The Paper Mario Problem: A Review of The Origami King

Let’s talk about Paper Mario. On July 17, 2020, Paper Mario: The Origami King was released on the Nintendo Switch. Two months prior, Nintendo dropped an announcement trailer for the game out of nowhere, which was a pleasant surprise for fans. But then, the backlash began.

The internet is an unfriendly place, and its denizens never hold back. There will always be a contrarian out there somewhere playing devil’s advocate. But the Paper Mario series in particular is consistently hounded by fans calling for a return to form.

These fans worship Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, released in 2004, and similarly appreciate the original Paper Mario (2001) and Super Paper Mario (2007), but in 2012, a split began to form in the fanbase thanks to the release of Paper Mario: Sticker Star on the 3DS.

Mario Riding an Elevator Stabbed with Colored Pencils from Paper Mario: The Origami King

A Split in the Fandom

Before 2012, fans knew Paper Mario to be a series of RPGs, but Sticker Star peeled away some of the RPG elements fans loved—instead, it became known as an action-adventure game with RPG elements.

Being an RPG was no longer core to the Paper Mario design, and as the series continued, more and more RPG elements would disappear, as is the case with Paper Mario: Color Splash for the Wii U and Paper Mario: The Origami King.

I acknowledge that Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is an amazing game; it’s easily one of the best games for the Gamecube and a masterpiece in that era of gaming. But I’m here to state my case in defense of Paper Mario: The Origami King.

It’s natural for a series to evolve, especially over the course of two decades, but even though Paper Mario: The Origami King is missing the RPG elements that defined the original games in the series, I urge fans to approach this entry with an open mind—it’s full of creative game design, humorous writing, lovely art direction, and that Nintendo polish we all know and love.

Don’t simply write it off because it’s not the Paper Mario game you want. Give it a chance, and I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. And if you don’t, that’s totally fine; the original Paper Mario games aren’t going anywhere.

Now that we’ve addressed the Paper Mario problem, let’s dive into my experience with the game.

Mario Drinking a Cup of Coffee in a Cafe from Paper Mario: The Origami King

The Gameplay: A Puzzling Battle System

Heading into Paper Mario: The Origami King, I didn’t quite know what to expect from the gameplay. The trailers leading up to the game’s release showcased a puzzle-like battle system, as opposed to the turn-based combat in previous titles.

This is how it works: As you walk around as Mario, you’ll see enemies in the overworld, like an origami Goomba. If an enemy sees you, it will rush toward you and attack, which initiates battle.

In battle mode, Mario stands in the center of a group of concentric circles. Each ring of the concentric circles expanding from Mario are broken into segments, and enemies stand within those segments.

Before you attack, you need to rearrange the rings and the segments to align enemies. If you align four enemies in a straight line or in a group of four side by side, you receive a 1.5 bonus multiplier to your attacks, but the catch is you only get a certain number of moves to align the segments and a certain number of attacks per turn based on how many enemies you are fighting.

If you fail to align the enemies properly, you probably won’t be able to wipe the enemies out in a single turn, risking more damage when they attack you on their turn. The enemies are divided in a way that you will always get just enough moves to align them perfectly, so it makes for a very interesting puzzle-based battle system.

The rest of the combat is similar to the system used in past Paper Mario games: You can jump on enemies or use your hammer, and there are a variety of items (mushrooms, fire flowers, POW blocks, etc.) to heal with or throw at your enemies.

An Origami Hammer from Paper Mario: The Origami King

When you’ve defeated an enemy, you receive a certain number of coins based on how fast you completed the fight, and you’ll also get some confetti, which we’ll cover later. But there is a downside: The reward of coins and confetti leaves the battle system feeling a bit empty. This is where the game could use the reintroduction of an RPG element: experience points and level progression.

Since you don’t get XP points after a battle, there’s no driving motivation for a player to engage in combat. I found myself avoiding combat encounters, especially later into the game when I had more than enough coins.

That said, the developers tried to include leveling elements to ease this feeling. For example, you can collect hearts that increase your max HP and make you stronger, allowing you to destroy weaker enemies if you attack them in the overworld before they see you. This addition was a good idea—it gives the game just a bit of that RPG feeling. You can feel your character getting stronger, and you can feel that sense of progression.

You can also collect various accessories that help you on your journey, similar to how badges worked in previous games. But these RPG elements are nowhere near as complex as they were in previous titles.

All in all, I enjoyed the unique combat system. I’m a huge fan of puzzles and puzzle games, so it was an interesting, innovative twist. It’s definitely not perfect, but I appreciate that they tried something different.

The Water Vellumental Boss from Paper Mario: The Origami King

The Gameplay: Boss Battles

The battle system shone brightest during boss fights. There are two types of boss battles: those against objects, like a tape dispenser or a person made of rubber bands, and those against origami creatures called Vellumentals.

Typically, you fight a Vellumental first, and then your traveling companion learns the elemental power of that boss to use as a special move against the next boss, which is typically an object. This guarantees you’ll fight at least one Vellumental and one object in each area of the game.

The boss battles are fairly challenging, as there are multiple stages to each fight, and the puzzle battle system is more complex. Instead of aligning enemies, you have to align arrows to form a path to attack the boss, but you are still limited to a certain number of moves per turn. It’s like they’ve combined a maze and a puzzle into the combat, which is something I’ve never quite seen before.

If you take your time, you can also pick up power-ups and perform special moves on your path to attack the boss. It adds some much needed variety that’s missing in the regular fights.

I really enjoyed the game design behind the boss battles: They took regular, everyday objects and turned them into creative, challenging combat encounters.

