Paper Mario: The Origami King is a game that skates by on charm even when its gameplay falls flat

The Paper Mario games have been suffering from an identity crisis for a while. The first two games were stripped back traditional JRPGs, lacking the complexity of staples of the genre, but still possessed of a fair amount of tactical depth and deep, if whimsical, stories and characters. The third game kept in the more complex plot but changed to more of a platformer gameplay style. Then the last two games were harder to categorize, leaning into the series’ paper setting with new twists on tactical combat but lacking any kind of character progression and breaking the world up into levels rather than a large connected RPG-style world.

Paper Mario: The Origami King is a continuation of this third style of game with some concessions to those who want a more traditional RPG. The game starts, as almost all Mario games seem to start, with Mario and Luigi going to Princess Peach’s castle, this time for an Origami festival. Upon arrival in Luigi’s cart the brothers are confronted with a strange, folded, origami version of Peach, who talks with quavering letters and seems to be under the influence of some nefarious force. That force turns out to be Olly, the Origami King, who has folded up many of the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom to create an army of folded soldiers with which he seeks to take over and ultimately rule the kingdom. Even Bowser has been folded, and after a short beginning section the castle is wrapped up in six colored ribbons and Mario is tasked with working alongside Olivia, Olly’s sister, to stop him and return the Mushroom Kingdom to its original state.

Princess Peach is in trouble, Bowser is sassy, and this is definitely a Paper Mario game.
Princess Peach is in trouble, Bowser is sassy, and this is definitely a Paper Mario game.

Gameplay in The Origami King mostly takes place in a beautiful 3D world built from various forms of paper craft. Mario and the other characters take the form of animated 2D paper cutouts running around in this world and interacting with it by jumping on things, striking them with his hammer, and occasionally moving pieces of the world around in pre-determined ways with his folded origami arms. Enemies in this game take the form of folded origami versions of traditional Mario enemies, and though Mario can jump on their heads or smack them with his hammer, unless they are trivial enemies who die in one hit running into one will take Mario to a separate combat screen.

This is not a traditional RPG battle system. Instead Mario stands in the center of a ring and the enemies stand around him in squares that are divided up both by columns and rows like spokes and rings on a wheel. Mario can slide the enemies towards or away from him and rotate them, with the goal of gathering them into clumps of 4, either in a column from Mario to the edge of the wheel, or in a 2 by 2 square that directly abuts the central area where Mario stands. If all enemies are clumped into these groups (if the number of enemies is not divisible by 4 then there can be one incomplete grouping) then Mario gets a 1.5 damage bonus for the round. Mario can attack either with boots or his hammer, with the boots doing a jumping attack in a line towards the edge and the hammer attack covering the 2 by 2 formation next to Mario.

Combat involves moving enemies into formations of 4, which boosts Mario's attack power and lets him hit more bad guys at once. The toads in the stands here will help you out in exchange for coins during combat, and can even give you healing items and other boosts. It's not meant to be difficult.
Combat involves moving enemies into formations of 4, which boosts Mario's attack power and lets him hit more bad guys at once. The toads in the stands here will help you out in exchange for coins during combat, and can even give you healing items and other boosts. It's not meant to be difficult.

If it sounds complex that’s because it is, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly. The puzzle elements can be difficult, even later in the game when you’ve done hundreds of fights, but the difficulty is tuned low enough that you don’t really need to master it, and there are a bunch of systems that can be used to assist Mario, from purchasable weapons and healing items to spending in game coins to have the toads in the crowd provide hints and items or even solve the puzzles for you, to ally characters who can launch an attack after Mario has finished his turn.

It’s a very original take on a combat system but it gets boring quickly. Battle rewards take the form of confetti (a resource Mario uses to fill in gaps in the world, some of which block his path) and coins, which function as the game’s currency and are used to buy things in the overworld or to purchase boosts during combat. There’s no XP or sense of advancement, and while enemies get stronger as the game advances the battles are pretty much trivial all the way through the game. The game does have boss battles, which feature Mario at the outside of the circle working his way towards the boss using a series of arrows and icons to direct his path and actions. These are more involved than the normal battles, and the bosses are more difficult than the standard foes, but I only died once in combat, and that was to a boss who has an instant kill attack. I also died several times to instant kill environmental hazards, which felt like they were oddly aggressive in what is generally a very easy game.

Boss battles are much more involved affairs, with the arrows directing Mario around the ring and a large number of complex mechanics. They can be a little challenging, but you can see there are also hearts on the battlefield, which can heal Mario and make the battles much more manageable, even without using healing items.
Boss battles are much more involved affairs, with the arrows directing Mario around the ring and a large number of complex mechanics. They can be a little challenging, but you can see there are also hearts on the battlefield, which can heal Mario and make the battles much more manageable, even without using healing items.

