Paper Mario: The Origami King Review
The Paper Mario series is one that has undergone constant changes from one iteration to the next. Many feel that it peaked with the Gamecube’s Thousand-Year Door. Every new entry since has tried to shake up the formula to mixed receptions from fans. Paper Mario: The Origami King may not be the return to classic tropes of the genre that ardent fans are hoping for, but that doesn’t stop it from being a gloriously good time.
It would not be a Mario game without a series of unfortunate events befalling the local royalty. The story begins with the Mario brothers taking a trip into Toad Town to attend an origami festival. Their visit is thrown into turmoil when they arrive to find the town suspiciously empty. Investigation of Peach’s castle reveals that something about the princess is a little…off. Not only is she looking a little more layered than Mario’s paper overalls, but she has no hesitation dropping him through a trap door and into a prison below.
This abrupt betrayal is soon found to be the work of the nefarious origami creature King Olly. Upon his arrival, he has forced the citizens of the town into hiding and folded himself a horde of origami goons. He soon wraps the castle up in coloured streamers and lifts the castle off into the mountains. It is up to our moustached hero and Olly’s benevolent sister Olivia to unwrap the five streamers, storm the castle and free the Mushroom Kingdom from the wrath of Olly and his folded minions.
Outstanding writing has always been one of Paper Mario’s most beloved aspects, but The Origami King is so infectiously witty and charming that it is almost worth the price of admission alone. A colourful cast of core characters provides plenty of standout moments. Every scene, whether it be a huge story set piece or an essentially meaningless exchange with an NPC, is written with the express aim of eliciting a chuckle or a smile. The game utilises every text box trick imaginable to inject more personality into each word, whether it be slow wonky text to portray delirium, or quick tiny next in the corner to convey a snarky reply under someone’s breath. There is a level of attention to detail that elevates each exchange and brings each character to life.
The story itself has plenty of great beats and introduces wacky scenarios with such regularity that it remains fresh and intriguing throughout. You might find yourself escaping a dungeon with Bowser as he bemoans his troubles walking with just a face as you escape a dungeon, but ten minutes later Mario is getting his groove on in a flashy musical number with a bunch of singing and dancing trees. You will scour a feudal Japanese theme park, partake in a western stage production, and so much more. It is well worth exploring to uncover as many fun situations as possible.
You will have several different allies come and go from your journey along the way, and each one offers personality and humour well exceeding their paper-thin physical dimensions. Olivia is a rare companion character that is genuinely pleasant to have around. Luigi pops up regularly with his devotion to completing a task that he continually fails at but somehow accidentally manages to help anyway. Other companions are unique to each area and are all distinct and charming in their own way.
It is hard to understate just how often this game had me laughing out loud, and I do not think there was a single point of the story where I was not grinning from ear to ear. Do not be surprised though if you experience a broader arrange of emotions than just laughter by the time the credits roll. There are plenty of unexpected moments that tread ground not explored by Mario games before, and the constant surprises were pleasantly refreshing.
A stunning visual palette that pops is not new for the series, but things here look better than ever before. The mix of origami, cardboard and paper objects, characters, and environments in a striking array of vivid colours is a treat for the eyes. All the elements combine seamlessly across a variety of locales, making creative use of their inherent properties from both a visual and functional standpoint. It is backed by a fantastic score filled with a vast range of musical styles. A special shoutout also must go to the clear influence of musicals throughout. I lost count of the number of times characters broke into song and dance for various reasons, and it never failed to entertain when it did. Mario has got some moves.
Underneath the visual splendour and barrage of jokes is an excellent adventure waiting to unfold that is masterfully paced. Typically, you will need to do some investigating and mingling upon arriving at a new place before you begin a mini-dungeon of sorts to uncover a new elemental book. Olivia can use these to transform into enormous elemental origami creatures called Vellumentals, which can be used in battle and for environmental puzzles. After a variety of other tasks in between, you will then tackle a second dungeon to unwrap one of the streamers surrounding the castle.
The pacing for these steps is spot on, and thankfully the path to taking down each streamer is unique and varied. Every location is filled with vibrant places to explore and things to do. Getting around is easy thanks to a combination of fast travel systems throughout, and it helps for tackling the myriad of different objectives you will be doing. Just some of the tasks you will face are axe-throwing competitions, hopping aboard a boat to search the ocean for hidden islands and treasure, solving the mystery of ancient runes in the desert, riding river rapids, completing quick draw contests, sneaking into enemy hideouts using a giant Goomba disguise, and so many more. There are also mini-bosses completed in real-time requiring your jumping and whacking skills to be put to good use to defeat, ranging from paper mâché Koopas to a giant Blooper.
The sheer variety of objectives makes the game zip along at a brisk pace. You will never be doing the same thing for long. For the completionists, each area makes clever use of the paper aesthetic to hide plenty of things to collect. There are holes in the environment to restore with confetti, collectable treasures to seek out and hidden Toads to rescue, plenty of which are hidden away in surprising and clever places. Finding the hidden Toads is a worthwhile endeavour, as they will help you with the big new gameplay twist in The Origami King – the combat.
