Like a round of golf, Paper Mario: The Origami King is a good walk spoiled.
Exploring the Mushroom Kingdom in Intelligent Systems' latest riff on the Mario universe is a delightful experience. Virtually every corner of this colorful world has something to entice the eye. The writing bursts with wholesome humor and puns aplenty. Unfortunately, the endearing visuals and storytelling can't rescue Paper Mario: The Origami King from a tedious combat system that slows the action to a crawl.
Exploring the Mushroom Kingdom
The story opens with Mario and Luigi zipping along in a go-kart to Princess Peach's castle to celebrate the Origami Festival. Once they arrive, the surrounding town is curiously quiet. Concerned something dastardly is afoot, Mario dashes to the castle to find his number one lady has been replaced with a creepy doppelgänger. Turns out, Peach and most of her subjects have fallen victim to Olly, the self-anointed Origami King who seeks to fold the Mushroom Kingdom to his will. Olly whisks away Peach's castle to a nearby mountaintop amid a vortex of colorful paper streamers, each of which must be unwound in order for Mario to thwart Olly and — you guessed it — save the princess.
If you're looking for a lighthearted gaming experience after the doom and gloom of The Last of Us Part II, it doesn't get much more sunshiny than this. The baddies are adorable, and the soundtrack is full of jangly toe-tappers that will put you in a cheerful mood. Paper Mario: The Origami King is sure to sell plenty of copies on its looks alone. The franchise's 2D-cutout aesthetic is so vividly realized you can practically see the UHU Stic smudges and smell the construction paper. Clever details abound: peeling paint becomes a floppy cardboard tab for Mario to jump on and warp pipes have a little plastic freshness seal you'll need to remove to use them. If you can make it through a few hours of Origami King without daydreaming about a googly-eyed Chain Chomp piñata of your own, you're a stronger person than I am.
Exploration is far and away the most rewarding aspect of Paper Mario: The Origami King. Each area holds dozens of secrets and endearing nods to the Mario franchise. One of your main goals throughout the adventure is to rescue Toads, who can be found crumpled up in unlikely places. Did an unusual moth catch your eye? Is that an egg in a frying pan or something else? Whack it with a hammer, and a cheerful mushroom buddy will unfold before your eyes to thank you for your trouble. Curious players will be rewarded for their attempts to get behind or on top of things that would be mere window dressing in most other games.
Navigating the papercraft Mushroom Kingdom isn't always as easy as it could be. Sometimes it's not so obvious where you need to go next, and you'll be blindly whacking everything onscreen with your hammer until you stumble upon the way to progress. The 2D-meets-3D aesthetics can also make it difficult to discern depth, particularly in portable mode, meaning you'll find yourself falling into perfectly obvious holes for no good reason.
Too much of a bad thing
The last few installments of the Paper Mario series have moved away from RPG elements, and that trend continues with Origami King, which introduces a new combat system that has more in common with Tetris than Final Fantasy. All battles take place on a grid of concentric circles, and you'll need to line up enemies horizontally or vertically to allow Mario to clobber multiple foes at once. You'll dole out most of your damage with boots, which attack enemies in a row, and hammers, which hit enemies in a 2x2 grid. Your fancier boots and hammers will break after a certain number of uses, so it's a good idea to keep several pairs on hand.
If you can't figure out how to get all your Goombas in a row, fights will take longer and Mario will take more damage. While Origami King is definitely designed to be accessible for younger players, you might find yourself facing a Game Over if your attention slips during a fight.
And your attention will definitely slip during battles in Origami King, because fights are consistently uninteresting and too dang long. Most random encounters will pit you against multiple waves of enemies, but you won't earn experience points to make Mario stronger. This means there's little incentive to fight, other than earning money, but you'll have more than you can possibly use in just the first few hours of the game.
What's worse, it's not particularly easy to avoid enemies on the overworld map, which means you'll be slogging through a lot of these ring battles just to get to the fun stuff. A straightforward combat system — or simply fewer, shorter battles — would have made the overall experience far more satisfying.
Boss battles add another layer of unwelcome complexity. You'll need to navigate the rings to get to an enemy's weak spot and collect healing items and consumable goods. Each boss responds differently to Mario's various attacks, and you won't really know what to do until you essentially wing it and hope for the best. Nothing about this feels particularly gratifying or strategic, and it all takes way longer than it should.
Origami King places a heavy bet on its fiddly fighting system, and it just doesn't pay off. Like so much else in the game, the boss designs are consistently whimsical and creative, but it's awfully easy to lose sight of that when you just want to get back to finding Toads and chuckling at mushroom puns.
With a more conventional combat system, Paper Mario: The Origami King would have been a must-play title for Nintendo Switch. As it is, it's more of a mixed bag. 6/10
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