As much fun as Mario's platforming antics have been over the decades, some of his greatest moments have come in the RPG space. Dating back to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, the RPG genre has played a major role in making Mario's cast of characters feel three-dimensional. And I appreciate the irony of that in a series like Paper Mario, where every figure is literally two-dimensional.
Paper Mario: The Origami King looks to stand among some of the series' best efforts and along with some of Mario's best RPG outings. While the story more than holds up its end with its emotional beats and its off-the-wall humor, the modern series tropes hold it back from reaching the greatness that it's capable of hitting.
The story unfolds
The Origami King finds chaos unfolding at Princess Peach's castle, where Peach has been folded into an origami monarch, Bowser's been crumpled into a two-fold reptile, and an evil king named Olly has taken over. Olly takes off with Peach's Castle (and Peach) and leaves behind five giant streamers. Only Mario can save the day by destroying the streamers and taking down King Olly.
Mario isn't going it alone, though. His most omnipresent partner is an origami girl named Olivia, who happens to be Olly's sister. He'll meet some other helpers over the course of his journey, including more than a few memorable characters. We'll revisit Olivia shortly, because there's a lot to say about her.
Paper Mario already looks like an artistic marvel across every one of its outings, but there's something extra cool about The Origami King's art direction, with many of the paper denizens being overtaken by Bowser's minions, who Olly has claimed for himself and folded into hideous origami monstrosities called Folded Soldiers. The stark contrast in art styles between paper and origami is mind-blowing, reminding me a lot of the old Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers Looney Tunes short. The last time Nintendo attempted such diametrically opposed styles was with Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam back in 2016. The hardware upgrade from the 3DS to the Switch is fully on display here, because as well as Paper Jam expressed its opposing art styles, the Switch blows it away in terms of making the paper textures and the 3D origami textures look so different from one another.
There's a lot to say about the Origami King story, aesthetic, and humor, but before going any further, let's get the game mechanics out of the way, because a lot of them feel about as fun as a paper cut. If you're looking for a traditional turn-based RPG, I'm sorry to say, you're going to feel disappointed.
Yes, a bulk of Origami's King's battles are turn-based. They operate differently than a standard RPG and the ideas on display here are fairly clever. Enemies are scattered about on a ring-like battlefield. Before Mario can attack, the idea is to arrange enemies in either a straight line to jump on or in a group of four to bop with his hammer. These battles often become puzzles, tasking the player with putting the right arrangement together for an optimal turn. These battles are cool, but start to wear thin after a while and that's where one of Origami King's bigger problems starts to become evident.
There is no leveling up and no experience points of any kind in this game, so it doesn't take long to realize that most battles are a waste of time, rewarding nothing more than coins. This is a problem that dates back to Paper Mario: Sticker Star, albeit one that doesn't feel nearly as bad as it used to with that old 3DS nugget. There's often no incentive to take part in battles with lesser enemies, but if you get roped into one, it eats up several minutes. While it eliminates the usual level grind of a standard RPG, it institutes a different kind of grind, one where you're just trying to cut to the chase.
Boss battles are designed slightly differently in that Mario must run around a giant set of rings before attacking. Unlike the battles with lower-end foes, the boss battles actually grew on me after a while. Bosses will incorporate their own obstacles and gimmicks and Mario will get some really cool cinematic moments with Olivia and the 1,000 Fold Arms tool, which is used mostly for exploring the world but often becomes your best friend in a boss fight.
Whenever you're in battle, you can try and cut a few corners by spending coins to have Toads in the stands come cheer you on. The Toads prove very useful, offering items, moving rings around, and occasionally healing. They're usually worth the investment, especially if they give you a weapon to use later. This feels like a good place as any to note another aggravating Paper Mario trope. Weapons break in this game and they'll often break at the worst possible time. Rather than just invest in a single weapon and upgrade it as you go, you'll find yourself investing in multiples of weapons so that you'll have backups whenever your Shiny Hammer or your Iron Boots inevitably break in battle.
Speaking of aggravating Paper Mario tropes, you might be wondering how to fill those stands with Toads to come cheer Mario on. Well, Toads are scattered around the world and you'll have to find them all, one-by-one. This was my second flashback to Paper Jam and it wasn't in a good way. Like Paper Jam, you're given the busy work of finding Toads. At least this time, the Toads aren't gating off further progression like they did in the 3DS game and at least here they serve a greater use. But it still feels like padding in a game that doesn't need anymore of it. Your journey to the streamers is going to get interrupted a lot, especially with an entire boating sequence near the middle of the game. There is a lot of plot padding, something that's only made better by injecting in enough of Paper Mario's lighthearted humor.
