Paper Mario: The Origami King is a multi-genre game developed by Intelligent Systems and published by Nintendo. It released in July 2020 as a Nintendo Switch exclusive. MSRB is $60.
The Paper Mario series has a long and storied history, beginning on the N64 as a spiritual successor to Super Mario RPG. However, I can’t really tell you about the quality of those games, because I haven’t played any of them. The positive side to this is that I don’t have any preconceived notions about what this series is or what it should be. I’m going to let The Origami King stand on its own, even though it’s standing kinda awkwardly.
Paper Mario: The Origami King begins with Mario and Luigi heading to Peach’s Castle to celebrate the Origami Festival. When they arrive, they find a castle overrun by an origami pandemic. It has already claimed Princess Peach and several of Bowser’s minions. Ollie, the titular Origami King, ignored scientists’ warnings and allowed it to run amuck across The Mushroom Kingdom, caring more about the health of big businesses than the health of his citizens…
Ah, sorry. Wrong story. You can tell 2020 has been getting to me.
Ollie actually uses his folding powers to make anyone his origami servant. Using five massive streamers he uproots Peach’s Castle, trapping Peach inside. Mario embarks on a journey with a new companion, Olivia, to break the streamers and save the Mushroom Kingdom before Corona-gami-virus takes over every last citizen in the land.
Sorry, there I go again.
Paper Mario: The Origami King has a lot of good ideas, maybe too many good ideas. It goes a mile wide and an inch deep, and the story is the first place where I got that impression. It starts off tense, beginning like an epic JRPG. As Mario is silent, Olivia becomes the surrogate protagonist and gets all the development, but I didn’t mind because she’s so adorable. The two of them recruit a rotating cast of companions that help Mario find and destroy each streamer. These companions add some color to the plot, but most were wallflowers.
For one thing, companions don’t stay with you for very long. They mostly help with overworld tasks and leave you to do the dungeons by yourself. Their help in battle is relegated to random attacks that do chip damage, and you can’t control them. I barely got to know them before they left the story entirely. Some of them had emotional moments, like with Bob-omb, but I felt awkward because he felt less like a friend, and more like an acquaintance. I warmed up to Kamek, though. Seeing his reaction to me actually listening to his advice was endearing. I felt like a friendship was going to grow… and then he left the story. Luigi shows up every once in a while, mostly for a running gag, and then he also leaves you. He’s definitely funny, but again, the game goes a mile wide and an inch deep.
Speaking of gags, this game is a joke gymnast – it sticks the landing on almost every single one. Most NPCs, including Olivia, the companions, and even Bowser, always have just the right line to give me a chuckle, or even a good nasal exhale. The Origami King is full of self-referential and 4th-Wall-Breaking humor. Anyone who’s played a Mario game would love it. I looked forward to talking with every townsperson and Toad, because I just never knew what they were going to say next.
The Origami King flows the best when it sets you loose to explore the several locales and dungeons of the world, like an Action / Adventure game. If you have a Zelda itch, then The Origami King will definitely scratch it. Every area is full of secrets and well-designed environmental puzzles. I used my hammer to smack just about everything I could see. You can collect hidden blocks, hidden Toads, trophies, items… it was a candy store of exploration. My biggest problem is that other Action / Adventure games like Zelda and Luigi’s Mansion give you a more diverse toolset that unlocks over time. Those games keep things fresh by having you interact with the environment in more ways. All you get in The Origami King is your hammer, your jump, and throwing confetti. It’s just a bit too shallow for me to feel completely satisfied with it.
Another problem I have is the game’s pacing — it’s not quite as fast as other Action / Adventure games. Luigi’s Mansion 3 felt a bit long and had some pacing problems, but my playtime for The Origami King was double that. I think the biggest culprit for the long playtime is the combat. Normal fights against origami enemies are in what’s called the “Ring Combat System.” On your turn you manipulate several rings around you in order to line up enemies and earn bonus damage for your attack. Each fight is basically a miniature puzzle, only you have a turn limit and a time limit to get them solved. This was stressful for me at first. Even after beating the game, I think the combat should have limited it to either the timer or the turn limit, but not both. Thankfully, there’s a battle lab that lets you practice solving puzzles with no time limit, and I highly recommend using this if fighting gave you trouble like it did me. Once I grasped it, I enjoyed the combat much more. Credit where credit is due — I never could’ve imagined a combat system as creative as this. The Toads you rescue are spectators for the battles, and you can actually pay them to help out a bit. It was hard at first to let them do that, just because the idea of spending coins goes against my in-game hoarder nature.
The boss battles flip the combat system on its head. The bosses are in the middle of the rings and Mario is on the outside. You have to move the rings around to reach the boss as well as land on other important panels that affect the battle. This was even harder for me to understand, but it ended up even more satisfying to pull off. The guardians of each streamer ended up being literally crafting items, like a box of colored pencils or a pair of scissors. The funnest part was seeing what wacky crafting item you would have to fight next, and these bosses would often have more personality than even some of the main characters.
The biggest problem I have with the battle system is that it gives The Origami King the pacing of an RPG, but with extra steps involved and not as much payoff. I like solving the ring puzzles, but it makes combat go on for longer than it would in a normal turn-based system. There are no experience points from fighting, just coins which you can use to get better weapons and items. I felt mostly rewarded for battling, I felt there was a bit of strategy to the fights, and I felt some progression throughout the game. But combat never reached the depth I wanted. I wished the companions had abilities, like giving an extra turn or always hitting the outer ring, and I could decide which companion’s ability to use. I needed more tools and more options to keep it interesting.
That being said, if there’s one thing I enjoyed the whole way through, it’s the visual style of this game. Someone at Nintendo must really be into arts and crafts, but that’s okay with me. I love the art direction for The Origami King. It’s the fine details that are especially impressive — the foil-like sheen of metallic objects, the cardboard siding of buildings, the way Mario bends a little when he jumps, I could look at this game all day. And each environment is fairly unique and colorful for a Mario game. The soundtrack, though, isn’t quite as impressive to me. It has catchy tunes, but they didn’t quite catch me, if that makes any sense.
Paper Mario: The Origami King juggles a lot of ideas from different genres in the air. I think Nintendo aimed to make The Origami King a streamlined experience, a sleek hybrid of Action / Adventure, Puzzle, and RPG elements. However, the game dilutes all of those elements so much that none of them develop to a satisfying degree. I enjoyed my time with it, and anyone who likes Mario will probably enjoy it as well, but I think The Origami King needs more story and gameplay depth for me to be completely happy with it.