As divisive as the Paper Mario series has been, it’s undeniable that the brightly coloured and playful likes of our truly 2D plumber are welcome in all the current doom and gloom. Revealed only a couple of months ago, and promising a whole load of fun around origami, it was honestly hard not to look forward to another instalment of ‘Nintendo messing around’ in 2020.
Opening in a papercraft Mushroom Kingdom, Mario and Luigi turn up for the Origami Festival. Driving on a quick jaunt through an eerie Toad Town, our paper protagonist finds himself the prisoner of the Origami King, Olly, and his finely-folded followers. Luckily, you stumble across Olivia who helps your unlock the powers you need to escape from the castle.
After Mario escapes this arguable disaster, the castle is dragged off to a distant mountain (again). Mario and his new companion set off into the world to unravel the streamers imprisoning Peach’s Castle and save the world from being neatly and prettily folded up. To be fair, they should probably stop celebrating festivals in this kingdom as this keeps happening here.
So commences jumping around the world and bonking things with your hammer: a world that, in The Origami King, is more of an open offer instead of the level-based set up of the last couple of games. There’s a lot to do in the world including filling the gaps in the levels, which is honestly one of my favourite things in general, and discovering hidden Toads and other trinkets.
What a world it is too. Paper Mario: The Origami King is absolutely gorgeous to behold, both in docked and handheld mode. Each themed (obviously) area is beautifully rendered and full of little paper craft quirks to find and gawk at. The game was designed with the idea of drawing the eye of the player into the next sight to see, and it honestly shows throughout the game.
This great design philosophy also extends to the enemies too, all of which look great from the adorable origami Goombas right up to the boss encounters with the (you are reading this correctly) Legion of Stationery. Honestly, the visual design in every aspect of this game is so cleverly realised and cohesive that it’s a genuine marvel to behold and explore.
The writing here too is on absolute top form, even for this series. It was difficult not to laugh at some of the lines in the game, or the increasingly baffling and dumb circumstances our heroes found themselves in. But, that isn’t to say that there isn’t heart here, as a couple of key moments in the narrative – which I won’t spoil here – set out to prove with aplomb.
It’s a delight to discover hidden things in this game; whether hitting a palm tree and finding a screwed up Toad in a coconut or finding a treasure chest on a cleverly obscured path. You can’t even just check out anything that appears odd because some of these objects look almost pedestrian at a glance, prompting the need to experiment a lot in the world.
As a final great gameplay nugget, and for those completion-focused masochists out there, the map shows how much of the area you have discovered in terms of items, which is an excellent idea for working out what you’ve missed without explicitly showing you where they might be. Coupled with a simple UI and menus, the game is a dream to witness and navigate.
But then there’s the combat, which is turn-based but not in the traditional sense, bringing the context-sensitive battles the series is known for. However, The Origami King brings puzzles along for the ride in what can only be described as a poor decision, placing Mario at the centre of a circular arena and tasking the player to solve said puzzles to dispatch his foes. The idea is that you rotate the rings or rows of enemies to line them up in groups of four to defeat them efficiently. You have a time limit in which to do this, and a successful solving of the puzzle will give a damage boost to your attacks that turn. You can buy more time to find a solution and other bonuses, not that these remove the monotonous frustration of these battles.
Thankfully, you can avoid a lot of the enemies.
Boss encounters then play out in reverse with the boss in the middle and the player rotating the rings to guide Mario to the centre to bop the big folks on the head. This functions somewhat more sensibly than the standard battles, but with the added frustration that getting the most damage out of your attacks is yet another puzzle to solve. So, once again, tedious.
It’s just a disappointment that one of the core parts of the game is so poorly implemented, and used so regularly. A fact that’s made worse as there’s simply no incentive to fight more enemies outside of the ones you’re forced to take on. You don’t level up or become stronger in any way, and the enemies simply keep respawning so it doesn’t ease exploration either.
In fact, the only thing you’ll consistently get out of fighting is the loss of resources because – guess what – all weapons apart from the basic hammer and boots can break. It’s great to see that Nintendo aren’t in a rush to give up on weapon degradation just yet. That and time, because these battles honestly feel like they take far too long for what they are.
Adding insult to injury with all this is that there are several over-world encounters with enemies, outside the battle system that are genuinely enjoyable little combat puzzles to solve. These encounters were often unexpected, and were often tied to a greater puzzle in the area. They break up the pace in a far more natural way, and proved to be both enjoyable and satisfying.
Honestly, if the game were just made up of filling the gaps in the world with confetti, finding hidden Toads and treasures, and the occasional large over-world encounter; I would find it difficult to find flaws with this game. As it stands though, they saw fit to shoehorn in a frustrating and tedious battle system that takes up far too much of the overall gameplay sadly.