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‘Paper Mario: The Origami King’ is Too Wrapped Up in Circles

‘The Origami King’ starts out with promise, but can’t overcome the tedious battle system.



Paper Mario: The Origami King Review

Developer: Intelligent Systems| Publisher: Nintendo | Genre: Action Adventure, Role Playing | Platforms: Nintendo Switch | Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch

The journey of Paper Mario has taken many gameplay twists and turns off the beaten path since the release of the much-loved Thousand-Year Door, and the latest entry, Paper Mario: The Origami King is (for better or worse) no different; once again, Nintendo has tried to solve a problem that for many players didn’t exist, experimenting with battle systems to see what additional spice could be added to the traditional turn-based combat. There’s no beating a flashy hammer around the crinkled bush — rotating circles to line up enemies or carve a path to a boss is a mild diversion at the outset of Mario’s latest adventure, but it doesn’t take too long before this light puzzling becomes a tedious, often punishing chore that will cause many players to avoid fighting altogether. Unfortunately, the series’ usual bright and cheery charm also feels dulled, resulting in a mostly forgettable and occasionally frustrating march through the Mushroom Kingdom. 

On its glossy surface, The Origami King appears to be made of more luxurious stock; a nicely humorous opening sets up a premise that — regardless of its thinness — has potential to broaden into a fantastic world filled with colorful weirdos whose dialogue bubbles are laden with clever puns and meta jokes. Mario and Luigi have shown up at Peach’s castle for yet another dubious celebration, this time called the Origami Festival, where they once again find that something has gone horribly wrong thanks to the grand ambitions of a folded meanie masquerading as a kiddie-sized king. The Bros get predictably separated, but Mario soon finds another companion in a pleated prisoner by the name of Olivia, whose brother, Olly, is the pipsqueak crimping everyone’s style. As per usual with Mario games, circumstances place the two would-be heroes far from their save-the-day destination, and so Mario and Olivia set out down a path of puzzles and boss battles to try to get back to where they started.

Those looking for story won’t find much more than that throughout the course of The Origami King. While elements of Olly and Olivia’s origins and motivations are touched upon, that’s about it for depth. And even those loose tidbits are never developed into any meaningful narrative thrust that contributes to a free-flowing world; no, instead the writers have decided to split the game up into what feels like episodic chapters (forest, desert, mountain, etc.), each introducing a special guest who comes along for the quest and some quips, then departs after the area boss. These ‘partners’ range in value when it comes to comedic entertainment, with some familiar faces providing the best pokes at a franchise riddled with tropes, but are generally non-essential when it comes to the larger tale — or in battles themselves, where players will have no control over them, and they often sputter to ineptitude. Thanks for nothing, Bob-omb.

And much like with some of Paper Mario’s more recent entries, much of The Origami King revolves around its battle system. Love it or hate it, players will be spending a good chunk of time manipulating these rings, so it’s best to get used to them. The idea is that Mario’s numerous enemies bound in to seemingly random points in the arena, but by rotating the circles left or right, as well as shifting sectors, those baddies can be lined up in such a way as to allow for the most efficient attacks. To emphasize this, the system rewards successful solutions with an increase in attack power, adding hope for one-hit kills and a flawless victory that earns extra coinage. Failure to properly suss these situations out within the prescribed time limit isn’t overtly penalized, but after Mario is depleted of half his hit points by innocuous goombas as the fight rages on, players will likely get the point.

Figuring out these rings is crucial for enjoying The Origami King, chiefly because it lessens battle time. While the concept is intriguing at first, there really isn’t too much to do in attack mode other than the typical stomps, hammers, and elemental flower bursts, so any repetition starts to feel tedious. Also, the lack of that power boost has a tendency to makes otherwise satisfying, timing-based attacks feel impotent and unsatisfying — not exactly great motivation for engaging. A traditional XP system could have helped with this, but all Mario gets for taking his beating round after round is a shower of coins (a bounty which depends on how well one did with the puzzle) and confetti. The coins can be spent on a number of useful weapons and accessories that will provide some quality-of-life improvements, and the confetti is useful for filling in gaps in the paper world (much like how paint worked in Color Splash), but since these things can also be earned through exploration, pacifism begins to look better and better as the war rages on.

Still, those having problems can feel free to pay their ever-increasing toad audience a smattering of gold in order to get hints or extend the timer, which are welcome additions for those whose puzzle-solving might not be as honed. Boss battles do approach the idea in a fresh way, instead tasking players with creating a path to various items and/or switches that will possibly allow for some thunderous assaults, but these moments are also littered with frustrating roadblocks that often require trial and error — or even the occasional surprise, instant death — which quickly grows tiresome. Indeed, many may now look on Color Splash‘s cards with a little more fondness in retrospect.

When not in the throes of combat, Paper Mario: The Origami King fares better, putting a decent emphasis on exploring colorful zones chock full of secrets, holes to patch, and environmental mysteries to uncover. Cleverly placed toads litter the countryside, waiting to be pulled from crevices or smoothed back into recognizable shape. Finding these hapless retainers brings all sorts of benefits, from a bevy of shop owners from whom to buy helpful items, to repopulating previously barren towns, turning them into bustling centers of off-beat humor. Most importantly perhaps, certain hidden toads bestow hearts containers, which is how The Origami King‘s version of leveling up; each container discovered grants increased HP, as well as permanent gains to attack power. It’s a great reason to explore, but those who stroll by some of the craftier hiding spots, don’t equip a toad-sensing radar, or who can’t meet the requirements of a particular challenge, will miss out on building a better Mario.

Gameplay frustrations aside, this franchise will always have the chance to cover up any blotches with imagination and charm; the premise of paper characters existing in a 3-D setting has always seemed ripe for creativity in design and humor. Unfortunately, this is the area where Paper Mario: The Origami King disappoints the most. With a few exceptions, locations mostly come across as generic Nintendo areas progressing along a track, lacking distinct context or visual panache. Forests, mountains, and deserts do little to distinguish themselves from the countless players have seen over the years, and though this could be a common complaint with Nintendo settings, the feeling is especially present here. And despite some amusing toad philosophy as well as a couple of temporary companions (especially a later familiar foe) nicely injected with smarmy personality, both the majority of the dialogue and world design feel less crisp than past entries. Olivia is the worst offender; her flat attempts at naive enthusiasm aside, she spends most of the adventure acting as Mario’s version of Fi from Skyward Sword, over-explaining events and ruining some puzzles by stating the obvious before the player even has a chance to figure things out for themselves.

That means Paper Mario: The Origami King will likely live or die by its battle system, which the developers have urged upon the player as much as possible. Those who buy into the ring-aligning system will no doubt have a decent time, even if unmemorable. Those frustrated by the starts-and-stops of combat, or who are hoping for a return to the franchise’s past — and a more traditional adventure — will have to turn the page yet again.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.