Stuck in the uncomfortable position of not fully committing to any of the facets that it tries to embrace, The Origami King could have never matched the golden days of the franchise; however, for what it is worth, the game is the saga’s best entry to be released ever since it began to move away from its glorious and distant start
To avoid the risk of becoming obsolete and falling into obscurity, gaming franchises need to move forward. It is unlikely that either Nintendo or its longtime fans disagree with that statement: the former has, after all, kept many of its series relevant throughout the years by slowly introducing new variables to their formula; and the latter, meanwhile, have been enjoying the ride for long enough to know that the games they love must evolve. Conflicts arise, however, when it comes to the nature of these changes, and nowhere has that struggle been more evident than on the Paper Mario franchise, which following The Thousand-Year Door, released in 2004, has opted to go down a road that has generated a whole lot of complaints.
The noise is, by all means, justified. While series like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda have undergone this transformation process throughout decades, therefore becoming rather different from how they were in their early days, Nintendo has executed that operation on their constitution without eliminating or diluting their most important component: their essence. With the Paper Mario saga, unfortunately, the opposite has happened, and after a pair of titles that is still perceived as the absolute peak of the series, the entries that were released chose to deconstruct what was in place rather than improve on it.
Progressively, in the name of simplicity and mass appeal, a product that was already simple, popular, and accessible began to lose a grip on its identity. And what was originally an RPG take on the Mario universe started to abandon the staples of the genre: although they were not eliminated, the turn-based battles lost importance; the plot, instead of walking hand in hand with gameplay, took such a discrete backseat that it got to the point where it almost vanished; and elements such as stats, levels, and party members were thrown away. With the downplaying of these variables, the focus on exploration rose, but – to the dismay of many – that component was not fleshed out in any significant way, therefore failing to compensate for what was lost. And the Paper Mario series became a franchise stuck in a completely avoidable identity crisis, as it refused to keep on being a role-playing game but did not take the steps to execute the transition appropriately.
Paper Mario: The Origami King is the sixth game of the series and, consequently, the fourth consecutive entry in which Nintendo and Intelligent Systems work towards keeping the franchise away from its origin. And much like its predecessor, Color Splash, it is rather visible the title tries to reach a middle ground between what most longtime fans expect out of the saga and the disaster that was Sticker Star, in which the watering-down of the RPG elements reached such an extreme that it led to a completely purposeless adventure. As such it is, quite visibly, an effort that is stuck in the uncomfortable position of trying to juggle two different natures without being able to fully explore any of them. However, given it continues – even if shyly – the back paddling carried out by Color Splash, it lands on a package that presents the series at its most enjoyable state since it began to be torn apart.
The adventure starts with style. Mario and Luigi are invited by Princess Peach to Toad Town, where the Origami Festival will be held. When the pair arrives there, though, they sense something is amiss: instead of a bustling and festive atmosphere, there is utter silence in the beautifully decorated square; rather than being greeted by joyous Toads, the little guys are nowhere to be seen; and, to add to the disturbing vibe, the scenario is filled with holes that signal something has done damage to the town. Worried, they rush to castle looking to understand what is wrong. When getting there, however, Mario and Luigi are met with one major surprise: Princess Peach has been turned into origami, and speaking ominously she lures them into a trap.
It does not take long for Mario to find a way out of trouble. In doing so, he comes into contact with multiple origami versions of the traditional minions he usually faces off against. As it turns out, the transformed creatures seem to be actively pursuing their standard paper counterparts so they can be folded into their allegedly superior version. After some exploration and battling, the plumber meets the source of all the trouble: Olly, the titular Origami King. He asks Mario to aid him on his quest to turn the paper world into an origami utopia, and once the hero naturally refuses, the villain claims he cannot be stopped and uses his power to lift Peach’s castle to the top of a nearby volcano. As an incredibly well-produced cutscene rolls, the building is taken away and wrapped in five differently colored streamers. Knowing he cannot access the castle until the surprisingly sturdy decorations are removed, Mario starts following the ribbons to their point of origin so he can individually unravel them.