Oddly enough there’s a second form of combat in the form of in-world fights against giant papier-mâché versions of classic Mario enemies, which involve whacking them with your hammer in classic action-RPG style. These fights are simple but fun, and there are even several boss battles that take this format. It made me kind of wish that the game had leaned more into the action-RPG format and potentially ditched its turn based combat system for something faster and more action packed, but this type of combat is relatively rare and generally amounts to a minute or two diversion before getting back to the main game.

Mario fights giant Papier Mache enemies in the overworld. I wish there had been more of this action rpg style combat and less of the turn based stuff.
Mario fights giant Papier Mache enemies in the overworld. I wish there had been more of this action rpg style combat and less of the turn based stuff.

The game also features a lot of exploration and some basic environmental puzzle solving and secret searching, which generally involves finding the right thing to hit with your hammer in the right way. Rewards take the form of useful items or totally useless collectable statues, but the most common reward is a toad, who you frequently find folded up into some origami creature like an insect or snake, or crumpled up and stuffed into various cracks and crevices. These toads mostly serve to fill out the stands that surround combat and allow you to get a greater benefit when you spend money during battles, but some of them have additional benefits, such as shopkeepers who will staff shops after you free them, or progression necessary NPCs who will do things like paddle a boat you need to use to get to the next area.

You spend a lot of time rescuing toads, and they're charming little dudes. It's a gorgeous game.
You spend a lot of time rescuing toads, and they're charming little dudes. It's a gorgeous game.

Unsurprisingly for a Paper Mario game, there are a variety of minigames ranging from two different types of shooting gallery minigames to a river navigation minigame to picture unscrambling puzzles to a submarine minigame where you search for treasure under the waves. These are mostly fine but none of them are very involved, and while some claim to offer fabulous prizes if you take on the more difficult versions, most of those prizes amount to worthless collectibles that you can visit in the game’s museum. The game does have equipment in the form of “accessories” that provide combat benefits and items you get from the “sensor lab” head scientist that help you find hidden stuff, and it would have been nice if the minigames offered better rewards.

Did you think there wouldn't be fishing? OF COURSE THERE'S FISHING! There's ALWAYS fishing!
Did you think there wouldn't be fishing? OF COURSE THERE'S FISHING! There's ALWAYS fishing!

Finally the game features some basic item hunting challenges that are almost too simple to qualify as gameplay. It is always obvious what item you should use where and while some of the items need to be found in the environment many are just handed to you by NPCs, including Luigi who spends the game searching for the key to Peach’s castle and finds a variety of other keys Mario needs along the way, which he happily turns over to his brother.

As this exhaustive list shows, The Origami King has a lot of gameplay ideas, but none of them feel fleshed out. The turn-based combat is clearly meant to be the meat of the gameplay, but it’s not interesting or challenging enough to carry the game. It feels like the first draft of an alternative combat system, without quite enough mechanics to sustain a 25 hour+ run time. The only exception is the boss battle system, which is at least interesting and unique, if still a little shallow, but since there are about a dozen boss fights in the game it’s a relatively small part of the lengthy run time. Everything else the game has to offer is shallow and easy. Most of the environmental puzzles are barely puzzles at all. The platforming is very simple and Mario won’t walk off tall ledges so you only fall if you get hit by a hazard or make a bad jump. None of the minigames is engaging enough to play more than a couple times, and all the items you need are easily found. The game even has an in-game hint system in the form of Olivia, who will tell you more or less what you need to do next if you hit the X button in the overworld.

Shimmying across this ledge and holding the chain when the wind blows is this game's version of a traversal challenge. It's not really challenging, though there are a few places that will kill you instantly and without warning. Remember to save.
Shimmying across this ledge and holding the chain when the wind blows is this game's version of a traversal challenge. It's not really challenging, though there are a few places that will kill you instantly and without warning. Remember to save.

The Origami King is clearly a game for children, but I think it crosses the line between being simple enough for kids and being simplistic. The first two Paper Mario RPGs were stripped down versions of a more complex genre, but they still had enough going on to challenge a pre-teen player who might not be ready for a full on PlayStation era Final Fantasy but could handle a simplified version. Origami King isn’t going to challenge anyone over the age of 8 or so, with the exception of a few timing-based challenges that represent weird difficulty spikes in this otherwise incredibly easy game. Its gameplay also isn’t going to fully engage anyone who doesn’t have a very high tolerance for repetition and doing the same sliding puzzles over and over. Its mechanics are, ironically, paper thin. It’s not terribly unfun and I never found it excruciatingly boring, but it all feels half baked. It’s not really an RPG, not really a platformer, and not really an adventure game, though it has some elements from all three, and whatever hybrid genre you want to call it is not substantial enough to sustain its runtime.

