Paper Mario: The Origami King Review
Colorful, but lacking direction
Most Nintendo franchises can succinctly sum up their gameplay - mostly because they have been around so long that everyone is familiar with how they play. Just saying names like "Super Mario", "Pokémon", "Luigi's Mansion" or "Fire Emblem" should immediately paint a picture in your head about what kind of game we're talking about and how it plays. But the same couldn't be said for Paper Mario. This spinoff started as an RPG, then transitioned into a platforming/RPG hybrid, and the latest game, The Origami King, ditches the RPG combat almost completely and becomes more of a puzzle-platformer.
The game seems almost emblematic of the rumored behind-the-scenes tumultuous relationship Nintendo and Mario creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, seem to have with the franchise. Paper Mario fans often point to a 2012 interview of the creative leads of Paper Mario: Sticker Star by Satoru Iwata (who was CEO of Nintendo at the time), which revealed Miyamoto convinced the team to ditch the story of Sticker Star - despite the earlier games having a prevalent narrative (like most JRPGs). More recently, producer Kensuke Tanabe, who has worked on the franchise since The Thousand-Year Door in 2004, said that the team was unable to, "modify Mario characters or to create original characters that touch on the Mario universe."
I bring up these examples because they're so obvious in the making of Paper Mario: The Origami King - a game that feels like it's scrambling for direction, but struggles to find a place among the many Mario games currently available on the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo used to split its development between hand-held consoles and TV consoles and The Origami King feels like the kind of game that would have been released on the 3DS with little fanfare, much like the other most-recent Paper Mario games, had there been a hand-held option. Instead, the series is forced to anchor the Nintendo summer line-up and it's just not up to the challenge.
There is a story in The Origami King, though it's the usual fanfare. Stop me if you've heard this one: something terrible has befallen the Mushroom Kingdom and Mario must journey through a series of aesthetically diverse worlds in order to break into Princess Peach's Castle and put things back to the way they were. There are a few twists along the way and they are fairly good ones. There's a bob-omb character, named "Bob-omb" who has an interesting arc, and the sidekick, Olivia, is a fun hero. While you've definitely heard this Mario tale before, the moment-to-moment story beats can delight and there are some solid jokes that land. Nintendo can sometimes slip a dad joke into a game or do some visual gags, but it's rare that the writing (and localization) have the sharpness that this game has. It can't save the dry, repeated structure of going to a world, finding the thing, and beating the boss - but it does its best.
The real hero is the presentation. The soundtrack is something that really stands out. There are five credited composers, so I won't name them all here, but the music of The Origami King is more akin to something you'd hear in the Persona series than in a Mario game, with guitar riffs and pop melodies. And the music plays a significant part in the game, with a few song and dance numbers. And yet, Nintendo is starting to wear out its welcome with the craft-style aesthetic. We've seen Kiby's Epic Yarn and Yoshi's Woolly World - which are actually more impressive than simply covering the screen with paper models. I also couldn't stop thinking about Media Molecule's Tearaway, which probably evolved the paper shtick better than the Paper Mario franchise ever has. Still, the colorful world of The Origami King holds its own. The bosses are all fun origami creatures and while it's obvious that you couldn't actually learn Origami from the game, the animations that simulate the folding and unfolding of the characters look pretty great.
The gameplay is the messiest part of The Origami King. The crux of the action is turn-based puzzle battles. The player faces a multiple of four enemies (usually between four and 12) that will either form a line or a square. The enemies are then shuffled around a circular board with different rings that must be adjusted to move them back into a square or line formation. You then get a number of turns as Mario to do damage to the enemies before they get a chance to damage you. There are still some of the light RPG elements, like HP and the ability to time a button press to increase or limit damage, but the real key is solving these circular ring puzzles which allows you to maximize damage - often wiping the board before the enemy gets a chance to attack. The problem is that there are hundreds of these encounters and they get old quickly. The Origami King stretches itself to 25-30 hours and it really could afford to be half of the length. Soon the ring puzzles turn from engaging to dull, and dull to frustrating. You can basically just pay an audience of Toads to solve the puzzles for you - so even the game seems aware of how annoying these encounters are. Boss battles are similar, but instead of lining up enemies, you'll use the same kind of ring puzzle to move commands around that will move Mario to the boss, and use special abilities to defeat them.
While the combat grows dull, the rest of the mechanics can be worse. The game is stuffed full of one-off ideas that are shoe-horned in for story reasons. You maneuver a boat in a river to avoid boulders, you play a guessing game, and you traverse multiple platforming sections. These special levels are either boring or bad. Clearly they are going to get the least attention because they make up such a small part of the game, so they haven't been tested effectively and they all play uncomfortably. The worst is the guessing game that requires you to choose a specific sequence of responses or face a game over screen. It's the kind of archaic design one would expect from a 90's adventure.
This uneven approach is common in the exploration as well. So much of the game's progression is tied to just wildly banging Mario's hammer around and hoping that it triggers something. You'll get some vague clues, but usually, I just power-solved my way through by guessing the general area the game was pointing me to and literally hammering my way out. Again, it starts dull, but after twenty hours of it, you're bound to get annoyed and frustrated with the unimaginative design. While exploring, you will also have to collect confetti and use it to repair holes in the world, which will give you coins. The economy is also uneven. You have so much money and so many coins that again, the game is basically offering the ability to just pay your way to victory. It's as if the team realized how dry everything felt and the solution was to just flood the economy so players could barrel their way forward, engaging with the mechanics as little as possible.
Like all Nintendo games, the tech here is solid if a little underwhelming. There's nothing impressive about how The Origami King runs, aside from the fact that it is consistent with little issues. There have been reports of a save bug in the back third of the game, but I didn't encounter it.
Paper Mario: The Origami King has all the hallmarks of a game that no one seemed excited to be working on. It has the technical polish and colorful aesthetic of a Nintendo game, but none of the love from the design team. There are so many mechanics packed into this game that none of them got the time and attention they needed, and that includes the main ones. The combat and exploration are so dry the game seems to be embarrassed about them, happy to just let you skip over for a nominal fee. This is a title that was in need of strong direction, of focus, of ambition, but it got none of that. What we're left with is something that is enjoyable when you're not playing it. It looks nice, has some good jokes, and the soundtrack bops, but the moment you have to engage with it, the lack of passion becomes obvious as none of that charm translates to the gameplay.