Differently from its prequels, The Origami King is not formally divided into chapters. However, in general terms, it unfolds much like a traditional Paper Mario game. Following a prologue that sets up the quest, each segment of the adventure is concerned with getting to one of the streamers, defeating the boss that guards it, and destroying it; and once the five ribbons are eliminated, the final portion is dedicated to storming the castle and beating the ultimate bad guy. But, as one would expect, The Origami King approaches such matters slightly differently, and – in that particular regard – the highlight of the package has got to be the overworld.
It can be said without much risk of exaggeration that never before has the Mario franchise been given such an impressive and unified overworld. Surely, since most of the property’s titles have been platformers, which are games not overly focused on that element, the competition is not exactly as fierce as it sounds, but in comparison to its RPG peers – including Super Mario RPG and the first two Paper Mario classics – The Origami King comes out on top as far as that matter is concerned.
The game plays out in a rather linear fashion that flows quite naturally, with the unraveling of one streamer causing characters to find a path that leads to the region where the other ribbon is heading towards. But as that predetermined road advances, Mario slowly explores the full extent of a beautifully constructed Mushroom Kingdom; one that greatly benefits not just from the title’s wonderful and colorful visuals, but also from settings that carry a good degree of originality. Truth be told, the Paper Mario franchise, even in its faltering moments, has always had a knack for throwing the plumber in alluring scenarios that one would not be likely to find in his platformers. However, The Origami King outmaneuvers them by putting the hero in places such as a desert condemned to a seemingly endless night, a theme park based on medieval Japan, an ocean riddled with islands that greatly nods to The Wind Waker, a bustling oasis town with Las Vegas inspirations, a heavenly spa, a mysterious abandoned cruise liner, and more.
In a way, such variety is true to the Paper Mario tradition of pushing the character into off the wall situations, and fans will be happy to know that the game takes advantage of these unique places to fill them with uncanny events that often show humorous disregard for logic. But, as it happened in Super Paper Mario and Color Splash, which were good games despite the fact they were not up to par with the first two Paper Mario efforts, The Origami King stumbles on its way to the finish line. As a notable improvement over them, the bungles it commits are not as flagrant. Nevertheless, it is frustrating to realize that, most of the times, the game alternates between delivering the goods with some caveats and, in fortunately rarer occasions, flirting with dullness. To make it all more maddening, the culprits behind such stumbles are quite well-known and the problems they present are rather familiar.
The first guilty party is the story. The Origami King has one; sadly, it is sorely undercooked. Between the wrapping of Peach’s Castle and the moment Mario is able to reenter it, no considerable events concerning the overarching plot take place. Moreover, little is revealed about King Olly or his motivations, and once these finally end up being presented, the reality is somewhat disappointing. The consequence is that, through most of the way, players will be trying to address a problem that seemingly happened simply because it is a rule that a cataclysmic occurrence has to unfold in order to get the adventure started. And even though each streamer that goes down leads them closer to being able to confront Olly, the script will stand almost completely still regardless of how much one advances.
It is worth noting, however, that The Origami King finds ways to compensate for that lack of development. For starters, some side-characters do get a proper full-fledged treatment: Olivia, Mario’s origami companion, easily emerges as one of the most charming allies Nintendo has ever created; in addition, as the quest rolls on, three temporary partners will join the pair and all of them have plenty to say and add a lot to the adventure, with one in particular earning iconic status. Furthermore, although their script is by no means comparable in depth and quality to those of the chapters of the classic Paper Mario games as well as Super Paper Mario, the chasing of the individual streamers occasionally brings a thin – yet interesting – storytelling layer, with the ones located in the desert and out in the ocean being the highlights.
The second problematic area of The Origami King is exploration. Once more, mostly thanks to the quality of its overworld and the beautiful design of its individual set pieces, the title clearly trumps both Sticker Star and Color Splash in that regard. Sadly, due to the fact the RPG elements remain toned down, this free-roaming component of the game winds up receiving a focus that it is just not muscular enough to handle.
