After an incredibly short lead-up period between announcement and launch, Paper Mario: The Origami King has arrived on Nintendo Switch, bringing with it all the creativity, heart, and humour that fans have come to expect from this charming spin-off series. Telling the tale of the titular Origami King looking to convert the Mushroom Kingdom into diabolical folded creations, the game has a lot of fun with itself through self-referential jokes and a ton of puns. This is all presented in one of the most gorgeously tangible worlds we have seen on Switch, with an art style that has always dazzled, now perfected.
It pains me then that with some truly inspired levels and encounters, the core systems at the heart of Paper Mario: The Origami King trend towards the confused state of recent entries – meaning a further bastardisation of the series’ RPG roots. While the structure is sound, the reinvented combat system doesn’t generate excitement throughout the playtime, and worse, feels meaningless because of its non-existent impact on character progression.
Paper Mario: The Origami King is available exclusively on Nintendo Switch and can be purchased on the Nintendo eShop for USD $59.99.
STORY – PAPER THIN, BUT COLOURFUL
Paper Mario and Luigi are off to visit Princess Peach in Toad Town where the origami festival is being held. Arriving to eerily empty streets and buildings, they make their way to Peach’s Castle, where they are greeted by an origami version of the Princess who’s lacking the polite manners and sweet demeanour that she’s known for. Instead, she demands Mario join her in becoming origami. After refusing and escaping the castle’s prison, King Olly reveals himself to be the reason behind all of this mess and Mario is joined by The Origami King’s sister, Olivia, to try and save Peach by shattering the 5 giant ribbons wrapped around the castle.
Despite the disturbing connotations of converting an entire race of people into another, the story of Paper Mario: The Origami King never loses sight of the goofy humour that has come to define the series. There isn’t much interest in developing captivating character arcs or exploring thought-provoking themes as there is in producing a chuckle a minute. And that’s not a bad thing at all, as the writing is some of the sharpest to ever come from a first-party Nintendo game, with witty dialogue satirising the Mario universe, the games industry, and everything in-between. This hankering for laughs carries over to the creative story scenarios, which saw me witness bouncy musical numbers, partake in a flashy game show, and infiltrate a samurai-themed amusement park – just to name a few.
Fans have wanted to see the return of companion characters to Paper Mario for some time, and Paper Mario: The Origami King delivers on this front. . . sort of. Olivia walks (or I guess floats) along the fine line of Nintendo sidekicks that are either endearing characters or just plain annoying. She’s no Midna, but she’s no Fi either. The other companions are context-sensitive to certain parts of the story or specific locations. This is a bit disappointing, as there’s never a sense of building up a team of allies, but the companions do provide some of the most memorable sources of humour and emotional depth in the game.
Overall, the weirder Paper Mario: The Origami King gets with its ideas, the more engaging it becomes. At face value, the main plot is mind-numbingly basic, even for the younger audience the game is targeting. But the one-upmanship taken in delivering more and more subversive, bizarre scenarios around every corner kept me cruising through the game with a big goofy grin on my face.
GAMEPLAY – BORED OF THE RINGS
There’s been an ongoing question that Intelligent Systems have been trying to answer for the past 10-15 years: just what the heck is a Paper Mario game? While the aesthetics and tone have remained consistent across instalments, the gameplay for every entry post-The Thousand Year Door have undergone re-inventions both major and minor to try and fix a problem that wasn’t even there in the first place. In this sense, Paper Mario: The Origami King admirably tries to course correct back to some recognisable aspects, but frustratingly fails to avoid other past mistakes with a combat system that never gains traction.
That combat system takes place on a battle arena consisting of Mario placed in the centre of 4 rings infested with a scattering of origami enemies. Therefore, the first part of every battle involves moving and sliding those rings around to line up the enemies in an optimal grouping to utilise Mario’s jump and hammer attacks, all while a timer ticks down. Doing so successfully awards you with extra damage, which can be further amplified with well-timed button presses. Companion characters and the crowd of toads can also aid in fights, although it’s annoying that the companions’ attacks are fully automated.
Initially, I really enjoyed this mixture of puzzle solving and combat, as moving the rings in the correct order is a satisfying feeling, heightened by the strategic urgency that the timer demands. And the subversion for boss fights that sees Mario having to navigate the rings from the outside by moving around directional arrows and attack tiles to form a path for the paper plumber was a really great way to shake things up. However, battles couldn’t hold my attention for 2 reasons. The first being that they hardly evolve past the strategies introduced early on in the game. And the second being that they feel entirely meaningless because they don’t offer any experience points.
That’s right, Paper Mario: The Origami King‘s RPG elements are essentially non-existent. Mario doesn’t level up, nor does he have character stats. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as the gameplay is adapted to work without character progression being a big factor. And this is where the battles really fall flat. As they only reward you with coins – which can easily be found in abundance outside of battles – there’s hardly any point in taking the time to engage with enemies in a separate turn-based battle arena. I was actively avoiding battles towards the end of the game, partly because I was tired of their concept, but mostly because I knew I wouldn’t be punished in the slightest for giving them the cold shoulder.
A HIDDEN TOAD AROUND EVERY CORNER
Thankfully, outside of battles, Paper Mario: The Origami King is an extremely solid, and versatile, experience. I loved zipping around the truly open levels in different modes of transport and exploring their every nook and cranny. Even the smaller levels use their compact nature to their advantage, as no matter where you poke your nose around, you’re bound to come across a hidden toad or some other goody. And while upgrading your confetti bag feels like a subpar reward after shattering each ribbon, I can’t deny that blanketing torn-away holes in an explosion of colourful confetti isn’t an immensely satisfying mechanic.
The dungeons feature some interesting puzzles, which feel well designed to be engaging enough for adults to enjoy, yet not too complex to scare away younger players. I do wish their layouts were more unique and non-linear, as they are often structured like a baby’s first Zelda dungeon, only with a bit more platforming involved. I did find myself zoning out while pushing through some of these levels, as their cliche themes and homogenised designs meant they started to blur together towards the end of the game.
GRAPHICS AND SOUND – CRAFTED WITH CARE
Out of all the games in this series to date, Paper Mario: The Origami King extracts the most from its gorgeous art style to create a vibrant world full of expression. The way every texture is crafted to look like it could belong in a children’s stationary closet, from the shiny reflection of cellophane to the jagged edges of cardboard, means this game is a feast for the eyeballs and an achievement in seeing a creative idea all the way through. I also adored how warm the colours felt and their impact on setting the mood for each level. There isn’t a lacking aspect in the game’s visuals, and the introduction of origami character models only adds an extra dimension to this winning aesthetic.
The soundtrack maintains the vibrancy that is so wonderfully expressed in the visuals. Battle music is at once energetic and playful, helping to elevate the sense of significance in combat, especially once the gameplay starts to become stale. Other tracks run the gamut of sweet, emotional melodies accompanying intimate story moments to upbeat takes on exotic tunes that really help set the scene.