Saying the words "Paper Mario" has the same effect as uttering the "Secret Word" in the '80s show Pee Wee's Playhouse: everyone in the vicinity starts screaming uncontrollably as soon as they hear it. Despite being a playful, low-profile spin-off of the Super Mario games, Paper Mario has a passionate fanbase. They have opinions on the direction Paper Mario has taken since 2004's Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, and they're not afraid to vent those opinions.
As fans see it, The Thousand Year Door is an excellent RPG (true), but many of the elements that made the game special were stripped in subsequent Paper Mario releases. 2012's Paper Mario: Sticker Star did away with its predecessor's jolly storytelling and traded the classic turn-based RPG battle system for a simpler system that utilizes expendable stickers. 2016's Paper Mario: Color Splash has more humor and personality than Sticker Star, but the former's hated battle system—which is based on expendable cards instead of stickers—remains.
Now all eyes are on Paper Mario: The Origami King review for the Switch, which I've been playing over the past couple weeks. Some fans are desperately hoping for a hard return to The Thousand Year Door's pure RPG mechanics. Others have dismissed it as "another Sticker Star," or "Another Color Splash, which rewards you with nothing but coins for beating battles."
The Origami King, my paper-loving friends, is somewhere in the middle. It's not a return to The Thousand Year Door; the classic RPG mechanics haven't been restored. That's not a valid reason to crumple it up and chuck it, though. Based on my impressions of the Paper Mario: The Origami King review copy, the new system is original, satisfying, and does away with most "disposable" elements. As with Color Splash, your only reward for triumphing in a fight is a pocketful of coins—but there are endless helpful tchotchkes to spend your gold on.
Paper Mario: The Origami King isn't The Thousand Year Door 2, but it doesn't want to be. It's its own deeply charming adventure, and it should be enjoyed for what it is.
All that said, fans of The Thousand Year door will be pleased to hear there's a bit more emphasis on The Origami King's story than previous Paper Mario games—at least enough to keep me interested and grinning as I travel. (And even enough to soften my heart at times.) When Mario visits the Mushroom Kingdom hoping to enjoy an Origami Festival, a strange origami figure calling himself King Olly invades and turns many of the kingdom's denizens into mindless "Folded Soldiers." Princess Peach is one of his first victims—and she's admittedly spooky as a Folded Soldier.
Mario needs to save the Mushroom Kingdom, its citizens, and Princess Peach, but he can only do so by freeing Peach's castle from the barrier of streamers tangled around the structure. Mario travels to the far-flung corners of Peach's realm to get the task done. On his way, he gets into fights. Lots of fights.
The new battle system has been the highlight of The Origami King's trailers; it seems Nintendo wants to spotlight how different it is compared to previous Paper Mario games. When you enter a fight, enemies are usually scattered helter-skelter across a circular battlefield. Mario stands in the middle and prepares to fight. The circle is divided into four movable parts. If you turn and slide the field so that enemies wind up in a straight row or in a neat group of four, it makes attacking with Mario's chain-stomp or hammer much easier.
You're also awarded an attack bonus, which means you should be able to finish off your foes with Mario's vanilla boots or hammer. You can buy stronger boots or hammers that are a big help when you just can't get the puzzle to click, but these break after repeated use. Yes, expendables are on Paper Mario's battlefield once again, but it's not nearly as aggravating as Sticker Stars's stickers, or Color Splash's cards. You get quite a bit of use out of a fancy hammer or a strong pair of boots before they break, and you can buy more in one of The Origami King's towns.
A magnanimous Toad might even throw you a weapon upgrade as you fight, which exemplifies the thing I like most about The Origami King's battle system: the ability to bribe Toads to do your heavy lifting. When a fight starts, you can throw coins onto the battlefield. Eager Toads collect the coins and perform a kind action according to how much you gifted them. They might re-arrange the enemies for you so that solving the ring-puzzle becomes easier. They might throw objects that are good for a few hits on a foe. They might restore some of Mario's health, and as already discussed, they might throw you a weapon upgrade.
What makes Toad-bribing especially fun is how more and more Toads watch your fights as you progress further into the game. King Olly's invasion caused Toads to scatter everywhere (and I mean everywhere) and rescuing the fun guys gradually restores life to the depleted Kingdom. Some rescued Toads fill the abandoned towns, some sell you goods, and some become part of your audience—and your patrons if you show them the gold.
You earn a lot of gold in The Origami King, but you also spend a lot. The badges from The Thousand Year Door don't make a return, but there are purchasable accessories that boost your defense, give you more time to "solve" a battlefield puzzle before you fight, and more. Weapon and boot items gobble up a lot of your dosh as well. But my absolute favorite activity is to siphon hundreds of coins from Mario's pocket, fling them onto the battlefield, and watch the Toads spring for them like dogs after bones. All games should have such an entertaining "Easy Mode."
I've not finished The Origami King, so I can't say I won't get tired of how solving each battle puzzle makes me feel like a clever girl. I also can't say I won't get tired of watching Toads pelt my enemies after I give them a good payday, but I doubt that's going to be a problem. I can say there's a lot of love and personality in The Origami King, and I can say it's built on a unique battle system.
Paper Mario series producer Kensuke Tanabe recently said he enjoys challenging himself by making something new with every Paper Mario game. That remark ought to hammer home that Tanabe might not have intentions to ever return to The Thousand Year Door's traditional RPG mechanics. Yes, it's a bit disappointing; I'd love to see a follow-up to The Thousand Year Door as much as anyone who owned a GameCube. Tanabe's resolve to be original doesn't erase the effort he and his team clearly put into making The Origami King a strong game, however. I miss all the wonderful locales and characters The Thousand Year Door treated us to, but The Origami King has a new set of friends, foes, and strange places. Loosen up and try to enjoy them.
If you've taken a vow not to play a new Paper Mario game until you get that follow-up to The Thousand Year Door, then do what your heart tells you. But if you turn your back on The Origami King, you're missing out on a Paper Mario game that's as sharp and crisp as a newly folded paper crane.
Or so it seems thus far. Look for our full review of Paper Mario: The Origami King on July 15.