammer strike, to circling the stick and other motions. Correct timing scores extra hits, and action commands also work in defense as well. Then there are a variety of moves than you can use by equipping various badges and spending Flower Points (FP) in battle. The amount of badges you can equip are limited by your Badge Points (BP). Experience is this game takes the form of Star Points, and every time you earn 100 Star Point you earn a level. Then you have to decide whether to increase your Hit Points (HP), FP or BP.
This is all very similar to the way things worked on the N64, but the twist this time is that all the battles take place on a stage. Accurate timed hits and spectacular moves are more likely to impress the audience, which in turn leads to more people coming to watch next time and more power in your Star Meter. At the end of each chapter, you get another one of the Crystal Stars and another Star Power, and you can use these to help you out. Star Power include healing spells, earthquakes and sleep inducing moves, and each uses a certain amount of your meter. Finally, you meet a number of other characters on your travels, including a Goomba, a Ghost, and a Yoshi, who each get a turn before or after Mario and each have their own strengths. Yoshi, for example, is the only character that can harm certain enemies by swallowing them and spitting them out again. Outside of battle each of your companions has a special ability as well, such as Yosh's flutter jump, and this is usually the way you gain access to new areas.
There are also a view abilities you gain throughout the game from "cursed" black chests, such as the ability to turn into a plane, roll up into a tube or turn sidewise to fit between small gaps. If all this sounds rather complicated, you needn't worry as everything is explained very clearly as you go along and it's easy to use.
The game has a very witty translation that rivals Nintendo's hilarious english version of Mario & Luigi, and highlights of the story include prize fighting in the Glitz Pit as the Great Gonzalez, and breaking a curse that means that the residents of Twighlight Town turn into pigs everytime the bell in town square rings. After each main chapter there are interludes where you take control of Princess Peach and Bowser as you follow their side of story. Peach's sections are very entertaining as you creep around the X-Naut's base and are assisted by a computer who develops a crush on her after watching her naked in the shower (the perve!).
I know for a fact that cel shaded graphics are not everyone's cup of tea (just look at the fuss that Wind Waker caused) but personally I think the graphics in Paper Mario 2 are fantastic. They look liked a hand drawn pop-up booked, with walls of buildings folding down as you enter. The power of the Gamecube is put to the test on various occasions when 100's of sprites fill the screen at the same time.
There are some nice tunes as well, but it's not the most amazing game soundtrack to ever fill my ears. I particularly like the funked up remix of the original Mario theme that plays near Hooktail Castle at the start of the game. There are no voice overs in the game, and the usual Mario sound effects such as his jumping noises, the ching of coins and so forth are also all present and correct. So aurally Paper Mario 2 is functional at best, but at least nothing is particularly offensive to the ear.
From a lifespan point of view Paper Mario 2 is a much longer game than the original. As well as the main quest, which is likely to take to from between 25-30 hours, there are a whole range of sidequests that can push that time up to 40-50 hours. These include collecting info on all the enemies in the tattle log, finding all the badges, combining items and discovering new recipes, beating a second, harder version of the Glitz Pit, defeating the 100 level dungeon, playing mini games in the Casino and solving all the "Troubles". There is a message board in Rogueport where resident from all over the world post their problems for Mario to solve, and later ones can involve traipsing back and forth across the world several times. This is great news for completist who love to do every side quest in their RPG's but those who just want to get on with story needn't worry as they're completely optional.
So, this all adds up to one of the finest RPG's on the Gamecube (although there is some stiff competition in the forms of Tales of Symphonia, Baten Kaitos and my old favourite, Skies of Arcadia). It is undoubtedly one of my Top 10 games of 2004 and if you haven't bought a copy yet, I suggest you do so. It has more than enough game to keep you happy for weeks to come.
The RetroGaming Score: 9 out of 10