If you were to look up a list of acclaimed RPGs, you would undoubtedly hear mention of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Then you’d see a thread of people complaining about how Paper Mario has never been as good since, despite Super Paper Mario having nearly the same score on Metacritic, yadda yadda yadda. Well, after the lukewarm reception of Color Splash, fans have become hopeful for a return to greatnesss with Paper Mario: The Origami King. Is it great? Well, let’s find out…
I did not finish the game, so I cannot speak to every bit of dialogue. But the game is rated E for good reason. There is violence when Mario takes a hammer or a boot to enemies, but all of it is completely cartoony and goreless. The dialogue is full of jokes, many of which would fly over a young child’s head simply due to wordplay or references, so it is likely more enjoyable for someone who is at least a teenager.
Players do visit temples of spirits to progress in the game. In the first one, several jokes are made about how the temple had been heavily monetized. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, but I could see Christians taking offense, despite our own similar history in Scripture (Jesus and the moneychangers).
The Good Stuff
The writing is excellent and consistently funny.
The graphics aren’t bad.
Time to Rant about RPG Systems
I usually don’t fault developers when they try new things, unless those things are, um, bad. Intelligent Systems took huge risks on Fire Emblem Three Houses and it paid off gloriously. Now they’ve taken two big risks with The Origami King and neither worked out very well, although one is more grievous than the other.
The first is that combat has an entirely new ring system, where Mario can move enemies around on a circular battlefield by rotating rings or sliding lines through the center. (Why can he do this? What’s it have to do with paper? I don’t know.) I enjoy this system since it resembles the dihedral group, and I do this stuff all day at my job (mathematics professor). However, I don’t much appreciate being timed while trying to do 400-college-level mathematics. You can spend coins to get more time, and since coins are overabundant, you’re basically not timed at all, which begs the question: why are you timed, then? Furthermore, if you screw up, you’re quite heavily punished and can be in real danger in a normal encounter. On the other hand, if you finish the puzzle correctly, you likely won’t be hit at all. Of course, the best way to play it safe is just to run away from enemies — run away from them on the map, since you literally can’t escape combat. You’ll still make progress just fine, because overworld combat is literally pointless.
Look, RPG developers have become self-aware. They know a lot of players consider the old school Attack/Magic/Item/Run menu-based combat boring, and they’ve made great strides to improve it. But the reason old school games like Dragon Quest XI and Octopath Traveler can still be successful is because combat is rewarding. No, not a rewarding experience — literally rewarding. You get stuff. Money! And more importantly, experience points!
I’m willing to endure overworld encounters in RPGs because they give me a sense of progression. I want that juicy new battle skill on the skill tree. I want to dual wield. I want to cast spells twice in a row. I want more HP or MP. This is such a key element to making the experience work that adventure games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Jedi: Fallen Order have straight up stolen this system, to great effect.
But instead, Origami King completely eliminates experience points, which also eliminates any purpose to overworld combat. Sure, you get money, but it seems that its primary purpose is combat. How’s that for circular logic, since we’re in math class? The only other big use for money is going allll the way back to a shop to buy new weapons because your weapons broke. Intelligent Systems looked at their own Fire Emblem franchise and decided that was the important thing to copy. Sure, makes sense.
I had 20,000 coins and little to do with them after 7 hours of gameplay, making overworld combat a complete waste of time. You could argue that practicing the puzzles prepares you for boss fights, except you can’t argue that, because boss combat completely turns the ring system on its head. (And to be fair, the boss battles are really cool — the one redemptive aspect of combat.) There is literally no benefit to engaging with overworld enemies instead of running away, making it all the more sour when you accidentally end up in combat and can’t escape.
Other Dumb Stuff
So if half of the game (combat) is pretty bad, how about the other half? Running around the map and doing, you know, RPG type things? For as much as Intelligent Systems tried to innovate with combat and experience points, here they lazily did what everyone else is doing, again with poor results. There are several things the game encourages you to “100%”, which just rubs in the fact that the Nintendo Switch still doesn’t have a console-wide achievement system.
The first is that players are tasked with finding Toads that have been folded up into strange objects, and whacking them with a hammer so that they turn back to normal. This one is a pretty enjoyable task, because they always have something funny to say after being rescued. There are also some hidden “?” blocks (treasure chests) to find, which can be enjoyable, depending on the contents. Everything else is… busywork.
The game’s “?” blocks often include useful items or accessories or new weapons, but it is equally likely that they hold “collectibles”, and a little bit of me dies every time I receive one of these instead of something actually useful. Why not just make an achievement for finding every “?” block, instead of this constant stream of disappointment?
The other thing you are rewarded for doing is… patching holes in the ground and on the walls, with confetti. Like, you push ZR and throw some confetti on the ground and the holes go away and you get coins! Sometimes it’s a big hole and you push ZR three times! Sometimes you run out of confetti and have to get more by hitting a tree! Sometimes it’s a huge hole and you inch closer to fill it and fall in and take damage! Look, I do it out of some twisted sense of OCD, but patching holes is not my idea of fun.
Really, that’s the crux of it: any time I was playing this game and not reading text, I felt obligated, like I was doing something because I was told to do it, not because it was fun. There’s plenty more Dumb Stuff, like the fact that the paper-ness of Paper Mario is just window dressing and irrelevant to gameplay, or the fact that a single save file means you can’t revisit dialogue options or escape game-breaking bugs. But the main issue is just that I’m not playing this game, I’m enduring it for the dialogue.
I do need to reiterate here that the writing in The Origami King is fantastic. It’s one of the funniest games I’ve played in a long time. And I do know some role-playing gamers that are willing to endure mediocre gameplay for excellent writing. I’m often one of those people myself, but not here. With no sense of progression or purpose or joy to the gameplay, I would rather buy a preowned copy of The Thousand-Year Door and play that over again than finish this one out.
The Bottom Line
Humor was only one component that made past Paper Mario games so well-loved; Origami King eschews all the other important ingredients.