After 30-odd years, it feels like every single invitation that the Mario Bros. receive is tinged with danger, and yet they happily accept each and every one, whether it’s a suspicious free vacation or the promise of a freshly baked cake. So you know what’s going to happen when the pair of them are invited to an origami festival in Toad Town. That’s right, Olly the Origami King is going show up and start folding everyone into soulless origami versions of themselves. Classic.
After a lucky escape, in which Mario befriends Olly’s sister Olivia and learns to harness some of her origami powers in the process, the pair have to journey across the lands, battling Folded Soldiers, rescuing paper people, and releasing the paper streamers that have wrapped themselves around Princess Peach’s castle – she’s obviously been transformed and is being held hostage.
The main new innovation for the game comes in the battle system, ditching the single use consumable attacks of Sticker Star and Color Splash, and giving you a puzzle to solve to try and line up origami enemies for Mario’s attacks. Arrayed on a circular grid around Mario, you can spin rows or shift columns to set the enemies into a line for some boot stomping or a group of four for some hammer smashing. Manage to line up all of the enemies and you’ll get a healthy dose of bonus damage, which can be boosted further by some classic Mario RPG timed button presses.
It’s a nice and engaging system that can really make you scratch your head later in the game, but that’s long after you’ve tired of the monotony and simplicity of the early encounters. You’ll have battled basic Goombas and Koopa Troopas arrayed in simple to solve patterns far too often before you start to feel challenged by Boos that will disappear and force you to remember their positioning as you solve the puzzle, or enemies that need you to use more powerful boots, hammers or items to defeat quickly.
It actually comes as a bit of a shock when that step up in difficulty does eventually happen. It was rare that I’d take any hits at all until the third main area in the game, and only on two or three occasions up until that point was I truly stumped by a battle layout. Even after the midpoint, Mario’s pool of health had grown that I was never really in risk of losing a fight, and simply had to adjust to use some of my many higher powered, but breakable weapons.
That’s when I actually ended up in battle, because I’d actively avoid the origami enemies that meander around the world. The RPG elements in Paper Mario are paper thin, with no experience gathering for levelling up, and so no real motivation to engage in battle with coins the only reward. You can occasionally find health upgrades hidden away in the world or through the story, and these also bump up your defence and power output. Anything beyond that comes from gear items that you can buy to give you a health boost in battle, more time to solve puzzles, and things like that. With no experience to grind for and your pockets always overflowing with coins, you’ll probably start avoiding fights half-way through the first main area of the game.
There’s also no return to the weird and wonderful stories and characters of old. Olivia is a standout character, her youthful enthusiasm for exploring the world and quirky sense of humour quite endearing, but she stands out as the only friendly character that isn’t a paper denizens of the mushroom kingdom. And aside from Olly, almost all of the enemies are origami versions of those same old Mario characters. It’s strange that, when Super Mario Odyssey introduces Tostarenans, Volbonans, Bonneters and more as you explore its many kingdoms, this game ignores the Paper Mario history of unique characters in favour of just having Toads. Lots and lots and lots of Toads.
Oh sure, they’ve been imbued with character. There’s a ship captain Toad who’s pretty cool, an amnesiac Bob-omb who has a heart-warming and poignant character arc as your companion, and Olivia’s naivety when meeting new situations is adorable (if a bit overdone at times), but it’s just Toads everywhere.
Paper Mario: The Origami King also has some of the least interesting collectables I’ve ever encountered in a video game. You’d think that trying to find the chests tucked away in hidden areas would reward you with cool little trinkets, and an RPG where you level up or have more pressure placed on item use would be able to offer some stat boosts and modifiers to find. Instead, this game gives you trophies that are as interesting as a brick… usually because the trophy is of a brick or something that you’ve just encountered within the last half hour. You can’t really ignore them though, because those same chests will on rare occasion include a heart to boost your max health.
With Not-Bottomless Holes littering the land needing to be filled in with thrown confetti and Toads to slap out of origami forms, there’s no shortage of things to interact with and find. In this regard, The Origami King’s spiritual predecessor isn’t classic Paper Mario games, it’s collectathon platformers like Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64.
The world is still engaging and fun to explore, whether it’s a shogun theme park, sailing on the open seas or driving a boot car through a desert, and there’s some good narrative set pieces and locations to visit, but again, I just feel that there’s a much more interesting story that could be told here. It’s far too black and white that all paper characters are friendly while all the origami characters are brainless evil automatons. There could have been a world of origami characters with designs that aren’t just Mario characters in origami form, there could have been good and bad within that, a rebellion against the Origami King, and more.
After the novelty of the regular battles has worn off, the real highlight becomes the boss battles against elemental gods and giant stationary. These turn the battle puzzles on their head, with Mario on the outside and the boss in the middle, with you spinning the rings to line up commands that take Mario to an attack or ability square. There’s always a new attack pattern to learn and weaknesses exploit, and while challenging they feel quite fair in ensuring there’s the ability to grab some health if you’ve taken a few heavy hits.