GAME REVIEW: Paper Mario: The Origami King

Game: Paper Mario: The Origami King
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch (Reviewed)
Release Date: July 17, 2020

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The Paper Mario franchise originated on the Nintendo 64 as a follow up to the acclaimed SNES role-playing game Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Both titles perfectly blended the platforming gameplay that Mario is known for with simplified role-playing mechanics that’s approachable for both veterans and newcomers alike. The mix of 2D and 3D graphics in Paper Mario ensured that the game would stand out from the crowd of other “me-too” RPGs that opted for a standard fantasy art style. All of this solidified Paper Mario as a bona fide hit, and it appeared Nintendo had an RPG franchise that could go the distance with the best in the genre.

The series maintained that RPG formula with its sequel, The Thousand Year Door, but the third game, Super Paper Mario, ditched the RPG features and focused much more heavily on its platforming gameplay. Since then, each entry has delivered a brand new, distinctive experience that can’t be found anywhere else. Needless to say, many fans haven’t been thrilled about this shift, and begrudge the franchise for abandoning its RPG roots. The 3DS exclusive Sticker Star in particular has been the target of much animosity from gamers, despite it being nominated for several handheld game of the year awards, and obtaining a respectable 75/100 score on Metacritic. This bitterness has seemingly transferred over to the following two entries as well, and the Switch’s recent release of Paper Mario: The Origami King is no exception. What should be a slam dunk for Nintendo has turned into a game many consumers have avoided due to presumptions and the mixed reception of a previous title.

Our adventure begins with Mario and Luigi on their way to Peach’s castle to partake in the Origami Festival being held in Toad Town. Once they arrive however, they find the entire area spookily deserted, the streets only inhabited by the folded origami left behind by the town’s folk.

Upon entering the castle, the heroic brothers are confronted by a creepy Origami version of the Princess, who attempts to capture the duo and turn them into origami as well. After escaping her clutches, Mario rescues an origami fairy named Olivia, who seems to be the only friendly folded character around. She confides in Mario that all of this is the doing of her evil brother Ollie, who has declared himself the Origami king, and seeks to shape the world into his image. Mario and Olivia then set off, their goal being to cut the six ribbons holding Peach’s Castle at bay, and to stop Ollie once and for all.

Before I get into the contentious combat system and general gameplay, I want to gush over its wonderful presentation. It’s evident right off the bat that The Origami King retains that quintessential Paper Mario humor and charm that has come to define the series. The is no shortage of moments that will make you laugh out loud, and really fall in love with the residents of the Mario world. The game is filled to the brim with puns, and while these would be cringeworthy in any other setting, I just can’t help but smile when I hear a toad make a dad joke.

The writers have crafted some genuinely awesome scenarios for the player to embark upon, too. Throughout your adventure, you’ll explore a Shogun inspired Theme Park, a casino village in the middle of the desert, and even a heavenly spa high up in the clouds. Every area feels fresh and distinctive, and I was always excited to see just how our heroes would overcome each new wacky situation.

The Paper Mario franchise is often at its best when it examines the smaller details of the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom, and The Origami King is conclusively no different. Some of my favorite scenes are when Mario and the gang take a break from the main plot, and enjoy a small moment of downtime. This is when the Mario universe really comes to life. Several times Mario can stop by a café hidden within the area to enjoy a drink alongside Bowser’s minions, who are themselves getting respite from “patrolling” the region. Other times, and much more frequently, Mario will speak with the mushroom headed Toads of the Kingdom, and with each conversation you get to uncover a bit more of their culture: what they like, their hobbies, the things that scare them, and their overall eccentricity. It’s in this way that Paper Mario really has the ability to make even the common Goomba feel like a real live person.

There is no better example of this than in the Bomb companion that joins Mario early in the game. Simply named Bob-omb, he has lost his memory and sets out to help find his identity. Olivia begins to call him “Bobby,” both because she mishears the name Bob-omb, and because she wants to help give him a sense of individuality. I won’t go into more detail, but Bobby’s storyline alone makes this game worth playing for longtime fans of the Mario games, and by the time the credits role I guarantee you you’ll never look at the enemies in a Mario game the same way again.

Speaking of companions, Olivia makes for a wonderful sidekick. On the outset, she appears to exhibit that annoying behavior often attributed to cohorts like Navi in Ocarina of Time; Olivia is childish, ditzy, and talks a bit too much for her own good. Yet, her sweet, innocent behavior has a way of worming into your heart. She’s oblivious to the many dangers of the world, seeing as she has only just recently been created, thus this defenselessness makes her a character that you just want to protect.  Olivia shows exceptional growth throughout the tale, as the plot later turns to her learning what it is to be Origami, what it means to be different from most all others, and finding the simplest joys in a world that in many ways has gone horribly wrong.

