Release Date: Jul 17, 2020
Paper Mario is a series that keeps on reinventing itself in different ways with every entry. It's a philosophy that the developers of Intelligent Systems have aimed to keep true to, even if it has led to a lot of hit-or-miss reactions from long-time fans of the RPG/adventure series. What started out as a Mario take on the traditional roleplaying game genre has now turned into more of an action/adventure/puzzle affair. A lot of eyes were on The Origami King when Nintendo first unveiled it on one of their presentations. Would it be a return to form for the series? Or would it go down the same badly received route Sticker Star and Color Splash went down? Hopefully, after reading this review, you'll have a good idea of what the answer to those questions are. The short story is that it's a slight 'yes' for both answers.
Paper Mario: The Origami King gets straight to the point with its story right from the get-go. Mario and Luigi discover the Mushroom Kingdom has been overrun with bizarre folded monstrosities that are stopping at nothing to fold everything in their path. The culprit of all this? The titular Origami King, Olly, a character made entirely out of origami who serves as the main villain for the game. While trying to save Princess Peach, Mario stumbles upon Olly's sister, Olivia, who is equally horrified by what her brother is doing. The duo tries to put a stop to him, but this results in Peach's castle being uprooted from the Kingdom and cut off from the rest of the areas. From there, the game proper begins, with Mario and Olivia setting out to gain new powers and allies on their journey to cut down the streamers preventing them access to Peach's castle.
So that's the basic setup of the plot. Not too shabby, right? I'm pleased to tell you that when taking every aspect of The Origami King as a whole, the place where the game shines most is its killer writing. Even if you have beef with the direction the Paper Mario series has been heading this past decade, it's impossible to deny that there are some amazing writers on board at Intelligent Systems. Every bit of dialog found in Origami King is clever, well-written, and laugh-out-loud funny. Part of the charm with the Paper Mario series has always been how it explores the lives of oft-forgotten side characters and creatures in the Mario universe, such as Toads, Goombas, Bob-Ombs, and even Bowser. Origami King takes this aspect and dials it up to eleven, with half the gameplay revolving around saving Toads and populating them in the game's main hub of Toad Town. There are even some hidden areas the player can discover that take the form of cafes run by various Mario universe species. Feel like sitting down and having a cup of coffee with some Koopas? Now you can.
It's this dense and charming writing that holds up Origami King's story the entire way through. I can honestly say there was no moment in the game where the story really slouched, and there were even a few plot twists that genuinely shocked me and made me sad. It's one of the best stories the series has had since Super Paper Mario, even if it's not quite on the level of plot and characters TTYD had. But with every good story, there should be some good gameplay to back it up, right? Naturally, this is the part of Origami King that everyone has been anxious about. While Paper Mario on the N64 and TTYD were both straight up RPGs, Super Paper Mario took a more action/adventure route, with every game since diving further into the action and puzzle elements. So where does Origami King stand among all that? The answer is somewhere in the middle.
To start, let's talk about the normal moment-to-moment gameplay. As with all other Paper Marios, Origami King has players exploring environments populated with characters, puzzles, and goodies to find within every nook and cranny. There's almost never a dull moment when exploring in this game, as there's always something to do and find or somebody to talk to. This is also where half of the puzzle elements come into play. While the environmental puzzles aren't too head-scratching, there were a few that had me stumped for a while. This will ring especially true if you're going for 100% completion, but we'll talk about that more near the end.
This takes us to the other half of the gameplay: the battle system. I'm happy to say turn-based battles are actually back this time around, but the catch is it's all wrapped up in a new puzzle ring mechanic. At the start of every battle, all enemies will surround Mario on a set of rings from outwards to inwards. You'll then be placed on a timer, in which you need to quickly rotate and slide the rings in a specific pattern to line the enemies up in ideal groups before the time runs out. Lining them up like this nets you attack bonuses, and allows Mario to hit every enemy in one go with either his boots or hammer. Once the puzzle portion is done with, you then simply select which attacks you want to use and where on the rings. As with the first two Paper Mario games, timing is key as you land your attacks for bonus damage. The same applies to guarding against enemy attacks. While the puzzle ring mechanic might give some a distaste for the battle system, it's actually a pretty fun mechanic once you get the hang of it. It's made all the better that turn-based combat is used alongside it, a battle system that has been sorely missed since TTYD. In doing this, Intelligent Systems has struck a fine balance between gameplay Paper Mario veterans will enjoy and puzzles other fans would be more into. Rest assured that they've heard all of the complaints; it seems they tried even harder to please both camps with this game.
