This is Picklemoose's Blog. A small section of Pixelated Cardboard dedicated to topics outside of digital board game ports. Posts here will be less formal & cover a range of topics.
I, by all indicators, should not be someone who has strong opinions on a Paper Mario game in 2020. Yet, here we are. If you stay with me through this whole post, you will be here a while.
Warning, this will be a spoiler-heavy review. I’m not necessarily interested in talking plot-points, but will heavily discuss how the game plays deep into the adventure.
Up until a few weeks ago I thought the only Paper Mario game I had played was Paper Mario on N64. Looking into the details, however, I realized the game I actually played was Super Mario RPG for the SNES. That leaves Origami King as my first entry into the series. Until this game was announced, I had no idea there was such a thing as Color Splash. I knew Thousand Year Door had some diehard supporters, but that, apparently, was the extent of my Paper Mario knowledge.
Despite all of this, Origami King has elicited some abnormally strong feelings from me. The point of this post is my attempt to find out why.
First, the story. I’m not too interested in spelling out the intricate plot details or spoiling the ending or other key events, but I want to cover some basics which help frame my take on the game.
An evil origami piece, King Olly, has captured Princess Peach and covered the land in five colorful streamers. With the help of King Olly’s sister, Olivia, you must unravel all five of the streamers and then stop King Olly in order to rescue Peach. This is a fairly bland starting point, but the game, surprisingly, does a good job working off of that premise.
Olivia, your partner throughout the game, acts as Mario’s voice and brings along some very strong origami powers which can be triggered on specially marked spots throughout the game. You will pick up other companions along the way, but don’t think of them as companions in the RPG sense. True, they follow you around and show up in battle, but you have no control over them. Some, such as the wizard Kamek, are actually quite helpful in attacking opponents on almost every turn. Others, such as the early game Bobby, fail more often than not when trying to aid in battle.
The one thing most of the characters bring to the table is charm, with some even bringing some surprisingly touching story moments into the fold. Their actual utility as a companion and the quality of their story are inversely related throughout the game, outside of Olivia, so enjoy the help or the quality character moments, but not both as you work through the small handful of companions.
As you might expect, the streamers are spread across various lands so each acts as their own world of sorts. You’ve got the desert world, sea, mountain, amusement park, and so on. The locations are one of the strongest aspects of Origami King. They are, typically, quite big and bursting with personality. Shroom City is a desert oasis town which adds bright lights and a fancy hotel in an otherwise sparse world which you travel through primarily via boot car, naturally. A detour to Peach’s yacht provides a brief highlight, as do a handful of other well designed locales. The hub of the whole game, Toad Town, is delightfully packed with stores and buildings to explore.
The basic sequence of events for the majority of the game is 1) find out how to get the next streamer location, 2) defeat the power Vellumental associated with the area, 3) use the Vellumental to help defeat a paper-related streamer boss.
The Vellumentals are origami pieces in the flavor of earth, fire, ice, etc… While the streamer bosses are things like hole punches, tape dispenser, rubber band man, and so on. These both feature the same battle system which breaks from that of the typical fights in the game, more on that later. When you defeat a Vellumental, Olivia learns how to fold into their shape, unlocking their powers when you find the appropriate symbol to use them. You could probably guess, but the route to the end of the streamer is almost always blocked initially with the Vellumental power of that area being required to get through.
Gain all of the cool element powers, unleash all of the streamers and head to the final boss for that streamer. Fairly standard tropes here, the basic gist of which you could probably have guessed after watching the 30 second trailer. Again, the real treat here is in the character moments you get out of Olivia and one of the companions in particular. It’s not that Origami King has a particularly deep or interesting story, but that it delivers moments where you actually care about these 2D beings is quite a feat in my book. This is heightened near the very end of the game as some very unique relationships form, as temporary as they may be.
The first thing people discuss with Origami King is the combat. There is base combat which has a few wrinkles thrown in, and also boss combat which flips things on their head a bit. I will discuss both in detail because it is such a focus of the game.
