Paper Mario: The Origami King is a great game that makes some silly mistakes that echo the missteps from previous Paper Mario installments. The issue isn’t that developer Intelligent Systems ruined the fun with some of its choices (it’s still fun). Instead, it’s frustrating because the studio could have made an even better Paper Mario by paying more attention to the series’ earlier games.
Nintendo is launching Paper Mario: The Origami King for $60 on Nintendo Switch on July 17. Like others in this series, The Origami King is a role-playing adventure that has a flat, paper version of Mario exploring a whimsical world. But like more recent releases, Nintendo doesn’t fully commit to the RPG elements. This is where the game falters the most.
But before I get into the issues with the battle system, let me assuage some fears you may have. I love this game. While it has faults, I’m glad I pushed past them to get to what is a really fun adventure story. The Origami King does not live or die by its standard battles, and you shouldn’t decide to play it or not based on them, either.
Paper Mario: The Origami King’s combat system is worth avoiding
Paper Mario: The Origami King doesn’t have XP. Mario doesn’t level up. And yes, this makes most battles feel pointless. But this has a bigger problem: The whole combat system is fundamentally broken.
A basic fight in Origami King is essentially a tile-sliding puzzle. Mario stands in the middle of the battlefield, and enemies huddle around him on a series of dials. You need to figure out how to line up those enemies into either a straight line for a jump attack or a 2-by-2 grid for a hammer smash. Once you line them up, you can then choose your weapon and time the attack to get some bonus strength.
But this system minimizes the attack stage to the point that it feels vestigial.
You’re not really choosing the weapon. The puzzle phase determines whether a hammer or jump is more effective in the attack stage. And the game doesn’t even try to hide that its priority is sliding koopas and goombas around. You’re almost always supposed to defeat enemies on your first turn. What I mean by this is if you have three 4-enemy groups on the playfield, you’ll get three attacks in one round. None of this is determined by stats or equipment. It all works backward from the number of enemies you’re facing.
For me, this removed all of the stakes from the battles. Origami King’s fights have zero give and take. There’s an optimal way to play, and it’s up to you as the player to mindlessly run through those motions.
Battles are a mess
And it’s not even like the combat system is clever for what it is. It’s sloppy.
During the line-up phase, you cannot easily see what weapons you have equipped. And this is a pain because as the timer is running down, you might find that the only option you have is to line four spiky enemies up in a column. This means you can only take them all out at once with a jump, but only if you happened to have iron boots. Otherwise, you’ll take damage without dishing any out.
And for some reason, only your weak, basic boots and hammer don’t degrade. All other equipment falls apart after a few attacks. OK. Whatever — I guess this encourages you to try other weapons. But it’s not like Intelligent Systems created a lot of variation between the shiny hammer and the gold hammer. They work exactly the same way.
But this is what I mean by the game forcing you to go through the motions. The puzzles only have one solution, so it is predetermining your pathway through each of these fights. And then if you end up with a line of the spiny enemies, you don’t really have a choice in what weapon to use. You need to choose iron boots.
The combat is ill-conceived and undercooked. Paper Mario: The Origami King is a worse game for not having straightforward, turn-based RPG fights like in Super Mario RPG or Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.
Paper Mario is about variety — not combat
About 10 hours into the story, I started avoiding enemies wherever I could because you’ll incur no penalty (like under-leveling, obviously). This is a major improvement, and I think even Intelligent Systems understands this.
As you upgrade Mario by finding heart containers, you’ll get a boost to your HP as well as to your attack strength. This makes your attacks more powerful in fights and outside of them as well. For most of the game, you can jump on a low-level goomba or koopa troopa and take them out without actually entering the battle screen.
I wish that was the extent of the combat.
But even if you don’t try to run past enemies, you’ll encounter hours-long sections without any of the standard battles. Instead, the design team mixes things up with in-world puzzles, quiz shows, melee combat, and exciting boss battles.
In one point in the first half, you get into a series of encounters where you fight enemies by running around a theater stage, getting into imaginary gun duels, and dancing. All of that caps off with another unique boss fight without you ever getting into a standard battle.
This variety has multiple effects on the game, and all of them are positive. It relegates the unsatisfying standard battles into the background. It also gives The Origami King a steady pace that keeps you on your toes. You’re always doing something different, and no one section lasts too long.
Lovable characters and writing
The best indication I had about the quality of Paper Mario: The Origami King is that I didn’t want to put it down. My life is so busy that I have to fit games into compressed chunks whenever these become available. But because of its pace and variety, I always felt like I was making a ton of progress. In 30 minutes, you can easily get through two major story or gameplay beats.
