Review: Paper Mario: The Origami King (Switch)

Despite a disappointing battle system, Intelligence Systems’ latest Mario RPG is a thrill.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 07/31/2020 04:01 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
1-Up Mushroom for...
Stunning presentation; varied and nuanced soundtrack; hilarious writing; exploration is deep and rewarding; ring battles mix RPG fighting mechanics with simple puzzles
Poison Mushroom for...
Nontraditional leveling system is a disincentive for battling; some ring solutions are overly obtuse; reversed ring boss battles are abruptly introduced which might frustrate some players

Sigh. I have a confession to make: I really thought that Paper Mario: The Origami King was going to dethrone Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door as the definitive game in the series. I might just have to accept that the four games (five if you count Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, but… not really) since The Thousand Year Door are not placeholders until the series returns to its proper RPG roots. Developer Intelligent Systems is dead set on producing an RPG that looks and feels like the real deal without providing a proper leveling system. Paper Mario is dead; long live Paper Mario.

Not that the series has been delivered a final nail into the proverbial coffin or anything so dreary as that. The Origami King is actually an incredibly clever and enjoyable RPG. Mario and Luigi are on their way to Peach’s castle to partake in the bucolic Origami Festival when they quickly come to realize that something is amiss. Not a Toad in sight in the middle of a genuine Mushroom Kingdom hoedown? Color the plumbers concerned, and sure enough their worries are validated when an eerily origami-folded Peach appears imploring the bros to join her in a most macabre re-imagining of themselves. It doesn’t take long after that before the nominal Origami King reveals himself and sets Mario and Luigi on their latest adventure.

While the Paper Mario series has always employed its titular 2D gimmick dating back to its origins on Nintendo 64, the added visual horsepower of every console since then has made it more effective and engaging. In the case of The Origami King, everything looks more authentically paper-like than ever before. Every bit of the game world is imagined as folded paper and the sight of it all is mesmerizing. Droplets are so many circles of paper, the enormous streamers surrounding the game world shimmer in the wind, and things like coins are hewn from shiny card stock to give them the appropriate shimmer. If the game world and characters were all devoid of the paper styling it would still be gorgeous, but the presence of this aesthetic makes it all the more memorable. Oh, and the hubbub  on social media about the water being spectacular? No. Joke.

All this paper isn’t merely window dressing, either, as the visual style contemporaneously offers clues about how to proceed. For example, Toads are sprinkled throughout the game world and must be rescued by Mario. The affable constituents of the Mushroom Kingdom are stuffed into nooks, hidden behind objects, and also folded into a variety of different origami forms that help them blend into the environment. The aforementioned streamers also serve to guide Mario and company to their goals, but it’s here that one aspect of The Origami King is slightly overblown—this isn’t quite the “open world” game that some potentially think it to be. Yes, it’s possible to freely travel between regions, but overall this is a linear story line that pivots the player from one point to the next.

Not that linearity is a problem—The Origami King’s story isn’t especially deep, but its narrative is nonetheless engaging. Olivia is the sister of the nefarious Origami King himself and she helps Mario on his way to restoring the world to peace. As a partner Olivia is perky and cute, lending a lot of personality that the ever-silent Mario can’t provide on his own. Graciously, Olivia doesn’t hold the player’s hand too much. She says only enough (in terms of tutorials) to keep the action flowing. There are others who appear throughout the quest, and as is typically the case when it comes to Nintendo of America’s localization team, they’re all freaking hilarious thanks to some exceptional writing. There are moments of genuine hilarity in The Origami King and I found myself laughing aloud very often.

In a departure from prior Paper Mario installments, The Origami King places a major emphasis on exploration. While the player might be going from point A to B the majority of the time, there’s a lot of incentive and enjoyment to be had from combing every corner of the game world. Finding Toads is a big part of that—as you discover them, more and more are added to the audience that comes to watch Mario battle, and they can optionally be paid to help lend a hand in the fight. Beyond the Toads, there’s a palpable sense of satisfaction derived from finding hidden areas and coin stashes. It reminded me slightly of Super Mario World‘s “secrets within secrets,” where one discovery leads to another and the fun that entails. The secrets come one after the other in this game. I scoured every area thoroughly and was constantly rewarded for doing so.

