At this point, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems have the Paper Mario recipe down to a science: Start with a beloved cast of characters, mix in a new battle system, add a dash of RPG elements, blend together with a healthy dose of comedy for 30-odd hours, and you’ve got yourself a brand new Paper Mario. After seven hours with the latest installment of the 20-year-old franchise, Paper Mario: The Origami King seems to follow this recipe to a ‘T’. The end result is a whimsical melange of what we’ve come to know and love about Paper Mario, although it does feel a bit predictable.
Predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Everyone wants a Paper Mario game to do a few things: tell a new story, let us play a Mario game from a different perspective, and elicit a few laughs along the way. The Origami King opens with Mario and Luigi en route to a festival at Princess Peach’s Castle. Upon arrival, they learn that Peach and several other Mushroom Kingdom denizens have been folded into evil, origami likenesses by a tiny menace named King Olly. Mario befriends Olly’s sister Olivia, a paper pixie with an almost Leslie Knope-esque energy, and the journey to restore the Mushroom Kingdom is underway.
To its credit, I laughed out loud within the first few lines of dialogue. The game is tremendously funny, and many of the one-liners and visual gags kept me chuckling throughout my playtime. In particular, one joke about a hidden Toad forced me to set the controller down because I was laughing so hard. The Origami King really takes this comedic relief to the next level, as nearly every other line is a joke or a pun, and it works.
More than that, the scenarios that you find yourself in throughout the course of the game get increasingly whackier. In seven hours I saw an enchanted forest bust out a full-blown Doo-wop musical number, watched a giant origami tortoise perform a cheer routine (complete with bright pink pom-poms), and fought a pack of sentient colored pencils on top of a skyscraper while Nintendo-fied industrial metal music blared. This entry certainly isn’t lacking in personality, but humor and style have never been the shortcomings of Paper Mario. The series is well overdue for a mechanical overhaul, and that’s where The Origami King might come up a bit short.
Here, as with previous games in the series, the RPG elements are light. The general trappings are there; turn-based battles, equipping different items to boost your stats, focused exploration of new areas – those are all presented and accounted for. But anyone looking for a more traditional RPG in The Origami King might be left wanting. Progression is rewarding, but will likely still feel a bit too “My First RPG” for the initiated. No one comes into a Paper Mario game expecting to min-max Mario into a Battle Mage or anything, but deeper progression and customization options would have been a welcome shake-up to the established formula.
The biggest change this time around is undoubtedly the new battle system. Enemies will attack you in the overworld, but this time around, the battles take place on a giant, segmented wheel. Battles introduce several things to keep track of right from the jump, and there’s a specific order of operations to follow for every turn. Enemies rearrange themselves around the wheel at the outset of every fight, and Mario’s first task is to spin each layer, or slide enemies vertically, to line them up for an attack. You’ve only got 20 seconds and two moves (more of both against bosses) to line your opponents up correctly. Doing so gives Mario a 1.5x power boost and typically allows you to chain your attacks to victory. Messing it up usually means each of your opponents gets to take a shot at you and can diminish your HP pretty quickly.
This mix of quick puzzle-solving and traditional Paper Mario combat makes for an interesting battle system, if not a bit over-complicated. Lining up your foes and dispatching them within a single round feels awesome, but I was a little bored with repeating the same sorts of actions against a deluge of minor enemies in some areas. Fortunately, some very clever boss encounters shake the battle system up in a few awesome ways. Bosses are essentially played backward compared to normal fights, with giant screen-filling enemies in the middle of the playfield. These battles take a note from SEGA the classic Chu Chu Rocket: you’ll spin the wheels to line up arrows and create paths for Mario from the outside of the ring to the boss in the middle to line up an attack. Bosses get progressively more complicated as you line up paths to specific body parts, reroute yourself to activate switches, or change paths to grab tips and health power-ups in between moves. These fights feel frantic and challenging in a way that the standard battles don’t and I found myself wishing there was a middle ground between the two different formats.
The paper crafted look of previous games is fully realized in The Origami King. Each new location is wholly unique, absolutely gorgeous, and filthy with Toads. There are toads hidden absolutely everywhere, and searching for them in each new location is often comical and admittedly a little daunting. They’re crumpled in bins, they’re under rocks, they’re hidden behind walls, just toads all over the place. Finding them all means a 100% completion rate for each area, but they’ll also aid you in battle for a price. Between all these toads and repairing holes with confetti in each area, there’s plenty for completionists to obsess over.
Nintendo has set a new precedent for re-imagining their major franchises on the Switch by taking established formulas and redefining what those games could be for new audiences on, but Paper Mario: The Origami King feels a bit like a half-step. The humor and light RPG elements still shine here, but those expecting a return to the glory days of The Thousand-Year Door, or those expecting something completely new, may be a bit disappointed. If you’re looking for a lighthearted romp through a colorful kingdom with a band of whacky Mario characters, you’re in for a treat.
Zachary Ryan is Director of Editorial Video at IGN. You can catch him nearly every week on Nintendo Voice Chat, or follow him on Twitter.