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Paper Mario: The Origami King review

Spinning wheels.

Paper Mario: The Origami King is a thematically dissonant game. The tension between flat paper and folded origami is its driving force, but when it comes to the actual action, the angular folds of origami give way to a circular, ring-based battle system. The main bosses are all cleverly grounded in mundane arts and crafts tools, but the way you defeat these enemies is with generic elemental powers that are more at home in high fantasy. The art looks like it’s from a pop-up book, and yet the story confronts its characters with mortal consequences.

Perhaps by design, these micro inconsistencies parallel the overarching evolution of the Paper Mario series. Despite having a turn-based combat system, The Origami King is in no discernible way an RPG like the Paper Mario games of yore. But the Paper Mario series hasn’t had a true RPG with XP and leveling since 2004’s The Thousand-Year Door. Instead, The Origami King continues the tradition of the series by adapting a different style of game to suit its turn-based combat, and this time it’s the puzzle genre.

The Origami King kicks off when the titular villain, King Ollie, captures Princess Peach during the Mushroom Kingdom’s annual origami festival, and invades the entire world with an army of folded soldiers transmuted from the paper bodies of Bowser’s iconic minions. Mario, this time guided by an origami sidekick named Olivia (who’s King Ollie’s sister), sets out to destroy the streamers that are stopping him from entering Peach’s castle and saving the princess.

The paper-crafted art style that developer Intelligent Systems brought to the last two games in the series is on full display in The Origami King. The entire world looks like a meticulously constructed diorama, which is doubly impressive considering how much bigger the explorable areas in The Origami King are compared to those in its predecessors. This Mushroom Kingdom isn’t Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule, but it still evokes a sense of adventure and, at times, requires vehicles to traverse. It’s small enough to mostly avoid the necessity for fast travel, but big enough that it actually feels like an entire kingdom, albeit one made from glued-together paper and cardboard.

What makes The Origami King’s larger areas so much fun to explore is searching for the hidden collectibles that are tucked away in nearly every corner. There are four types of collectibles in every area, conveniently tracked and logged in the pause menu’s map: hidden Toads, bottomless pits you can cover with confetti, hidden question-mark blocks, and treasures locked away in chests. The most fun to find are the hidden Toads, thanks to the clever ways in which they’re hidden and the funny comments they make after you rescue them They can be folded into ladybugs and butterflies, creased into picture frames, rolled up and stuffed into crevices, or simply trapped under rocks or in the ground. While the Toads only give you a line or two of dialogue when you rescue them, they each have their own personality, which goes a long way toward making the repetitive action of flattening them out with your hammer feel fresher than it actually is.

When I was running around The Origami King’s colorful worlds, trying to find hidden Toads and sporadically tossing confetti into the air to cover up holes rendered in the world by King Ollie’s folded soldiers, I was enjoying myself. But that’s only half the game, and admittedly not enough to carry an entire Paper Mario. The other half of The Origami King is its puzzled-based combat system, and that’s where the game starts to see diminishing returns.

Initially, The Origami King’s take on Paper Mario’s turn-based combat feels fresh. Yes, you’re still jumping on enemies and bashing them with a hammer, but there’s a timed, ring-based puzzle round before every attack that adds a sense of urgency to a fight. When fighting normal enemies, each one is placed in a spot on one of four concentric circles. The goal is to either figure out how to line them up in a row or group them in a 2×2 area so you can jump on them or hit them with a hammer respectively. Solving this puzzle by rotating the circles and shifting rows backwards and forwards will also net you a damage bonus that, if you’re using the right boots or hammer, will let you take them out in one round. It’s a genre-bending system that I haven’t really seen in games before, let alone a Paper Mario game, and that makes it interesting at first.

Unfortunately, that’s about all there is to it—at least when fighting basic origami enemies like Koopa Troopas, Goombas, Spinys, and so on. Combat never progresses in an interesting or meaningful way, and you’ll find yourself performing the same, circle-based actions over and over and over again. Sure, later enemies might have more HP and harder-hitting attacks, or their arrangement on the concentric circle might get slightly more complex, but there are never any interesting variations to how you solve them or the weapons you use to beat them. Even if you get stuck, you can pay the Toads you’ve rescued to assist you in solving the puzzle. On the one hand, this is a nice nod to accessibility and making sure players don’t get stuck. On the other hand, it feels like an acknowledgment that, after a while, you just can’t be bothered to engage with The Origami King’s main gameplay mechanic.

The other thing that holds back the combat is Mario’s arsenal, which once again consists of just his boots and hammer. Mario takes on a few companions throughout the game, and they’ll randomly throw out extra attacks at the end of your turn, but you never get to control them directly. This means that all there is to the combat beyond the rather simple puzzles is timing your jumps or hammer swings correctly, and this never changes or heightens in any significant way. You can buy stronger hammers and boots that degrade with each use, but it’s not like they mix up the gameplay significantly. Between Mario’s own limits and the repetitive nature of the circle-based combat system, The Origami King is the definition of spinning one’s wheels.

(This might sound like hyperbole, but I swear it’s true: This combat system became so repetitive over the course of my 30-plus hours with the game that I woke up sweating, thinking in my semi-conscious state that I would never fall back asleep if I didn’t rotate my bedsheets in just the right way. The repetitive nature of The Origami King’s combat literally gave me nightmares that I couldn’t wake up from.)

Combat is changed a bit for the boss fights. You’ll still be rotating the concentric rows and shifting spaces backward and forward, but during boss fights you need to use arrows on the board to navigate Mario to the right spaces where he can deal damage to the boss and avoid traps. It’s neat at first, but The Origami King has quite a few boss fights, and they run into the same issue as the rest of the game’s combat: a lack of real evolution over the course of the game.

The Origami King offers several other ancillary gameplay moments. Sometimes, you’ll be fighting giant papier-mache baddies in real time by hitting them with your hammer. Other times, you’ll be digging for treasure in the desert or diving for treasure in the ocean. These activities can be fun distractions, but they’re too simple to feel like real contributions. Instead of giving the game a sense of variety, they make it feel like a patchwork of disconnected ideas.

Even the themes behind the game’s plot seem cobbled together. First, Ollie’s crusade against the flat-paper people seems like a commentary on ethnic cleansing and racial tensions. Then it feels more like a Frankenstein narrative—or, to modernize it, a Terminator-style commentary on AI and humanity’s fears of our creations overthrowing us. I can’t say it isn’t compelling at times; there’s even a moment that hints at a deeper interior life to Mario behind all the “wahoos” and “yippees.” But it ultimately highlights the game’s tonal dissonance and inconsistent pacing.

Despite everything, Paper Mario: The Origami King is a charming game. I wanted to fully explore every area of the Mushroom Kingdom. I wanted to find every Toad. I wanted to do everything except actually engage with the game’s combat system. In trying to rewrite the basic rules with every outing, Intelligent Systems keeps fans of the franchise on its toes. But that can also start to distort the identity of the series itself. How can you perfect a formula if you’re constantly pouring it out and starting again?

★★★☆☆

Paper Mario: The Origami King once again takes the series in a completely different direction. Mushroom Kingdom is bigger and more alive than it’s ever been, but it comes packaged with a combat system that quickly becomes stagnant.

Developer
Intelligent Systems
Publisher
Nintendo
ESRB
E - Everyone
Release Date
07.17.20
Paper Mario: The Origami King is available on Switch. Primary version played was for Switch. Code/hardware was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.

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