I honestly think the RPG spinoffs are the Mario franchise at its best. Games like Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, and Mario & Luigi have long used the more dialogue-heavy format of the genre to dial the series’ humour up to another level, while creatively blending platform and RPG elements. Paper Mario: The Origami King might be the strongest case for the RPG spinoff yet—both in what it does well, and what it doesn’t.
Let’s start with what The Origami King absolutely nails, which is its sense of humour. A world where a villainous king is trying to fold all the perfectly two-dimensional denizens into origami is full of potential, and Origami King never misses a chance for a paper-themed pun or 10. More importantly, it always, always sticks the landing with jokes could easily fall flat if they aren’t delivered in just the right way, but a flawless script and perfect comedic timing—even without any voice acting—make every pun strike gold. (“Wrong answer. Right answer. It matters not. Your replies are all paper thin.”)
The Origami King isn’t shy about breaking the fourth wall. Sometimes that’s to add a playful twist to some dialogue that doubles as a tutorial—”I wish I could just press Y to use a Mushroom like you, Mario. And then I’d press B to order a burrito. …Is that not what B does?”. Sometimes it’s to poke fun at its source material, like a moment where a couple of Koopa Troopas comment on their lack of combat prowess—”What are we gonna do? Walk into him slowly?”.
Sometimes The Origami King will simply revel in irreverence, and have a bunch of very talkative trees break out into a musical number to celebrate their chopped-down elder being restored to his former glory. Hell, there’s a whole group of villains that are just literal stationery—not cartoony and personified, just a realistically-rendered coloured pencil set that tries to bite you by snapping shut and uses its pencils as missiles, or a pair of scissors that wants to chop up your paper form.
Humour is hard to do well. It’s even harder to do well when you’re drawing on so many different styles and sources of inspiration, but The Origami King delivers laugh after laugh after laugh.
That’s not to say it’s just an endless string of gags, though; there’s also an emotive core tying everything together. I wouldn’t exactly call this game deep or heavily character-driven, especially compared to the standards of the genre, but it still finds moments to tug at the heartstrings and humanise its cast. Olivia, a companion who joins you early on and acts as the main voice for your party (Mario remains a silent protagonist) stands out particularly well in this regard: she’s warm, cheerful soul who’s blown away by the wonders of a world she doesn’t really understand, but also puts on a brave face while she deals with the inner turmoil that comes from having a villain for brother.
What would be regular, disposable enemies in another Mario game—your Goombas and Koopa Troopas—get flashes of personality now, thanks in part to a story that blurs the old lines between friend and foe. In a world where the Origami King’s folded soldiers are everywhere, the unfolded paperfolk have to stick together, even if that means Mario fighting alongside a Bob-omb. Even Kamek, one of the most one-dimensional characters in the whole Mario series, gets fleshed out a bit this time around.
Paper Mario: The Origami king also sports one of the most unique battle systems I’ve ever seen in an RPG. Each battle finds Mario in the centre of a dartboard-like ring, with enemies scattered about in the available cells. Before each round of combat starts, you’re given a limited number of moves to rearrange the battlefield by either rotating rings or shifting columns, with the goal of neatly lining enemies up.
Mario’s two basic attacks are a chain head-stomp that travels in a straight line from the inside of the battlefield to the edge, hitting everyone along the way, and a hammer attack that hits a 2 by 2 block of cells. The idea, then, is to try and use those pre-battle moves to organise the enemies in such a way that you can hit as many of them as possible on the attack phase.
The result is a battle system that’s more like a puzzle than the turn-based strategy typical of a JRPG. In fact, almost every regular battle outside of boss fights is designed to be solvable—the enemies’ starting formations aren’t random, and it’s almost always possible to line up your foes in such a way that you can hit them all in a single turn. With every regular enemy being able to be downed in a single hit (assuming your equipment is up to date), regular battles always have an ideal solution that sees you walk away unscathed. The trick is figuring out what that solution is.
Boss fights flip those ideas on their heads by putting the boss at the centre of the ring. You still get those few moves to rearrange the battlefield at the start of each turn, but instead of lining up enemies, you’re trying to arrange arrows to create a safe path to one of the boss’s weak points (and hopefully to pick up some power ups along the way). The basic mechanics of the ring battle system are still there, but each boss interacts with them differently, creating some fascinating puzzles.
But that also brings us to The Origami King‘s greatest failing: it lacks the sense of mechanical character growth and progression that’s such a cornerstone of RPGs. There’s no levelling system to speak of, and limited opportunities to get stronger. You’ll gain a modest boost to damage output whenever you find an item that increases your maximum HP, but because the battle system is so heavily tied to the puzzle element and the need for every encounter to be “solvable”, the game can’t really let you just… get stronger, on your own terms.
It also means that encounters outside of the unavoidable scripted ones are a waste of time, in the broader scheme of things. There’s nothing to grind for except money (which you’ll find more than you could ever need just from exploration, anyway), and even if you just enjoy the battle system on its own merits, each enemy that you might encounter in the wild is tied to a particular combat puzzle—once you’ve solved it, there’s little to gain from doing it again, even intrinsically.
The game’s designers are clearly aware of this, too, with enemy placements on the map often working to create an obstacle to avoid and a punishment for failing an exploration or platforming challenge. Avoidable encounters are there to be avoided, loading what can be a genuinely interesting battle system with a sense of frustration and failure that’s only compounded by the lack of reward that comes with victory.
There’s also a depressing lack of abilities to make use of in combat. You have your boots (for head-stomping) and your hammer from the get-go, and though you’ll get stronger variations of them throughout the game, you almost never get anything that actually feels like a new ability. The few exceptions to this are special summon-esque attacks, but the usage of them is strictly controlled and limited almost exclusively to boss fights where they form part of the puzzle to be solved.
I admire that Intelligent Systems tried to do something new and different with the combat in The Origami King, and when it works, it works great. But the trade-off is a game that feels particularly limited, and serves as a reminder of why things as rudimentary as levelling systems are the genre staples that they are.
But I wouldn’t let that discourage fans of the Mario RPGs (or RPGs in general) from checking out what Paper Mario: The Origami King has to offer. This is a game that’s full of heart, creative ideas, and most of all, humour—I can’t remember the last I played a game that made me laugh so much, and so regularly, and that’s enough to make a journey to the Origami Kingdom worth your while.
Paper Mario: The Origami King is developed by Intelligent Systems and published by Nintendo. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.