There is a good deal of fun to be found in walking around the scenarios of The Origami King. Not only are they gorgeous, but they also carry an open and branching construction that makes it vital that players explore all of their corners in order to advance. Additionally, as a way to use their full extent as well as possible, Intelligent Systems has filled them with interesting discoveries: there are hundreds of Toads in dire situations waiting to be rescued; there are blocks to be hit; and, thanks to the destruction caused by Olly’s army, there are numerous holes that can be patched up by being filled with confetti – a collectible that can be amassed either by defeating enemies or hitting elements of the scenario. And those looking for full completion will be glad to know that besides keeping track of the total number of these assets in each area, the game also provides – down the line – radars that help the plumber track some of them.
Unfortunately, alongside that satisfying exploration, there is the nagging feeling that The Origami King is too simple for its own good, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the awfully limited actions that Mario can perform. While moving, the hero can only jump and use his hammer. Moreover, from time to time, he can stand on bright panels on the ground, each with its own specific symbol, to activate one of five skills: a move that has him stretching out origami arms to interact with pieces of the scenario (an action which is performed via responsive motion controls) and four elemental actions that have him summoning legendary creatures to give him a hand, such as when he calls on a fire bird to light up a torch.
Since these panel-based moves are only employed when there is clear indication that they are needed, the puzzles, action-segments, and exploration housed by the game center around hammering and jumping. In a way, it is astounding that developers were able to extract as much as they did out of two tools that are so commonplace: from many real-time battles against large papier-mâché versions of Bowser’s minions to a trip down a wild river, Mario does a bit of everything throughout The Origami King. But, at the same time, it is impossible not to see that the quest is held back by these constraints.
The most blatant example of how the lack of a gameplay-defining ability harms the adventure comes to the surface when the game tries to implement dungeons inspired by The Legend of Zelda. Located midway through each of the first four chapters, these buildings – which give Mario access to his elemental powers – work like small self-enclosed labyrinths containing puzzles, traps, and a boss. Sadly, given they only have a hammer and some jumping to work with, they end up – in spite of a few good moments – not amounting to anything that is truly remarkable.
In moments like these, players who went through the first three Paper Mario games (which, unlike The Origami King, were efforts that did not focus on exploration) have to wonder how better the experience could have been if the character – be it via partners or through any other means – had access to the vast amount of skills offered by those installments. And although the game never reaches segments of utter boredom, it can get pretty close to it, especially when that simplicity of gameplay meets stretches of storytelling vacuum, a dangerous combination that is very prevalent, for instance, during the first chapter and the middle portion of the final one.
Lastly, keeping the tradition that started with Super Paper Mario, The Origami King stumbles on its battle system. Again, what the game presents is a clear evolution of what was brought to the table by Sticker Star and Color Splash, which had combats that were – respectively – unbelievably pointless and unnecessarily convoluted. The Origami King does little to address the emptiness of Sticker Star and a lot to considerably diminish the silly complexity of Color Splash. As a consequence, the issues with battles remain not completely solved, and they are problematic for a number of reasons.
In these combats, Mario will take the center of a circular stage while enemies – always present in groups of four – will be scattered around four rings, with eight segments each, that surround the protagonist. When the action starts, players will be given a specific number of moves and a certain amount of time to move the rings, be it in a circular fashion or row by row, with the goal of packing the foes together either in neat rows of four or in a square-like shape with two pairs of enemies standing side by side. The purpose of organizing foes as such is to allow Mario to hit them all with a single strike, for where the jumping attack lets the plumber bounce on all bad guys standing in a line, the hammer hits a two-by-two area.
As such, The Origami King takes the curious route of replacing strategy with puzzle-solving. In all cases, the number of moves given to Mario will be the necessary amount to organize the enemies accordingly; likewise, the amount of attacks he can perform in a turn will be equal to the quantity of enemy groups that can be formed (for example, if there are twelve enemies on the rings, Mario will have the opportunity to strike three times before the minions can have a go at the hero). Therefore, gamers have to fight against the clock to figure out how to use what they have to try to kill all foes in one turn; if they fail, they will be hit by them, the rings will reshuffle with however many units are left, and the process will restart.
