Platform: Nintendo Switch
As a long time fan of the “Paper Mario” series, I’ve gotten to watch the games grow and evolve over the nearly two decades since the release of the original Nintendo 64 classic. Through the years, Paper Mario has seen a shift from an initial trajectory of being a traditional RPG to a much more varied and experimental approach. This began with the release of “Super Paper Mario” on Wii, which threw out the turn-based battle system altogether in favor of an action platformer. While the battles did make a return in future installments, this more loose and experimental design philosophy continues to drive the development of “Paper Mario” games to this day. Out of the games released after this shift in direction, the 2012 release “Paper Mario: Sticker Star” is the only one that I would consider to be a real misstep, as despite showing a lot of potential, the game was far too basic and unambitious for its own good. This leads us to last month’s release of “Paper Mario: The Origami King” on Nintendo Switch. While parts of this title follow in the footsteps of Wii U’s “Paper Mario: Color Splash,” this title also introduces a lot of its own unique ideas and improvements that attempt to push it into new territory. Positioned as a return to form in some ways and another major departure in others, many were unsure of whether or not the developers at Intelligent Systems would be able to turn out an end product that lived up to the legacy of the earlier “Paper Mario” games that many fans remember so fondly. Now that the game is out and I’ve been able to give it a full and complete play-through, the question remains: is “Paper Mario: The Origami King” a work of carefully folded art, or is it better off in the recycling bin?
Our story begins with Mario and Luigi on their way to Toad Town after receiving an invitation from Princess Peach to come and celebrate the Origami Festival. However, upon arriving at the town square, the princess is nowhere to be found. After heading into Peach’s castle to investigate, the Mario Bros. find the princess in a mind-controlled origami state. This is found out to be a trap set by the devious King Olly, who plans to refold the entire Paper Mushroom Kingdom in his own twisted origami image. Fortunately, Mario is able to escape and quickly finds himself acquainted with King Olly’s sister, Olivia. Despite her ties to the Origami King, Olivia has a much stronger sense of right and wrong than her brother and decides to accompany Mario on his journey to put a stop to Olly’s attack. Together, Mario and Olivia set out to destroy the five Magical Streamers that King Olly created to block off the entrance to Peach’s Castle, defeat his army of “Folded Soldiers," and rescue all of the kingdom’s citizens that Olly has managed to capture and imprison as origami creations. The plot synopsis may not sound overly complicated or profound, and that’s because it isn’t. However, what gives the narrative here it’s strength is some of the best writing and characterization seen in a Nintendo game to date, and I don’t say that lightly. While the game keeps a mostly humorous and light-hearted tone, there are moments of genuine character building and emotional scenes thrown in to ensure that no character or situation ever feels one-note or throwaway. It’s astounding to me how almost every single character feels like a true individual with their own thoughts, feelings and motivations. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of thing that’s very hard to convey in a review format. The best way I can put it is that the way all the different characters’ actions and personalities bounced off of one another was artful in its execution. The game’s humor absolutely lands when it needs to, but the more emotional moments also manage to carry a surprising amount of impact, due in no small part to the strength of the writing and characterization. Again, it’s hard to get into it here, especially without going into major plot details, but needless to say, there’s a lot more to “Origami King” than you might initially think. It made for a tale that remained entertaining and engaging all the way through the game’s 50-60 hour runtime.
