Back to the, uh, folding board with you.
Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed the gradual mending of split factions among the Nintendo faithful. Step back and consider this: when was the last time you witnessed the bitter casual vs. competitive discourse that so commonly polluted Smash Bros. discussions? All forgotten ills of the past, what with Ultimate‘s meaty concessions to both crowds. Meanwhile, Metroid‘s finally awoken from its belabored fever dream of monotone monologues and LEGO-styled foot-soldiers, now diligently checking off wish-lists of weary fans. (Namely, a masterful 2D remake in Metroid: Samus Returns and the still-in-development Metroid Prime 4) Alas, a certain Mario spin-off insists on marching to the beat of its own drum. What was once one of gaming’s most beloved beginner’s RPGs in Paper Mario has instead found itself distracted by experimental folly. It may have been interesting back on Wii with Super Paper Mario‘s 2D/3D fusion — a cute callback to the 8-bit days of old, yet possessing none of the depth regardless of its flashy theatrics — yet the series’ descent into adventure-style games via the wretchedly obtuse Sticker Star or the not-quite-as-obtuse-but-still-obnoxious Color Splash soured fans with impenetrable progression littered among an inconceivable reduction in scale and design.
This 13-year paper jam is no accident: Kensuke Tanabe and the rest of the crew at Intelligent Systems commit themselves to surprising their audience with new concepts — an admirable goal that’s continually proven itself at odds with a dissatisfied user base. Whether we’ve resigned ourselves to this new direction or simply abandoned ship, this zeal for novelty calls the shots now, and that’s how we end up subjected to the fourth consecutive deviation in Paper Mario: The Origami King — Switch’s sole Nintendo-published offering within a COVID-ravaged summer. Once again, it is something I should adore on a surface level: the game goes to town with its colorful paper theme, propping up origami-themed attractions in every one of its cozy, handcrafted vistas. The script is touched up with that familiar Treehouse punch: one-liners and wit paving the road for a sweet bedtime story. And as opposed to the past couple Paper Mario titles, Origami King encourages us to poke around its lovely diorama, secrets and goodies carefully bundled beneath its handicraft depths.
Spot the crease!
And yet, once again, it breaks my heart with a half-baked combat system. As someone who believes Paper Mario: Sticker Star might very well be the most offensive product released in Nintendo’s long history — a tortuous anti-player exercise that’s a fundamental betrayal of the core accessibility pulsing not merely in Paper Mario, but in the very heart of its physics-based forefathers that continue captivating the world — believe me when I say I do want to love Origami King. There’s a real heart and passion to this one which my Nintendo-captivated heart knows rises to the series’ former glory. Maybe I can’t let go of a grudge. Maybe I’m still burnt from Color Splash‘s honeymoon period, where not even a gut-busting script could mask the rust innate within the ill-conceived “card” system. But deep in my vellum-weary soul, I know exactly where the problem lies. Once again, in the series’ misguided rush for innovation, the latest Paper Mario commits itself to an identity crisis: one where its overlapping genres tie an uneven bow on dubious gameplay concepts.
Let us unfold the craftwork Nintendo has bestowed upon us: like every other opening ceremony in Paper Mario games prior, Princess Peach’s Origami Festival goes horribly wrong. When the nefarious King Olly — a pale, diminutive construction host to petty grudges and wrathful vengeance — converts Peach into a beady-eyed puppet and Bowser into a helpless crease, the Mushroom Kingdom succumbs to origami fever overnight. As Bowser’s minions shamble about as paper-crafted abominations and the Legion of Stationary — sentient, oversized office utensils — terrorize innocent Toad denizens through hole-punched disco and rubber-banded theater plays, Mario teams up with King Olly’s sister, the adorable Olivia, to stop his mad scheme, rescue the Mushroom Kingdom, and bring back the Origami Festival…even if it means joining forces with some former enemies.
Upon first glance, Intelligent Systems’ artistry seems first-rate, not the least in its seamless overworld taking a step back from Sticker Star/Color Splash‘s world map into the interconnected realms of its progenitors. Comparisons to Luigi’s Mansion 3 are well-apt. As we solve innumerable puzzles throughout its many locations, we’re peppered with missing Toads to rescue and collectibles to scavenge, balanced just enough to appeal to one-and-doners but providing completionists incentive to aim for a 100% run. All this plays into an addictive feedback loop borrowing the one good concept from Color Splash‘s overworld design– repairing enemy-ravaged “splotches” littering the countryside. In this case, patching up origami holes with stray confetti. Restoring the ravaged terrain doesn’t merely keep us engaged in further combing Origami King‘s take on Mario‘s domain, but play into the game’s generous economy: showering us with coins to spend on valuable weapons and battle bribes. (We’ll discuss that latter detail in a bit.) I also must admit the pacing doesn’t involve as much backtracking that plagued earlier games — some might prefer how the partners of old interacted with the environment, yet there’s nothing as tedious here as, say, chasing Doopliss all the way back to Creeple Steeple in The Thousand-Year Door.
