I remember when the first Paper Mario came out on the Nintendo 64. I loved Mario, I loved JRPGs–it was a match made in heaven! I’ve been a fan of the series ever since, but it’s undeniable that its been in a bit of a slump (for what it’s worth, I thought Color Splash was decent, if not quite the return to form I’d hoped for). The big question on everyone’s mind when The Origami King was announced was: Will this entry finally restore Paper Mario to its former glory?
The answer: yes and no.
Let’s just rip the band-aid off right away, shall we? No, sadly, The Origami King does not return Paper Mario to its JRPG roots. While there are turn-based battles, there’s no experience point gain or leveling up. Stat increases are doled out exclusively through items called Max HP Up Hearts–essentially Legend of Zelda Heart Containers. It’s a real shame; there’s so much to love about this game, but it makes a real misstep here by foregoing the old-school RPG elements that the fanbase has been clamoring for since Super Paper Mario.
Also, let’s talk about the combat for a second. Battles place Mario in the center of a series of rings. Each enemy occupies a single space on one the rings, and a huge part of each fight is moving the rings to line enemies up. Mario only has two attacks, jump and hammer, and they each affect different areas: the jump hits all enemies in a straight line, while the hammer hits a two-by-two-space square. At the start of combat, you get a certain number of ‘moves’ to spin and shift the various rings so that all the enemies are lined up in either straight lines or two-by-two formations; if you’re successful, you get a damage boost. Most fights are set up so that if you line things up right, you can take out all the enemies in a single turn, so fights are really more about solving the ring puzzle than digging into turn-based combat.
This system works fine, and is even kind of fun, but I can’t help feeling that it’s used to try to cover up a shallow, lackluster combat system. As I said, you only get two attacks, and though there are slight variations on them (for instance, iron boots let you jump on spiked enemies that would normally require a hammer to deal with), it’s not enough to make the combat feel deep or interesting. Plus, despite occasionally pairing you with interesting side characters, this battle system doesn’t allow you to have a true party. It’s disappointing, as the different party members were one of the highlights of the original game.
Okay, that about covers the cons. What about the pros?
First off, The Origami King is an absolutely beautiful game. I love the papercraft aesthetic, and everything is just so bright and vibrant it practically leaps off the screen. I got this game on the tail end of a depressive streak, and I have to say, the charming art and colorful vistas really helped brighten my day!
Secondly, the script is absolutely killer. It’s weird and meta and… a little bit scary?
The plot is, of course, that Peach has been kidnapped and Mario has to rescue her. This time it’s not Bowser who did the kidnapping, though, but Ollie, the eponymous Origami King. He didn’t just take her, either–he folded her up into an origami abomination and ran off with her entire castle! Thus begins Mario’s quest to destroy King Ollie’s five paper streamers, opening his way to the castle.
Sure, it’s all a bit old hat at this point, but what do you expect from a Mario title? Besides, while saving the princess might be a tired trope, the game itself is more than willing to poke fun at the franchise’s oft-used cliches. From koopas who admit their only method of attack is “walk slowly at the enemy and don’t get stomped” to a bob-omb frequently questioning where its own legs are, there’s a lot of lampshade hanging going on, and I’m here for it.
While there’s certainly a lot of meta humor, the game is just funny in general. One of the main side activities you can partake in is the rescuing of various Toads who have been folded up by the baddies, and these guys always have a witty quip when you rescue them. Then there’s your constant companion Olivia, an origami princess who serves as your guide; she’s peppy, goofy, and lovable throughout the game, and a lot of jokes come from her naive enthusiasm. On top of that, sometimes you just come across something so bizarre you can’t help but laugh–like the secret coffee shop I discovered in the back of a dungeon, where a little vignette played out between a goomba and a shy guy that had me in stitches. The writers weren’t afraid to get weird with this one, and the game is all the stronger for those quirks.
My favorite thing about the game, though, is that there’s so much to do and explore. Each gorgeous paper landscape has Toads to rescue, holes to fill up with confetti, ? blocks to whack, and collectibles to discover. Doing so unlocks concept art, music, and more at a museum in Toad Town, and you better believe I’ve become obsessed with getting my collection up to 100%. The world is fun to explore and filled with secrets; every new area that opens up is a chance to find a dozen new surprises.
While The Origami King didn’t bring Paper Mario back to its roots in the way I’d hoped, it’s still a great experience, and a marked improvement over Color Splash or Sticker Star. The combat, while disappointing, is at least quick; meanwhile, the lovable cast and top-notch exploration make the game well worth shelling out your own hard-earned paper.