Paper Mario: The Origami King, Nintendo’s lone pillar in an otherwise-quiet summer for the company, tries a lot of things. It brings new characters and battle systems into the fold. Its writing and art are stellar. But while it contorts itself to comply with management choices and add dimension to its gameplay, it still can’t help but feel… flat.
First, we should talk about the elements that make Paper Mario: The Origami King stand out and shine. They’re not hard to see! Building toward a clear aesthetic and crafting entirely within the bounds of what runs well on the Switch has made Origami King a visual showpiece. Everything feels physical, with small details of wear and misalignment of platforms adding to the world’s character at every turn. It’s a world you’ll want to take in at every turn as you play.
The wit of Origami King is, as you’d expect, stellar. While the Paper Mario games have taken turns along the way that weren’t always great, both the localization and the underlying writing have remained at unreasonably high levels. The team at Nintendo’s Treehouse is so well-regarded in large part due solely to Paper Mario’s writing, and you can tell that they’re both fully invested in working on it and having fun along the way.
Some elements of Origami King’s structure do hold back your enjoyment of that writing, though. It’s largely due to tedium. The game repeats text, throws redundant tutorials at you whenever it can, and tosses one or two more screens of talking into a conversation than would generally be wise.
Adding to this is the tedium between text, leaving your patience no time to recover. The overall pacing is very slow. Quest design and objectives involve a lot of backtracking. Repetitive battles ambush you with little to no benefit. And then there’s the confetti.
Early games in the Paper Mario series were so compelling, at least in part, because of how they made every number count. Every single coin! Each point of HP! Every turn of battle! The values in the game were so distilled and balanced that these things felt consequential.
Origami King takes things in the other direction, with piles of coins, damage that adds up but doesn’t feel painful and the never-ending quest to gather confetti. It’s not like the game invented this concept; mobile games make a living on this sort of inflation, and its roots absolutely lie in Japanese console RPGs and hack-and-slash action games. But it’s strange in a franchise with such a well-considered past to feel like you’re being buried in confetti and coins until you forget you’re not having fun. What is the point, ever, of having to hit the confetti button multiple times in a row? Or of gathering a fraction of a throw?
Perhaps it’s because Paper Mario: The Origami King’s primary goal is to get you to interact with every object in its world until there’s nothing left. All the paper holes to patch with confetti! All the folded Toads to find and hit with a hammer! Even all the special points to stand on and use motion controls! (The motion controls are bad. You can turn them off in the menu. Immediately do that.) These elements point to Origami King’s true genre: it’s a hidden object game.
Because it’s certainly not about its battles. Built on a ring-based system, the idea is that you align enemies into formations that you can easily hit, then use your jump or hammer to do just that. This could work! In theory. In practice, it’s tedious paint-by-numbers, because there’s always a “correct” solution, the game telegraphs precisely what it is and you just do it. If you could find your own success here, it would work a lot better. And success means, well, nothing.
This system is augmented by stuff that at least suggests that the dev team at Intelligent Systems remembers Paper Mario’s RPG roots. You can buy and equip boots and hammers, as well as passive perks that help you get through. You should use them because they help, but with a system like this, making you even less insulated from consequences further dilutes battles’ meaning. Eventually, you’ll encounter Origami King’s attempt at a partner system, but it never makes for interesting combat decisions.
Also, and we really thought this lesson was learned from the last two games: if you make something consumable or breakable, you discourage using it. The equipment in this game is just better stuff that breaks after a few uses, rather than an interesting puzzle piece to build battles around. But you have a ton of money and can just keep buying new ones, we guess.
It feels like Intelligent Systems knows this battle system is bad, because it never uses it for anything important. Boss battles are reconfigured with Mario around the outside of the ring, maneuvering through it with arrows and switches to make the right path to a strong attack. This variant does work better, when you see it. Newer players, or ones less adept in spatial reasoning, can get through just fine with simply aligning the arrows. Experts can use the extra time to pick up item chests or boost damage along the way. It feels like this system would break down if it was put in front of players too many times, so… it isn’t.
There are two generally accepted factors in the Paper Mario franchise’s modern transition. The first, that Nintendo company policy prevented the development team from creating new characters in the Mario universe, is well-documented. New characters can be made that are entirely separate from Mario (like the new origami people). Existing default characters can be used (like Toad or Bob-Omb). But there is nothing in the middle.
This is, of course, a management decision and not a law, so it could be easily reversed, but it’s not what’s causing the series’ gameplay problems. We’ll miss the charm of Admiral Bobbery, but you could offer the same combat options with Origami King’s vanilla Bob-Omb. You could also use those entirely unrelated characters for that, too. After all, Super Mario RPG’s Geno didn’t fail to build a fan base, and Geno isn’t a Koopa Troopa or Toad or Goomba.
The other factor: that Paper Mario’s move away from RPG into PC-style adventure was a conscious one, likely driven by the Mario & Luigi series filling that void. Well. So. That’s over. Moving back in that direction would no longer crowd another project. But, much like the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom trapped by the Origami King’s streamers, the Paper Mario franchise itself is held back by red tape.
It doesn’t seem that there’s a corporate decision to keep Paper Mario from crowding the core 3D platformer series. You’ll regularly hit points in the adventure that have Mario jumping and dodging and hammering foes in the overworld, and these sequences rely on careful timing and movement. The game isn’t exactly built for it, both in its more lackadaisical engine and the dissonance when your paper-thin character gets hit in his invisible width. These elements are clearly built to break up the tedium, and when successful, they do. But often, you’ll have to try these over and over again, and that just doesn’t help.
Can a game show significant improvement over its predecessors while further entrenching itself along the wrong path? Origami King certainly tries, making a game that’s a blast to read and gorgeous in screenshots but just not that fun to play. In many ways, it delivers the quality and polish you expect from Nintendo. As a full package and a time investment, it’s hard to recommend.
Paper Mario: The Origami King is available now on Nintendo Switch.