Paper Mario: The Origami King (2020)

Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the Paper Mario series knows how contentious the modern games are. The early games in the series were considered masterful RPGs, but Nintendo decided to ditch the formula for whatever reason and take Paper Mario in a different direction. With every new release, fans are clamoring for a return to glory, and the latest entry shows how being caught between two genres is hampering the series. Paper Mario: The Origami King is not a bad game by any means, but it is confusing and feels like the directors have no idea where to take the series. Despite enjoying my time with the game, I couldn’t help but think how much better the game would be with just some minor changes.

I will not hide my biases, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door was one of my favorite games growing up. The sense of adventure, mystery, comradery, and imagination were enthralling. You explored a diverse and interesting world, gathering a whacky cast of characters to explore with. All the while gaining experience and items to become stronger. The combat was turn-based, you’d select from a list of moves for Mario and his partner based on whatever you felt was best in a particular battle. While it wasn’t incredibly complex, there was some strategy and tactics involved, which is something that cannot be said for Paper Mario: The Origami King.

Before I get to my issues with the combat system, I must mention that Paper Mario: The Origami King does an adequate job with nearly every other aspect of the game. The world and adventure itself are actually extremely engaging. There are plenty of imaginative areas, each one with their own self-contained story that you must unravel. This is reminiscent of the original games in the series, in order to defeat the big-bad-guy you have to travel across the land and do something in each of the main areas. While the main plot itself is fairly straightforward, most of the sense of adventure can be found when exploring the more contained locales.

There are plenty of fun and unique areas to explore, which for me was the highlight of the game. The Japanese castle theme park, the cruise ship, the spa in the sky, the open sea dotted with islands, there are some fantastic places that would fit right in when it comes to classic Paper Mario. There are plenty of towns that are fun to explore and find the secrets of. Moreover, the writing and wit in this game is truly remarkable. When I think of Nintendo, I rarely think of games with clever writing. Most of their catalog either has minimal dialog or extremely cheesy writing. Paper Mario: The Origami King can be genuinely funny, with plenty of wit that doesn’t necessarily bash you over the head to the point of being annoying.

For lovers of collectibles, there is plenty of secrets to be found. The areas in Paper Mario: The Origami King aren’t overwhelmingly large, but they are absolutely packed with stuff to find. Between rescuing Toads, finding trophies, and uncovering secret Hearts, I always felt that there was something to be found. Solving little puzzles or spotting hidden markers is always a welcome detour when exploring the world.

Where the game inspires ire for me mostly has to do with the executive decisions stifling creativity. It is no secret that some executive has decided that spin-off Mario games are heavily limited in what they can include. There can be no new races of creatures, any new characters cannot be named, and existing races can only have a slightly modified experience. What this equates to is a lack of interesting characters. If the level of writing is any indication, the writers on this game were clearly talented. I wish they were given the chance to create a cast of fantastic characters and partners to accompany Mario on his journey.

The single most frustrating part about Paper Mario: The Origami King is also a result of executive meddling: the combat. For some bizarre reason, somebody high up at Nintendo has decided that the Paper Mario series should no longer be RPGs. As a result, the modern games rely on gimmicks to fuel their combat systems instead of traditional turn-based combat. In the case of Paper Mario: The Origami King, the gimmick is what I shall refer to as “ring puzzles”. When getting into combat, enemies are spread across four concentric rings, with Mario standing in the center. You can turn the rings clockwise or counter-clockwise, and also shift portions of the ring in and out. Ultimately, the point of the system is to line up enemies so Mario can hit them all with a single attack. If you line up all the enemies in a line or a square, you get an attack bonus and can hit them all with a given attack.

I honestly don’t think that the ring puzzle system is an inherently terrible idea. It could potentially add some strategy to a battle, letting the player line up enemies in different patterns so they can choose different attacks. But ultimately the system is binary: you either get a perfect line-up or you don’t. There is no strategy or tactics whatsoever, it is simply a puzzle of lining up enemies within a given timeframe and number of moves. If you fail the puzzle, you take a bit of damage and the battle lasts a little longer. I tried to avoid combat as much as possible since there is barely any benefit to doing it, it was incredibly repetitive, and it just felt like a waste of time. And it’s not like this is a minor part of the game, the combat system is half of the game. I love puzzles but this system just does not work.

The boss battles were a little better than the standard combat in the game, as they functioned slightly differently. They were still ring puzzles, but you had to line up the rings to guide Mario to the correct spots to take certain actions. They did feel a little too lengthy, but I think that is a function of how they were designed. Each boss seems like they only have a single tactic to beat them. Usually, you have to do a couple of specific actions in a row to deal damage. I think the battles would be fairly quick but there is a lot of trial and error trying to figure out which actions you need to take to actually damage the boss.

The confusing part about Paper Mario: The Origami King for me is how hard it tries to not be like the RPGs of the olden days, but how zero effort was put into actually doing something different. The combat is still turn-based, but instead of tactically choosing moves you just attempt a ring puzzle. There are still partners in the game, but due to creativity being stifled they aren’t unique and have no name. They also only part of your party for a single area, are nearly useless in battle, and have no abilities in the overworld. There is still progression, you receive Hearts that boost your max health and damage. Instead of battles just giving you experience and leveling you up, rewarding the player for participating in battles, you just receive those special Hearts at set points in the game. There are still badges to augment your battling capabilities, but there is no actual choice or strategy in which ones to equip.

While I undoubtably miss the old Paper Mario formula, I’d be ok with something new. But Paper Mario: The Origami King isn’t something new, it’s simply the same RPG formula but with the actual good parts stripped out. Turn-based combat without strategy, partners without names or abilities, level-ups without experience, and badges without build diversity; the game still has all the systems of the old games, but without the context that makes those systems function in an engaging way. If Nintendo made Paper Mario to be an action-adventure game it’d disappointing but it’d be preferable to these half-assed RPGs that seem to just dangle the game that players actually want in their faces without quite giving it to them.

Overall, Paper Mario: The Origami King is a competent game. It has an imaginative world and plenty of diverse locations. The writing, dialog, and art are superb, but is hampered by the directives sent down by executives. Paper Mario is a series caught between two genres, and it suffers for it. The fans want RPGs, and the games are perfect for that style of gameplay, but the executives at Nintendo want it to be an action-adventure series without actually committing to it. It is for these reasons that I give Paper Mario: The Origami King a 6/10. Exploring the world of Paper Mario is fun, but even as somebody who loves puzzle games, I absolutely could not stand the ring puzzle combat system.