Despite my best efforts to shirk all worldly responsibilities to play games, there are still games and game franchises which I’ve just never gotten around to, much like everyone else. One of those franchises for me was Paper Mario, but The Origami King presented a perfect opportunity to jump into things.
After years of Paper Mario being suggested to me by various sources, there was also the matter of much pre-release news around The Origami King trending on the negative side because of apparent changes to the series formula. Ignoring some of this to go into the game fresh, I booted up for another Mario adventure.
In a surprise to no one with eyes this newest Paper Mario game is quite the looker. The gimmick of most game objects being made out of paper, stationary or some other kind of crafting material never gets old. Every few minutes you’ll express to yourself “oh that’s clever”, like the gold elements of Peach’s Castle clearly being gold foil, complete with all the little wrinkles and defects that would come with using this material in the real world.
While everything is nice to look at it suffers from something I like to call the “LEGO Game Commitment Problem”. TT Games’ long running series of LEGO titles takes a very lackadaisical approach to the concept of things being made out of LEGO – lots of characters and objects are clearly made out of real world bricks, but just as much of it is generic 3D models you’d find in any other game.
The Origami King also suffers from this, though to a lesser extent. There’s endless tiny details like logs simply being rolled up pieces of paper, or pencils acting as a kid friendly substitute for a missile, but a lot of the time it’s just a regular 3D object with a paper texture.
The Origami King, then, sits between two LEGO properties in terms of how far it goes with its gimmick. It’s much better than the average TT Games entry, but it’s far from the LEGO Movies where you can see individual fingerprint marks and 100% of everything you see on screen could possibly be recreated in the real world.
That’s a minor complaint really, because the art direction is so good. What’s more divisive is the writing and story. Half of the time, usually with minor characters, the writing is great with lots of meta commentary. The Toads which Mario rescues throughout always have something interesting to say. Rescuing Toads is actually a large part of the game, but I found myself doing it to speak to them rather than the loot they usually dole out.
The main characters, on the other hand, are mostly a pain to listen to. What they’re saying is so dry and uninteresting, and absolutely sand bagged by a lack of dialogue speed options. I rightfully complain about Pokémon not innovating with new games, but at least they’ve had an option for dialogue speed for the last couple of decades.
Of particular note here is Olivia, the little yellow NPC that follows you around for every second of the game and is Navi by any other name. Olivia is likely the most irritating character of 2020 and half her dialogue could have been cut without much impact to the game. This character, and many more who move the story along, are just a pain.
So the art style is great with just a few blemishes, and the dialogue and stories are 50/50. Unfortunately for Origami King the gameplay is the biggest problem on offer.
This iteration of Paper Mario has a rather weird set of combat mechanics. It’s supposed to be a turn-based strategy game but it’s much more of a puzzle. At the start of an encounter you get a certain number of moves to shuffle enemies around so your weapons can taken them out in the most efficient way. Do so properly and you can get through most encounters without taking a scratch.
Mess up the puzzle, however, and you will be pummeled, losing HP and some bonuses for flawless execution.
The thing about the combat is that there are a lot of nuances like stat-boosting items and weapon degradation, but none of it matters. The combat is so formulaic after the first few encounters, and rewards for fighting are so little, that most battles can be avoided with no impact on the rest of the game.
People are now calling for the option to remove combat entirely and I completely agree. It’s bizarre that such a big part of the game is so uninteresting and solvable to the point where you just wish for a single button to skip it.
To make up for it Origami King has a truly immense amount of minigames. Every few minutes you will wonder into a new game to play. From throwing ninja stars in a caravel game, to water rafting and even sliding puzzles, this game is chock full of important distractions.
These are important because they need to be played or solved to progress the game. You read that right: most combat is worthless and can be avoided with no consequence, but the minigames are essential.
Because of this the game feels like it has a rather serious identity crisis – like the developers wanted to make one game but some force was directing things elsewhere.
After putting many hours into this game and returning to those news stories from before release, it makes much more sense. The now infamous interview where producers on the game expressed difficulty within restraints of the franchise can clearly be felt when playing.
Once I’ve turned off Origami King it has failed to turn me into a Paper Mario fan. This is the complete opposite to Super Mario Odyssey, which instantly made me a 3D Mario acolyte. While some may think it’s unfair to compare the two, Nintendo Switch games rarely go on sale and if you want to buy either right now they will likely be close in price.
Almost every single second of Odyssey feels like it was designed from the ground up to be as enjoyable as possible. As I sit through yet another contrived puzzle or piece of dialogue in Origami King, I cannot say the same.