It is undeniable that solving the puzzle is fun, which should make many players thankful that – alongside a few other challenges – a mini-game focused on the rings is one of the attractions available in Toad Town. However, the system is riddled with problems. Firstly, and most importantly, due to the absence of experience points, stats, and leveling up, battles are – like in Sticker Star and Color Splash – still pointless. One may argue that they do provide coins and confetti, but besides there being other ways of acquiring them, these items do not have the same vital importance as experience points and leveling.
Coins are plentiful in the overworld and are earned in good amounts from mandatory combats; moreover, they are only necessary to buy extra collectible trophies, a few story-related items, battling tools (breakable hammers and boots that are stronger than the regular unbreakable ones), accessories that increase Mario’s HP as well as the time he has to move the rings, and the help of Toads or extra time to solve the puzzle during combats. In the end, then, abundant cash is only necessary for either full completion or more battling, which creates the pointless cycle of fighting for the sake of doing more combats that plagued Sticker Star. Confetti, meanwhile, is so abundant that the piles of confetti dropped by downed foes are not really needed. Consequently, since clearing the game without ever fighting an optional battle is perfectly possible, enemies roaming the overworld are more an annoyance than a feature, and it is safe to say most players will avoid them.
Secondly, battles are just too easy. At no point in the game does Mario have to face a minor enemy that takes more than two hits to be downed, and although the foes do pack a punch in terms of attack, the hero’s health is so large, healing items are so common, and combats end so quickly that Mario will only faint in normal combats in case of a major oversight by gamers. Lastly, the whole implementation of battles is just too simple: Mario only has two regular attacks (jumping and hammering) plus a few others that are triggered by items; the action commands (the timely button presses to increase the power of offensive moves and decrease the damage taken) are not varied at all; the temporary partners move automatically; and any strategic component is totally absent given all that it takes for one to clear a battle with ease is doing a mildly decent job at lining up enemies.
To a point, the boss battles are slightly better. For starters, they can be challenging. But they fall into yet another trap. Whether they are mid-chapter bosses or the entities guarding the streamers – a gang of origami supplies with a whole lot of personality – they will invert the logic of the regular battles. The bosses will take the center of the stage while Mario will stand on the outside of the puzzle structure. What players need to do in these combats is, once more, move the rings, but here the objective is to line up the panels (which are filled with arrows, attack pads, and other elements) so that Mario can walk towards the boss and land the necessary blow.
It is a smart inversion, but that tight scope of battle setup causes all bosses to be mere variations on the same theme. It goes without saying that each boss has attacks of its own, but not only do all of them mess with the rings in a certain way, but the procedure of bring them down is way too similar, usually centered on leading Mario to a panel – or a sequence of panels – that will trigger attacks that exploit a specific weakness of the bad guy.
The Origami King, therefore, can be summed as a continuation of the work that started to be executed in Color Splash. It does not return the franchise to its former glory, but it keeps on bringing improvements that address some of the many problems brought in by the disastrous Sticker Star. Still, when playing it, one cannot help but see that Intelligent Systems, rather than giving longtime fans what they want and fixing what is wrong for good, has chosen to go for an odd middle ground, one that stands between the changes they want to implement on the franchise and the desires of those who crave for a sequel that is faithful to the first two Paper Mario games.
Due to that, there are blatant improvements to the story, but the development of the script feels undercooked at several points; there is a lot of great design to be found in the exploration of the overworld, but there is an unnecessary simplicity restricting what Mario can do; and there may even be value to be extracted out of its puzzle-based battle system, but combats are so straightforward, easy, and pointless that it feels like they are there more as an obligation than as an actual creative decision. The result is an enjoyable, charming, and funny adventure game whose remaining RPG gameplay comes off as empty and unnecessary, and stuck in this uncomfortable position of not fully committing to any of the facets that it tries to embrace, The Origami King could have never matched the golden days of the franchise. However, for what it is worth, the game is the saga’s best entry to be released ever since it began to move away from its glorious and distant start.