If I were Mario, I'd be absolutely sick of getting invited to events that actually turn out to be (a) abandoned, (b) a dud, or (c) some kind of elaborate ruse to lure him into a trap. In fact, if I were Mario I'd probably be a recluse by now, taking visits by appointment only. But, thankfully, I'm not, and our dungaree-wearing papercraft mascot is still going on adventures at the drop of an eloquently worded letter. So it's off to the "origami festival" for the tale of Paper Mario: The Origami King for Mario and Luigi.
Release date: July 17, 2020
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer / Publisher: Nintendo
The festival is, as you'd expect, not quite in full swing though, and is more an abandoned papercraft wasteland with Peach's castle at the centre of it all once more. However, unlike the usual trope, the princess is indeed in this castle this time around, but something's not quite right – she has been turned to origami. The folds and her robotic speech serve to be a huge clue that something's afoot, and it quickly emerges that there's a new player vying for the throne, with the ability to turn our 2D hero roster into origami soldiers, devoid of personality, soul, and with the insatiable appetite for battling against Mario and co. And thus, it becomes our heroic duo's mission to track down King Olly, and unfold the kingdom back to the papery glory it once was.
Predictable yes, but not without its comedic value.
Because, as you'd hope from a Paper Mario title, Nintendo has tapped right into the spirit that has always pervaded this series. It doesn't matter that the story beats don't appear all that fresh or inventive on the surface, because the journey that you go on in Paper Mario: The Origami King is anything but unoriginal. In this game, Mario is joined by a new friend called Olivia. She's the loveable origami sister to the big bad Olly, and acts as your companion throughout this adventure. Luigi's off elsewhere having adventures of his own, so it's down to Olivia to be your sidekick, and the relationship you build with her is a source of constant comedic joy. She's snippy, can cut familiar foes to size with a simple line, and works to continually push the story forward.
Occasionally, you'll gain another companion that only heightens Paper Mario's comedic charm. Early on, a Bob-omb that's lost its memory will join you and the game takes great strides to subtly poke fun at the state of affairs. You will, for example, find the way forward blocked by giant boulders that, you know, maybe a bomb could blast away… I'm hesitant to say anything more because I want you to experience it for yourself, but I will say that, after our time together on this adventure, this particular Bob-omb has become one of the secret heroes of the generation and I will treasure it forever.
The comedy isn't reserved for Mario, Olivia, and this particular Bob-omb though. All of the characters that inhabit this world are capable of delivering witty one-liners too, and it only gets funnier as you find yourself working with the foes you've been fighting against since the original Super Mario games. Shy Guys, Goomba, Koopa Troopers and more have become your allies in the fight against the Origami soldiers created by King Olly, which are basically moronic, aggressive origami versions of the classic baddies. Even Bowser, stapled to a mere square of his former self, becomes an unlikely confidant in this joint battle. Chaos inevitably ensues, of course, but it's done in such a way that you'll regularly find yourself chuckling into your Switch.
Friends in foes
Paper Mario: The Origami King feels like a celebration of Mario lore – if there is such a thing. In a year dominated by Animal Crossing: New Horizons, this new Paper Mario is about recapturing some of that classic Nintendo magic. The game achieves this by approaching the history and legacy of Mario with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Paper Mario: The Origami King isn't afraid to poke fun at itself or the classic Mario formula, and the adventure is like some kind of wonderful Nintendo in-joke that we're all in on as a result.
It certainly helps that the world itself is as varied as all of the characters you'll befriend as you journey across it. Locations range from the Japanese-themed Shogun Studios and Autumn Mountains to the Indiana Jones-laced Scorching Sandpaper Desert and the Princess Peach cruise ship, and each locale is filled with secrets to discover, collectibles to unearth, holes to patch up with confetti, and origami bad guys to beat. You can even interact with elements of the world using your mighty 1,000-Fold arms, and other powers too. The variation in locations and objectives means the game constantly feels exciting and fresh, even if the combat largely remains the same.
Speaking of combat, those hoping for a return to the Super Mario RPG offerings of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door will, unfortunately, be disappointed. There are some returning elements, such as the ability to upgrade your weapons, for example, but when it comes to combat, what you have here is instead more akin to a strategy game than what we've had before. Each battle is based around a ring system, which is a bit like battling on a dartboard, with the ability to rotate each ring and slide the wedges back and forth to position your enemies.
The first part of any attack starts with you shuffling the board against the clock with limited move counts, all with the aim of getting enemies clustered into straight lines or blocks of 2x2. The latter you can attack with your hammer, while you'll rely on some classic boot-based stomping for those you were able to line up before the timer expired. As you might expect, the foe shuffling becomes more and more complex the further you get into the game, and sometimes you'll fail to align them all, limiting the amount of damage you can deal with your attacks. Thus, the strategy element comes into play, with this puzzle element inherent to the combat system taking up a large portion of your battling time.
Like previous Paper Mario entries, a well-timed press of A as you attack will mean you'll deal more damage, but if you've failed the puzzle element, you're at an instant disadvantage. Your weapons will get better as you progress, moving from your unbreakable base boots and hammer, to iron versions that are great for stomping spiked foes, or gold versions that'll earn you more coins, to the best versions possible that are basically flashy or shiny versions of existing items. Everything bar your basic kit will break eventually, meaning another strand of the strategy means making sure you're always prepared for any eventuality. There's nothing worse than forgetting to add another set of iron boots to your arsenal when going up against a line of Spinies.
If you think the regular combat sounds a little complex, the boss battles are on another level. Suddenly the dartboards become more like Chutes and Ladders, with you having to find a path to attack the boss, aligning arrows that'll allow you to move into combat spaces and even through on switch for your mega, magical moves powered by Olivia. Bosses can be tough to take down, with an evil hole punch proving particularly tricky to take down as it kept stealing Mario's face. Yes, Paper Mario: The Origami King even has some fun with its boss fights, forcing you to look at stationary like you've never seen it before – weaponised.
There are assists you can call in should you need a helping hand. The more of the Toads you rescue in the world – from origami folds, stuffed in holes, or taped to the side of buildings – the more you can call on them to cheer you on from the sidelines. It costs coins, but the more you spend, the more they'll help, from moving enemies into better positions to filling up your health bar.
But that's where a few niggles start to creep in. The difficulty curve is all over the place in Paper Mario: The Origami King. On the one hand you can opt for help by calling in the Toads, the next help is thrust upon you without a choice. An icy sliding block challenge gives you three tries before it tells you how to solve it, for example. But, later on, a section I won't spoil literally takes every assistance crutch you'd had until that point for a maddeningly baffling (and completely unavoidable) puzzle collection that almost made me throw a controller.
Gripes aside though, the latest Paper Mario title is a joy to exist in. An excellent story, charming characters, and the ability to team up with your oldest foes makes The Origami King a triumph. Yes, it may not be the new Thousand-Year Door RPG, but it's something special that should be celebrated.