July 17, 2020
Paper Mario is a series beloved by many, but if you ask fans for their favourite of the bunch, you only tend to get two answers: the original Paper Mario for N64, or more commonly the Gamecube classic The Thousand-Year Door. There have been a total of four more additions to the series since then, including the crossover game Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, but none of them have lived up to the acclaim of the first two. Can Paper Mario: The Origami King break away from all that? Well, no – but it’s at least an example of the current formula working at its best.
As is common in Mario RPGs, Bowser is not the villain here but rather the tyrannical origami prince Olly, who has decreed that everyone in the Mushroom Kingdom is to be turned into origami. He has locked Princess Peach’s castle away with enormous coloured streamers, and Mario and his new companion Olivia must go on a quest to find the end of each coloured streamer to unravel it at the source. What follows is the comfortable Mario adventure fare we’re all familiar with: a grand adventure to visit six different worlds to save the day. It’s a formula that’s been done to death, but that’s not a bad thing. If there’s one thing the series has done with consistent quality, it’s been the shining moment-to-moment humour and charm. Each chapter has its own story and characters, and while it’s been done better in previous games, The Origami King has some genuinely great – and even emotionally heavy – moments.
Mario still travels with new friends along his quest, but they’re a little lacking in the imaginative designs and characteristics of previous games. It would have been nice to see a return of the more wacky character designs such as Admiral Bobbery or Flurrie from Thousand-Year Door. Additionally, Mario’s partner characters can’t be controlled in battle, only occasionally doing a couple of points of damage when they feel like it. Only some of them have a function when exploring the world. The characters are lovable despite this, but it’s just a missed opportunity. Mario’s companion Olivia might not stand out amongst the sea of iconic Mario characters, but she is an enigmatic and colourful voice that carries Mario easily through from finish to end. Her ability to fold herself and Mario’s arms into origami makes great use of the paper aesthetic.
If you’re one of the many Paper Mario fans hoping for a return to the Good Old days, I’m sorry to say this won’t be it. Still gone are EXP and levelling up, signalling that Nintendo is well and truly moving past those mechanics for Paper Mario. But must that be a bad thing?
Full disclosure: I am inherently lacking in patience when it comes to turn-based RPG mechanics, so the lack of levelling up doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I relish not having to constantly engage in battles just to make my stats rise a few points. But I know that this stuff is beloved to many Paper Mario fans. I just ask you to give the new battles a chance – because even if they aren’t what you’re looking for, they are vastly improved from recent Paper Mario titles. Yes, EXP and levels are gone, so the only real reward you get for fighting enemies are coins. But the game recognises this and will force you to fight enemies only rarely. Enemies in the overworld are easily avoided, and without the need to level up, you never feel obliged to fight any enemy you’d rather avoid. The focus is not on a several-turn battle where multiple blows are traded. The focus is instead on The Origami King’s brand new battle mechanic, line-ups.
Battles are still turn-based, but before Mario makes his attack you’re given a limited amount of time to line up your enemies in just the right way for Mario to decimate the battlefield as effectively as possible. This is done by sliding the rings surrounding Mario so that enemies fall into easily-reached clusters. Lining them up perfectly rewards you with a damage bonus, which helps move combat along swiftly and often allows you to win with one turn. There’s no punishment for getting it wrong or running out of time, but messing up your lineup is so upsetting that it’s punishment enough. It’s easy to understand but hard to master, with more complicated lineups becoming more frequent the more you progress.
In short, the line-up mechanic works wonders in making it stand out from the regular old combat we’re used to. However, that’s not to say there’s no work needed here.
“The most engaging battles are by far the bosses.
Man, these are satisfying.”
Mario’s choice of attacks is limited to jumping or using his hammer, which each have a different area of attack (which is why lining up the baddies are so important). There are upgraded versions of these weapons that increase the damage, but they’re used exactly the same way and don’t add any variety. There is a small pool of items Mario can use like fire and ice flowers, but they rarely pose a better option than using one of your upgraded weapons, so they’ll sit unused most of the time. It would have been easy to make some of these items to cover a different area, but that isn’t the case. It’s a crying shame, because a little more depth here would have made The Origami King a masterpiece.
The most engaging battles are by far the bosses. Man, these are satisfying. These are in essence puzzle bosses: rather than aligning enemies around Mario, now the boss is in the middle with Mario on the outside. What Mario can do with his turn depends on the action titles he passes on the floor, which can make him change direction, attack, or use Olivia’s special abilities. The focus is far more on the puzzle than on which attacks to use, and it is far more engaging than just selecting the attack option time after time. If you line everything up right, you can nab an item, heal up, and hit the boss where it hurts all in one turn.
Bosses are more of a spectacle too, with bombastic attacks from both the Boss and Mario making for a delightful finale to each world. They are a shining point in the game, making me wish this battle system was the norm, not reserved just for bosses.
The vast majority of The Origami King’s flaws are made up for by the interconnected worlds that Mario visits. Each world is vibrant and lively, and though a few of them carry themes we’ve seen before in Mario games, that doesn’t stop them from being a delight. Even the most basic level themes such as desert and forest put a unique spin on itself, using that patented Mario charm. And It’s all accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack that’s customised for almost every area.
The world is filled to the brim with collectables and secrets, so there are lots of reasons to keep you returning to each area. The game keeps track of your completion, too, and you can use your stacks of coins to buy upgrades that will make 100% completion less of a chore. There are hidden toads, trophies, and blocks to find in each area, as well as countless ‘not-bottomless holes’ that have been torn into the world by Prince Olly’s origami soldiers. The trophies are just there to be collected, but each toad you find will join the others in the audience for Mario’s battles.
It’s unknown why Nintendo seems determined to separate Paper Mario from its RPG roots. There’s an argument to be made that it was an attempt to differentiate the Paper Mario series from the Mario & Luigi series, which has kept EXP and levelling up a part of its core gameplay. But as the development team behind the Mario & Luigi series filed for bankruptcy late last year, the future of that series is up in the air. One can hope that Nintendo will choose a new developer for that series, but there’s been no news on that so far.
- Creative battle system
- Classic Mario adventure charm
- Sprawling interconnected world
- Lots to do
- Some may miss the RPG elements
Paper Mario: The Origami King is a great game with plenty of reasons to keep you exploring – it’s just missing that Wow factor that Paper Mario needed to put it back on top of the charts. Just don’t come in expecting it to be like the old games and you’ll have a great time. This might be a controversial statement, but The Origami King has proven that Paper Mario does not truly need EXP and level-ups to be good. But if they are going to be replacing these things, it must be with something truly excellent. Paper Mario: The Origami King offers some great ideas, but they need expanding upon. It’s the best Paper Mario game in recent years at least, and for that, it gets my recommendation.