2020 isn’t just the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., it’s also the 20th anniversary of the classic RPG series Paper Mario. Debuting on the Nintendo 64, it helped cement Mario as a bonafide RPG star, with his flattened exploits typically coming on home console, and his Luigi team-up RPGs largely on handheld.
For his latest adventure, Paper Mario finds himself confronted by the self-styled Origami King and the horror of all the papery inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom being folded into soulless origami versions of themselves. Naturally Peach has been transformed into an origami version of herself, her castle wrapped up in paper streamers, and now Paper Mario must adventure across the lands to free them from this new tyranny. Maybe he’ll rescue the very angry folded up Bowser as well?
He does this with the not-so-evil origami character Olivia alongside him, and while Mario is as stoically silent as ever, she’s there to provide beautifully naive comic relief as they encounter new places and characters. It’s all lightly humorous, a bit punny as it knowingly plays on some of the absurdities of the Paper Mario world and intentionally misconstrues what’s going on.
While there are the new origami enemies to battle, everything plays closer to home with the setting and characters you meet and chat to. The overwhelming majority of them are Toads that have been folded into different origami animals, squished behind rocks, and so much more, acting like things to collect and discover in a collectathon. There’s also the not-bottomless holes, which you have to throw confetti at, which is found from smacking world items with Paper Mario’s hammer. There’s a fair bit of common ground here with the designs of Sticker Star and Color Splash.
Where Paper Mario: The Origami King shakes things up compared to the last two Paper Mario games is with its own fresh twist on the turn-based battles. These are still the timing-based attacks that has been a staple through the run Mario RPG games (well, except for Super Paper Mario) where your attacks and defences are accompanied with timed button presses to boost your attack damage output, or to block some of the incoming damage. However, there’s no more single use stickers or cards to worry about, and instead ring-based puzzles to solve as you battle.
Paper Mario stands at the centre of a set of rings with enemies arranged around him waiting to strike, but before they do that, he always gets a chance to go first, shuffle those rings, either spinning them or moving a row in or out to rearrange them and try to line them up to match his own attacks. At that point it’s a case of stomping on each space in a row, or thwacking a two by two set of spaces adjacent to him with his trusty hammer.
Each turn has a solution where the enemies can be lined up in a certain number of spinning or shifting moves, and if you’re successful in doing this within the time limit, Paper Mario’s attack damage is boosted. Nail the puzzle and you can off the enemies in a single turn, coming out of battle completely unscathed.
Challenging battles have never really been a staple of the Paper Mario series, and it’s safe to say that The Origami King doesn’t really change that. Most battles can be overcome in a single go with relatively simple and easy to spot solutions to the puzzles and then simple button timing attacks to match the enemies. It can occasionally spring a surprise on you though, and I did got in a muddle potentially coming at a set of moves from the wrong direction, or simply running out of time.
The boss battles turn these puzzles on their head, making for a real change of pace. Now it’s the boss at the centre of the circle and Paper Mario on the outside. You still have to spin the rings, but it’s now to give Paper Mario a set of commands to follow. These can be directions to point him to run around the rings and tries to get close to the boss, but can also be squares that power up his attacks or enable some special origami abilities. Bosses each have attack patterns and weaknesses to exploit, and you’ll try to organise the rings to give you the best avenue to attack through.
From having played the first two worlds in the game, Paper Mario: The Origami King feels very much like it’s following in the footsteps of the last two games in the series. It’s charming, there’s Toads literally everywhere, and Princess Peach needs a bit of saving. It feels as though all of Intelligent Systems’ creative energies have been funnelled into the puzzling new turn-based battles, and they really do help to freshen things up. I’m just hoping they start to challenge my grey matter a little more regularly as I get deeper into the game.