Gamers have come to expect a lot of things out of the Mario franchise, but “get emotional over a bob-omb” is not on the list. It’s things like that separating Paper Mario: The Origami King from its platforming cousins in a very strange and ultimately satisfying way.
Paper Mario is a franchise that’s always tried to achieve something different from traditional Mario games. The series of role playing games have switched up combat over the years and tried something slightly tweaked in each addition, and the newest game, The Origami King, is no exception. Unlike other Paper Mario titles the combat system in The Origami King is a wheel with sliding panels you maneuver in order to attack. You spin and slide tiles into place that let Mario pick up items and hearts and coins and also position himself to attack bad guys in boss fights.
When the baddies aren’t office supplies, you scramble origami bros and boos to line them up to hammer or hop on. It’s a departure that both cleans up the combat from previous editions and also makes things weirdly complicated. I found the puzzles either incredibly simplistic or not worth the time to overthink, opting to spend coins to have the toad onlookers you’ve rescued elsewhere in the game gently guide my hand and do most of the work for me. It never really seemed to offer a scalable challenge, and the solutions were either so obvious it felt silly or frustratingly vague enough that I retroactively felt foolish once I’d figured it out.
While you might think a tepid evaluation of that combat system would impact how fun the game itself is, you’d be wrong. I didn’t really like the combat in The Origami King, a game I enjoyed the hell out of. The second part of that statement comes entirely from the game’s writing, which is hilarious and charmingly heartfelt. The game introduces new origami characters that have depth
It’s a game that contains a surprising amount of musical numbers, sure, but an equally surprising amount of heart. It’s silly and simplistic and also very funny. The first mechanic you learn is gleefully tossing colorful confetti in the air and repairing holes in the landscape made by paper mache goombas. The next is essentially pounding everything in sight with a hammer to discover crumpled up and hidden Toads.
It would be easy to call the game childish, as it has a dedicated “hints” button in combat and its puzzles and fetch quests can be fairly easy to solve. But the writing often hides that all-ages approach, or at least makes it tolerable with humor and character overreaction combined with a bit of added Mario lore. I found myself screenshotting various things to remember including here, which are fairly pointless without the game’s context. But a brief collection of Origami King absurdity includes a Wise Guy tape dispenser, a hilariously-named game show and just the right amount of horror elements in a children’s game to throw you off completely.
This Paper Mario somehow finds a way to be both a Nintendo property and still contain the humor that matches absurd headlines from The Onion about Nintendo. It also tells a very fun, if not unnecessary, story about a world ravaged by a surprisingly powerful foe. It has Wild West homages and very familiar characters given new and unexpected emotional growth. Some of the best moments come from ancillary side characters making quick comments you wouldn’t expect, offering jokes about Mario or his folded soldier foes.
The Origami King is juvenile, sure, but mostly because it takes place in a world where an existential threat to existence is taken seriously enough by all that enemies work together. Mario rescues his fabled antagonist Bowser in the game’s opening minutes, then spends the entirety of the game working to free his minions from the grasp of an origami creature gone mad with power. Bigger things are at play here, and so even rivals spending their entire lives pitted against each other need to help one another out for a bit.
Characters from all sides of the Mario universe are on the same team here against the origami foes, and so the Shogun tourist attraction is devoid of tourists because the threat of paper mache is simply too high. It’s unfair to compare every video game to real life in the age of coronavirus, but a number of titles coming out these days just happen to be about humanity-altering viruses. Origami taking over a paper universe isn’t a 1:1 match, of course, but I couldn’t help but shake how easy it felt to get everyone on the same page in the game and how helpless it feels to do the same once you put the controller down. Even Olivia, herself origami and the brother of your foe, fell in line pretty quickly.
Not every game needs the nihilism that an epic tale like the Last Of Us Part II has about people, especially in these trying times. Even funny, cheerful games can offer a jolt of emotion for characters you never expected to mourn. And somehow, in Paper Mario: The Origami King, the least realistic thing about the game isn’t that origami can come to life but that once it did everyone else realized it was a threat they simply couldn’t ignore.