Where The Origami King comes up short is in its battle system. Mind, all of the traditional trappings of an RPG are in place here. Mario has HP, he has equippable gear and weapons, there are shops to buy stuff, NPCs to interact with, and so on. Battles are even turn-based with the requisite Paper Mario timed attacks and counterattacks. So, what’s the issue? There’s no leveling system, which means there’s no incentive to engage enemies. It’s really that simple and all the more frustrating because of it. I continue to be baffled by the decision to forego leveling up in this series. Everything else about the game adheres to traditional RPG mechanics and trappings, so what’s the benefit of doing away with leveling?

The argument can be made that it eliminates grinding, an oft complained about element of RPGs… but even that isn’t totally accurate when it comes to The Origami King. Enemies are sometimes impossible to avoid when treading or retreading through an area, which means battling isn’t diminished all that much despite the alternative approach to player progression. What’s more, the game seeks to reward players for battling in the form of coins and confetti (which helps facilitate exploration), so it’s not like The Origami King is discouraging the player from getting into fights. Yet, the game does an odd about face at a certain point that renders even this incentive moot. The way Intelligent Systems continues to handle this quirky design choice has failed to find a proper groove for the past three series installments.

What sucks about the leveling situation is that it acts as a disincentive to battle, which squanders the new ring-based arenas. Mario sits at the center of the arena and must arrange his opponents into lines or clusters of four for maximum impact. When taking on bosses, the setup is reversed, with the foe in the middle and Mario now required to make his way to them. Each battle is something of a puzzle that the player must figure out, and it’s this element of the fights that makes them unique from other RPGs. It can be frustrating figuring out some of the ring twists and pulls in order to get the proper enemy alignment, but an optional feature unlocked later in the game helps to mitigate some of that teeth grinding. Still, the occasional obtuse solution notwithstanding, I liked this battle system and hope it’s revisited at some point but with proper experience points in tow.

One last gripe is aimed at the boss battles. The reversal of having Mario at the outermost part of the arena is indeed enjoyable, but there’s a slight spike in difficulty that comes with the shift. There are tiles that must be arranged to get Mario to the middle where the boss resides, and for many players this is likely to put them at an unfair disadvantage. There’s no build up or practice with this style of battle beforehand; the initial boss throws the player in head first after a brief explanation. The learning curve isn’t steep by any stretch of the imagination, but I feel like some kind of warm up would have been helpful.

Don’t let that critique paint The Origami King in a wholly bad light. This is a game that is impossible to put down. I couldn’t resist going from one beat to the next in the story, and all of the incredible set pieces left me wanting more. An early part of the story sees Mario and friends rescuing the guests inside of a large, feudal Japan-themed amusement park that was packed with Easter eggs and some gorgeous imagery. If not for the underwhelming battle system The Origami King would likely be vying to take the crown as one of the best games on the console. As it stands, it’s a great one, which should have everyone’s attention.

Other touches like Mario’s special origami abilities further spice up battles and world exploration. I was additionally taken aback by the soundtrack, which I found varied and delightful. I also remain pleased that Nintendo keeps sticking to its guns and delivering the dialogue by way of text. Voice acting has its benefits, but I think people sometimes forget that video games have parallels with comics books as much as film when it comes to storytelling. One final shout out to the writer and/or localizer who came up with the name “Vellumentals”; artists will find themselves unintentionally grinning the first time they read that. The Origami King might suffer from the same Achilles heel that Paper Mario: Color Splash and Sticker Star did of eschewing conventional leveling systems, but the combat here is infinitely more intuitive and less contemptible. It might not be the best Paper Mario game, but The Origami King is absolutely a true return to form and a wonderful adventure any Switch owner should consider playing.

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