Mario’s quest will take him around to various locations all over the paper world, and although the general structure of the game is fairly linear, the game does a fantastic job of making the world feel massive and lively. Gone is the stage-by-stage, world map-based system present in the last few titles, with the game instead going for a seamless world similar to the structure present in the earlier “Paper Mario” outings. However, where “Origami King” elevates itself beyond those titles is with the presentation. Simply put, the game is absolutely gorgeous, and serves as a bit of an unexpected technical showcase for Switch as a platform. The attention to detail and visual world-building displayed by Intelligent Systems here is truly staggering. Everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING) in the environment is made up of arts and crafts materials like paper, cardboard, wires, and more. And while the overall visual style and game engine seem to be based on the tech from 2016’s “Paper Mario: Color Splash,” the environment detail and texture work on display here is absolutely a step above what came before. Little details like the difference between glossy and matte finishes on various paper or cardboard surfaces and the fact that all of the Origami objects seen in the game follow real-life logic and could actually be folded by a skilled-enough artist show the insane level of work that the developers have put in to fully realize their vision for a true paper world. I would also be remiss not to mention the game’s simply masterful soundtrack, which quickly became not only my favorite game soundtrack of 2020 but one of my favorites of all time. It is no exaggeration to say that there is not a track that I disliked in the entire game, and certain themes like the Red Region battle theme and the Toad Town track that builds on itself with more and more instrumentation as you progress through the game stick out as some of the very best Nintendo has to offer.
So, the presentation may be second to none, but that would all be meaningless if the gameplay wasn’t up to snuff. For those who are unaware, the “Paper Mario” series is equal parts turn-based RPG and platform-adventure game, though recently the series has seemingly made efforts to lean more into the adventure side of things. This can be seen on full display in “Origami King,” as a significant portion of the game’s runtime involves players simply exploring the environments, completing platforming challenges, and solving environmental puzzles. At times, the game can be very evocative of both more traditional Mario titles and Nintendo’s own “The Legend of Zelda” series. While the areas themselves are rather straightforward in their design, there are tons of secrets and collectibles tucked away all over the place. These range from hidden blocks containing coins or items to use in the game’s battles, collectible trophies that can be viewed in the game’s museum and even Heart Containers that permanently increase Mario’s maximum health and attack power. What’s more, many of the game’s puzzles are built around the new “1,000-Fold Arms” ability granted to Mario by Olivia, which can be used to literally reshape the environment to create new paths or unveil secret areas. While players don’t have complete freedom with this ability, (it can only be used in select areas containing “Magic Circles”) the 1,000-Fold Arms ability, along with other powers that Olivia gains as the game progresses, allows for the developers to get extremely creative with how they hide both optional secrets and the necessary paths to progression, and the game is made all the better for it.
However, with all that being said, there is another collectible that serves as a sort of backbone for the entirety of the game’s overall structure—the Toads. All over the game’s world, players will find Toads that have been captured by King Olly and folded into various origami forms, including everything from origami flora and fauna, to household items like pots and pans. Fortunately, one whack from Mario’s trusty hammer is enough to return them to their former, flat-paper glory, freeing them from Olly’s curse once and for all. Every single Toad you find, rewards you with coins and often hilarious dialogue. But there are also many other benefits to be gained from hunting down as many friendly fungi as possible. For example, some of the Toads hidden across the world actually end up having a greater role within the story, such as being shopkeepers that offer Mario some of the aforementioned upgrades and items, or providing hints as to the locations of various key items in the world or even optional side quests. Most importantly though, saving enough Toads will eventually earn Mario an audience for all of his battles against Olly’s Folded Soldiers, and it’s here where all of the game’s systems begin to click perfectly into place.
Speaking of which, this seems as fitting a time as any to discuss the game’s main innovation, the puzzle-based battle system. Every time Mario makes contact with one of Olly’s goons in the overworld, it will initiate a turn-based battle. While these battles have been a staple in the “Paper Mario” series from the very beginning, “Origami King” switches things up in a big way with a brand new, puzzle-focused format. Essentially, each battle sees a group of enemies surround Mario in an arena that is broken up into a series of four concentric rings. Players are then tasked with rearranging the positions of the enemies within a time limit, with the goal of placing the enemies in either a straight line or a square formation, allowing them to then be damaged by either Mario’s jump attack or his hammer attack. While this starts out incredibly easy—with enemy groups that require only one fairly obvious move to make things fall into place perfectly—the difficulty soon begins to ramp up, and players will be presented with increasingly complex and scattered enemy patterns. Failing to put enemies in the proper formation will not only limit the damage that Mario is capable of dealing out, but will also leave him wide-open to counter attacks. It’s an incredibly interesting take on reinventing a battle system that has recently been criticized by some as being far too simple for its own good, and I feel that both the concept and the execution were handled brilliantly. The sense of risk and reward feels wholly unique in “Origami King,” in that it comes not so much from comparing the stats of your character and the enemies, but rather from the player’s own ability to think fast, solve the puzzles in the given time limit and then select the best attack or item for the job.
