Last Summer, I undertook the task of playing and reviewing every single Paper Mario game in preparation for this moment: to play Paper Mario: The Origami King for the Nintendo Switch and to see how it stacked up against the rest of its predecessors. A now 20-year-old franchise, the Paper Mario games are among some of my favorite RPGs known for their unabashed sense of adventure, humorous & witty writing accompanied by memorable characters, and one-of-a-kind gameplay scenarios along with its engaging turn-based battle system. The only problem with the series is that it actually hasn’t had any of these qualities since 2007 with the exception of the “witty writing” part.
Naturally, I approached Paper Mario: The Origami King with utmost trepidation, fearing it would retain the same agonizingly gross formula featured in the past two monstrosities. However, I also approached The Origami King with a glimmer of hope, that it would at least somewhat replenish what was once a fantastic series of games. It shouldn’t be surprising that with Nintendo’s direction recently, I sadly got the former. The game practically explains its own driveling nonsense after a scene in which a bunch of trees break out into a dance routine and start singing (here’s a link if you want to share my pain).
After establishing a pretty cryptic opening prologue, it becomes clear that The Origami King is yet another hand-holding, forcefully instructional, and totally not subtle adventure game that is rarely likable as it keeps slamming you over and over the head with endless commands rather than letting the player explore the world and test the mechanics for themselves. Mario’s partner, Olivia, is a slight step up from Huey and Kersti as a character but she is still the one mostly responsible for acting as an indisposable pocket watch who just never quits babbling.
Everything in The Origami King is calculated to assure that the player gets a tidy resolution with every battle, little task, and most importantly, every main story quest. It is an endeavor of “do everything the game says” as the player is directly ordered around by a field guide disguised as a friendly NPC whose wink-wink attitude and useless, obvious hints only exacerbate the gameplay. This entire game is a contradiction to itself and video games as a whole. It is like trying to navigate a hedge maze but with large, conspicuous arrows pointing you to your destination. If this game were a film, one of the characters would look directly into the camera and explain the plot as each moment transpires.
Have you ever heard of the inspiration behind the idea for The Legend of Zelda? It came from Nintendo’s own Shigeru Miyamoto who claimed he wanted to replicate the awe and excitement he felt when exploring forests and caves in his youth (source). Apparently, The Origami King’s philosophy is that you should have someone else direct you and limit you as to where you are allowed to explore because they think you are too dumb to discover things on your own, thereby negating all sense of wonder, freedom, and fun. I understand Zelda is a completely different experience on its own but the broad, general idea in a game in which you are meant to adventure should still apply.
The moments in which the adventure aspects are in any way creative or interesting are fleeting and usually only occur when the player discovers new, specific areas. In terms of looks, the game is undoubtedly beautiful and vibrant with color but it is not a world in which there is much life. In a series that used to fill its nitty-gritty with puzzles and subtleties is now filled with dull items on a checklist. One puzzle prompts the player to remember a pattern on a group of platforms but if the player fails, the puzzle will remove a platform, which basically says “don’t worry, we’ll make it easier for you.” There are a few cleverly hidden secrets, decent puzzles, and tucked terrain tricks here and there but not enough to exactly accrue thundering praise.
I’ve spent such a long time ranting that I haven’t even touched the other aspects. Intelligent Systems finally revitalized the turn-based combat (one of the franchises strongest elements) by changing the battleground into a circular, 12-piece grid. Enemies will spawn in such a way that the player is supposed to arrange them to their liking in under a certain amount of time with a limited number of moves. It is the most unique and different part of the game as it provides a little puzzle in itself with exponential variation.
The boss battles also benefit from this inventive hook in their own fashion and even though the game’s sugarcoating attitude will frequently leak into these battles, the game backs away for the most part to let Mario discover the boss’ weaknesses, move sets, and quirks without the constant nagging. There are a few undeniably threatening instances in which the boss battles are a little too contrived in order to work to the player’s advantage, but they are few and far between and nowhere near as frustrating or noticeable as the overworld gameplay. The only case of a stupid choice for a boss battle was when the game shifted into a rock paper scissors battle with the boss (gave me Color Splash flashbacks).
Apologies for the rant-type review but one of my philosophies as a gamer and writer is to try and be 100 percent honest with myself and while I was playing this game, I couldn’t bring myself to get over its nonstop nagging attitude. I couldn’t help but scoff when Olivia utters “What is this, an art-house horror film?” somewhere near the end because it just made me think of how much fervor I could experience while watching one instead of playing this mediocre game. Sorry for the excessive harshness if you enjoyed this game but I only found it enjoyable in every instance you were given the opportune moment to discover something for yourself, which is one of the my favorite aspects of video games — only it essentially gets completely scrapped here. Perhaps I’m just unbelievably blind to this game’s delights but I was left numb and disappointed. Still better than Color Splash.