It’s “turn-based.” Get it?
Experimentation is a core attribute of the Paper Mario franchise. Each game is very different from the next, even if aspects are carried over. Iterations try to push game mechanic systems to their height. The latest title in the series, Paper Mario: The Origami King is a puzzle-based adventure collectathon that feels like a sequel to 2016’s Paper Mario: Color Splash on the Wii U. Even with that cohesion, the new Switch release carves its own path with a new battle system, more open world, and many new flourishes. While aspects hit high highs, this game might not quite be the answer to everyone’s Paper Mario questions.
The Origami King starts off with Mario and Luigi journeying to Toad Town for the Origami Festival. When they arrive, the town is deserted as King Olly of the origami is setting a plan into motion to refold the world in his image. Mario teams up with the king’s sister Olivia to rescue Peach and put a stop to the king’s plans. Along the way, the duo find themselves meeting different characters that join for a period of time and add to the ongoing adventure. Obviously, I won’t spoil what happens, but this is the most story-focused game since 2007’s Super Paper Mario on the Wii. Admittedly though, it pales in comparison to previous title’s attempts at telling a story, but it does succeed at making you care about its characters, with Olivia and Bob-omb in particular standing out. This adventure is much more about the time spent with characters and the situations they find themselves in on the journey rather than the catalyst. The overarching narrative is serviceable, but doesn’t do enough to support its own characters. It might seem small, but the awesome cinematics add grandiose excitement and weight to this new, unexplored world. And this world is vast.
The most apparent part of the world is the excellent presentation. The music is incredible, right up there with the rest of the awesome soundtracks the series is known for. Much akin to other titles in the series (and frankly many other Mario games), a common musical rhythm motif is reused and shaped to fit the context of the world. I really enjoyed listening to these songs, and I felt like when I returned to areas I had already visited, I was often greeted with something I hadn’t heard before. Couple this with the delightful art style, and this artistic duet is breathtaking. I know that some find the paper-focused environments to be borderline distracting, but it didn’t bother me in the slightest. I really liked the “stationary” streamers that painted the sky. They looked pretty and tied the world together. This world might be the best one in the entire series in terms of its design. Environments rarely feel like they’re jarringly changed as instead, everything flows seamlessly together. This success made me believe that the characters in this world actually lived there and made it more immersive, despite the fact that Toad still seems to be the primary NPC. Environmental puzzles also are abundant and are cleverly used as you would expect. A new feature called the 1,000-Fold Arms is used a lot. Essentially Mario grows extendable arms and can reach various parts of the world to complete puzzles. Motion controls are the default, but the option of button controls are available from the get-go. Frankly, the options and accessibility are great. If a younger player is struggling, the ability to streamline the puzzles with a helping hand / guide becomes available, without ever feeling pandering.
The Mushroom Kingdom in Origami King is not really an open world, but these are the biggest environments in the Paper Mario series. The locales are also very diverse, peppered with many areas never before seen in a Mario game, which is incredibly refreshing. The quest is linear, with little to no backtracking if you follow the story. However, an assortment of collectibles have flooded the land of Paper Mario, making this partially a collectathon. The world is littered with different collectibles, including hidden Toads, blocks, and trophies. I’m a sucker for this type of stuff. I love watching percentages max out and clearing areas fully. Pinpointing the exact amount of time it can take to finish the main quest is tricky because it depends on how much you put in. I spent over 30 hours from beginning to credits looking for secrets. But if you’re not about the exploration, I would say you’re looking at about 20 hours or so. Another big part of the environment is that giant papier-mâché enemies have eaten away holes in the world that need to be repaired. Mario can collect confetti from just about every interactive object in the overworld, which can be used to cover up these “Not-Bottomless Holes.” With a small handful of exceptions, this mechanic and the majority of other collectibles are all optional. Completing them in each region of the world nets you goodies like concept art and music in the in-game museum. I enjoyed doing this because it gave me something to work towards whilst exploring. If you played 2016’s Paper Mario: Color Splash on the Wii U, it’s an identical process with just a lot more to do. I couldn’t help but notice though, that if the collecting didn’t grab you, you’d be looking at a lot shorter playtime because again, this is optional.
