In the novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, three kids spend a productive afternoon hopping to different dimensions that exist outside of Earth's reality. At one point in their journey they take a wrong turn at some cosmic Albuquerque and wind up in a "two-dimensional world." Flattened, the kids struggle to breathe, and are nearly killed. The otherworldly star-women guiding the children on their adventure whisk them back into 4D space, but they lament how the kids are unable to enjoy this 2D universe, which is apparently quite "charming."
If the universe is indeed filled with multiverses we can't yet sense, if every creative work spawns actual new worlds as some fanciful deep-thinkers believe, and if time is in fact unstuck and doesn't flow on a linear path, perhaps A Wrinkle in Time's young protagonists made a quick visit to Nintendo's Paper Mario universe (and nearly died there).
I, for one, enjoy hanging out in the flat, papery iteration of the Mushroom Kingdom. My enjoyment holds true with Paper Mario: The Origami King for the Nintendo Switch. It's fun, funny, and engaging. It's hard to believe such a cute game can stir up so much vitriol.
Longtime Paper Mario fans are unlikely to forget the series began with traditional RPGs, like the much adored Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Newer Paper Mario games—including The Origami King—are less about gathering experience and companions and more about doing light platforming and exploring while solving environment puzzles. The genre shift has understandably made some fans upset, especially since it's been coupled with more visual uniformity. Gone are the wacky fashions and accessories of Toads and other Mario universe denizens from Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, replaced by more expected character appearances, lacking in individuality. Some of the criticisms lobbed at newer Paper Mario games—Sticker Star, Color Splash, et al—are valid. Luckily, Origami King manages to be a cut above its recent predecessors.
The story for The Origami King is a bit on the light side, but there's enough to keep Mario motivated. Mario and Luigi are invited to an origami festival by their dear friend Princess Peach. When the Brothers arrive, the Mushroom Kingdom is eerily silent. Peach appears before Mario as a creepy origami figure, and it quickly becomes obvious she's in thrall to King Olly, the titular Origami King who has designs on ruling the world.
Mario is bounced from Peach's castle, which is subsequently wrapped up in impenetrable paper streamers. Mario travels to the source of each streamer, which takes him around the world. He's accompanied by King Olly's sister, the irrepressible but naïve Olivia. When needed, Olivia offers directions, hints, and cute quips.
Previous Paper Mario adventures are chapter-based, but The Origami King is designed to be more open. Players still need to tackle the streamers in a set order, but there are certain areas that plop Mario on a big map, give him a vehicle of some kind, and encourage him to cruise around town. These moments are when The Origami King is strongest; I enjoy puttering around these open areas, finding cool landmarks, and unearthing buried treasure. The next story-based goal is always up front and center, but there's no immediate pressure, so no rush whenever Mario gets side-tracked.
Vehicles can also run over enemies and send them flying, thus sparing Mario the danger of an enemy encounter. Whenever an enemy does manage to tap Mario on the shoulder, he's pulled into a turn-based battle that immediately looks different from anything he's experienced in any of his previous RPGs. When the fight begins, Mario finds himself in the center of a circular field, surrounded by enemies. Said circle is comprised of movable rings; if the player lines the scattered enemies into a row or a group of four, they're rewarded with a boost to Mario's power. Plus, foes that are neatly lined up are much easier to discard with Mario's traditional Boots and Hammer weapons.
I particularly enjoyed the boss fights with animalistic origami called "Vellumentals." (Which, by the way, is a concerning term.) These fights aren't anything like encounters with King Olly's random mooks: they force Mario to rethink his entire fighting strategy. Mario stands on the outside of the circular arena, while the boss lords over the field from the middle. Players must spin and shuffle rings until the arrow panels line up in a way that lets Mario reach the boss and bonk it on the head. It's never as easy as it sounds, though. The bosses can damage, trap, or destroy panels, rendering them useless. These fights take forethought and puzzle-solving skills rather than strong weapons and brute force. They're a nice switch-up from the regular encounters.
It's hard to describe my feelings for The Origami King's battle system in detail. All I can manage is, "I just think it's neat." I expected to grow tired of lining up enemies and movement panels by the time I reached the endgame, but it didn't happen. Solving simple puzzles makes my brain happy; I am truly descended from apes that act like geniuses when they figure out stones can crack open nuts. Your own tolerance for The Origami King's battlefield puzzles may vary.