Basic combat is initiated when you are ambushed or chased by an origami enemy in the overworld. You are immediately transported to a combat arena, complete with bleachers for your adoring Toad fans to watch the festivities. The combat area consists of a central circle where Mario and any current companions stand and a set of gridded areas surrounding that circle. Enemies appear in sets of four, eight is the most common but you will see the occasional 12 show up. Once combat begins there are two phases: ring puzzle solving and fighting.
The ring puzzle solving revolves around setting up the enemies into one of two perfect positions: a straight line or in a 2x2 square starting in the innermost ring around Mario’s circle. You have a set amount of time and actions to rotate and shift the grid in order to align the shuffled enemies into these two formations. It is common that with an eight-enemy battle, four will end up in a line while the other four are in a square.
Pass or fail, after puzzle solving comes combat. This is performed with boots, hammers, or an item. Boots allow you to jump on opponent’s heads in a straight line while a hammer allows you to strike four spaces in a 2x2 area. You carry basic boots and hammers at all times that cannot break, you can also equip upgraded versions which deal more damage and allow you to jump on spiked enemies, but these break after a number of uses. You can use various attack items you collect in the game, or you can ignore them as I mostly did.
If you aligned the enemies perfectly, your attacks will carry a 1.5 damage bonus. You can increase the damage further with a properly timed hit of the A button, either once for the hammer or per each enemy you jump on with the boots.
If you have successfully aligned the opponents, gaining the 1.5 multiplier bonus, timed the A buttons on your attacks properly and used the correct attack device, you will almost certainly have vanquished all enemies before they get a chance to attack. Should you have failed at one or more of those steps, they will attack you in some highly choreographed manner. You get the chance to block, again using a well-timed A button, to reduce, but not eliminate, the damage you take. After being attacked, you continue with this cycle until you have defeated all enemies, which sometimes means additional waves of opponents.
That, in a fifty pound nutshell, is basic combat in Origami King. Solve a puzzle, time your A buttons, maybe have to block some enemies, and do it again until the enemies are gone. It is a clever concept that does not have enough staying power to carry the game, but more on that later.
Boss battles flip the script by placing Mario and Olivia on the outside of the ring with the boss in the middle. Your goal is to align a series of arrows, attacks, and power-ups so that you can navigate Mario into a good position and execute an attack.
Boss fights are a fun break from the traditional combat, but the arrow-programming is a bit dull. As a boss fight, they should be more fun. The bosses themselves are pretty good, each having a unique twist and a weak point or two you need to discover and exploit. This doesn’t align well with the “navigate Mario to the right spot” combat which isn’t much fun at all. The bosses will freeze/tape/burn/whatever some of the arrows before you attack, adding some challenge, but you are still trying to string together a few arrows to get Mario to the spot he needs to be in. As a basic concept, that’s not all that exciting to me.
The bosses themselves, however, are typically pretty well designed. One has an attack that will one-hit you every time, you have to jump to avoid the attack. Others have clever weak points or a decent series of weakness exploitation/attack combos. The overarching goal and story of each fight is similar, but the details set them apart.
That is how the combat works in Origami King. The game gets you setup for this by throwing enemies at you early and letting you get a feel for the various ring combinations and how to go about solving them. Once you are nice and cozy with the whole process, the game does it’s best to allow you to avoid them at quite a high rate.
A simple, but initially fun puzzle-based combat system is the groundwork for Origami King in terms of actual gameplay. It dominates the early game and, if you are like me, you might find yourself enjoying the whole silly system quite a bit. Over time, however, it started to fade in my eyes. It became as repetitive as you would hope it wouldn’t and the total lack of real incentive to actually fight common enemies (oh yeah, there is no leveling system in this game) really hurts the drive to grind away at these fights.
Right one cue, as if the developers were real people and understood the need to keep some things fresh in certain situations, the game starts to shift away from its combat focus.
