Developed by: Intelligent Systems
Published by: Nintendo
Release Date: Out Now
There aren’t that many games that make me laugh out loud, but this one? I was frequently chuckling to myself whilst playing Paper Mario: The Origami King, to the point where it glossed over some of the major issues with this game – not to the point where they weren’t noticeable, but enough to make my 25-ish hours with the main story go by in an enjoyable way. In a year where Nintendo is being understandably more reserved about their first-party plans, it’s important to note that we are getting quality releases from them such as this and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Yes, I know a lot of you are anticipating a Nintendo Direct… but there is a smorgasbord of amazing games on Switch to play whilst you wait (woo, I got to use the word “smorgasbord”)!
It isn’t often that the star of a Mario game is the story, but that’s exactly the case here – though not necessarily in the actual main set-up. During the Origami Festival, King Olly steals away Princess Peach and the Castle with her, leaving Mario with the task of unwrapping the streamers blocking the way and also amending the trail of destruction left behind. Said in that way, it sounds rather straightforward and not unlike other Mario plots, but the assortment of wittily written characters you meet make the difference. The standout for me is Olivia, the sister of King Olly, who you encounter early on and accompanies you for your journey. Her design is wonderfully expressive, putting across a range of emotions with subtle movements of her eyes, arms, and head, and her dialogue effectively portrays a determined but also adorably innocent perspective.
Starting out around Toad Town, the adventure takes you to a nice variety of locales, including a theme park themed around Japan and the secret-laden Scorching Sandpaper Desert. Each area introduces its own group of quirky characters; one highlight being said desert and Professor Toad, an expert on the mystery of Khap’taan Teeowed (alas, no appearance of the main man himself, THE Captain Toad). The rough structure each area takes is reminiscent of some Zelda games; enter a new area, complete some overworld activities, then get to the dungeon and boss of that area to remove the streamer, before moving to the next area. Variations on that structure, plus that aforementioned humour, keep it from becoming too formulaic.
For example, roughly halfway into the game you discover a wide-open ocean space that reminded me of The Wind Waker; you get a map of the ocean, with islands to plot as you find them, and through your travels you unveil the way forward. This sort of exploration was where I had a lot of my most joyous experiences; wandering around, meeting new characters, and discovering secrets at my own pace. The characters that accompany you in each area add a unique flavour as well, and take the game to very emotional places. As well as joining you in battles (more on those in a sec), they have their own arcs that develop as you play – Bobby the Bob-omb is a particular example, really shocking me at the deep places the game went.
On your path to clearing each of the five streamers, there are holes in the world to patch up and Toads to save. For the former, you collect confetti through various means – defeating enemies, hitting various parts of the world with your hammer – and, frankly, it’s quite a straightforward mechanic that is a bare minimum of player engagement. Saving the Toads, which have been crumpled, hidden, and mistreated by King Olly, is a much more rewarding part of the game. The way they are hidden is much more varied, posing more of a challenge to the player. Plus, each one has their own reaction to being saved, often with hilarious one-liners that add a creative spark to each time this happens. I have so many screenshots on my Switch of the dialogue in this game, from meta jokes to brilliant wordplay to dancing Toads. Yep, really!
Going in Circles
It isn’t all humour, though, and this is where the most divisive part of Paper Mario: The Origami King arrives: the combat. For most enemy encounters, you are put into a turn-based system on a circular arena of concentric circles. You are in the centre, with the opposition in various segments surrounding you. In an allotted amount of ring moves, you have the options to either push them vertically inwards/outward, or rotate the entirety of one concentric ring. If you manage to organise them so that they are in either a straight line (for a jump) or a 2×2 block next to you (for a hammer blow), then not only can you strike more enemies with your attacks, but you get a damage bonus. Additionally there are items you can use (such as a Fire Flower), but they’re used within that framework. It means that every battle has these prelude sections where you plan your moves out, almost as if you are in a strategy game.
See, it’s a neat idea that makes you consider your attacks in a different way, but it also takes a lot of impetus and immediacy out of battles. Especially against enemy types that pop up frequently, it can get quite repetitive, to the point where I was, at times, less invested in solving the solution for the optimum line-up. More than once, I would settle for more of a mismatched layout just so I could get onto the move selection and get the battle going. That is a clear sign that I was not always enjoying the combat that much. Especially when you’re trying to relax with the game and have some laughs, you aren’t always in the mood to slow your progress with repeated, very similar, battle set-ups.
