Paper Mario: The Origami King Review

July 27, 2020
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Paper Mario: The Origami King is an idiosyncratic, discombobulated, zig-zag of a journey through the Mushroom Kingdom, and it is absolutely delightful. Unlike some previous entries in the Paper Mario series, there is no foundational gameplay gimmick at the core of TOK. It’s a jack-of-all-trades — switching genres and playstyles at the drop of a hat. You’ll be solving dungeon puzzles that seem cribbed from a 2-D Zelda one moment, and dancing with a legion of Toads the next. The game has a herky jerky pacing and tone that reminds me of old adventure games, and at times even feels subversive for such a big franchise. 

I’m ready for my close-up, Bob-Omb

The story of PM:TOK is as simple as you might expect from the series: Olly —  the aforementioned Origami King — has decimated the Mushroom Kingdom by folding its many flat, paper denizens into Origami, relocating Princess Peach’s iconic castle to the business end of a volcano. He claims he will not stop until he has folded the entire kingdom into itself. Mario teams up with Olly’s Origami sister, Olivia, to stop Olly and discover just why he hates the Toad race so much. Olivia and Olly have a surprising amount of backstory and even character arcs, but the real stars of the show are its many diversions, varied characters, and inviting locations. To name everything that happens in the game would be entering into spoiler territory, and it’s best to approach the game’s many twists and turns with fresh eyes.

Paper Mario: The Origami King features a turn-based battle system that seems to be used whenever the game struggles to give the player something else to do. In battle, you must rotate and slide columns and rows of tiles to arrange enemies in clean lines and squares. It is somewhere between rote memorization and a mobile match-three game. It works, but is rather unexciting compared to literally anything else that you get to do in the game, and it is used far too frequently. It is strange because the game seems to know this. Punishment for screwing up certain puzzle sections or taking the wrong route are going into battle. By the game’s halfway point, you’ll have multiple options to make any non-boss battle laughably easy — the game even gives you a tool that solves tile puzzles for you if you choose to activate it. Even so, there are still so many of them and they take up a huge amount of time. Many battles even feature the same arrangements of enemies, and even if you play a puzzle perfectly some enemies may not die because you timed a hit wrong or the equipment you are using is a tad too weak. 

You only have two attacks — hammer or jump — but the game for some nonsensical reason gives you breakable weapons. I suspect this is to give the coins in the game more utility. You have to go back to a vendor and buy the same weapons over and over to make sure you can hit enemies harder and battles don’t last forever. You’re rarely in danger of dying from a battle, so the worst case scenario is that a battle simply takes ages to finish. There are no RPG elements or levelling in the game either, and only a few different weapons — all of which the game gives you by the end — to be had. There is no upside to intentionally battling, so I avoided it whenever I could. 

It’s true we all bleed the same pulp

The boss fights fare differently, and are often invigorating and creative. The battle system is re-tooled so that you have to arrange little mazes for Mario to reach the enemy before it destroys with him an attack. You have to plan around what it looks like the enemy is doing, and it feels far more intuitive and logical than the standard battles while also being stranger and funnier due to the boss’ attacks. Unfortunately, the final boss of the game is an absolute chore. It re-uses ideas from previous bosses and culminates in an obnoxious QTE sequence. It’s the only use of QTE in the entire game, and feels jarring.

Battling is still a fraction of what you’ll be doing in the game. Most of it is spent exploring the six different zones in the game’s Mushroom Kingdom and finding Toads folded up in different nooks and crannies like a tripped-out Nintendo version of “Where’s Wally.” There is a light Okami-esque confetti element to the game, where you repair broken pathways and missing bits of the paper world with confetti. It’s more significant towards the beginning of the game, however. In some of the worlds you team up with sidekicks who have their own unique stories, or go to the theatre, or go to a theme park. There are a few vehicle sections and an aggressive amount of fanservice to other Nintendo Games — which was all amusing and worked for me. You can tell the developers have a certain fondness for Wind Waker. The game absolutely loves to surprise the player and screw with them whenever possible by throwing them for a loop. This is especially true for the theme park level, which is right up there with New Donk City in terms of memorably weird Nintendo locales. There are traditional puzzles and dungeons and some mini-games too. The game’s final two zones feel a little more light and linear than the rest of the adventure, speeding towards the conclusion, and don’t even have any folded-up Toads to discover, but the game is still meaty and full of things to do.

Toad making a case for health inspectors

While the story isn’t particularly deep, the writing is sharp and the game never fails to find a solid joke or a unique observation. Rarely will you talk to an NPC and receive a boiler-plate response. The game also briefly touches on some rather dark topics for a Nintendo game. While the game is drenched in silliness, color, and humour, there are nods toward themes of racism and strange discussions about labour in the Mushroom Kingdom. Nintendo fans who enjoy parallax views into Mario lore will be surely pleased at the game’s metafictional tone and its fleshing out of side characters. 

The presentation is top notch. There is a wealth of detail in the game’s many locations and the game’s artists designed what looks like such a perfectly cheap arts and crafts world. The textures are convincing and the setting is mined for visual puns and strange, unexpectedly beautiful scenes. The soundtrack is outstanding and there are plenty of detailed collectibles, all of which can be viewed in the game’s museum. 

The halcyon days of the minion workday

Paper Mario is a uniquely funny and beguiling adventure, even if there are some familiar story beats and gameplay styles. While it is padded out by a tedious and somewhat boring battle system, there is plenty to see and do in this fresh look at the Mushroom Kingdom. Get lost in it like a piece of stationery hiding in the back of a desk drawer. 

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Paper Mario is a hysterical and consistently gripping adventure that will keep you wondering what left turn it will take next. It’s a game crafted with love and a willingness to subvert expectations, and its myriad charming moments will make you forget about its joyless and overly pushy battle system.