The game has a very basic elemental magic system that pops up in combat and even has uses in the overworld, but only in specified places where magical circles appear. Olivia folding into the elementals looks very cool but it's never mechanically interesting.
The game has a very basic elemental magic system that pops up in combat and even has uses in the overworld, but only in specified places where magical circles appear. Olivia folding into the elementals looks very cool but it's never mechanically interesting.

Yet despite all this I really liked the game and would play a sequel. Why? Because it’s charming. I’ve just spent a long time describing what you do in The Origami King, but the game isn’t really about what you do, it’s about what you see and hear. While the story is very pedestrian and most of the characters are above average at best (Olivia is a great character and the game’s version of Kamek is surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic) the game is bursting at the seams with charm. Environments are gorgeous and colorful, ranging from a ninja theme park nestled in an eternally autumnal crimson mountain to a series of islands in a giant ocean and a night-cloaked desert complete with ancient temples and its own snifit run version of Las Vegas. Dialogue is very well written, mostly funny but with some genuine emotion and pathos at times, and always full of personality and character. The music ranges from pretty good to downright amazing; never quite reaching the heights of Super Mario Odyssey’s Jump Up Superstar. but solidly in the top of the B-tier of Nintendo soundtracks, which is still very impressive company.

Olivia is honestly one of my favorite characters of the year. She's a fantastic companion on your adventure.
Olivia is honestly one of my favorite characters of the year. She's a fantastic companion on your adventure.

The simple gameplay allows for an easy, breezy, adventure that allows you to explore the environments and enjoy the humor at your leisure, taking in what you want and rushing through areas that might not engage you while never requiring grinding and doing its best not to stump you in any meaningful way (though there were a couple times where I couldn’t quite figure out what to do even with hints, and had to experiment a bit to advance the story.) It’s all just very pleasant and enjoyable, even if it’s not deeply satisfying. This is Nintendo in full Saturday Morning Cartoon mode, crowd pleasing and cheerful with lots of talk about the importance of friendship and how no challenge is too great when you work together.

And in the end…it works. The world and characters are compelling enough that the game actually can skate by on aesthetics and just good enough gameplay. It’s not the best game I’ve played this year but not everything has to be great. Sometimes good is good enough. It reminds me of something like Donut County, another simple very charming game that didn’t have a lot to it mechanically. Origami King feels like it captures that same aesthetic of whimsy, but without he social commentary or irony, and just extends that out to the running length of a short RPG without losing what makes it so pleasant, which is impressive in its own right.

Many Nintendo games are colorful, but not many are this colorful. It's one of the best looking games on Switch.
Many Nintendo games are colorful, but not many are this colorful. It's one of the best looking games on Switch.

I understand that longtime Paper Mario fans are having a hard time with the series transformation from simple yet deep RPGs they loved as children into…something else that’s not quite fish or fowl. It’s frustrating to get something that’s sort of but not quite what you want while still trying to claim the good will from the thing you actually enjoyed. I don’t have the same nostalgia for the old games, which helps me meet The Origami King on its own terms. And on its own terms it’s a pleasant, enjoyable time. I think this would be a great game for actual children, who might not be so bored by the simplified combat mechanics or know what they were missing in terms of actual RPG progression, but it’s also a fine game for adults who like easy, whimsical, adventures with a lot of charm. It’s often said that in video games gameplay will always be king, but I think Origami King shows that doesn’t have to be true. Sometimes it’s enough for an adventure to be fun and pleasant with some simple mechanics holding it together and giving the player something to do in between set pieces and charming little encounters. Sometimes it’s enough to keep you occupied while you explore a papercraft world and take in some enjoyable aesthetics. Not every game can be everything to everybody, and sometimes it’s enough for a game to be a pleasant little quest. In times like these it might even be more than enough.

You can pilot this boat and ride a whale spout. Does it serve any mechanical gameplay purpose? No. But it's fun and whimsical. A good summary of this game, which is more about enjoying the ride than engaging with the systems.
You can pilot this boat and ride a whale spout. Does it serve any mechanical gameplay purpose? No. But it's fun and whimsical. A good summary of this game, which is more about enjoying the ride than engaging with the systems.

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