Nostalgia in Play: How Video Games Shape a Player’s Coming of Age 

My Journey Re-playing Paper Mario

For the better part of a year, I looked at video games using the same critical lens that shaped my master’s dissertation. My studies began in the fall of 2020 when, despite all odds and a nerve-racking flight across the Atlantic, I enrolled in a master’s program at the University of St Andrews. I studied comparative literature and my research compared the medieval structure of Dante’s Comedy to the pilgrimage a player embarks on in the cult classic JRPG, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. I enjoyed analyzing the Comedy and Nocturne but the ominously dark atmospheres of these works and their esoteric narratives of  “finding salvation” began to lose my interest. 


It no longer felt like a privilege to be this player-pilgrim who converses with demons in hell and beholds God firsthand in His heavenly kingdom. I wanted to indulge in a piece of fiction that was grounded in the material concerns of the world, but I did not find a video game that filled this niche until returning to the U.S. and after I had submitted my dissertation. As I unpacked boxes I unearthed a copy of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

“Paper Mario?” I thought, as I inspected the box closely in my hands. I had not played this game in ages and just glancing at its title harkened back to memories of my childhood where I shared a used GameCube with my younger siblings. If Nocturne was the game that represented my venture into academia and acted as an accoutrement to my condition as a directionless young adult, then Thousand-Year Door was the title that recounted the origins of my life-long love for JRPGs.  Upon starting up the game after all of these years, I was overcome by the memories of my past playthroughs. One such memory included the first time I encountered the fearsome dragon Hooktail. I recalled vividly how my hands shook as my siblings watched in anticipation from the sidelines. It took only mere moments for the foul koopa-eating beast to wreck my entire party. I sat there in shock as my attempt to best Hooktail soon multiplied into innumerable failures. Surely, I thought, nervously, she had to be the final boss. 

Replaying Thousand-Year Door as an adult made it apparent that Hooktail was merely the first of many dungeon bosses, and it only took about 20 minutes to reach her lair. In my childhood playthrough, I endured hours of intensive gameplay just to set foot in the dragon’s castle. This was likely due to my inexperience playing RPGs and because my reading level was far too low to comprehend the game’s text-based directions. Mario’s objectives were obscured by my own confusion, and it felt as though I would never reach the game’s end. My siblings and I eventually gave up on trying to defeat Hooktail. We deemed Thousand-Year Door impossible to complete. Mario’s adventure had become like a thing of legend where, as players, we were one of the many knights that had fallen victim to this horrifying beast on our futile quest to defeat her. My friend, whose copy I used for this replay, recounted a similar tale of dying repeatedly to Hooktail as a young player. In his case, he somehow defeated Hooktail despite his delirium after coming home from a tonsillectomy. Our battles are just a few of many that make up the collective lore of Hooktail and her castle amongst players. Moments like these also affirm that life and games can be intertwined such that memory of one will evoke the other in unpredictable ways.

It was shocking to defeat Hooktail with ease in my recent playthrough, but by conquering this obstacle from my childhood I was free to progress further into the game with a newfound sense of confidence. I believe memories, both old and new, of the game contribute to why I continue to cherish Thousand-Year Door as one of my favorite games of all time. My encounter with Hooktail prepared me for the battles that were to come as I played more games and learned their mechanics to such an extent that I now view myself as an expert at navigating the combat and narratives of lengthy JRPGs. I began my journey as a child who could not beat the first boss and became a seasoned veteran who spends hours crafting the perfect team to take down Satan himself in a Shin Megami Tensei  game.  It was as if I was following in the footsteps of Dante and his guide Virgil, with each level I had to wade through petty scuffles with the lesser shades in hell before I was ready to accost its fallen king. Many of Mario’s party members undergo a coming of age that is inspired by his positive influence in their lives. For example, early in his quest to slay Hooktail, Mario recruits a timid Koopa, named Koops, who wishes to avenge his father after he was eaten by the dragon. If you defeat Hooktail, Koops learns that his father is miraculously alive. And yet, instead of returning home to be reunited with his family, Koops decides to continue his adventures with Mario. This storyline is of course silly and even a bit cliché, but it illustrates how a formerly childish character like Koops, who is initially dependent on his single-parent father, can push towards independence and self-determination and set forth on a dangerous journey of his own. I like to think that for the intended audience of this game, namely being children, that Koop’s story can serve as a blueprint for these young players as they grow up and learn to form their own thoughts about the world around them. 