This is heavily a function of making combat easier to avoid, or easier in general, along with introducing a slew of other gameplay options. I’ll dive into the latter a bit later, but for now, about the combat.
At some point, relatively early on, you are granted the ability to smash oncoming attackers in the overworld with your hammer. Doing so against your run of the mill enemy allows you to instantly crush them and skip the battle. This is a fantastic system to avoid combat except when you want to skip a fight but end up missing your hammer smash and are forced into a fight you didn’t want which feels approximately thirty-eight times worse than not having the potential to skip them at all.
The game also provides toads at your service to aid in your fights. Before doing any combat ring puzzle-solving, you may choose to rally the crowd by way of spending coins. A full-fledged rally will cost 999 coins (which is a drop in the bucket by the late game, unless you are 100% hunting and forced to buy some very expensive collectibles). For this price, you typically get some subset of the following: healing, an item, automatic alignment of enemies, and a few HP taken off of the enemies. What bang for your buck! The alignment is guaranteed, as best as I can tell, so this is a surefire way to skip the ring puzzles.
That is absolutely everything I wanted to explain about how the combat systems work. I’m quite torn on how, as a sum of all of the moving parts, I feel about combat in Origami King. I think the circular puzzle is pretty interesting and, gasp, actually fun. I grew tired of it fairly quickly, however, but I really want to put most of the blame there on the fact that the game gives you very little reason to actually fight. You are given some coin and confetti bonus for completing fights, but these are both resources which you can find elsewhere and/or will have sufficient supply of through the fights you can’t avoid so you don’t need to take on extra battles.
The grind of an RPG is a love/hate case for most, but the potential for loving it is there because you are leveling up so you can better confront the mighty boss at the end of the tunnel. Origami King is sorely missing that payoff which absolutely devastates the fun, novel combat system. It would be as if the president of football decided that all scores, be it field goals or touchdowns, were now worth 6 points. Sure, going for a touchdown is more fun, but why would you bother when you could take the easier route to the same result? That’s probably an awful analogy, but I think it gets the point across. The game presents a fun idea, beats you over the head with it for a while, then provides ways to escape it because there’s not really any benefit of doing the thing. Bold strategy, Cotton.
Lots To Collect
Confetti is a part of the game, because it’s PAPER Mario, get it? There are holes in the overworld throughout and you get to hit the right trigger to toss some confetti to fill them in. This is a great source of coins, by the way, should you be looking for another reason to skip combat. Some of these are necessary, many of them are there for completionists as filling holes is a part of the goal and they will occasionally act to open up the path to other hidden items. Your confetti is of limited capacity based on your handy confetti pouch, you gain more from fighting (or skipping fights), banging your hammer on items in the overworld or finding bags in power blocks. As a completionist addition to the game, the confetti system is fun. As an additional way to undermine the importance of the biggest gameplay mechanic, confetti is an interesting design choice.
For more completionist fun, the game wants you to rescue toads, hit ?-blocks, and collect treasures. Each area in the game has some amount of these and you can track, by way of percentage, how many of them you have discovered. As far as completionist add-ons go, the set here is pretty good in my opinion. Finding toads, which can be pretty much anywhere, is a fun exercise and the little treasures are mini statues of things from the game, they double as cool momentos.
To recap: combat is the focus of the game but it’s not necessary and the game provides numerous ways to make you do less combat. The other, more interesting, thing Origami King does is start to roll out a variety of clever gameplay as you get further into the game.
Initially, the “platforming” aspect of the game is limited to jumping on boxes to get to a poorly hidden spot to collect the trophy or save the toad to scratch the completionist itch. As the game progresses, however, more and more interesting interactions start to take place in the overworld and this includes some legitimate platforming sequences. Running away from enemies, dodging fire, solving ice puzzles, and so much more! The game smartly shifts away from one fight after another by adding in these over world elements and it goes a long way towards saving the game in my eyes.
