After Super Paper Mario was released on the Wii, I stopped playing Paper Mario games. The pure Mario RPG experience of the original on N64 and The Thousand-Year Door on Gamecube was gone and replaced with a semi-platformer/adventure game. From what I’ve read of Sticker Star and Colour Splash, the series has only moved further away from its roots.
Paper Mario: The Origami King is no different.
It has a wonderfully colourful, papercraft aesthetic, delightfully absurd characters, a clever and inventive plot and tonnes of moments that make me think Nintendo was just going wild with creativity.
However, the combat experience rapidly loses its charm and without any formal levelling or experience system, ultimately, Paper Mario: The Origami King feels flat. Oh yes, I went there.
Paper Mario: The Origami King Review
Paper Mario: The Origami King’s premise is simple. Mario and Luigi are invited by “Peach” to attend her the Origami festival in Toad Town. On arrival, the Mario Bros. discover the town empty and eerily quiet. Confronted by “Peach” the Bros. discover a fiendish plot by Ollie, the Origami King to take over the world of paper and turn everyone and everything into origami.
He’s captured many of Bowser’s minions and turned them into folded soldiers, as well as used Paper Macho (papier-mâché) baddies to tear chunks out of the world. Whisking away Peach’s castle and placing it high up on a far off mountain, Ollie wraps it up in five coloured streamers that stretch out across the kingdom.
Luckily, Mario has help from Ollie’s sister, Olivia, who is hellbent on putting a stop to her brother’s shenanigans. Mario and Olivia set off to find the end of each of the streamers, break them and free Peach’s castle.
It’s no better or worse than any other story in a Mario game and the idea of Origami being at war with flat paper is actually quite endearing. Olivia is a spunky firecracker of a character and is the real heart and sould of the game. Mario is mute as always, though he does have the cute paper facial expressions and reactions you might be expecting.
Olivia isn’t just a chatty travelling companion though. She enables Mario to use special Origami techniques in the game world and occasionally in battle. They can only be performed on special, Magic Circles and only appear in specific locations throughout the game. The first technique is the 1000 Fold Arms, which gives Mario long arms to tear away paper, grab onto enemies or bash bosses. The further you get into Paper Mario: The Origami King the more techniques you discover but they only ever feel like a gimmick.
They neither add enough to the game overall to make much of a difference nor appear frequently enough to justify their inclusion. They’re arbitrarily added here and there as if someone developing the game suddenly remembered they’d introduced the mechanics a few hours earlier.
The Origami techniques do fare better in boss battles, but these are few and far between in the scheme of things. They’re a nice idea and every so often, when they do appear, you might get a slight smile out of seeing the world changed by tearing the scenery but that’s about it.
For the most part, you’ll be exploring large, open areas, throwing confetti to fix holes, hunting hidden Toads and fighting folded soldiers. The exploration is fine and it’s actually somewhat soothing to wander around fixing up the holes torn in this gorgeous paper world with confetti. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but it’s silly and fun, so just go with it.
Toads are folded up and hidden all over the place too, so expect to be hunting down those little bastards at every turn. What’s really cathartic is whacking them with your mallet to flatten them out and return them to their paper form. On more than one occasion I thought “take that you little shit” as I walloped yet another Toad back into shape.
The more Toads you find, the more they can help you in combat. Which is sadly where we find ourselves and where Paper Mario: The Origami King falls apart like Mario’s hope to one day finally get a slice of that promised cake.
When Mario comes into contact with a Folded Soldier in the field, combat is initiated. Mario stands in the centre of four concentric circles while enemies take up positions around him. With a timer running down, the goal every time is to line up enemies in groups of four; either two groups of two side by side or four enemies in a single file line. When lined up side by side, Mario can use his hammer to smack all four at once and when they’re in single file, he can bounce on all four of them in a row.
If you get every enemy on the board lined up into a group, you’ll be rewarded with 1.5x damage too which means you’ll likely finish combat without the enemy even having a turn. In every combat instance, Mario will have enough turns to take out all of the enemies before their turn if lined up correctly. So, if you do it right, you’ll wipe them all out, collect your coins and be on your way.
That’s right, collect your coins. There is no XP in Paper Mario: The Origami King. In fact, there’s very little levelling up at all. As Mario gains more HP by collecting special hearts, he does deal a little more damage and by equipping better (but degrading) weapons he does more still. After a while, minor enemies like Goombas can be jumped on or hammered in the field and dealt with without having to enter combat. I would have preferred this in general since the “puzzle combat” gets really old, really quickly.
At first, it’s a nice challenge to work out where to place the enemies and to try to take them all out at once. After you’ve done it a handful of times, it just feels like a waste of time. All you earn from combat is coins. The only things to spend coins on, outside of combat are Accessories and Weapons which help you in combat. Inside combat, you spend coins to get more time to solve the puzzles or to pay Toads to give you a helping hand. It’s a snake eating its own tail and it feels pretty pointless.
Boss Battles flip combat and put the Boss at the centre and Mario on the outside. These are far more enjoyable but it may be because they only occur a handful of times. With the boss in the centre, you need to line up the circles in order to create a path for Mario to reach them. On the circles are a number of icons that will move Mario in specific directions, give him extra attacks or attack power and finally allow him to attack.
Each of the bosses has their own strengths and weaknesses and they each need to be fought in a specific way in order to be defeated. Use the wrong attack type or Origami technique and you’ll be sent back to the outside of the circle with much less health.
I really enjoyed the bosses both in terms of gameplay and their designs. King Ollie’s underlings are all of paper’s worst nightmares; coloured pencils, rubber bands, a stapler and the like. It’s silly and leans into the idea of this world being crafted from stationary.
It’s unfortunate the general combat, the thing you’ll be spending a huge chunk of time doing in Paper Mario: The Origami King loses its charm so quickly because it does reduce what could be a great game to a chore for large parts of its duration. The boss battles are high points but are too few and far between.
Elsewhere, Paper Mario: The Origami King is absolutely bonkers. It’s as though Nintendo didn’t say no to any ideas, no matter how wild or silly. There are musical numbers, in-game stage shows riffing on West Side Story, references to Arrested Development, bizarre conversations and some truly heartfelt and earned dramatic turns.
For all of its gameplay problems, Paper Mario: The Origami King is a powerhouse when it comes to storytelling. Mario games are often very weak when it comes to story and while this one wheels out the tired ‘rescue Peach’ trope the road to the inevitable conclusion is paved with narrative gold.
I only wish the combat could have been as good as everything else. If it was, this would be one of the best Paper Marios of all time.
Ultimately, let down by a lacklustre combat system that is far too repetitive and frequent, Paper Mario: The Origami King is only… ok. It’s still worth playing for the wonderful visuals and excellent storytelling but don’t expect a true Mario RPG.
Paper Mario: The Origami King was reviewed on Switch using a digital copy provided by Nintendo.