But the biggest reasons I found the experience so sticky is its excellent characters and world. Unsurprisingly, the writing in The Origami King is delightful. Your permanent companion, Olivia, stands out for her charm and humor. She is an origami and the sister of the story’s villain, and because of this, she’s always a bit out of her depth in this flat-paper world. But Olivia is too perky to let the unknown frighten her, and her faux-confident attitude is infectious.
Every companion is equally fun to spend time with, though. I have an especially soft spot for Bobby (Bob-omb). He’s going to live in my heart forever.
The writing’s quality goes beyond the main cast. Background chatter is also consistent at coercing chuckles out of me.
A fun, connected world
Origami King’s world is what holds everything together. Unlike Paper Mario: Sticker Star on the 3DS, which has an overworld-style map, this game is one, contiguous space. That might not sound like a major difference, but it is. Moving Mario through these environments and unlocking the next area makes the entire journey feel more grand.
Each section also has so much going on. One of the best tricks is that each area has a colored streamer interwoven throughout. Your quest is to destroy these streamers, as they are holding Princess Peach’s castle on top of a volcano. But they also serve as this great visual indicator for where you should head next.
I also love the way these spaces keep you occupied as a player. Olly, the evil Origami King, has folded up hundreds of toads and stuffed them in spots all around the world. And you can find them by hitting a tree with a hammer or jumping on an origami bug’s head. Olly has also ripped paper chunks out of the environment, and you need to throw confetti down to fill them up.
These are simple distractions, but they also contribute to the game’s variety and strong pace.
Easy and breezy
Intelligent Systems added a lot of features to make Paper Mario: The Origami King more friendly. In battles, you can buy more time by spending coins. This gives you extra slack to solve any particularly confusing puzzles. You can also spend money to buy help from the toads in the audience. Spend a bit extra, and they will even spin the puzzle field for you and give you health.
Some of these features might make the game too easy. I never used a healing item in battle because I always had enough coins to call for toad help. But since I don’t care about the combat, I view these aids as nothing but a good thing.
The assist features extend into the exploration as well. I remember getting hopelessly stuck in Sticker Star. I wanted to throw it into the ocean. This game has a few moments where I was feeling lost, but at any time you can ask Olivia for a hint. This is crucial if you think you’re in the right area but you’re not sure if you missed something. If you try to leave and then talk to Olivia, she’ll usually tell you to go back.
Again, this feature is maybe too aggressive in acting as a protective bumper. Olivia will stop you from straying off the path if you’re supposed to go directly to the next objective. She’ll also comment if you try to walk past a save point without using it. But as with the combat, I was happy to have the help.
These guardrails don’t spoil the adventure. Instead, they just keep you from stumbling into frustration.
Paper Mario: The Origami King is close enough
I know what most people are going to take away from this review: The battles are pointless; this isn’t what fans want from Paper Mario.
The puzzle-style battles are pointless. And even worse, they just aren’t any fun. I think I find them especially maddening because of my ADHD. It’s difficult to keep the cause and effect of the moving dials in my head beyond two turns — and it doesn’t help that I have no stakes in getting through the fight. But the puzzle phase doesn’t have a good enough state where you almost figure it out. You either solve it or you don’t, and that makes the entire exercise needlessly stressful.
If Intelligent Systems wanted to combine puzzle mechanics with combat, it should’ve looked to successful examples like Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventures. That 2009 DS classic from Electronic Arts combines a platformer with a match-3 game that you play simultaneously. It has a ton of back and forth where every decision counts. It has stakes.
And The Origami King’s failure in this area hurts more because the game is still so good. If this had the same combat as The Thousand Year Door, it would stand among the best games available on the Nintendo Switch.
But what I actually want you to take away is that this game works despite itself. You shouldn’t miss out on the characters, writing, and world because a small fraction of the experience doesn’t work.
By the end, I had largely forgotten about standard combat. I think this is the rare game that improves as you continue playing. And that culminates in a thrilling finale that comes as a huge payoff for the story.
So don’t sit this one out. Pick it up, play through it, complain about it with me, but then stick around for all of its joys.
Paper Mario: The Origami King launches July 17 for Nintendo Switch. Nintendo provided a download code to GamesBeat for the purpose of this review.
Updated at 11:05 a.m. Pacific time on July 17 to remove reference to switching items during battles. The game now has a gear option that enables this option.