Guest Post Paper Mario: The Origami King
This was my first Paper Mario game. I’m not generally into turn-based RPGs and to be honest, I wasn’t immediately sold on this one. But by the end, its design, plot, and overall mood managed to keep me interested despite some persistent annoyances.
The game starts off with Paper Mario and Paper Luigi traveling to Toad Town for the Origami Festival. They also want to visit Princess Peach in her castle. When they find her, though, something is off. She’s made of origami and is speaking…strangely. Throughout the introduction, we learn that a powerful origami being named Olly – the titular Origami King – plans to take over the world by converting the flat paper creatures into origami. (I personally think that the origami forms of Mario characters look much cooler than their paper counterparts, but as a plot mechanic I suppose it works.) Peach and Bowser’s minions have already been folded, and Bowser himself appears to be on deck. Mario and Olly’s sister Olivia try to convince Olly not to proceed with his plan, but of course this tactic does not work. Olly uses his magic to transport Peach’s Castle far away with himself, Peach, and Bowser inside. Now Mario and Olivia have to go rescue them by traveling around the world and unraveling ribbons that are…protecting the castle? Honestly, I don’t remember or even really care what the point of the ribbons is. The plot that unfolds (heh) on your journey is more important and has a greater impact in the long run.
Along the way, you meet several interesting characters. The first is Olivia, who is Olly’s sister. Like Olly, she has magical origami powers. She serves as your sidekick, occasionally giving you hints and helping you activate special powers. There’s also a Bob-omb nicknamed Bobby. He travels with you throughout the second world and is mostly there for comic relief. But when Olivia gets trapped under a boulder, Bobby bravely sacrifices himself to blow up the boulder and save her. (I may have shed a tear or two at that scene.) Another memorable character is Professor Toad. There are many Toads in this game (I’ll get to that later), but this one is an archaeologist who assists you in the desert world. He can read the ancient Toad language and helps you solve a puzzle to reveal the boss dungeon. He can also dig in the sand for coins, which is very cute. There are other side characters, but these three were the most notable for me.
As far as gameplay goes, Paper Mario isn’t exactly an open-world game, but more of a 3D RPG. It’s somewhat similar to Link’s Awakening for the Switch. You have a lot of freedom to explore, at least in the worlds that you’ve unlocked. There are five streamers to destroy, and therefore five worlds to get through before you can face the Origami King. In the overworld, your main weapon is a basic hammer. Hitting trees will cause confetti to fall; you can later use this confetti to fill Not-Bottomless Holes. You can also hit enemies to knock a few points from their HP before the actual battle. Battles are turn-based and very strategic in nature. You have to spin and slide various layers of a circular battlefield to arrange enemies for maximum attack power. Here, in addition to a hammer, you can use boots to “stomp” a line of enemies. You can also use items such as a POW block to deal different types of damage. (Though to be honest, I usually forgot that those items existed.) Finally, you get a special attack in the form of Magic Circles. These appear in the overworld too and let Olivia use her magic to give Mario a pair off long, accordion-folded arms. You can use these with motion controls to pull, tear, or hit various papery elements that wouldn’t otherwise be reachable. Later, you acquire various elemental attacks and can use Magic Circles to activate these powers.
Unfortunately, the battles happen to be where most of my biggest frustrations with the game lie. The circular battle system is strange and feels a bit clunky; battling several “waves” of enemies becomes just tedious. Boss battles are also tedious, although they involve a slightly different strategy. Instead of lining up enemies on the battlefield, you arrange the field to make a path for Mario to run. Ideally, he will pick up a few items and land on either an attack icon or a Magic Circle. Strategy is not my forte, so this was difficult to begin with. But they weren’t fun or even intuitive to beat. I think about how beating Zelda bosses involves learning how to use a new weapon or mechanic you get in their dungeon, then using it to beat them. There is none of that here. I had to play several of the boss fights two or three times just to figure out how to fight them. It’s extra tedious because four of the five worlds have paired boss fights: an elemental boss and a main “craft supply” boss. Doing two of these in a short time span is exhausting. Eventually, I resorted to looking up guides online. Bosses took up too much time and energy that I would rather spend exploring the adorable world.
Another big problem for me was the weapons. You start with a basic pair of boots and a hammer. As you defeat worlds, you can purchase stronger boots and hammers which deal more damage. What was really surprising to me was that the default weapons seemed to have no usage limit, but the most powerful weapons could break. This seems antithetical to how weapons should work. In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, for example, an advanced net or fishing rod lasts noticeably longer than a basic one. Additionally, there wasn’t much indication of how long the weapons would actually last. The only notice you get is a red “X” over the weapon icon when it’s close to breaking. But even that doesn’t give you an idea of how much more you can use it.
Now on to my favorite part of the game: its art direction. This game is a lot of fun, and a big part of that is its aesthetics. For one thing, there’s the origami. It just looks cool. I love the dimension it brings. Origami Princess Peach, the Folded Soldiers, and the Vellumentals (the elemental bosses) are some of the best-looking characters in the game. And then there are the worlds. Apart from the first one, which mostly consists of generic forest/mountain scenery, all of the worlds are very well-designed. The Yellow Streamer area – my favorite by far – is an expansive desert world with a Vegas-esque city (that has a bangin’ theme song). The Red Streamer world is inspired by Japanese gardens and has a ninja amusement park. And one world is basically Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, which was very fun. Another interesting design choice is the world bosses. They’re all based on crafting supplies and each have distinct personalities. For example, the Hole Punch’s defining trait is that he loves disco, while Tape is a gangster. This is pretty silly, in a good way. Each boss is also tied into its lair (well, most of them are towers) in a way that’s subtle but effective. There are Toads in each dungeon that point you toward your destination. In Shroom Temple, where the Hole Punch resides, all the Toads are faceless. This is very creepy, and even more so when you realize why.
Another detail of the game that I really enjoy is the collectibles. There are several varieties of items you can find: hidden Toads, ?-Blocks, and figurines are the main ones. You find these by hammering things or jumping in spots that seem “odd,” or by filling in Not-Bottomless Holes. My favorite collectibles were the hidden Toads. They appear throughout the game in small folded shapes like paper cranes, beetles, and flowers. Sometimes a Toad will be rolled up and stuck in a hole, and you have to pull it out to unroll it. Upon unfolding each Toad, it has a unique line of dialogue that’s often punny or silly. It’s these silly details that create whimsy in the game and make me excited to keep finding other hidden items.
All in all, Paper Mario: The Origami King is a lot of fun. It’s meant to be silly and playful; the excellent characters and world design really make this apparent. Furthermore, these design strengths make up for often-clunky battle mechanics. Finally, small details like the music choices, hidden treasures, and humorous dialogue are the cherry on top. They make a world crafted in paper feel much more expansive and rich.
written by Brigid Connelly