Ooh, my Japanese skills are coming in handy here!
If nothing else, it’s certainly beautiful — long gone are the days where we’re wowed by towering pop-up bosses and swarming character sprites, but while Color Splash wasn’t particularly a looker in spite of the series’ HD transition, Origami King’s festival of colors (the neon nightlife of Snif City’s a real looker) and realistic effects interspersed within its handcrafted world (that water!) give rise to some imaginative locales. Even so, I walked away reflecting on those oft-maligned character mandates neutering Paper Mario‘s liberal interpretations of the Mario-verse’s denizens — while I’d be the first to cite my grievances with that, I can readily admit Origami King‘s an improvement in that regard. I think of Shogun Studios in particular — an off-the-wall tribute to Japanese culture complete with appropriately-costumed staff — and I breathe a sigh of relief in recognizing Paper Mario can finally flex its imaginative prowess. Point is: the character design might not be entirely ideal, but Intelligent Systems fully commits themselves to realizing their creative visions. (Not the least in the poetic Captain T. Ode, his forlorn disposition and snazzy outfit and all — how I wish he had a more active presence)
And while I’m not ready to join the chorus of “Soundtrack of the Year!”, Origami King follows up Color Splash‘s live big-band performances with some success, albeit with some twists. The music of Autumn Mountain present full-on Oriental goodness with production values that instantly rise beyond most anything else the soundtrack has to offer, with its earworm of a battle theme being aural bliss. Also, whoever was responsible for that sweet radio jam accompanying the Snifit hotel lobby deserves a raise.
Presented without context.
It is also wildly, wildly funny. As always, while the innate paper visual jokes translate to a Western audience just fine, Treehouse’s localized script once again guides us with punched-up dialogue and masterful linguistic wordplay. (Ever thought you’d see a Snifit literally commit to their name? Well, here ya go) You have the the sarcastic quips and dry one-liners of rescued Toads, for one, which all vary from hearty thank yous into resigned existentialism; all are hilarious, right down to one Toad’s horror upon recognizing he’s “the Luigi of Toads.” Some find Paper Mario’s burgeoning emphasis on literal paper to be a little too on-the-nose, yet the game’s occupation with the origami motif — be it general cuteness (Olivia’s fish-out-of-water antics, either marveling at hotel beds or uncontrollable giggling at theme park costumes) into tongue-in-cheek body horror (That Chain Chomp encounter late in the game? Yeah, that’s, uh, straight outta a horror flick) — are often charming enough that, barring one particular faction hounding poor Mario throughout the game, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Whereas Color Splash only had the script backing it up, Origami King dives into a genuinely sweet tale balancing self-deprecating humor and genuinely emotive pathos.
All pleasant, all delightful, and…all crinkled by Intelligent Systems’ maddening commitment to gimmicky turn-based combat I have absolutely no use for. The ring battle system works something like this: Mario’s plopped in the middle of a circle, surrounded by mismatched rows of enemies ready to gang up on our favorite plumber. Framing itself as a brain-teaser, your goal is to rearrange these rows — vertically or horizontally — so you can line them up for full bonuses. The core Paper Mario mechanics remain intact: timed button presses maximize damage and guarding, and jumping on spiked enemies is ill-advised lest you possess a pair of Iron Boots. (In the event the solution eludes you, don’t worry: you can bribe the Toads watching from the peanut gallery to re-arrange the battlefield for you; as mentioned before, the game features a healthy economy rewarding coins everywhere you go, so don’t be stingy)
In a timeline where Paper Mario remained grounded to its RPG roots, perhaps there existed potential for this showy system to iterate upon the classic gameplay; alas, we live in this one, and so as Origami King focuses on overworld traversal and adventure-game puzzles, it spares little time to supply this EXP-less ring system with further tricks. Aside from its fatigued boss fights, the battle system never evolves in any substantive or iterative manner, seemingly content to spam mind-bending line-ups rather than provide any perceivable depth. Compare this to the first two games: their diminutive digits and fragile partners might’ve seemed like child’s play, yet the innate flexibility in ability-granting Badges and level-up stats allowed for compelling customization. (Wanna go for a 10 HP run? Knock yourself out, you crazy daredevil!). Whereas those games iterated upon actual strategy in conserving Star Power and utilizing permanent partners, Origami King is instead content with its cheap novelty of “Solve the kooky line-up!” rather than expanding upon it in ways that reward our risk-taking. (And that’s not even getting into the occasional regression into Sticker Star/Color Splash nonsense; for instance, why don’t hammers work on Ninjis, again? Uh, because. At least they have the sense to implement durable equipment this time.)
