With Paper Mario: The Origami King, developer Intelligent Systems has once again found a clever new angle from which to explore its spinoff papercraft universe, pitting Mario against an army of origami adversaries who are hell-bent on bringing him into their fold. It has also revamped the series’ gameplay, shifting combat away from single-use stickers and cards and replacing the classic flat combat plane with a circular arena. While there’s plenty of charm here, there isn’t much meat to the mechanics, leaving players without many meaningful choices to make.
The Origami King gets off to a good start, introducing the folded fiend King Olly as its villain. It’s a change that frees up Bowser and his minions to play a much more zany role, and for Intelligent Systems to deliver a more intriguing Mario story in general. The overall structure is exactly what you’d expect, however. King Olly has swaddled Peach’s castle with streamers, turning it into a Christo-esque prison, and Mario must find the source of each streamer and undo them to rescue the princess.
Unlike the last couple of Paper Mario games, The Origami King has ditched the concept of individual levels in favour of one big overworld. This makes for a nice change, creating a better sense of continuity as you trek up into the mountains from Toad Town or ship out to sea. At the same time, your progression is still largely linear and signposted – you’ll only ever have access to one new destination at a time, and backtracking isn’t built into the design beyond the use of Toad Town as a hub. I don’t mind this as it helps maintain forward momentum and many of the destinations are quite large, ensuring there’s plenty to do, but it’s certainly not as open as it first appears.
The world puzzles are all self-contained too, which is actually a big improvement from Color Splash. There, the Thing cards you needed to make progress were hidden across the entire world, creating frustrating roadblocks. Here, you’re rewarded for being observant and logical, not for finding the right point-and-click adventure-style combination of random objects.
Most puzzles are solved with a combination of jumping, hammering, and a handful of abilities that Mario’s companion – Olly’s sister Olivia – unlocks, such as accordion arms to pull or hit things that are out of reach, and folding herself into towering elemental allies to do things like raise the ground itself or refill a lake with water. Intelligent Systems ekes quite a lot out of mileage out of this streamlined moveset.
Exploring the world is a lot of fun, as the landscape is always changing, and The Origami King offers a steady stream of palate cleansing curveballs, like fighting a giant Pokey in the desert, steering your party through treacherous rapids or popping into a quiet cafe to debate which minions are the strongest over a cup of joe. Some of these are more fun than others, such as the Shy Guys Finish Last quiz show, which consists of a series of mini-games that are more schoolwork than anything else, but the constant variety is appreciated.
You’re also generously rewarded for taking the time to check every location’s nooks and crannies, and to prod any element in the environment that seems a little out of place. This is a game brimming with secrets, and a great deal of The Origami King’s charm is wrapped up in the hundreds of Toads that Olly’s folded soldiers have scattered through the kingdom. These Toads can be almost anywhere – that butterfly? A Toad. That bonsai tree? A Toad. That scrunched-up ball of paper rocking back and forth trapped in a living hell? You’d better believe that’s a Toad.
Hunting Toads is one of The Origami King’s most delightful distractions, particularly because the snippets of dialogue that ensue are almost always offbeat, charming, and oh so punny. It’s not hard to see why Intelligent Systems decided to pepper the world with these collectables: they’re a great illustration of the Paper Mario series’ effervescent, self-aware personality, which is easily its best attribute.
The Toads serve as more than just comic relief. They’ll also come and watch you in battle, gradually filling the bleachers around the circular arena and allowing you to see your overall progress at a glance. The Toads in the stands can be called on by tossing out coins, and will help you by hitting enemies, tossing items, or repositioning foes. The system isn’t as multi-faceted as the audience mechanics in The Thousand-Year Door, in which you had to earn their help – and occasionally had to leap into the audience to sort out a rock-wielding enemy – but then, that criticism of relative simplicity and shallowness applies to every aspect of The Origami King’s gameplay.
Paper Mario: The Origami King Screenshots
Getting the Bop on Enemies
Every time combat begins, Mario now stands at the center of a circular grid. For each wave of enemies you have a set number of moves you can make – either rotating rings around him or sliding wedges in or out. The aim is to reposition all the enemies so that you can either headbop down a line of them or hammer a 2×2 array, as this boosts your damage.