Taken on their own, the puzzle-based battles already do a good job of providing a fun and engaging supplement to the exploration segments, but it’s the way in which battles present a culmination of all of the game’s various mechanics that really elevates the overall experience into something truly special. I mentioned earlier that there are all kinds of secrets to find in the game’s environments. All of those secrets, from items and equipment, hidden bags of coins and even the Toads, are given some kind of greater purpose in the game that makes them satisfying to hunt down and collect, and a great portion of this comes into play during the battles. For example, the rescued Toads that appear as audience members during the battles are not just for show, as players can actually spend coins mid-battle to rally the Toads in the audience to help Mario out in a sticky situation. This can have many different effects, which include restoring Mario’s health, granting him items or equipment, and even solving the current puzzle automatically. That being said, players who abuse this system will quickly find themselves running low on coins, which can often be incredibly useful or even sometimes required in a number of circumstances outside of battle. For example, coins can be spent at various shops to purchase stronger weapons, health recovery items and accessories that grant Mario upgrades such as increased defense when blocking enemy attacks or more time to solve puzzles. There are even points where players can opt to spend coins in order to make the game’s environmental puzzles a bit easier if they are having too much trouble reaching the solution on their own. This all makes for a system in which the game rewards players for putting their time and effort into every single one of the game’s systems, subtly yet effectively guiding all players towards the best possible experience that the game can offer. Sure, the cynic can say that there is potential for a player to mindlessly grind up coins by repeating the easiest possible battles, constantly spend those coins to abuse the Toads’ assistance and essentially force the game to play itself. However, I would argue that anyone who decides to do this is missing the point entirely, and really only robbing themselves of the carefully planned out and intensely satisfying structure that Intelligent Systems has created here. The way that exploration leads to finding secrets, gaining upgrades and rescuing Toads, then leads into increasing your viability in battles, which then leads to more opportunities to naturally hone your skills at noticing the patterns in the puzzles and how they can be solved creates one of the tightest and most rewarding gameplay loops in recent memory. As I progressed through my time with the game, I was consistently impressed by the ways in which I was able to notice myself becoming more and more attuned to the game’s mechanics. The fact that I was soon solving battle puzzles that I would have previously needed to enlist the help of the Toads for, and finding hidden secrets in the overworld that I initially completely missed goes a long way in showing just how polished an experience the developers have managed to create here. It also shows how well the game rewards your ability to adapt to new systems and internalize patterns.
In short, “Paper Mario: The Origami King” is an honest-to-goodness hit if I’ve ever seen one. By mixing elements that have worked in the series since the very beginning with brand new ideas and mechanics, Intelligent Systems has created an end product that provides what is, in my mind, the tightest and most satisfying gameplay that “Paper Mario” has ever seen. Combine this with absolutely stellar visuals, a wonderful and whimsical soundtrack, genuinely fantastic writing and characterization, and engaging, thoughtfully connected systems all throughout, the only word that comes to my mind is “masterpiece.” I’m going to put it very simply so that I don’t mince words, “Paper Mario: The Origami King” is my new favorite Nintendo Switch game, and I would give it my absolute highest recommendation to both long time fans and newcomers alike. Intelligent Systems has pulled off something truly remarkable here, and I’m so happy to see that one of my all-time favorite gaming franchises is still soaring to new heights.