The Rubber Band Boss from Paper Mario: The Origami King

The Gameplay: Exploring the Overworld and Building Collections

Outside of combat, you can explore the overworld of Paper Mario: The Origami King. Different areas unlock as you play the game, expanding and opening up the world. There are a lot of really cool places, from a samurai theme park called Shogun Studios to a massive desert and even a wide-open ocean.

At the center of the world is a hub location called Toad Town, but all the Toads have gone missing, thanks to the villain of the story. As you explore the world, you will find Toads crumpled up or folded into origami characters. One whack of your hammer will straighten them out and turn them back to their normal selves.

Every Toad you find will appear in a set of bleachers that surround the battle field during combat encounters. During the fight, you can amp up the crowd of Toads, who will cheer you on. The more Toads in the audience, the more treats you’ll get thrown onto the field after a big cheer, incentivizing you to collect ’em all.

A Toad Campsite from Paper Mario: The Origami King

Along your journey, you will also see holes ripped into the landscape—the confetti you collect from battles can be used to fill these holes and turn the environment back to normal.

There are a number of hidden question blocks and treasure chests with collectibles scattered throughout the world, as well. In each area, the menu screen will show you how many collectibles you have left to find there.

As someone who loves collecting things, I took to this aspect of the game immediately. It reminded me of collecting moons in Super Mario Odyssey: Secrets were hidden everywhere in the world, encouraging you to experiment and solve puzzles in the environment.

After collecting various Toads and trophies, the collectibles appear in a museum in the center of Toad Town, where you could admire your growing collection. You could also cash in points for finding secrets to gain access to development art.

I never got bored of exploring the open world. It made me love being in the Paper Mario universe, and I always wondered what else I could find hiding away. Having the checklist in the menu was also a major motivator to find everything (I ended up 100% completing the game, because I can’t resist a checklist!).

Mario Riding in a Boat from Paper Mario: The Origami King

The Story

One of the biggest reasons fans love Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is the storytelling. The game crafted a sprawling narrative and introduced original characters into the Mario universe.

It also showcased storytelling elements that weren’t previously seen in Mario games, like romance and complicated relationships. The dark edge is what attracted a lot of fans to the series, because it was unlike the simplistic storylines of the main Mario series.

How does The Origami King stack up? Well, it definitely isn’t on the same level of The Thousand Year Door, but there were some touching moments in the story, and the characters are very likable.

The main plot revolves around two origami creations: Olivia, your companion throughout the game, and Olly, who uses his powers to capture Princess Peach, turn all his enemies into origami, and claim the throne for himself. You spend the game going around the world and undoing his origami folds and releasing giant streamers that block off different areas.

Olly and Olivia Sitting on Origami Thrones from Paper Mario: The Origami King

It’s a simple plot that works, and I found myself growing attached to Olivia as a companion. As you go through the game, you take on additional companions, like a Bob-omb, a Toad, Kamek, Bowser Jr., and more. But unlike The Thousand Year Door, you don’t control your companions—they attack on their own during combat and simply follow you outside of combat.

There was a big hubbub online over Kensuke Tanabe’s comments in an interview with VGC, during which he said, “Since Paper Mario: Sticker Star, it’s no longer possible to modify Mario characters or to create original characters that touch on the Mario universe. That means if we aren’t using Mario characters for bosses, we need to create original characters with designs that don’t involve the Mario universe at all, like we’ve done with Olly and the stationery bosses.”

In my opinion, his comments have been blown out of proportion: Just because they can’t modify existing Mario characters doesn’t mean their original characters that don’t touch the Mario universe are bad or not as good. In fact, I found Olly and Olivia to be really well realized, and the bosses were one of the best aspects of the game. It forced them to get creative and make their own solution within this limitation.

Mario Dressed in a Samurai Costume from Paper Mario: The Origami King

Some fans have also spoken out about the sheer amount of Toads included in the Paper Mario series since Sticker Star, but I personally find them funny. They have some of the best one-liners in The Origami King, and the crazy places they can be found make for some hilarious scenes.

Throughout the game, I was impressed with the witty dialogue, and I loved the different events. For example, there’s an entire boss arena in a giant movie theater, where you take part in a Shy Guy ballot and a spoof of West Side Story that results with Birdo holding Mario in her arms.

I consistently found myself laughing or smiling at the writing, and there were even a few moving moments that I won’t spoil here. Overall, it’s not the most epic or complex story ever, but it was enough for me.

Birdo Confessing her "Mario Madness" While Holding Mario in Her Arms from Paper Mario: The Origami King

The Music and the Art

As always, the art in this game stays true to the fun visual style of the Paper Mario series. They’ve refined the style, and it just shines with polish. Visually, it’s always interesting and adorable, and the introduction of origami and real-life objects mesh incredibly well with the universe.

I’d also like to shout out the music in the game. You might not expect a Paper Mario entry to have musical numbers…but The Origami King has several! With lyrics! These were always funny and enjoyable to listen to and watch play out.

Beyond the musical numbers, the soundtrack is equally impressive, using a variety of creative instrumentation and musical styles. The final boss battle music is ridiculously intense and is definitely worth a listen if you can find it online somewhere. The music amplified the emotion, creating a more immersive gaming experience.

And let’s not forget the epic disco concert hosted by DJ Toad.

DJ Toad from Paper Mario: The Origami King

What’s the Verdict?

If you’re a fan of the series, I can’t necessarily guarantee you’ll love Paper Mario: The Origami King. It isn’t an RPG, and if that’s why you love these games, then you may want to look elsewhere.

That said, if you approach this game with an open mind, knowing that the experience will be different, I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

And if you’re someone who’s never played a Paper Mario game, but you love games like Super Mario Odyssey, then it’s worth giving The Origami King a shot.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! Are you on the fence about playing this game? Have you enjoyed prior entries to the series?

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