The New ‘Paper Mario’ Is Utterly Delightful — Until You Have to Battle Someone

     July 22, 2020

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No recent video game has gotten a higher laugh-per-minute quota from me than Nintendo Switch’s Paper Mario: The Origami King. Other Mario games, including the last Switch masterpiece Super Mario Odyssey, have a sense of humor and joy baked into their very being. But they tend to be tempered by sentimentality, by tradition, by a sense of “fun reverence.” The Origami King folds all of this up into a series of wild paper airplanes and chucks ’em all over the place. Every inch of the game has a joke for you to uncover, all with surprising silliness, sharpness, and metatextual Deadpool-esque muckraking. The Paper Mario franchise has always been steeped in comedy, but The Origami King takes it to a whole new level. As such, exploring in its world is an unabashed, unprecedented delight.

Until… you have to battle someone. When you have to battle someone, The Origami King bets on a wild new system that eschews all its predecessors and comes up losing. Which, for an action-RPG-dungeon-crawler-styled title, in which battles are numerous and foundational, is an issue that’s not paper-thin.

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Image via Nintendo

The Origami King starts the way many Mario games start: Mario (who, by the way, is rendered as a two-dimensional piece of paper, in case this is your first Paper Mario) is headed to Princess Peach’s castle for a wonderful celebration! In this case, it’s the annual Origami Festival, a Toad Town event that sounds, frankly, pleasant. Except things have gotten very unpleasant. But it ain’t Bowser stomping around and kidnapping Peach. Peach is still around… she’s just been folded. King Olly, a sentient piece of origami with delightful emo hair, has started folding everyone (including Bowser!) into terrifying, zombie-esque pieces of origami, who exude big “I’m possessed” energy (rendered with scarily funny corrupted text boxes). Seeing Peach as an Origami Zombie straight up threatening Mario to his face is our first clue that The Origami King ain’t your average Mario game, all to its benefit.

So, with the entirety of the Mushroom Kingdom in folded peril, Mario must, alongside a new friend named Olivia (Olly’s sister, who’s like Navi from Ocarina of Time crossed with Joy from Inside Out), travel to five areas of the world, unfold as many creatures as he can, eliminate the streamers King Olly has wrapped around Peach’s castle, and save the dang day! Simply existing in this game’s inherent premise sparks a boatload of joy. The five worlds you visit and unfurl each have different vibes, personalities, and exquisitely orchestrated soundtracks (more chamber orchestral arrangements in video games, please!), all under a crisp-and-goofy umbrella of comedic consistency. Intelligent Systems, the designer of the game also responsible for the previous Paper Mario titles, feels particularly unleashed in this one, eager to mess with what we typically know about Mario‘s formula in bold ways, while still giving us the familiar joys we keep coming back to.

I’m particularly impressed with the character development of the title: While Mario stays a “strong and silent” type, the characters around him are given a huge runway to play with and explore, even and especially our familiar ones. Luigi and Bowser both amplify what we already “know about them,” while poking and prodding at the absurd logic of their truths, too. At one point, you meet a Bob-omb with amnesia, and his journey of rediscovering himself and the power of friendship is earnestly touching, with gut-punching jokes along the way. And Olivia, a brand new character, is an absolute home run. She is so freaking funny, her bright naïvete and headstrong enthusiasm resulting in some of the most pervasively humorous moments. Plus, her status as our main villain’s sister bakes in an inherent tragic element with emotional stakes. If previous Mario games are Pixar films, The Origami King is a LEGO Movie — hipper and funnier, with a similarly sweet core.

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Image via Nintendo

From a presentation standpoint, The Origami King is also, mostly, a triumph. There are some unfortunate graphical problems throughout; whereas Super Mario Odyssey worked within the Switch’s limitations to present smooth backgrounds and environments throughout, Origami King‘s inherent “flatness” results in some blurring and clipping of polygons in ways that take me out of the sunshiney aesthetic. All of the character models, whether in appealingly cartoonish 2D (watching Mario flip around will never not make me smile) or surprisingly sinister “folded 3D” work like gangbusters, but because the graphics surrounding them don’t quite lock the way they should, it all feels a little wonky. It’s a shame, because the worlds designed by Intelligent Systems are charming, inviting, and, in fact, intelligent! I dig walking around and exploring each area more than I would in most dungeon-crawlers, proving the power of “fun” is still one worth tapping into. Plus: I highlighted the music once already, but goddamn, did the composing team on this sucker knock it out of the park. From rearrangements of familiar themes to wonderful new leitmotifs, The Origami King‘s score triumphs.

So much of this game is so good. I want to simply, with no reservations, recommend it. But unfortunately, there’s a giant sore thumb sticking out the rest of the game’s hand. In previous RPG-flavored Mario entries — whether the first five Paper Mario games or the OG SNES classic Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars — turn-based combat is a satisfyingly simple reduction of what we love about turn-based combat in “purer” RPGs like Final Fantasy, with the delightful “platformer honoring” addition of pressing a button at the right time to increase your attack or defense. Plus — and this is crucial to making those games’ combat feel constantly heightening, rather than plateauing — they involve systems of improvement baked in. As you grind away at battles, your stats, XP, and items’ power increase, just like other RPGs. It gives each battle an inherent purpose beyond the battle itself, and doesn’t make you as annoyed when you randomly stumble upon a goomba in a dungeon.

The Origami King… doesn’t do any of that. It’s still technically “turn-based combat,” for sure. But in lieu of any improvements on stats, XP, or gear, Mario stays exactly the same in each and every battle. Any new, more powerful items you find abruptly and randomly break if you use them enough, with no chance to expand on their longevity. Instead of any of this — and I’m getting frustrated and sweaty just thinking about it — the way you power up your attacks is by solving either dumbly simple or frustratingly intricate “ring logic puzzles.” “What?!” Yes, that response makes sense. I’ll try and explain.

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Image via Nintendo

Every battlefield is in a circle, and the enemies you fight all hang out on different rings of this circle. At the beginning of your turn, you have less than a minute to move these rings into positions that place the enemies into certain arrangements — either in a single line for jumping, or bunched up in four for hammer-pounding — to give your attacks a 1.5x increase. This process happens before every single Mario turn, and holy shit did it get annoying. Would this new battle style make a hardcore puzzle-gamer happy? Perhaps. But while boss battles featured some satisfying additions to this ring puzzle system that earnestly made me feel good when I “solved” them, it is simply too much to make regular battles worth it. And with no incentive vis-a-vis increasing stats, I found myself dumbly running away from regular enemies, not wanting to get into battles unless I had to. The idea that Intelligent Systems threw away such a key component of previous games — of the damn RPG genre as a whole! — for this choice truly flusters me. I shouldn’t spend a ton of my gameplay not wanting to engage in the gameplay!

If you can get past this truly annoying hurdle, Paper Mario: The Origami King is still a joyous, worthwhile experience. And heck, maybe you’ll prefer the ring puzzles to the traditional grinding of a traditional RPG. For that specific player, The Origami King will be an absolute dessert of a game, a sweet and salty treat that will leave you in stitches as you explore every cranny of its expertly-folded comedy. For everyone else… well, there’s a lot of annoyingly bitter vegetables at the core of Origami King‘s sweetness, but it’s still a dish worth nibbling.

Grade: B

Paper Mario: The Origami King is available on Nintendo Switch now. For more of my Switch musings, here’s how The Outer Worlds port plays.

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Image via Nintendo

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