Skip them, you might say, and yet even then their ill-conceived design choice pervades in other areas; namely, our temporary partners, not the least in Bobby the amnesiac Bob-omb. Origami King wants me to like Bobby; I want to like Bobby, too — the character’s genuinely endearing and stars in a touching character arc that’s long been absent from Mario‘s paper-thin adventures. And yet, I’m utterly baffled at his actual gameplay function; see, it’s one thing to render our partners as temporary companions (not ideal, but whatever, I’ll take it), yet merely observe their function in battle: automated attacks that grant no reliable strategy in battle. Actually, in my case, Bobby’s very first attack had him stumbling on his feet — a hollow dud leaving a gross first impression. That the character refused to participate in dungeon crawling or big boss battles did nothing but smother his little trek over Freytag’s Pyramid, depriving him of any active, empowering agency until the very end.
Okay, uh…where do I even begin with this?
Boss battles are another concept best left crumpled in the recycle bin. The Legion of Stationary and the Vellumental beasts we challenge dwell within the circle’s center instead, and Mario must chart a path to reach them. On paper (sorry), this might sound interesting — it’s a step-up from the impossible solutions pervading the likes of Sticker Star and Color Splash, but even then, the sheer amount of *everything* clogging up the rings — from directional arrows to chests to hearts and certainly not the least in the bosses’ individual after-effects obstructing your path (the Water Vellumental’s action-erasing water spouts were nightmares unto themselves) — presents visual overload to the point of head-scratching absurdity. Granted, the observer Toads are generous enough to plot a course should you cough up some coin, but problems still remain: the fights stall for far too long, and would’ve been that hard to have a confirm strategy button? I can’t count how many times I accidentally initiated an attack.
There are other wrinkles within Origami King‘s composition: for instance, much as I’m willing to be lenient with Nintendo’s aforementioned mandates, I’m sitting here stumped by King Olly’s Legion of Stationary — it’s not the first time the series has dabbled into “real-world objects are seen as Eldritch abominations to paper denizens”, yet these supervillains have mixed results: when a humanoid dummy made of rubber bands prances around as a showstopping diva, Origami King‘s uproariously funny; when it does the same exact joke one act later with a break-dancing, disco-obsessed hole puncher, it’s not. At the end of the day, a case of colored pencils is still a case of colored pencils, regardless of malevolent sentience acting under the name of “Jean-Pierre Colored Pencils the 12th”. (Yes, really.)
And yet, it’s the ring system that hurts the most; for years, we’ve endured concessions in turn-based combat that took a back-seat to the Paper Mario team’s flashy new concepts, and what do we have to show for it? Mr. Tanabe might express confidence in this new system, yet once again I walk away asking myself this: if Intelligent Systems is truly that averse to making full-on RPGs, exactly why should they bother with those elements at all? If they want to make an adventure game, commit themselves to that! When I think of Origami King, I think not of beautiful August Mountain and its Edo theme park or the colorful nightlife of Snif City, but trivial time-wasters I desperately wanted to skip — all coalescing together into the fundamental identity crisis Paper Mario purposely inflicts upon itself, burying what could’ve been another stellar video game as it wavers between its developers’ visions and their unnecessary concessions for a crowd still left out in the cold.
If only I felt the same…
As evidenced by my 3.5 score below, I make Paper Mario: The Origami King sound worse than it is, and I say all this knowing full well there exist series veterans who love this entry as every bit as its progenitors. As opposed to the cynical anti-player nonsense smothering the last two games, there’s a real heart beating in this installment that I can’t ignore. I adore this cast, I like exploring this world, and I enjoy the tale they left behind. But my contempt lies more within my response to 2007’s Super Paper Mario: wherein a genuinely well-meaning iteration is, once again, suffocated by a gameplay system that does it no favors. And yet, it might be too easy to say that the all-too-common answer of reverting back to beginner’s RPGs is right there — even if Intelligent Systems suddenly cured themselves of persistent head-in-sand syndrome, wouldn’t them losing their drive for beginner’s RPGs (not to mention the hawk-like presence of a strict IP team enforcing those aforementioned character mandates, assuring that we’ll never see the likes of Goombella or Parakarry ever again) render that a sobering monkey’s paw? I truly do wonder.
Wherever the answer lies, the point is this: Paper Mario deserves better. The prestige of a Final Fantasy veteran appropriating his magic onto a handicraft world deserves better. The unforgettable wit and lovable cast expanding Mario lore deserves better. And we know that Intelligent Systems can do better than committing themselves to a misguided identity crisis. With Mario & Luigi developer AlphaDream dead and Intelligent Systems charting unfavorable waters, simply settling for an uncertain future of the Mario RPG as disposable concessions is a scary, scary thought — not merely for my own enjoyment as a player, but as an unsettling perversion of one of Mario’s core philosophies: to be anything and everything it wishes itself to be, both thematically and mechanically. To dismiss Tanabe and co. as intentionally handicapping themselves would be folly, but what good is “surprising your audience” when you routinely fail to adhere to any one vision?
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Switch; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Intelligent Systems; Players: 1; Released: July 17th, 2020; ESRB: E; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Paper Mario: The Origami King