This isn’t Mario Odyssey or Super Mario 3, but there are some small sections of legitimately fun, and occasionally challenging, jumps you have to pull off. It was an aspect that snuck up on me over the course of my playthrough. There was one moving object against the wall section which reminded me of Fall Guys (or, you know, every 3D Mario game ever made). This never becomes the primary focus of the game, but it is a welcome detour once the game decides that you are probably bored with combat but there are still three more streamers and a final boss to get through.
The actual primary focus of the game, combat or otherwise, is on puzzle solving. It is really the one constant thread that runs through the whole game. The combat puzzles are obvious and there from the start, but so many of the small scale sections require some puzzle to be solved. Move some blocks in a certain order, decipher clues to find hidden artifacts, play trivia, and many, many more variations of this show up over the course of Origami King.
Once the game decides to mostly abandon combat as the overwhelming focal point, things improve drastically. I had a point, right about two streamers in, where I put the game down for a few weeks and wasn’t sure if I would return. Very quickly after I jumped back in, the game really started to open up and felt less like a series of pointless combat encounters and more of a well-rounded mix of styles and gameplay. That’s not to say the initial stages are completely lacking puzzle solving, because it is there, but the curve of combat vs puzzles definitely starts to look different maybe 40% of the way through the game.
Clever, But Fun?
I like the combat but also think the best parts of the game come once they fully buy into knocking combat down a few pegs in importance, so what’s my final verdict at the end of this confusing review?
Before we get there, I will say I enjoyed my numerous hours with Origami King. I started out slowly and spent my time trying to collect everything I could find on my own. It was a pleasant experience. I ended up with somewhere between 50-100% on pretty much every collectible in the game, except ?-blocks, which I am apparently awful at finding. I am typically one to tear through all but my most beloved games to reach the end, but that wasn’t the case with the majority of Origami King.
One thought I kept returning to in the latter third or half of the game was that this game throws some really clever ideas at you. The immediate follow-up to that thought, however, was often that clever doesn’t always equal fun. The idea of a trivia game in Mario is a fun one, but if I get the third question wrong, making me start over again with a different set of randomly selected questions is not a great time. The separate Jeopardy-board style game show that requires you to quickly memorize some order and then use the ring puzzle to spell out that order is certainly a clever use of the ring system, but that doesn’t make it any fun at all.
My final thesis on this game is that I don’t think it quite knows what it wanted to be. It certainly doesn’t want to be an RPG, but it throws so many RPG-like elements at you that don’t stick nearly as well as they would have if the game features the basics like a leveling system. It wants the ring puzzles to be a focal point, and they are mildly amusing diversion, but they don’t hold up because there are too many of them and most of the fights are pointless. When the end game has you spinning and shifting the same rings, it’s simply not a fun puzzle to solve anymore. Speaking of the end game, some of the final moments in Origami King echo the confusion about the game’s identity. They throw the kitchen sink at you, mixing platforming, traditional combat, ring puzzles, well-timed A buttons, and more into the last 30 minutes of the game. What is likely intended to be a greatest hits moment comes off as a perfect snapshot of a scattered game that doesn’t have a strong gameplay identity.
Where Origami King does shine, however, is the world design, characters, and story. All of these greatly exceed expectations. The world design isn’t in the sense of truly remarkable platforming like Odyssey, but rather in creating a lively set of locales which pop off of the Switch screen with eye-catching visuals and plenty of characters to interact with. The characters are more interesting and carry more weight with them than they have any right to, kudos for getting me to care about these characters in a way that no other Mario game I’ve played has.
I enjoyed my time with Origami King, but I can’t help feeling like it was a missed opportunity. Being a missed opportunity is probably the reason I felt compelled to put down so many words on a video game. It is easy to say “this game is good/awful,” but a game with such a mix of the two? That kind of missed opportunity demands words on words. Given the time I spent with the game, however, Origami King definitely lands in the upper echelon of missed opportunities.