How the combat works is always the biggest discussion point leading up to a new Paper Mario game, as Nintendo appears determined to reinvent the wheel with every new addition. That remains true here, with an entirely new ring-based combat system layered on top of the standard battles. Upon colliding with a foe, Mario stands in the middle of a four-tiered ring grid filled with enemies. You have thirty seconds and a limited number of moves to spin the rings and slide the pieces to arrange the enemies into the most beneficial layout for your attacks.
This process starts simple enough, with enemies staying close and only requiring one or two moves to realign. It gets increasingly tricky later, as foes shuffle into complex formations that require three spins to get where you need them, and it can be difficult to work out the correct solution. Putting on your thinking cap and finding the solution that puts enemies into groups of four rewards you with an attack buff for that turn. It is a clever system that essentially turns each regular battle into more of a puzzle than a battle, as foes are relatively simple to dispose of if you get the formations correct.
Attacking is then done in turns with jumps, a trusty hammer and a handful of items such as fire flowers at your disposal. There are numerous types of boots and hammers to collect that will help with different enemies, though special boots and hammers will break after several uses. The classic mechanic of timing the press of the button with your attacks and guards to increase power and damage reduction thankfully remains, adding some active participation to the turn-based battles.
It is here that we need to talk about what has now been a contentious point for the franchise since the release of Super Paper Mario for the Wii. Those hoping for the return of experience points and levelling up are in for a disappointment. They are once again nowhere to be found. Coins act as the all-functioning currency for shopping and battles in this game. You will earn plenty of them by collecting ones scattered across the lands and from completing battles. They can be used to purchase restocks of the more powerful boots and hammers once they break. In battle, you can exchange coins to increase your time left to solve the ring puzzle, and to enlist the help of Toads you have rescued throughout the game. They now sit in the audience watching conflicts unfold and can help by solving some of the ring arrangement for you or throwing you items or health your way.
Unfortunately, it results in battles becoming a somewhat redundant circle. With no experience points or levelling up, the incentive to participate in battles that you could otherwise avoid is rather minimal. With the added layer of solving the ring puzzle before even attacking, the process of completing a battle is now significantly longer than before. I completed every battle for the first half of the adventure but, as battles started to take longer with complex ring puzzles and enemies to defeat, I became less inclined to do so as the game went on. Despite this, I still finished the game with an abundance of coins and leftover high-quality items thanks to the relatively low level of difficulty.
It is a shame as on their own the new battle mechanics are quite enjoyable, if a little repetitive, but without a reason to seek them out you are more likely to avoid them where you can. It does help to eliminate the grind trap that some role-playing games fall into, but at the same time, it robs the player of that feeling of character progression that is so integral to these types of experiences.
Thankfully, you will discover hearts throughout that increase your maximum health and increase your damage. As you do, you will be able to jump on or bash weaker enemies in the world to banish them without having to engage in a full battle. The increase and health and attack help give the feeling of some level of progression, especially as some of the hearts will require some serious sleuthing to find.
Regardless of how you feel about the regular battles and the progression system, there is no denying that it all comes together with some incredible boss battles. Whether it be taking on a Vellumental beast or a giant piece of stationery protecting a streamer, these battles are the highlight of the game. Instead of being in the middle, Mario starts these battles on the outside of the ring and needs to manipulate them to form a path to the boss. These again play out as clever puzzles. Part of solving it is figuring out which types of attacks will be most effective, be it straight up combat or utilising a particular magical power. The other part is ensuring the path to the middle has you hit all the icons you need, including turning on magic portals and picking up powerups along the way.
Each boss has unique attributes that mix up the playing field. An early encounter will force you to take into consideration icons that will be washed away with water attacks. A later one will stick parts of the board together, limiting your ring shuffling options. Each battle is unique and plays with the ring system creatively. You will need to consider all your elemental abilities and your trusty Thousand-Fold Arms attack to emerge victoriously. The creativity on display here is top-notch, and the bosses guarding the streamers are filled with personality that makes each encounter memorable.
That level of creativity, imagination and personality is at the heart of what makes The Origami King such a fantastic ride. There is so much heart, joy and humour seeping from every fold that it is impossible not to have a good time. The way overall character progression works may fumble, but every other aspect of this adventure is concentrated happiness from start to finish. It excels with hilarious writing, charming presentation, inventive boss battles and a superbly paced blend of activities. This latest entry is the most fun I have had with Paper Mario since The Thousand-Year Door, and I had a smile on my face the whole time.
+ Sharp, witty writing
+ Inventive boss battles
+ Great pacing and mix of objectives
+ Stellar presentation
- No levelling system discourages battling
- Standard battles become lengthy endeavours late in the game
- A bit on the easy side