Mario is joined by many other sidekicks, too, who all offer their unique abilities to help defeat the Origami King. These party members are often limited to their specific area, but they help make each chapter distinct, and add a bunch of character that is most welcomed. Their skills are most helpful in exploration: Some can dig up buried treasure, while others can provide a ship to sail the high seas. They also assist in battle, but it’s completely unreliable as the player cannot issue commands to them, and they don’t always attack, so their combat support is simply an added bonus.

Speaking of, let’s segue into the debated combat system. Unlike traditional RPG battles, The Origami King uses a creative puzzle arrangement that you must solve in order to damage your foes. In normal combat, Mario stands in the center of an arena that’s divided into four ring-shaped sections and 12 radial slots. Enemies will occupy one of these slots, and it’s the player’s goal to line up enemies so that they may be damaged. At the start of a turn, the player may rotate the rings horizontally, or slide the slots vertically. Mario has two standard attacks: jumping in a line with his boots, or smashing with his hammer at a two-by-two section in front of him. What complicates things is the ticking timer that forces you to think fast, and that each battle provides the player with just enough moves to line up the enemies properly, although if you succeed in doing so, you’ll achieve a bonus to your damage, helping you eliminate them all at once.

Boss battles offer their own unique challenge. In these scenarios, the roles are reversed in that the enemy is in the center of the arena, and the player must arrange arrows on the field to guide Mario along a path to grab power-ups, flip switches, and eventually landing on an attack space.

Most boss encounters have their own gimmick to keep things fresh; one foe will tape slots together so you can’t move them, while another will wash away slots that are in their way. To defeat bosses, the player will almost always use one of the origami summons that they acquire in the game. These powerful attacks let Olivia change into a mighty beast that not only deals extreme damage but can grant Mario combat bonuses as well. It’s awesome seeing Mario call forth the strength of a giant winged dragon like something out of Final Fantasy. There is also the 1,000 fold arm attack that Mario can utilize in these battles that can cause massive harm to the boss in the right situation. Players will constantly be switching up their tactics on the fly to overcome these intense confrontations.

I like that boss fights are a bit different from normal battles. It helps separate them from the basic fights, creating a much more memorable and challenging experience, which is exactly what boss fights should do. I wish more games would embrace this approach.

Early in the adventure, battles come across as very simple, but don’t be fooled. You’ll be lulled into a false sense of confidence that can quickly blindside you with an intricate brainteaser that comes out of nowhere. Most all normal battles are arranged in a way for the player to succeed in just one round, but this isn’t always obvious. Failing to remove all enemies on the board can quickly lead to a large loss of health and a swift defeat.

This can make it really frustrating when you screw up in this game. You know that every puzzle can be solved, that every battle can be won perfectly, so when you mess up, it’s all on you. The game won. It’s not because you didn’t have the best gear, or didn’t level up enough, but because this cute little Mario game outsmarted you YET AGAIN. It’s infuriating at times. That timer doesn’t make things any easier either, as if pushes you to think faster, and often that can lead to you making a costly mistake like using a turn you weren’t meaning to use. When that happens, it’s hard not to toss the controller.

Despite the surprising difficulty of later stages, the developers did design the game for players to make it as easy as that want it to be. There are tons of ways that gamers can tailor their experience, should they want to. For starters, if players find themselves stuck on a particular move, they can press the X button to call up Olivia, who will offer a bit of advice on how to remedy the situation. These hints are usually just enough to nudge the player in the right direction, with suggestions like putting flying enemies in a line as only Mario’s jump can damage them, or placing a koopa shell out front so it can damage all foes behind it when it is hit.

For those that are having a very hard time fighting enemies, the puzzle solver item is a more extreme solution. When used, this item walks the player through the steps on how to complete the existing puzzle, and even stops the clock so the player can take his or her time. This is perfect for more casual players, or younger gamers that haven’t quite grasped the concept yet but still want to play the game. Some people have a problem with the puzzle solver item, but I contend that it’s a purely optional tool that can help players overcome any hurdles that hinder their gaming experience.