There are some additions to The Origami King that ease the tedium sometimes coupled with the series's turn-based battles. For starters, the "consumable weapons" from past Paper Mario games, e.g. the stickers from Sticker Star and the cards from Color Splash, are gone. Mario can gather up stronger "Flashy" and "Shiny" versions of his Hammer and Boots, and these break after a several rounds of abuse, but Mario's basic Hammer and jump attack never disappear or deplete. Plus, if Mario smacks/jumps on a weaker foe while it's in a non-battlefield environment, it dies and he's rewarded with a bit of confetti (vital for filling in "holes" that King Olly's minions have left around the scenery).
Toads also lend a helpful hand in speeding up battles when you fling coins at them like a haughty king favoring peasants. I love this mechanic. It's a blast. Moreover, it's fun to find the hundreds(!) of lost Toads scattered around each environment Mario visits. Some of them are revealed simply by bonking walls and rocks, but others are cleverly folded to blend in with the environment as birds, fish, and flowers. Luckily, an optional "Toad Radar" is a big help in this mushroom roundup. More Toads means more helpers in your audience, which means more hurt on the bad guys—provided Mario isn't stingy with his coins.
But with Paper Mario discourse, even the word "coins" can heat up a room. In most of the Paper Mario games outside the first title and The Thousand Year Door, Mario receives no experience for his battles. Instead, he's showered with coins and little else. "Fighting exclusively for coins takes the meaning out of battles," Paper Mario's critics argue.
How does The Origami King fare? The aforementioned critics might not like the answer. In The Origami King, Mario's victories are rewarded with coins and confetti. There's no experience to be found, though Mario sometimes gets a little bit stronger when he picks up a heart that increases his Max HP. Do the fights in The Origami King feel as "useless" as its predecessors' skirmishes?
It comes down to one ask: Are you a collector? There are approximately ten billion tchotchkes to find and collect in The Origami King, each of which is then safely harbored in the Toadtown museum. Some of these collectables can be bought off NPCs, and few of them are cheap. There were a few moments where I decimated my coin collection to get my hands on some piece of delightful tourist trash. At the end of the day, I was often in need of coins in The Origami King, and I fought battles to get them. When I wasn't in the mood for a scuffle, I preemptively squashed the bad guys before they forced me into a fight, or I avoided them entirely. The fights in The Origami King aren't as useful as the experience-farming battles that are part of The Thousand Year Door, but neither do they feel worthless.
The added purpose to The Origami King's fights kept me engaged for the whole journey, as did the larger maps, and the creative environments that are beautiful in their own weird, papery way. The Origami King isn't The Thousand Year Door, but neither is it anything less than lovingly crafted, so to speak. I love the Sandpaper Desert, which is bathed in an eternal gloom thanks to a perpetual eclipse. There's a town full of Shyguys nearby, a neon-drenched oasis in a dangerous wasteland. (There's even parking for your boot-car!) Whenever Mario goes and whatever he does, there are lovely examples of the Paper Mario team's imagination at work.
Admittedly, one frequent criticism that dogs the new Paper Mario games is still present in The Origami King: Mario's primary targets are generic Goombas, Koopas, and Hammer Bros. instead of the highly varied menagerie of enemies that he clobbers in the older, RPG-based Paper Mario games. Most of these baddies are presented as origami dolls called "Folded Soldiers," which is cool, but otherwise there isn't much variety amongst them.
The Origami King is what it is. It's like I said in my preview: Anyone who'd sooner give themselves a paper cut and then dunk the wound in lemon juice than play a new Paper Mario game probably won't find a valuable experience with The Origami King. However, anyone who's open-minded about Paper Mario's action-adventure turn will find a very pleasant distraction with Paper Mario: The Origami King. Give in to its charms. Fold before them.
Paper Mario: The Origami King is an action-adventure game, not an RPG, which is sure to disappoint Paper Mario fans waiting for The Thousand Year Door's second coming. If you refuse to touch a Paper Mario game that's not an RPG, The Origami King will leave you dry and irritated, like the hands of a paper-folding master. But if you're OK with Paper Mario's turn to action, you'll find an enjoyable game packed with humor, secrets, and unique boss battles. The Paper Mario team is clearly learning how to make these distinct Mario games more appealing.