This battle system shines the most when fighting the game's bosses, which take the mechanics and flip them on their head by making the rings a set of predetermined paths to reach the boss in question. In doing this, boss battles become equal parts puzzle and strategy as players will have to line up various powerups and panels in their path to reach the boss. This is effective, and it makes every boss stand out in a memorable way that the past couple of Paper Marios haven't done. Most of the bosses take the form of office supplies in the game (colored pencils, a stapler, etc), which ends up being an amusing twist on the usual formula. What's even more amusing is how Intelligent Systems managed to give these bosses personality despite their blank-slate nature. As mentioned before, this is in large part thanks to the quality of their writing.
The music is good in Origami King, and sometimes even better than that. While it's not always that memorable, the game has some standout tracks that really do stick in your head. It's similar to the music you've heard in past Paper Mario games. The graphics also go that route, being pretty familiar territory with what you've come to expect. Even with this, Origami King manages to be the best looking Paper Mario game to date with its expressive characters, colorful environments, and papercraft enemies. I constantly found myself stopping and staring at all of the colorful locales the team has put together. It really is a treat, and the devs should be commended for doing so much with such a purposefully simple art style.
Last but not least, let's discuss the replay value for Origami King. As you play through it, you'll discover numerous collectible trophies that are hidden in corners or gated behind clever puzzles. The trophies serve as one of the game's many sets of collectibles, all of which can be viewed at your leisure in the Toad Town museum. Your discoveries are charted as you play, and you can use the things you find to buy even more collectibles such as concept art and music tracks. This mostly comes from discovering Toads in each of the game's six levels, which are carefully hidden in a large game of hide and seek. While six levels may not sound like a lot at first glance, you should bear in mind that each one is pretty staggering in size. There's a lot to do in every level the game has to offer, providing an initial area that leads to a new power, followed by a 'boss dungeon' type area that serves as the boss's lair. Each level can be visited at any time thanks to a nexus of warp pipes found in the aforementioned museum, which makes moving to every stage a very quick process. To better support this replayability, players can check their collectible progress on every single map through the game's main menu.
With all of this in mind, it's safe to say that the game is extremely rewarding for players who want to max it out to completion. There's a ton to do here, and taking it altogether, your total gameplay time could easily end off at around 45 hours. For those not aiming to collect everything, it will probably take you somewhere between 25-30 hours to beat. It's a good-sized game, and one that offers so much to do at any given moment.
When putting all of these aspects together, Paper Mario: The Origami King is an excellent game. While it's still not quite the level of quality the earlier games were, it's a big step in the right direction, and a breath of fresh air after the last two entries. Intelligent Systems has been pretty candid in their interviews about what they can and can't do with Paper Mario, but they haven't ruled out making a more traditional RPG entry someday. Despite the restrictions they've had to work around, it's impressive that they managed to put together a Paper Mario game that appeals to both types of fans in equal parts. While some of those decisions may be make-or-break for certain players, the balance leads to a game that feels true to what the fans are looking for in a Paper Mario game. Origami King blends together crafty writing, turn-based battles, puzzles, and exploration all into one delicious smoothie. I was hard-pressed to find things I didn't like about the game, though if I had to pick, it would be the unmemorable music. I also know the battle system will inevitably be divisive. I went into it with an open mind, though, and ultimately, I think it's a good step forward. Thanks to all of these things, Origami King can safely rest as a quality Paper Mario game, and one that's sure to age even better with time, like a fine wine. If you were on the fence about it, give the game a chance; you'll likely find something to love here.