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

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, a beloved GameCube classic from 2004, is deemed worthy of a new release on Nintendo Switch twenty years later. Original developer Intelligent Systems is at the helm here, having substantially reworked the visuals, rearranged the soundtrack and added a range of bonus extras via a new gallery section. It’s a suitably opulent upgrade for a game that still holds up today, with its charming paper and card aesthetics, interesting combat system, and engaging level design. Unfortunately, the visual upgrades come with a hefty framerate penalty, with the original target of 60fps on GameCube dropping to 30fps on Switch. Was that the right move, or is it too severe a cut? We tested the first chapters to reach an early verdict.

Cutting to the chase: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is one of the most unique RPGs to land on Switch. The paper aesthetic is obviously a big part of the appeal and also feeds directly into the game design. Once Mario lands on the very first hub area, Rogueport, every location you enter has backgrounds that expand and collapse like a pop-up book. It’s all rendered in full 3D, but the conceit of building a world out of paper-thin material creates this beautiful diorama effect. It’s a miniature paper playground that works according to its own logic, allowing you to flip, bend and fold its world – and even Mario himself. Aesthetics and game design merge into a beautifully coherent whole.

This visual overhaul of the Switch Edition goes far beyond what I expected, though it retains much of the core gameplay loop, level layout, puzzles, and dialogue of the GameCube original. There are reworked textures at almost every visible point in the world in the Switch version, while UI elements have been reworked to suit modern TVs. The geometry is built from scratch for each level – and even 2D sprites are replaced with full 3D replacements, often with the aim of emphasizing the effect of cardboard cutouts. There’s a huge amount of extra detail in there. Crucially, though, what’s here is still true to the spirit of the original, even if textures and geometry have been redesigned.

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

To bring The Thousand Year Door into the modern age, we’ve added two screen space rendering techniques to the Switch release: Screen Space Reflections (SSR) for reflective surfaces, and Screen Space Ambient Occlusion (SSAO) for shadows in the corners of the door. world. Neither technique was present in the GameCube version, but the Switch release goes out of its way to make use of both new visual features.

SSR is widely used around 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 for applying SSR is unusual and not always in accordance with the paper theme. Sometimes it makes sense, and sometimes it seems bolted on. You might not expect such a beautifully painted look over the green grass, but that certainly applies to the wooden floors of item stores. I would suggest that the original GameCube version, without SSR, tends to look more ‘papery’ as a result. Still, it’s a substantial change, and where it works takes full advantage of the three-generation jump to Switch hardware.

SSAO, ambient shading, also has a great visual impact, especially in low-light indoor shots such as Professor Frankly’s study. By comparison, the GameCube original seems much lighter, with the absence of any real shadow elements beyond the simple character shadow maps. At that point, Switch uses much more detailed shadow maps all round. Every shadow of characters and objects has a pleasantly diffused edge. Even environmental objects such as floating platforms benefit from precise dynamic shadows and enhanced lighting, with light shafts even being added in some scenes.

To cram all these visual features in – the updated textures, lighting, shadows, SSR and more – Switch runs at a native 1600×900 while docked. In handheld mode that drops to a lower native figure of 1138×640. As we often expect from Nintendo titles, there’s limited anti-aliasing present here, so you may notice a slight sheen over the white character outlines. Despite the relatively low internal resolution figures, the game still looks beautiful on modern displays – it’s a true widescreen adaptation, with a tidy UI and text to boot.

Finally, let’s tackle the drop from 60fps on the GameCube to 30fps on the Switch. The visual upgrades are extensive and generous, but the performance costs are noticeable. The question is: is it too much of a sacrifice for the improved visuals, or a reasonable trade-off to get the game running at this level of visual fidelity? In the developers’ defense, frame rendering is at least consistent at 33.3ms with virtually no deviation, delivering a near-locked 30fps readout in our testing.

Looking back at the GameCube original, it’s refreshing to see the game running at 60fps. The demands of this version are obviously much lower, as it runs 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 60 fps for that time and target spec.

paper mario: the millennial door screenshot comparing switch and gamecube with dialogue

paper Mario: the millennial door screen in which the switch and the gamecube are compared to a landscape

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

Jumping to Switch today, running at 30fps affects the game in two major ways. First, there’s the lateral 2D movement as you run through towns and dungeons. If you’re playing on the Switch’s smaller screen in portable mode, the 30fps update rate is honestly not that noticeable. Blown up on a larger TV, however, there is a visible difference in the fluidity of movement compared to the original, when running through the game’s dungeons, towns and meadows. On the other hand, the drop to 30fps isn’t as noticeable in combat given the fixed camera position, but the gameplay does require a certain amount of timing – for example pressing the A button just as you strike to get a ​​add critical hit. In general, most attacks require holding and releasing an input at the right time to do the most damage.

Inevitably, the 60fps of the GameCube original gives you a faster visual response to respond to these timing-sensitive attacks. The mitigating factor here is that Nintendo’s timing for exploiting these abilities is often quite generous. On Switch, I haven’t had any issues with landing attacks so far, but long-term fans of the game may be going through an adjustment period.

Maintaining the 60 fps of the GameCube original would of course have been ideal, but what we’re left with is still a fantastic adaptation: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door has never looked better. I’m also surprised by the extent of the visual overhaul. Intelligent Systems has really exceeded my expectations for a Switch update by rebuilding much of the game from scratch. Even though there is a compromise in performance, it cannot be faulted for being ambitious.

For context, this new Paper Mario remake has some parallels to the Switch release of Super Mario RPG. John covered this late last year and thought it was an impressive full 3D remake of the pre-rendered SNES original, albeit with an unlocked frame rate that could drop from 60fps to the mid-thirties at points – and might have benefited from a similar Frame rate limit of 30 fps. Given all this, the decision by Thousand Year Door developers Intelligent Systems to opt for a locked 30 fps is understandable. Giving users the choice may be the best thing of all, but we’ll never be so upset about consistent performance.

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