Incorporating more overt puzzles into battles is a novel idea, and as you play you’ll learn new strategies to manipulate enemies into position, but it just isn’t compelling enough to be the system that drives a more than 20-hour game. The stakes are low too. If you can’t see the solution and run out of time, well, the battle will simply take a little longer to play out. Your opponents in The Origami King don’t really pose a threat – they’re simply an inconvenience to move past.
Compounding this, your toolkit to do so is super limited, with only minor differences separating the assortment of hammers and boots. Those are what you’ll attack with 95% of the time, so there are few meaningful decisions required in what to use when. If the enemies are in a line you use an attack that does damage down the line, whereas if they’re grouped in two lanes you use a hammer attack. It’s not rocket science.
It’s not entirely one-note: occasionally, an enemy type will come along that shakes a battle up a bit, such as ghosts that disappear before you start repositioning them, cut-out soldiers that are in a chain and need to be folded back into one figure, or Ninji that reveal themselves to be log decoys if you try and hit them with a hammer, dropping on you from above instead. I also really loved one section which took place during a big brawl, so the battlefield had a mix of folded soldiers and friendly minions. Distinct moments like these are few and far between, however, and for the most part the combat just isn’t that interesting. I was forced to defend only every so often, making the timing-based blocking less important than it has been in other Paper Mario games.
Mario does also have access to a handful of items he can use in battle, but not only do these feel underwhelming in terms of power, they adhere to the same patterns as Mario’s boots and hammers when it comes to when you use them. A Fire Flower, for instance, scorches enemies down the line, while the Tail hits four enemies in – wait for it – exactly the same spread as a hammer. Only the POW block and the occasional option to use one of Olivia’s elemental attacks breaks this pattern.
That said, Intelligent Systems does attempt something more involved with The Origami King’s boss battles, which turn the tables and put the boss at the centre of the arena instead of Mario. Here you must shift the panels to create a path for Mario to follow from the outer rim in, stopping by treasure chests, panels that turn on special abilities, and so on before ending on an attack icon. While these battles rely heavily on trial and error, they’re certainly more interesting than regular combat – and the cast is more memorable, too. Only a Paper Mario game can build a set of bosses around anthropomorphised papercraft tools like scissors and rubber bands.
Even with this variation on the formula, however, combat is still one of The Origami King’s weakest elements, and the fact that it’s not tied to any kind of experience-based progression system makes battles even more perfunctory. Mario does grow in strength over the course of the campaign, incidentally, but it’s a nebulous process that’s tied into finding hearts that increase his max health… and also his strength. Go figure.
Where’s the Party At?
The Origami King has several vestigial RPG elements like this. You can buy and equip accessories, for instance, but they either represent linear improvements to your capabilities in combat or are tied to things like finding secrets, getting discounts at shops, or using confetti (which gives you the ability to patch holes in the world – think the colourless spots in Color Splash). There are no real gameplay choices here either, and I always had enough coins to buy every accessory as soon as it became available without having to go out of my way to earn more.
Similarly, The Origami King flirts with a party system but ultimately steers well clear of making you decide anything there, either. Instead, there are several times throughout the course of the story in which Olivia and Mario are joined by a companion, but they’re played almost strictly for story and dialogue purposes. The amnesiac Bob-omb, for instance, is entertaining company but has no abilities outside combat. And when he joins you for a fight he’s fully automated and mostly falls on his face. Literally.
The second companion, Professor Toad, fares a little better: he can dig for hidden treasures as you explore the Scorching Sandpaper Desert, but he also is only with you for a short time. I can’t help but wonder what The Origami King might have been like if it had a supporting cast that also served more of a gameplay purpose.
Even so, it’s clearly evident just how much love and attention has been lavished on this papercraft world. Standout locations like Shroom City take the series’ visual design to a whole new level, while its tactile aesthetic has cleverly been incorporated into puzzles and secrets throughout the entire campaign. There are so many small details to enjoy too, like the way Mario brushes himself off after taking a tumble, or the joyous expression on his face when you nail a line of jump attacks in battle.
And in a broader sense, so much of what makes this game – and series – special is Intelligent Systems being comfortable taking hard lefts with a world we’re all so intimately familiar with. To give you a few examples, in this game Mario takes part in a multi-part stage production, characters break into song and dance many times, we get some genuinely funny insights into what life’s like for Bowser’s minions, and Mario cosplays as other iconic Nintendo characters. These moments are the main attractions – the sense that anything can happen, and the breezy, irreverent way in which characters deal with whatever gets thrown their way.