Paper Mario: The Origami King surprised us all when it popped up in a Nintendo Direct mini this past May. With little fanfare or anticipation, it was seemingly brought into existence with a trailer that showcased pretty visuals, a brand-new art style for the game’s villains, and a new battle system that gave a whole other meaning to the phrase “turn-based combat.” The real surprise was at the end of the trailer, when it was revealed that it was only about two months out from release.
And what followed was typical internet discourse. Paper Mario has a tendency to be a divisive franchise for Nintendo, particularly when it comes to their community. Many fans long for the days of the original entry and The Thousand Year Door where the game was more of a party-based, turn-based RPG with experience points and levels to be gained, but Nintendo seems to want to take the series in another direction. Even after completing The Origami King, I can’t say that direction ever felt defined. It certainly plays like an RPG, but without any accommodating systems, the game feels confused about what it wants to be. Luckily, its humor and charm do a great job of distracting from its faults, but when they do pop up, get ready for a headache.
What Is It?
The story begins with Mario and Luigi on their way to Princess Peach’s castle for an origami festival, but upon arriving, they find the village has been ransacked. As luck would have it, the Princess is in trouble again — having been folded into a new origami form by Olly, the Origami King himself, who seeks to fold everything into origami. With Olly’s sister, Olivia, Mario must embark on a journey to stop Olly’s plan and save Princess Peach.
Why Should I Care?
The Origami King is at its best when it puts its humor at the forefront. The Paper Mario series has always had a reputation for being funny, and it feels like the writers behind The Origami King really took that to heart. Visual gags, running jokes, and witty dialogue permeate the entire experience and rarely do they miss. But the one humorous highlight that stands out above the rest has to be the Toads you can rescue throughout the game.
Thanks to The Origami King’s actions, many of the Toads — the lovable mushroom-capped denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom — have been folded into origami, and it’s up to Mario to give them a good whack on the head in order to flatten them out. Each Toad brings with them a humorous line or two of dialogue that I couldn’t help but screenshot every time I
crushed rescued one. They also appear during battles, where they fill the stands to cheer you on to victory with even more of their unique brand of humor. Every effort to find them felt wholly worth it through the game’s ~25 hour length.
Speaking of the game’s length, much of it feels like filler, sadly. The first third of the game moves from story beat to story beat at a fairly smooth pace, but after that, it grinds to a halt as an absurd amount of padding is introduced. About one-fourth of the game is filled with fetch-quests that are little more than diversions that side-step the game’s plot, rather than move it forward. Every time I would embark on a new objective, I already knew what was about to go down. I would discover a secondary goal that needed completing, and when I would go to do that, I would be met with around three more tasks I needed to do in order to do the secondary objective. It feels unnecessary, and if you’re simply trying to rush through the story, you might find yourself frustrated by how slow things can move. Fortunately, The Origami King’s world is a delight to exist in, and while it may not fix the above issues, seeing what it has to offer sure can distract from them.
The game’s world features several towns, islands, and landscapes, all of which feel unique in one way or another. Sometimes you’re walking through a relatively normal village of Toads, sometimes you’re taking the stage in a parody of West Side Story, and sometimes you’re walking through a museum that several Koopa-Troopas gather at so they can pay their respects to Koopa-Jesus, (I’m serious) who you’ll subsequently dethrone; whatever the case, there’s a lot to see, and also a lot to do. Aside from the aforementioned Toads, you can find several holes in the game’s world that you can patch up with confetti in exchange for coins. Watching the confetti float down from the air as it patches up a rift in the world is very visually appealing, and so quick and easy to do that sometimes, I felt like I wanted to just go around the place and patch up every one I could find.
Navigating this world is made easy thanks to the game’s various warp pipes, as well as Fax Travel — which, you guessed it, allows Mario to fax himself between Sensor Labs located around the map. If you couldn’t tell already, this is a game that has a lot of fun with its setting; it’s filled with lively world-building and writing that can be pretty hilarious.
The origami redesigns for most of the characters look stunning; they look detailed and provide a nice contrast to the series’ traditional art style. Beyond that, most of the non-origami characters are a bit lacking when it comes to how they look –most resemble classic Mario characters with small alterations here and there — but they’re loaded with such fun personalities that make them almost always a pleasure to engage with. But for as charming and funny as The Origami King is, I was surprised to find out that it can be just as emotional and mature.
About one-third of the way through, The Origami King shocked me. I was expecting the game not to take itself too seriously; to keep an air of comic relief throughout. But then I hit a point that felt awfully profound for a Paper Mario game — much less just a Mario game. Without getting into the nitty-gritty, it’s a scene that deals with questions of purpose, and selflessness; what’s even more impressive is how delicately it’s handled. It’s emotional weight never feels crushing — which is important given that this is a kid’s game, after all — but still had such a blunt impact, that I wanted to stop and process what had just happened. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be saddened by a Paper Mario game, nor did I really ever think it was possible, but I was proven wrong, and I couldn’t be happier.
And I really wish that moment was the only thing that saddened me in this game. What really deflates this experience more than anything is the game’s combat. In its own right, the combat is actually fantastic. Battles play out with Mario positioned in the middle of a circle, surrounded by a group of enemies on multiple circular planes that you can turn in order to line them up. Get them in a neat formation, and you’ll deal some bonus damage. Each battle is essentially a puzzle, and early on in the game, they felt great; you really feel like a genius when you complete one, and if you need more time or want a little help, you can simply spend a few coins to get either/or. But the combat has one key weakness that made me not want to fight as I got further into the game — it lacks purpose.
The Origami King does not have any sort of progression systems such as experience points or levels. You can still increase your health points and the amount of damage you deal, but not by engaging in combat. Instead, you’ll find power-ups hidden in the game’s open world for that. So what do you get for your efforts in battle? Well, you’re rewarded with coins and confetti, but the problem is that you can already find both of those by simply exploring the game’s world. It feels like more of an abruption in the gameplay loop, as opposed to a part of it; actively engaging in combat made me want to stop playing, which is why I opted to avoid combat as much as I could in the later parts of the game.
Boss battles are the exception, however. The bosses in this game literally turn the fights inside-out. Now, Mario is the one on the outside, you have to make a path inward towards the boss, and depending on where your path ends, you can pull off attacks, find items, or perform special attacks akin to Limit Breaks from Final Fantasy. They’re equal parts challenging and rewarding, but they’re only a temporary sigh of relief from the pointlessness of the main combat system. It’s a shame; the battle system is a well-functioning, polished mechanic that was actually one of the main reasons I was looking forward to this game, but in the end, its inclusion in the game feels mishandled as it ends up falling flatter than a Toad getting rescued by Mario.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
The Origami King is sure to provide a lot of joy thanks to its hysterical writing, excellent worldbuilding, and characters that — despite being made out of paper — feel three-dimensional as ever. It’s not the stuff you’d expect to be the high points of a Mario game, but alas, here we are.
But for as much as it made me smile throughout, it also gave me plenty of headaches due to its combat; while great in its own right, it feels disconnected from the rest of the game, and left me wondering “what is the point of this?” even long after I rolled credits. It may only be lacking in one particular area, but it’s an area so critical to the game itself, that it almost makes the whole experience fall flat at the end of the day, saved only by the setting’s overbearing charm.