Accessories are almost necessary in overcoming some of the later challenges. Mario can equip badges that can increase health, decrease damage taken, put more time on the clock, and other great benefits. Weapons are also plentiful; although Mario essentially only has his boots and his hammer, there are many types of each, from iron boots that allow Mario to stomp on spiky enemies, to hurling hammers that can be tossed at foes from afar. All special variants of weapons will eventually break, so players will want to hoard a good amount of the most powerful ones so they aren’t stuck with their standard gear in a tough situation.

Items are also at your disposal, and players can choose to take a turn to eat a mushroom to heal up, or employ a damage dealing tool like a fire flower, POW block, or raccoon tail as well.

Coins also find exceptional use in aiding in combat too. Early on, Mario will gain the ability to increase the battle timer by paying out coins that he has collected. Every 10 coins adds a single second, so it’s not too expensive, and can really turn the battle in your favor if you just need a little more time to think.

If you’re desperate, Mario can shower the field with coins and get the audience of Toads in on the fun. Bribing toads will make them come out of the stands and, depending on how much you pay, will let them damage foes, replenish Mario’s health, and make moves on Mario’s behalf. The audience size is determined by the Toads Mario finds throughout his travels, so this tactic becomes more beneficial as the adventure goes along.

Finding Toads is perhaps one of the best aspects of the entire game. Toads are hidden everywhere, presenting tons of small little puzzles throughout the adventure. These reminded me of finding moons in Super Mario Odyssey or Koroks in Breath of the Wild; you’re encouraged to check everywhere and everything, to experiment with the world around you. The fact that they join the audience and aid in battles is just a nice extra that makes it all worthwhile.

In fact, I would say that the majority of The Origami King is an amalgamation of many different kinds of puzzles. When you’re not in battles or finding Toads, you’re exploring Zelda-esque dungeons with hidden treasures and cryptic riddles. Sometimes you will spy a chest conspicuously out of reach, and have to figure out just how to get the goodies hiding within. There are also giant paper mache “Macho” enemies that you will encounter, and discovering how to hit their weak spot becomes a puzzle all in itself. In short, The Origami King is always challenging you with a new problem that you will have to decipher;

Toads aren’t the only collectibles to be found in the game. There’s a surprising amount of things to uncover, such diorama’s of characters and objects in the game and extra hearts that extend your health points. There are also holes in the scenery that you can fill with confetti. This is similar to restoring the color in the world, which was done in Color Splash, and while it doesn’t add a lot to the game, it is a nice touch. As you collect more items, you’ll unlock extras in the Toad Town museum, which has an impressive collection of concept art and other behind the scenes materials. It’s something you don’t see often in Nintendo games, so it’s a good change of pace to peek behind the curtain of the Nintendo think tank.

You can also unlock music CDs that allow you to listen to the game’s many tunes, and as always this Mario game has a glorious soundtrack. Comprised by a team of composers, The Origami King has a wide variety of musical styles to match the many different areas you’ll explore and situations that you’ll be placed in. A lot of the songs have that signature upbeat jazz sound that has come to represent the Mario franchise, yet the combat songs have a much more heavy metal, industrious quality to them. They are out of place… but in a good way. It helps distinguish that the enemies themselves are out of place in the standard Paper Mario world.

There are some music numbers, about one per chapter, that are a bit… odd. They show up out of the blue, and while there are lyrics displayed, there’s no actual singing because, you know, Mario games rarely have actual voice acting. The first time I saw one of these, I thought it was kind of funny, but after the second I just felt they were unnecessary and needed to go.

If I had to choose the one real negative with the game, it would be that it feels just a tad too long. There are approximately eight worlds to explore, which is about one too many. At about the 2/3rds mark, I felt that I had gotten just about everything that I wanted out of the game, and felt compelled to rush towards the finish line. It took me only about 30 hours to complete it, and while that’s not that long for your typical RPG, it’s quite lengthy for the beefed up puzzle game that The Origami King is; the stressful nature of some of the later battles also compounds on that to some degree.

Verdict: 4.5/5 Stars

Paper Mario: The Origami King is not a return to the RPG format that started the franchise. If that is what you want out of this game, then you’re going to have a bad time. However, if you’re open minded for a more unique gaming experience, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the amount of fun you can find here: it has the engaging story, the remarkable charm, and polished gameplay that all Paper Mario games have. Be willing to step outside of your comfort zone with this game; discard any predispositions, and just see what kind of fun can unfold.

Josh Cornett is a lifelong gamer who enjoys games across all platforms and genres. He has gone by the alias of “Block” ever since college, when he was nicknamed “Blockbuster” for his extensive video game and movie collection. Currently, he reviews a wide variety of games on his Youtube channel, and talks about all things gaming related on his Twitter and Facebook pages.

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