Improvements are in the more unique confrontations, in particular the boss battles, as you are given unique obstacles and board layouts to consider. In a way, I found some of these easier, as my mind was being engaged more compared to the more samey intermediary ones. Additionally, these fights are much more visually absorbing, with the one-off enemy designs and the ability to regularly use Vellumental attacks from Olivia that harness the elements. The whole battle system is very mixed for me – it’s certainly flawed, but also I must say it’s a neat concept that has clearly had a lot of thought go into it. Perhaps the amount of work that went into making the very distinctive layout work has also led to it becoming unwieldy and disconnected from other aspects of the game.
Get On Board
This isn’t the only type of combat in Paper Mario: The Origami King, with some real-time encounters thrown in too. Often, these take the form of real-time fights against paper-maché enemies – Goombas, Koopa Troopas, and more – which add a different, larger scale of proceedings. In terms of structure, they’re all quite similar; use the hammer to knock off a sticker to make them vulnerable, then proceed to hit them more until they disintegrate fully into confetti. Despite this, they remain refreshing breaks from the occasional monotony of the turn-based sequences. As you get stronger, you can also take out some enemies that would previously have been fought on the circular field, but not many. I actually would have appreciated a better balance of these fights, as the real-time ones are quite uncommon in comparison.
With how this game tends to have new ideas and quirks throughout to play into the humourous feel, it is also hit-and-miss whether every departure of gameplay works. There are a lot of ideas going around in the overworld portions of this game, and whilst some were very entertaining, naturally I wasn’t as much of a fan of all of them. Later on in the game, as I was becoming more and more knowledgeable about the core gameplay mechanics, this became more of an issue for me, perhaps because I was becoming so accustomed to those main systems the game had taught me. Therefore, any sudden new ideas were especially jarring. A Shy Guy-related one later on in the final stages is an example; it’s an amusing set-up, but the brainteasers can be really tough (at least for me). If memory puzzles are challenging for you, then there are potential stumbling blocks later on that the game doesn’t do a great job at teaching you about.
More than once, my rhythm with the game was put on hold as a result of this; it’s as though this game isn’t entirely sure what it would like to be. On one side, it is a really joyful, funny, not especially lengthy RPG with clever writing and an energetic momentum to the story. On the other, it is a tough strategy/puzzle game that asks you to be more patient and calculated, being prepared to halt your progress and even retry certain parts in order to clear them. Neither is necessarily a bad approach to game design, but they don’t go together here very well. This game would have been a more focused experience if it committed more to one of the two styles.
A Fine Craft
Essential to mention, though, is the music. Oh wow, the music in this game. It’s amazing! It’s consistently impressive throughout, and really noticeable in the battle sequences when it kicks in with the intro screen. It mixes classic themes with modern arrangements really effectively, reminding me of the underrated Super Mario 3D World and the jazzy, contemporary tones of that game, and the numerous times I have been thrilled by the battle theme of a Pokémon game. There’s a wonderful variety too, with an example being the soft, mellow tones of Autumn Mountain early on. I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by the audio in this game, but that is what has happened.
So how about the art direction? It’s… fine. It’s Paper Mario, with the fresh introduction of the Origami characters and the different style they bring, but mainly it’s not that innovative. There’s a pleasant contrast of environments, and they’re colourful and bright, but it’s not breathtaking. Animations are charismatic, especially the way different emotions are shown with only a few different animations of the paper-made characters (as aforementioned, this is really apparent with Olivia), and this contributes to the expressive humour. It all works well, but it isn’t going to be in the top ten Switch games for visuals.
I didn’t find any performance issues, I am glad to say, as they have popped up in several Switch games over the years. However, I will say that the – optional, bear in mind – motion controls are quite dodgy, especially when playing handheld. They feel a bit unnecessary and gimmicky; this is mainly when using the 1,000 Fold Arms to reach somewhere, or when shaking the controller to hit an object or enemy. It isn’t always clear which direction you should be moving the controller, and it can end up being another barrier to the continuation of the narrative. Motion controls can be fun when purposefully incorporated into a game, but this sort of use is really under-baked. Again, though, this is optional, and can be turned off.
If Paper Mario: Origami King had dedicated itself to being either a super-strategic game or a less-involved RPG, it may have actually been more successful. As it is, it’s a slightly awkward amalgamation of the two, with many, many bright moments, but also strange decisions that hurt the experience. The overall meta, self-aware, and intelligent vibe of the story is my favourite part of the game, and as I said at the top, meant that even in those rougher moments I was motivated to not put the game down, and instead power through, because I knew more fun was waiting for me. It’s not a top-tier Switch game, but as a first-party Nintendo release to play in this current wilderness of announcements, it’s an enjoyable way to spend your time.