The big “twist” on this particular entry is that combat blends together a circular puzzle with the timing-based / turn-based combat system that has been in nearly every entry in the series. The Origami King makes sure you understand the new system, because there are a lot of unskippable tutorials. If you’ve played almost any Paper Mario game, you won’t struggle at all with learning the new nuances. But unfortunately, they hammer home how to jump, how to complete action commands, etc. and each specific new element is its own tutorial. For older players, it’s a little grating, but it’s not the worst thing ever. Upon an encounter with an enemy, Mario is faced with the timed task of rotating and sliding rings to align enemies in a large circular arena. If aligned, or grouped two-by-two, an attack increase is given. The battle then shifts to the more familiar process of choosing an attack and demolishing the enemies. The number of enemies in an arena determines the number of moves you are given to rotate and slide as well as attack, with the perfect amount being provided to solve the puzzle. If you are able to complete the puzzle, the enemies will very likely be defeated on the first try, assuming you nail the action commands (and in the later parts of the game if you have strong weapons). I really liked this puzzle battle system; I found it very novel and rewarding to complete. That said, a few glaring issues became apparent as I played. You fight an enemy every time you bump into one in the overworld, and more often than not, these encounters are the same puzzle through the majority of the adventure. Sure, they iterate slightly and some types of enemies make the fights more involved (Boos become invisible, for instance), but the difficulty of fighting enemies in the overworld becomes repetitive very quickly. Plenty of instances occur where enemies show up in a scripted fashion, whether it’s by popping out of a bush to scare you or stealing a key item you need. These battles are largely the same, but are where I saw the difficulty beginning to increase. I was seeing more complex layouts in the ring arena in those fights, and they, like the boss fights, felt more handcrafted.
Each puzzle has a correct solution, and as previously stated, if you complete the puzzle, you’re more than likely going to win the fight after you attack. It’s not mindless, as you have to think about what kind of enemies you're fighting. It’s better to group up Spinies so you can hit them with a hammer, or just jump on them with the iron boots. There is a level of self-induced difficulty that I was picking up on. If you want the challenge to solve every puzzle, then by all means go for it. You are also able to brute force things by not bothering with the alignment puzzles and just bashing the enemies willy-nilly. You’ll definitely take damage, but it’s very easy to restore health. I never felt in danger even in fights where I experimented with this process.
With the battle system in place, the important matter of the reason for battling and how Mario progresses through the game comes up. Your reward for fighting is an abundance of coins. You get more depending on if you solve the puzzle or if you didn’t take damage. Coins are used for a variety of purposes: buying items, weapons, accessories, collectibles, occasional key items, paying for help from Toads in battle, and obtaining more time to complete puzzles. The weapons you obtain are stronger variants of the traditional jump and hammer attacks you have, but they degrade over time and need replacements. The accessories you obtain by and large are focused on increasing your stats in battle. You can increase your defense when taking damage, your health, and the time allotted for solving the puzzles. There are others, but those are the ones focused on in battle, and are about the extent of customization. Oddly, you never see Mario's stats. You also never see the enemy’s health; you just see them sort of bend over and look a little tired when they’re close to defeat. Boss fights have health bars, but there aren’t numbers. And yet, when Mario attacks, you do see the number of damage dealt. All of this to say that these are all very base level RPG concepts that aren’t being used fully.
When I think of an RPG, I think that the player’s character customization is a core aspect of the genre. All of the elements in The Origami King are trying to merge into a system that looks like that at face value, but really isn’t needed. The game pretends to be an RPG, when its RPG mechanics are actually holding it back. There is no form of experience or progression when fighting enemies. In a generalization, it’s a loop where you fight enemies to get coins to buy weapons to fight more enemies. I don’t think this experience needs to be one thing or the other; it just needs to pick a lane and stay in it without trying to jam in unnecessary elements from other genres. I admire that there is a level of difficulty accessibility in the decision of using the various equipment that makes combat even easier. This follows Nintendo’s record of making games accessible for kids and adults alike. That doesn’t excuse the Frankenstein approach of trying to make this clever puzzle system work like an RPG without actually treating it as one. The need to fight overworld enemies feels pointless because of this problem. When you talk to other people who have played this game, their experience really won’t be that different from yours despite the attempt at personalization with the accessories and weapons because those elements don’t matter as much as they try to.
Boss fights branch out differently than normal combat, focusing more on the puzzle aspect. I enjoyed fighting the Legion of Stationary considerably more than the Vellumentals. The Legion of Stationary are the “arts and crafts” bosses that guard each streamer that ties down Peach’s Castle, whereas the Vellumentals are origami creatures that lurk in temples around the world and provide special abilities to Olivia upon their defeat. Basically, the boss is in the center of the arena, and Mario has to use the same rotating and sliding mechanics to create an optimal path to the boss or specific area on the arena to complete a task. The early fights telegraph well enough the best way to deal damage, but things get a little obtuse later on. They certainly come across more handcrafted then the previous fights, but can dance between aggravating and satisfying. They largely rotate around experimentation, but some of the solutions are multistep processes that can be punishing to players who are encouraged to try out different ways to attack. The Vellumentals in particular are the culprits of this.
I liked playing Paper Mario: The Origami King. It has such high points with the music, the visuals, the comedy, and the willingness to try new ideas. I love how experimental the adventure is with the large variety of situational humor and mini-games. This world was such a treat to journey through, and it was nice to have more then one meaningful emotional moment again in a Paper Mario game. It’s so clear that The Origami King is trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to its combat system. It’s so strange to me how optional the game is to play. I did go for completing every challenge presented to me, but I can definitely foresee players skipping ahead because of the lack of incentives. I applaud Paper Mario: The Origami King for trying something new, but am worried that the friction between its ongoing genre identity is going to keep the series running around in circles.