Another powerful coming of age story is told through the perspective of Mario’s companion,Vivian. Prior to joining Mario, Vivian, along with her older sisters, were major antagonists, serving as obstacles in the party’s goal to open the titular Thousand-Year Door. Vivian’s sisters constantly mock and belittle her to the point that it comes as no surprise when she vows to desert them and befriend Mario instead. There is also an added layer of severity to Vivian’s abuse that is only present in some translations of the game, including the original Japanese, but not the English version that I am most familiar with. In the Japanese version, Vivian’s sisters vehemently disapprove of her gender identity, even going as far as to misgender Vivian despite her pleas for them to stop. Mario, on the other hand, treats Vivian with kindness and their friendship spurs her to abandon her toxic siblings to assist him on his heroic mission. Thus, a pivotal moment in Vivian’s coming of age is her resolution to leave an abusive situation and live unabashedly as her true and authentic self. Vivian’s story, while upsetting and  triggering, is nonetheless impactful for children who face similar hardships. For players who learned of Vivian’s struggles later in life, this conflict with her sisters is easy to empathize with and an important example of the trauma one may face when they do not abide by gender norms and societal expectations. Characters like Koops and Vivian carry these struggles with them and that is what makes them sympathetic heroes in their own right. 

Thousand-Year Door greatly impacted me as a child, because it allowed me to grasp abstract themes in a narrative like a character’s coming of age that I could then relate to my everyday life. Mario’s journey had become like a template for my own adventures. The character arcs of Thousand-Year Door do not shy away from discussing complicated issues despite envisioning its players as children, nor does it talk down to them. These players will be faced with similar hardships in their lives if they have not already, and the game teaches them that these experiences can become a source of strength.

Mario is not immune to experiencing adversity either. At the start of the game, in typical Mario Bros. fashion, Princess Peach is kidnapped by a nefarious group of evildoers. However, what saves Thousand-Year Door from being dismissed as another video game with a tiresome hero-saves-woman narrative is that the player can still play as Peach briefly throughout the game. In these moments, the player takes control of Peach to investigate the surroundings of her confinement. The objective of this task may come across as dour and paling in comparison to the excitement of Mario’s adventure, but that was far from the case when I played as Peach as a child. I notably enjoyed the change of pace where I could sneak around the dark hallways of Peach’s imprisonment to unveil mysteries about Mario’s new foe. When I revisited this side story in Thousand-Year Door years as an adult I was also drawn to Peach’s plight, and I was curious to see the outcome of the game’s events through her eyes. My time spent with Peach was also oddly calming. 

It was as if the game had given me a break to reflect on what had transpired previously with Mario and his party. As an adult player, I appreciated this downtime immensely. Perhaps my increased enjoyment of this gameplay was that Peach’s predicament of being stuck in a place of waiting was not unfamiliar to me in adult life. Growing up, I had aspirations for myself that I assumed would be fulfilled by the “limitless” freedom of adulthood. I know now that one’s coming of age is never this simple and that my own would be dotted with instances of liminal waiting. Eventually, I will leave limbo much like how at the end of a Mario game Peach is rescued by our hero. Peach’s story reassures me that there are multiple paths for  reaching a milestone, which I think is a powerful message in today’s uncertain times. 

While my memories of Thousand-Year Door are rooted in the past, I can create new meaning by reflecting on them. In my memory Mario’s heroism in Thousand-Year Door’s is truly everlasting. Despite his basic archetype as a silent JRPG protagonist, Mario is a positive force for change that a player cannot help but root for.

 The game invites players to participate in an interactive coming of age that unfolds through the shared insights of the player and the game’s characters. I will never forget Mario and his journey because this game has become a part of the experiences that made meOn that note, I would like to return to Dante and the Comedy, as the poet’s work, much like Thousand-Year Door, has captivated me for some time. In the Comedy, the pilgrim is instructed by his guide, Beatrice to write of his experience once he has returned home (Purgatorio, XXXII, Lines 103-105). What the guide’s request signifies to the pilgrim is that he will soon ascend to prophethood where his journey will enlighten those who have been led astray. I view this notion of fiction being used as a guide to be relevant to my time spent playing Thousand-Year Door. The game was there for me during pivotal moments in my life such as discovering my love for JRPGs and becoming a researcher in the emerging field of game studies. I will continue to cherish Thousand-Year Door as a digital guide I can refer to when I am feeling lost. The many locations in the game, like the seedy allies of Rogueport, the eeriness of Twilight Town, and the revelatory glory of the Thousand-Year Door, will bring forth fond memories that made me who I am today. 



Alighieri, D. Purgatorio.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (GameCube version) [Video game]. (2004). Nintendo.

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (PlayStation 2 version) [Video game]. (2003). Atlus.