Nintendo’s two-dimensional role-playing series returns with some new ideas and one of the funniest scripts of the generation.
One of the most important factors behind the Switch’s success is that the majority of its major releases have been acclaimed as the best entries in their respective franchises. The likes of Zelda, Animal Crossing, and Super Smash Bros. have seen unparalleled sales and critical success, while other second-tier franchises, such as Fire Emblem and Luigi’s Mansion, have experienced unexpected jumps in popularity. The question now is whether the Switch can have a similarly rejuvenating effect on Paper Mario.
Paper Mario started out on the N64 as a spiritual successor to Square’s Super Mario RPG on the SNES. It was always intended to be Nintendo’s take on a traditional Japanese role-playing game, with the fact that all the characters are made of paper, but moving around in a 3D world, merely meant to create a visually distinctive style, that made it clear this was not a standard action game.
The original game also established the other key elements of the series, with the turn-based combat using carefully timed button presses to augment your attack and defence, while the script had a surprisingly sharp sense of humour. Paper Mario has always shown the mundane, everyday reality of the Mushroom Kingdom, where its inhabitants are portrayed as, relatively, ordinary people going about their daily lives. The series reached its zenith in sequel The Thousand-Year Door and has been downhill ever since, but The Origami King is, at last, a return to form.
As we tried to make clear in our preview, The Origami King is very much its own thing and while it is highly entertaining, and extremely funny, it is not a role-playing game. It follows the tone of the first two Paper Mario games, and still has many of the same basic elements, but with only a few changes it could easily have been presented as an entirely new franchise.
The game’s story revolves around the titular Origami King, who has invaded Princess Peach’s castle and folded up her, the toads, and many of Bowser’s minions into zombie like creatures that follow his will. The plot really isn’t important but the script is, as while Mario remains mute throughout everyone else is frequently laugh out loud funny.
Many of the best jokes come from the near endless array of toads you have to rescue (many of who are also turned into origami and hidden in plain sight) and who are so consistently amusing that hearing what they have to say becomes the main reason for searching them out.
The game never quite hits the surrealist heights of The Thousand-Year Door but it gets very close. And while it also has less emphasis on the role of everyman characters there’s some wonderful skits involving secret cafés where bad guys relax after ‘a hard day of pacing back and forth’. There’s also amusing in-jokes on everything from climbing in the rain in Zelda: Breath Of The Wild to the nonsense of finding audio logs and diary entries in video games, with a toad exclaiming he’s, ‘So excited I’m writing notes to myself’.
The Origami King is a game overflowing with charm, which rather than some mild compliment is really the central appeal of the game. It can’t leave you alone for more than a few minutes without finding something to make you smile, either a straightforward joke, an amusing detail (walking over a wooden bridge with talking logs provides an unexpected giggle), or just an amusing absurdity (the whole of the Shogun Theatre section is just wonderful, with everything from a pastiche of West Side Story to Shy Guys dancing in tutus).
Although Mario does become slightly more powerful whenever he picks up a heart that increases his maximum health there are no real role-playing elements at all, just a few collectable accessories, that increase your power and health, and some single-use extra weapons. That in itself is fine but what is a disappointment is how few allies there are in the game. It’s hours before you meet your first one and yet they work on automatic in battles and you can never have more than one at a time.
This is a shame if only because it means there’s less people to talk to as you explore. So it’s a good job that exploring is still a lot of fun, not just because the toads mean there’s always a good chance of an interesting reward but because Intelligent Systems are so good at hiding them in the first place.
The basics of the combat system are similar to previous Paper Mario games, and indeed all turn-based Japanese games. However, this time Mario stands in the middle of circular dais which is divided into rows and columns. These can be rotated around like a sliding box puzzle and the idea is that you have a limited amount of time and moves, before a fight starts, to line up the enemies arrayed around you into straight lines or squares, so they can be more effectively attacked.
This is a lot of fun, and very satisfying when you turn a seemingly chaotic jumble into an orderly set of lines, but the problem with the combat is that there’s technically no point to it. You don’t earn experience and while you do get coins and confetti (used to repair holes in the game world) it’s easy to get them from other sources. In fact, the way money works is bizarre as you almost immediately get more than you know what to do with, as the few things there are to buy are so cheap.
The boss battles retain the circular stage but force you to create a sort of maze for Mario to navigate, as he follows arrows on the floor to activate switches and attacks. It’s very contrived but ingeniously designed and, again, enhanced by all the amusing dialogue (we especially enjoyed the disco-obsessed hole punch you fight at one point – which makes only a little more sense in context).
The Origami King is in a peculiar position where it’s not actually what The Thousand-Year Door fans have been waiting for all these years, and yet it’s still very good anyway. There’s a lot to be said for it doing its own thing and if Intelligent Systems don’t want to make a role-playing game then that’s their business. What they’ve created instead though is one of the funniest and most consistently entertaining games of the year.
Paper Mario: The Origami King review summary
In Short: One of the most relentlessly charming video games ever made and the best Paper Mario since The Thousand-Year Door.
Pros: One of Nintendo’s best scripts in years, with a sardonic sense of family friendly humour. Fun battle system and consistently imaginative world design that always rewards exploration.
Cons: The lack of any role-playing systems means that combat is technically pointless. Lack of allies, and their abilities, is a real shame. The way money is handled is very odd.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: 17th July 2020
Age Rating: 7
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