And like other Paper Mario games, there are things in the overworld that can hurt you. You'll take on a number of giant paper mache (called Paper Machos) enemies over the course of the game. They're easy enough and aren't the source of any real frustration. The frustration comes with where the game managed to fit in cheap deaths. You'll encounter a few of these over the course of the game and they won't feel good when you do.
There are quite a few negatives to look past, but once you do, the Origami King story is wonderful and it's largely thanks to its cast of characters.
The Origami King doesn't just look good artistically, it also carries a lot of Paper Mario's signature humor style. That means a lot of wacky characters, a lot of puns, occasional slapstick, and some observational humor. Jokes come fast and furious in this game and they're all good for laughs.
The jokes even come in the form of the game's bosses, the Legion of Stationary. Some might say they're hilarious and clever uses of everyday office supplies. Other might look at them and think they're a lazy concept with some Nintendo employee being asked to think of boss characters and coming up with random office supplies he found around his desk. I would say both of those things feel somewhat true. On the one hand, bosses don't come any easier or lazier than this, from a conceptual standpoint. However, from an execution standpoint, I'm amazed at how Origami King made these bosses work, giving each of them their own personalities and gameplay quirks.
And speaking of personalities, the game's characters have it in spades. Olivia is an absolute delight, coming across as a blank slate who has never seen the outside world before. Bobby the Bob-Omb is a high-spirited as an amnesiac Bob-omb can be and playing well off of Olivia's cheerfulness. Kamek, who's often relegated to a lieutenant role in a lot of Mario and Yoshi games, shines here like never before, playing off his old roles and coming across as the underappreciated #2. And just about every minor character, including the Toads, the bosses, Bowser's minions, and even Luigi (poor, poor Luigi) are good for laughs.
But as funny as The Origami King can be, I was stunned by how much heart this story has. It packs in a lot of emotion, hitting you right in the tear ducts more than once. A lot of the emotion comes from Olivia, a naive young girl who wants nothing more than for everybody to live in peace and play around in Shogun Studios, but who also sees the horror her brother is unleashing. And it's a horror that has real costs. Not everybody makes it through The Origami King in one piece and the story effectively expresses the toll that takes on the game's characters. This is a story that's about creation, purpose, and living a meaningful existence in the short time we have.
The final fold
In wrapping this up, I would be remiss if I didn't discuss Origami King's ending. Without diving into spoilers, the ending was an emotional roller coaster. I won't lie, it almost had me in tears. It's been a very long time since I was this moved by the ending to a Mario RPG, possibly since the end of Legend of the Seven Stars nearly 25 years ago. It shows that the team at Nintendo and Intelligent Systems are capable of weaving together a gripping story, which also makes Origami King a frustrating case, because if the gameplay annoyances and the negative Paper Mario tropes don't bog this down, this goes down as an all-time classic in the series. I still hope it can reach those heights in spite of those issues.
The best thing I can say about Paper Mario: The Origami King is that it has some major problems, but the story is great enough and so worth experiencing that it's worth trudging through the negatives to experience it at least once. Like a lot of first-time origami projects, it starts rough, but it's worth seeing through to the end.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch code provided by the publisher. Paper Mario: The Origami King is available now at retailers and through the Nintendo eShop for $59.99. The game is rated E.
Paper Mario: The Origami King
- Beautiful art style that expresses two diametrically opposed styles
- Signature Paper Mario humor shines again
- The story hits much harder than expected with a memorable ending
- Wonderful characters, some of the best in the series
- Clever battle system, especially for bosses
- No XP and no leveling means almost no incentive to fight lesser foes
- Weapons break! WHY???
- Finding Toads feels like busy work
- Plot starts to feel padded towards the middle
- Occasional cheap deaths
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Paper Mario: The Origami King review: Creased lightning
Any Switch RPGs you would recommend?
You get more powerful weapons and at an early point its easy to skip battles.
I have yet to play a “Paper Mario” game.
Would this be a good introduction to the series?
That depends on what you like more. If you’re into traditional RPG fare, with leveling and stats, start with The Thousand-Year Door. If you don’t mind that and just want a good story, this will wet your beak.
I will say, I watched my wife play Color Splash on the Wii U. The story and the boss fight design in Origami King is muuuuch better.