Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door – Is the drop to 30fps justified by the visual improvements?

A beloved GameCube classic from 2004, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door was deemed worthy of a new Nintendo Switch release a full 20 years later. Original developer Intelligent Systems is at the fore here, significantly overhauling its visuals, rearranging the soundtrack, and adding a host of bonus extras via a new gallery section. It’s a fittingly lavish upgrade for a game that still holds up today, with its charming paper-and-card aesthetic, interesting combat system, and compelling level design. Unfortunately, the visual upgrades come with a stiff framerate penalty, with the GameCube’s original 60fps target dropping to 30fps on the Switch. Was it the right move, or is it too severe a cut? We tested the opening chapters to give an early verdict.

To cut to the chase, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is one of the most unique RPGs on the Switch. Its paper aesthetic is a huge part of its appeal, of course, and feeds directly into the game’s design as well. After Mario lands in the first central area, Rogueport, every location you enter features backgrounds that expand and collapse like a pop-up book. Everything is rendered in full 3D, but the conceit of building a world out of wafer-thin material creates that lovely diorama effect. It’s a miniature paper playground with its own logic, allowing you to flip, bend and fold its world – and even Mario himself. The game’s aesthetics and design blend into a beautifully cohesive whole.

This Switch Edition visual change goes a lot further than I expected, though it largely retains the basic gameplay, level layout, puzzles, and dialogue of the GameCube original. In the Switch version, there are reworked textures in almost every visible point in the world, while UI elements have been reworked to suit modern TVs. Geometry is rebuilt from scratch for each level – and even 2D sprites are replaced with full 3D placeholders, often to accentuate the cardboard cutout effect. There is a huge amount of extra detail layered on. Most importantly, though, what’s here is still true to the spirit of the original, even if the textures and geometry have been redone.

Here’s the full video breakdown comparing The Thousand Year Door to its GameCube predecessor in docked and handheld mode on Switch. Watch on YouTube

Bringing The Thousand Year Door into modern day, we have two screen space rendering techniques added to the Switch version: Screen Space Reflections (SSR) for reflective surfaces and Screen Space Ambient Occlusion (SSAO) for shading in the corners of a world . Neither technique was present in the GameCube version, but the Switch version goes to great lengths to utilize both of these new visual features.

SSR is widely applied throughout the world to give wood, grass, and stone a glossy sheen, with Mario, his allies, and background elements often visible in the reflection. However, the logic of where SSR is applied is unusual and not always consistent with the topic of the paper. Sometimes it makes sense and other times it seems screwed up. You might not expect a thoughtfully lacquered look on green grass, for example, but it rings true for thrift store wood floors. I’d suggest the original GameCube version, sans SSR, often looks more “papery” as a result. Still, it’s a substantial change, and where it works, it makes the most of the three-generation leap to the Switch’s hardware.

SSAO, ambient shading, also has a big visual impact – especially in low-light interior shots like Professor Frankley’s study. In comparison, the GameCube original looks much lighter, with the lack of any real shadow elements beyond simple character shadow maps. At this point, the Switch uses much more detailed shadow maps throughout. Every shadow cast by characters and objects has a nice diffused edge. Even objects in the environment, such as floating platforms, benefit from accurate dynamic shadows and improved lighting, and in some scenes even light shafts are added.

To cram all these visual features — the updated textures, lighting, shadows, SSR, and more — the Switch runs at a native 1600×900 while docked. In manual mode, this drops to a lower native figure of 1138×640. As we’ve often come to expect from Nintendo titles, there’s limited antialiasing here, so you might notice a slight glow in the outlines of the white characters. Despite the relatively low internal resolution values ​​here, however, the game still looks beautiful on modern displays – it’s a suitable widescreen adaptation, with a clean UI and text to boot.

Finally, let’s tackle that drop from 60fps on the GameCube to 30fps on the Switch. The visual upgrades are extensive and generous, but the performance cost is noticeable. The question is: is it too much of a sacrifice for the improved visuals, or a reasonable trade-off to make the game run at this level of visual fidelity? In the developers’ defense, framerate delivery was at least consistent at 33.3ms with almost no deviation, delivering a near-locked 30fps reading during our testing.

Looking back at the GameCube original, it’s refreshing to see the game run at 60fps. This version’s requirements are much lower, of course, running at native 480p, and it’s worth bearing in mind that the GameCube was a more powerful home console than Nintendo’s handhelds of the time. It was perfectly optimized for 60fps for its day and target specs.

paper mario: a screenshot of the door in the millennium comparing the switch and gamecube to a landscape

Thousand Year Door shows significant evolutions from GameCube to Switch – as you would hope from 20 years of technological progress. | Image credit: Digital foundry

Moving to the Switch today, running at 30fps affects gameplay in two key ways. First, there’s side-by-side 2D movement as you go through towns and dungeons. Playing on the Switch’s smaller display in handheld mode, the 30fps refresh rate honestly doesn’t stand out that much. Expanded to a larger TV, however, there is a noticeable difference in the smoothness of movement compared to the original, when running through the game’s dungeons, cities and meadows. On the other hand, the drop to 30fps isn’t as obvious in combat given its fixed camera position, but the gameplay does require some measure of timing – for example, pressing the A button just as you hit to add a critical hit . In general, most attacks require holding and releasing input at the right moment to do the most damage.

Inevitably, the GameCube original’s 60fps gives you faster visual response to react to those time-sensitive attacks. The mitigating factor here is that Nintendo’s time window for getting these abilities is often quite generous. I haven’t had a problem with the attacks so far on the Switch, but longtime fans of the game may go through an adjustment period.

Of course, keeping the 60fps of the GameCube original would be ideal, but what we’re left with is still a superb adaptation – Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door has never looked better. I’m also surprised by the extent of the visual overhaul. Intelligent Systems really exceeded my expectations for a Switch update by rebuilding so much of the game from scratch. Even if there is a compromise in performance, its ambition cannot be faulted.

For context, this new Paper Mario remake has several parallels to the Switch edition of Super Mario RPG. John covered this late last year and found it to be an impressive full 3D remake of the pre-rendered SNES original, albeit with an unlocked framerate that can drop from 60fps to the mid-30s in places – and perhaps it would have benefited from a similar frame rate cap of 30 fps. That being said, Thousand Year Door Intelligent Systems developers’ decision to go with a locked 30 frames per second is understandable. Giving users choice might be best of all, but we’d never be too upset about consistent performance.

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