Paper Mario: The Origami King folds the usual RPG tropes into knots

Patrick
Enlarge / The origami theme adds quite a bit of physical depth to Paper Mario‘s beautiful vast environments.

Of all the spin-offs Mario has starred in over the years, the Paper Mario games (and the related Mario & Luigi series) most ably expanded the character past his basic platforming roots. The familiar characters, locations, and items are still there in Paper Mario titles, but they’re supplemented by completely new settings and situations that often wouldn’t feel out of place in a traditional Japanese RPG. And even the familiar Mario characters get new life in these games, revealing rich interior lives and characterizations that the simple save-the-princess-again plots can’t hope to match.

Paper Mario: The Origami King continues this tradition, telling a cheesy-but-engaging, family-friendly story with verve and charm. But it messes with the series’ usual RPG trappings so much that it’s still finding its footing even as the final credits roll. As a complete package, Origami King often feels like a mishmash of original ideas—some good, some mediocre—which never quite come together as more than the sum of their parts.

Into the fold

As often happens in Mario’s RPG titles, King Bowser has been pushed (and folded) aside in favor of a more interesting antagonist for Origami King. This time around, that antagonist is Olly, a floating, folded being imbued with the usual ill-defined, plot-moving magical powers. Olly gives off some not-so-subtle racial supremacist vibes in loudly announcing his desire to transform the flat paper denizens of Paper Mario‘s kingdom into thicker, folded origami versions of themselves. And if those folded versions become zombie-like automata beholden to Olly’s will, it’s all the better for his new world order.

Olly starts things off by transforming Princess Peach into an extremely off-putting origami-fied version of herself, then tops himself by wrapping her castle in a series of colorful streamers and lifting it away to the top of a volcano. He also goes about converting many of Bowser’s minions into zombie-origami folded soldiers, leaving the remaining flat-paper versions of Bowser’s minions happy to help Mario in an enemy-of-my-enemy kind of alliance. With the help of Olivia, Olly’s non-monomaniacal origami sister, the crew has to trace all those streamers to their source and convert them to confetti to free Peach and the Kingdom.

It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but the family-friendly, magic-infused plotting hums along with the requisite number of twists and red herrings. The quest takes you through the usual settings (desert, ice, water, forest), each filled to the brim with highly animated and talkative characters—though their motivations tend to be as paper-thin as their appearances. What seems like a straightforward task in each area inevitably expands into a telescoping series of required subquests; each presents a barrier to the final streamer-busting goal, and each is more ridiculous than the last.

The writing is pretty sharp, mixing light character growth with a healthy heaping of hijinks (and some genuine laugh-out-loud meta moments for adults). The game even squeezes in its fair share of lightly affecting character moments focused on the power of personal sacrifice. (Saying more would spoil too much). What Origami King lacks in depth and complexity, it makes up for in joyful silliness.

Round and round

Even for a series that’s always been content to ignore many RPG gameplay tropes, Origami King is not a traditional RPG. This comes through clearly in the game’s battle system, which is more about spatial-relation puzzles than the usual turn-based affair.

Origami King‘s battles all take place on a segmented circle, cut into radial and lateral slices like a Star Wars chess board. Mario stands on the hub in the center for the vast majority of these battles, while enemies arrange themselves around the “squares” on the round board.

Before each turn starts, Mario has the opportunity to move those enemies about, either by rotating one of the board’s circular sections around the central axis or by shifting a slice laterally. The goal of these moves is to line enemies up either in nice straight lines (for successive jumping) or 2×2 blocks (for easy bashing with a hammer). If you can get everything neat and tidy, you get a 50 percent attack-damage multiplier, which is often the difference between an easy one-turn fight and a drawn-out back-and-forth battle.

Even spatially challenged players could probably eventually shuffle their way through most of these arrangements. But Origami King adds additional challenge by introducing a short time limit and a finite number of moves for each puzzle. This turns what could have been a relaxing and intriguing puzzle game in its own right into a stress-inducing, white-knuckle fight to decipher visual chaos under strict conditions.

The game does throw players a few bones: it gives you the option to spend earned coins on extra time and/or one free rearrangement move (and Origami King always throws you plenty of extra coins to make these hints accessible). But it’s hard not to feel like a failure when leaning on these crutches. And while the enemy-shifting puzzles start out simple, by the end I was spending multiple minutes at a time staring at cluttered boards before giving up and going for the hint.

After a while, rather than trying to kill every last enemy, I found myself relatively eager to avoid as many of these battles as I could. That’s partly because the rotational puzzles started to get annoying. But it’s also because the game doesn’t really offer enough reward to make the hassle worth it.

Origami King‘s boss battles do mix things up by placing a powerful foe at the center of the rotational board and Mario on the outer ring. Here, Mario has to arrange arrows and power-boosting attack icons on the board in order to position himself perfectly to do damage to the boss.

These fights are by far the most engaging and clever in the game, each with its own twist that requires new tactics to get through the boss’ unique and evolving defenses. I wouldn’t have minded a bit if the traditional battles looked more like these varied and improvisation-filled boss fights.

Level up?

Unlike most RPGs, battles here don’t grant you extra experience toward leveling up your characters with more powers and new skills. Instead, battles only reward you with the same coins that can be found in copious quantities just by looking for hidden and not-so-hidden items on the map. When you can get literally thousands of coins from a single question-mark block, going through the motions of yet another puzzle-battle for a few hundred more can feel like a waste.

The closest thing Origami King has to a leveling system is a set of origami hearts, which raise Mario’s health and power in conjunction at preset points. You can also convert your not-so-hard-earned coins into more powerful boots and hammers, all of which eventually break and need replacement after too much use. By the end of the game, though, I was absolutely overloaded with more ultra-powerful weapons than I knew what to do with, making the whole pseudo-leveling system seem moot.

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