The Paper Mario series has seen more ups and downs over the years than the lid of Picasso’s pencil case, with Nintendo and developer Intelligent Systems trying their best to nail the formula again. A large number of Paper Mario fans believe GameCube title Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is the best game in the series, and have been praying that Paper Mario: The Origami King would finally be the game to match (or even surpass its quality).
We’ll cut to the chase right away. It isn’t. That doesn’t mean it isn’t still an entertaining adventure in its own right, though. Players will just need to reign in their expectations a little and enjoy it for what it is – a funny romp through a series of brilliantly designed set-pieces – rather than the new RPG experience they may have in mind when thinking of The Thousand-Year Door.
As ever, there's a fairly unique plot to kick things off. Mario and Luigi have been invited to an Origami Festival by Princess Peach, but when they turn up they discover that the place is empty. Let's face it, a paper-folding event is no E3 so there was probably always going to be a low turnout anyway, but this isn't just quiet: there isn't a soul to be found.
It soon emerges that Peach's Castle has fallen under the control of King Olly, a little regal origami chap who's hell-bent on folding everyone. Indeed, by the time you get there a bunch of characters have already been captured and given the folding treatment, including some Toads, a load of Bowser's minions and even Peach herself.
Not content with merely creating his own army of mind-controlled origami freaks, Olly then summons five huge coloured paper streamers and wraps them around Peach's Castle, lifting it high into the air. It's up to Mario (who's left behind on the ground) to figure out how to remove those streamers and get back inside the castle to give this crease-loving crackpot a boot right between the folds.
Accompanying you for most of your quest is Olivia, a little origami princess who happens to be King Olly’s sister. She’s mortified at what her brother has done and is certain she’ll be able to talk him out of it once she gets to him, so she joins forces with Mario and they both head out together. The Paper Mario series is no stranger to companion characters, and since they’re with you all the time in a predominantly plot-based game their personalities are generally a key factor in making or breaking the experience.
Thankfully, Olivia is one of the series’ better companions; she’s an absolute delight to have around and her cheery, optimistic tone is a constant source of joy. Crucially, her conversations never outstay their welcome and she rarely gets in the way of the action. There’s nothing worse than a companion who won’t shut up and this isn’t really the case here. Outside of cut-scenes she’s usually fairly quiet – only throwing in the odd humorous comment every now and then – and she’ll only ever jump in with advice if you decide you’re stuck and summon her with the X button.
Olivia is far from the only entertaining character in the game, practically everyone you encounter on your travels is comical in some respect. A good example of this is the hundreds of hidden Toads who are dotted around the world. Some of them have been turned into origami and have to be bashed with your hammer to flatten them out again, whereas others are simply hiding (or stuck) in various nooks and crannies and have to be freed. Regardless of the situation, almost all of them will reward you with a funny one-liner that’ll usually get a chuckle out of you.
Naturally, other characters – such as bosses or those involved in side-quests – have personalities that are a little more fleshed out. From the old tree you encounter near the start of the game who eventually ends up kicking off a large dance routine (don’t ask) to the hilarious trio of minions you encounter later who are trying to have a canned food party, the level of care and attention that’s clearly gone into making each of these secondary and tertiary characters appealing in their own right has to be admired.
The same can be said for the world you’ll be exploring this time around. Each of the distinct regions you encounter is brimming with personality and some areas in particular are visually striking, from the autumn-themed second world to the little Vegas-style town hidden deep within a desert (which comes with some truly catchy music, incidentally). To give even more examples would be spoiling things, but rest assured that while there are one or two fairly uninspired sections – the underground mine section is mercifully brief – for the most part you’ll get a kick out of the weird and wonderful locations in this one.
Don’t be under the illusion that this is a truly open-world game, though. While early magazine previews seemed to give the impression that we were going to get some sort of Breath of the Wild-style open environment, that isn’t really the case; the game is clearly divided into separate, distinct areas and you make your way through each one in a linear fashion. They’re all linked together, and theoretically you could start at the opening Toad Town hub and walk through each of the areas in sequence, so it’s an open world in that sense of the word. In practice, though, you’ll work through each area in a standard linear way and will only return to pick up any collectibles you missed.
These collectibles come in three main flavours: hidden Toads, Not-Bottomless Holes and trophies. The Toads are mostly there for comic relief, though occasionally one will raise your maximum HP. The holes are liberally scattered around the world and can be filled by chucking confetti at them, and you can collect confetti in a number of ways, including hitting trees or defeating enemies. While a handful of these holes need to be filled to solve puzzles, for the most part they just reward you with coins, which is a bit underwhelming. Finally, the trophies are generally found in treasure chests and can be viewed later in the game’s museum. You’re informed when you’ve got all the Toads, holes and trophies in an area so there’s an incentive to come back and try to complete the game 100%.
There’s less of an incentive to engage in battles, which will undoubtedly prove to be the most divisive part of the game when it launches. There will be some who think it’s a breath of fresh air and others who feel it’s an unnecessary gimmick. We fall into the latter category. Rather than standard turn-based fights, the battleground takes place on a giant turntable split into four separate rings. Enemies are scattered onto the turntable and you can then arrange their position by rotating and sliding the rings. You’re given a strictly limited number of moves, and you have to use these moves to arrange the enemies so that every one of them is either in a straight line (where you can jump on them with your Boots) or a 2x2 square (where you can hit them all with your Hammer).
