If you were to ask any Paper Mario fan what their favorite entry in the series is, odds are they would say it’s Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Released on GameCube in 2004, that game is considered one of the best RPGs for that system and is beloved to a feverish level by the online community. Since then, they’ve been clamouring for a sequel that Nintendo has never really graced them with, and with every new game in the franchise that is not The Thousand-Year Door 2 comes plenty of negativity. Unfortunately for them but at the same time a very good thing, Paper Mario: The Origami King is yet another Paper Mario game that tries to do its own thing, as Nintendo continues to take an experimental approach to the series.
When the game opens, Mario and co are gearing up for the first ever origami festival, but when the brothers arrive in the village, there’s no one to be found. And to make matters worse, Princess Peach’s castle has been taken over by evil origami, including the princess herself, who wastes no time throwing Mario in the dungeon. During his daring escape alongside an out of shape (literally!) Bowser, they run into the real culprit behind this whole mess, Olly the Origami King, who wants to turn everyone into his folded minions, starting with Peach, who’s now a creepy folded version of her former self. Mario ends up separated from his pals as they’re blown out of the sky, with Peach’s castle getting covered by a number of magic colored ribbons and ripped out of the ground and flown away to the top of a volcano, thus starting a new adventure. Oh oh!
The Origami King comes closest to Paper Mario: Color Splash when it comes to the base gameplay that takes place outside of combat, but instead of sloshing paint around in order to color in blank spots, you’ll be throwing confetti and filling in holes all around as you explore the game’s world, not to mention the rescuing of the many, many Toads hidden just about everywhere. But there’s a reward to finding them this time as they can help you during battle as members of the audience. Speaking of, when it comes to fighting, The Origami King treats it much differently and frankly way better than the controversial card system found in the Wii U release, and at the same time it manages to stir some trouble of its own.
Turn-based combat here plays out on a circular arena that’s divided into rings that Mario has to line up enemies before attacking them every time a fight breaks out. You can help him by sliding or spinning individual rings on the board under a limited number of moves and time, and by nailing the correct solution, he’s able to get an attack power bonus and dish out some damage with his trusty hammer or trademark jump attack. These are used the same way they’ve always been in the Paper Mario series, by timing button presses in order to maximize damage, and the same goes for defending. The pre-combat puzzles tend to get a little too repetitive and drag out the pacing of the game as they take place before every single fight if you run into or are ambushed by an enemy while exploring the game.
This issue is somewhat alleviated by the game giving you the option to spend some of the many many coins you’ll win and throwing them for your ever growing Toad audience, who depending on how much you spend will throw out restorative items to Mario or even weapons, or better yet, might even move the board and get you the correct enemy positioning. Still, even with that bit of help you are still forced to partake in these puzzles, and is especially annoying in the beginning hours of the game where there also happens to be a fair number of unskippable drawn out tutorials.
Those problems coupled with the fact that there isn’t any sort of traditional leveling in Paper Mario: The Origami King (outside of upping Mario’s health pool and making him “slightly stronger” according to Olivia when he picks up a special heart item every now and then) really make fights feel slightly pointless and an unnecessary time sink. But the handful of boss fights throughout the game help the combat not be a complete loss due to their unique mechanics and the way they ultimately play out. King Olly has recruited an army of stationary items to do his bidding and guard the locks keeping each of the ribbons in place all over the colorful world of the game, and each one of their boss fights is a lot of fun to figure out and help provide plenty of challenge to the otherwise breezy flow of the game as a whole.
In those fights, Mario switches places with the boss as they occupy the middle of the rings, with you now having to align arrows into the correct houses so Mario can launch attacks, collect power-ups and be correctly placed in order to deal damage at the right spot and time as the battle… erm… unfolds. There are a limited number of tips you can pick up and help you get a lead into what to do, but they leave out plenty of room for you to figure things out, evening out the difficulty incredibly well, making each encounter feel substantially rewarding when you finally beat them.
Speaking of that, Mario has a new buddy in tow in Paper Mario: The Origami King in the papery form of Olivia. She’s Olly’s kind little sister who has the power to transform into a number of summon-like forms in order to help our mustachioed hero in the boss battles and during some of the environmental puzzles. As the game progresses, more of these folding techniques become available and they’re weaved into the boss fights in some smart ways, even more so in the late game battles where some enemy attacks can be really tricky to avoid and counter.
I have to admit that I didn’t come into Paper Mario: The Origami King with high expectations. The last Paper Mario game that I finished prior to this was 2007’s Super Paper Mario which I absolutely adored, having only played the first few hours of Color Splash on Wii U and coming out of it absolutely disappointed by its combat system. The Origami King is far from being the best game of the bunch, but whatever issues it has I was able to overlook thanks to the sheer charm and brilliance that spurs from its incredibly clever, funny, emotional writing and absolutely gorgeous presentation. And there’s even a little bit of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker thrown in which caught me by surprise and left me absolutely floored.
You will have a hard time finding a single location in this game that doesn’t look well thought out and designed, and it’s all thanks to Nintendo’s impeccable art direction that lends its world the papery, cut, folded, and glued together look that it sports. A desert cursed to be perpetually at night that happens to be the home to a group of snifits who opened up an oasis-like hotel, for instance, or a cursed and abandoned cruise ship hanging out in the middle of the ocean are only a few of the spots you’ll hit on your way, and they’re all full of personality and with plenty of colorful characters to talk to and interact with. Jokes are on point, full of word puns and pokes, not to mention a healthy dose of nostalgia that drenches most if not all of modern Nintendo games. I had plenty of laugh out loud moments throughout my 28 hours playing Paper Mario: The Origami King and even with the puzzle combat the game managed to pick up lots of steam the closer I got to the end and had enough of the strongest weapons that helped me close out normal encounters quickly.
Simply put, Paper Mario: The Origami King ended up being one of this year’s biggest sleeper hits for me. It could sure do with more dynamic play-to-play gameplay when it comes to that pre-combat mechanic during normal play, and the combat itself which only really gets good during the few boss fights that there are in the game, which ironically enough are when the puzzle/fight combo really comes alive. I’m curious to see where the series will go next, and if that happens to be even farther from the blueprint of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, I would totally be okay with it, especially if it turns out as good as The Origami King did.