If you successfully manage to do this, you’ll get an attack boost and in most situations will be able to take everyone out in one hit. If you can’t arrange them perfectly – or if the strict time limit runs out while you’re trying to do it – you won’t get your attack boost and will almost certainly not be able to finish them off in that turn, meaning you’ll have to take some damage before you get to try to rearrange them again. The result is a system that isn’t really a traditional turn-based battle at all, instead what you have here is basically a puzzle game that essentially boils down to a single premise: solve the ring puzzle in the time given and you’ll win; fail and you’ll take damage.
The problem with this system is that the ‘puzzles’ generally tend to fall into two different categories: painfully easy ones that provide no real challenge, and annoyingly elaborate ones that even Mensa members would struggle to figure out in the time provided (or even longer, if you decide to spend coins to boost the timer). The result is that you’re never really satisfied with any of the battles, they’re either a waste of time if they’re too easy, or a frustrating exercise in damage control if they’re too hard.
Shortly into the game you unlock the option to activate an assist for battles. This makes red rings appear which show you where each enemy should end up if you solve the puzzle correctly. It doesn’t solve the puzzle for you – you still need to actually figure out how to shuffle everyone around and that’s still a massive headache during more complex fights – but it does lead to fewer frustrating moments where you feel there’s no possible way you could have figured out the solution in time. There’s no shame in turning on this assist either, you aren’t punished for it and, frankly, because it still provides a challenge it should have been the standard set-up in the first place.
Occasionally you’ll encounter other annoyances that result from this battle system. The camera can’t be rotated, meaning some enemies will be standing with their back to you. During the game’s middle chapters you regularly face up against Shy Guys and Snifits (the ones who look like Shy Guys but have little cannons for noses), and you’ll often encounter both at the same time during battles. Most puzzles are solved by grouping the same types of enemy together, but since Shy Guys and Snifits are practically identical from behind you’re at a big disadvantage when you can’t tell which red hooded bad guy you’re looking at.
More frustrating is the inclusion of weapon degradation. Your standard Boots and Hammer are unbreakable and can be used forever, but along the way you'll collect a bunch of different variations on each which are needed to ensure you can still defeat enemies with a single hit, or even hurt them at all (you can't jump on a row of spiked enemies without Iron Boots on, for example). The problem is, these weapons wear down and are eventually destroyed, meaning you need to keep finding new ones or returning to the shop in the Toad Town hub and buying more. We don't know what it is with Nintendo and breakable items these days, but if you want to call this game the Breath of the Wild of the Paper Mario series, that's your justification right there.
What makes the battles even less appealing is there’s no real incentive to engage in any of them. There’s no experience system in this game, so there’s nothing to grind for. Winning a fight gives you some coins and confetti, and since coins are mostly spent on battle items anyway and confetti literally grows on trees there’s really no need to fight most of the time. The puzzles make the process so lengthy and convoluted that you’ll find yourself trying to actively avoid any enemy you see. Besides – and this is us letting you in on a little secret – there’s one island you encounter in the game’s second half where you take part in a seven-wave arena fight and are rewarded with an absolute ton of coins, more than enough to ensure you never worry about having enough coins again.
It’s not all bad news, boss fights turn the system on its head and put the boss in the middle of the turntable with you on the outside of it. Various arrows, attack panels and hazards are placed on the turntable and you have to rotate it to plan out a route for Mario to follow in order to attack the boss. These sections are far more entertaining than the standard battles, you’ve actually got a chance to figure out a strategy for these ones, the timer is much more lenient and there’s a wider variety of variables that make things interesting. Normal battles are worth avoiding, but boss battles are worth enjoying.
Don’t let our criticism of the combat put you off checking out The Origami King. Yes, it’s fair to say that battling is a sizeable portion of the game and while you can avoid many of the enemies you’re still going to find yourself in plenty of fights throughout, and if you don’t get along with the mechanics (like we didn’t) that’s going to be a bit of a slog. The important thing to note, though, is that everything else that surrounds these battles is an absolute delight.
The Paper Mario games are always light-hearted adventures with plenty of jokes and clever paper-based set-pieces but The Origami King is easily one of the funniest and smartest entries in the series. If the thought of the battles puts you off buying it you’re also going to miss out on some of the most entertaining moments we’ve seen in a game this generation. There are song and dance numbers, novelty theme parks, a genuinely fantastic stage show section and even the occasional sad or poignant moment to stop you in your tracks and make you feel the feels, as we’re reliably informed the kids say these days.
Paper Mario: The Origami King tries to do something different with its combat system and, to be honest, we aren't feeling it. That doesn't mean the rest of the game isn't thoroughly entertaining, however, and while the puzzle-based battles aren't quite what a new Paper Mario game needed, they aren't so awful that everything else shouldn't be experienced as a result. It still isn't the new Thousand-Year Door fans will have been hoping for, but it's still one of the funniest games in the series and it's got a truly likeable companion character, and while the combat is far from ideal the fact that we still thoroughly recommend the game regardless speaks volumes about every other aspect of it.