It’s hard to believe the Paper Mario series spans across two decades and six Nintendo consoles. Yet here we are, 20 years on to welcome Paper Mario’s debut on the Nintendo Switch. What started out as an RPG adventure series has slowly transitioned into a platform adventure title with, arguably, paper-thin RPG elements. From Sticker Star onwards, Paper Mario was overhauled from its traditional format to enable 3D graphics to create ‘more dynamic events’, according to the series’ latest producer Kensuke Tanabe. By utilising these new elements, Tanabe has created a series that continuously delivers new experiences, while borrowing aspects from previous games.
The same is true for Paper Mario: The Origami King. Working alongside the game’s developer Intelligent Systems, Tanabe introduced the idea of a unique ring-based battle system, which would enable enemies to attack Mario from all sides. According to a recent interview, Tanabe says ‘the idea was based on a Rubik’s Cube’, inspiring the producer to add vertical and horizontal rotations for a puzzle-based battle. This dynamic event, so to speak, is what sets The Origami King apart from its predecessors and introduces a fun-filled (or highly pressured) mechanical twist when fighting the ‘folded’ origami enemies and bosses.
In our preview, we’ll take you through the first two ‘streamer’ worlds of The Origami King which totals around ten hours of in-game time. At this stage, we’ve explored 14 areas in total, added one other party member, increased our health points by 65 (from the standard 50) after discovering max hearts, and spent over 5,000 coins on upgradeable – and breakable – weapons in Toad Town. For added context, Mario’s standard boots and hammer are unbreakable, with players receiving six additional slots for different types of weapons (only boots and hammers so far). Plus, we’ve also purchased and equipped some accessories for raising our defence and health, alongside an increase in time for battle-based puzzles.
For fans of the Paper Mario series, the story is often the beating heart of the game. Fortunately, The Origami King is no different. When Mario and Luigi are invited to Toad Town’s Celebration Festival by Princess Peach, the area is devoid of all activity with no Toads in sight. While Luigi looks for a key to access the castle, Mario heads off to find Peach. But once discovered, she appears unwell, folded into an origami substitute. After strained dialogue, Peach plunges Mario into the castle dungeons where he finds Olivia – the Origami Princess – hidden behind the wall. Using a new magical ability, Mario stretches with his 1,000 folded arms to rip off part of the wallpaper, revealing Olivia.
Olivia joins Mario in his bid to escape the dungeon, avoiding the folded enemies along the way. Once they reach the castle’s highest parapets, Princess Peach comes forth. But Olivia sees right through the disguise to reveal her brother, Olly, the Origami King. When Mario refuses to join Olly, he takes on his folded minions, wave after wave. Frustrated, Olly launches an all-out attack against Mario and co., wrapping several different coloured paper streamers around the castle, lifting it from its very foundations. To avoid being squeezed into oblivion, Mario and Olivia take a leap of faith, but are soon cast into the Whispering Woods below. When Mario eventually comes to, he finds Olivia and together they make a pact to save Luigi, Princess Peach’s castle and the remaining Toads from the Origami King’s deadly folded grip. But to do that, they must first unravel the five coloured streamers: red, blue, yellow, green, and purple.
During the first ten hours of gameplay, players will encounter a series of elements which are featured for the first time in the Paper Mario series. The first is Mario’s 1,000 folded arms ability – a pair of elongated, accordion-like arms which can be used as an extension to tear off parts of the overworld scenery for story purposes, or can be utilised wisely in boss battles to deal extra damage.
By default, motion controls are switched on when using the ability, so players are required to move the Joy-Con, Pro-Controller or Switch in handheld mode by engaging with the gyroscopic controls to tear off, smash down or pull back with the 1,000 folded arms. While motion controls can be easily switched off in the main menu, it’s a gimmick, nonetheless. Its saving grace is, perhaps, when using it against bosses and pulverising them with punches. Hey, they’re handy when in a bind.
When travelling through the linear 3D overworld in The Origami King, players will notice holes in the scenery. Named ‘non-bottomless holes’, they require paper confetti to restore to their original design. Like how Paper Mario: Color Splash required players to paint the areas back to life, non-bottomless holes work in the same manner. But instead of a paint can named Huey, Mario uses a ‘Confetti Bag’ to store the excess. Using the hammer, you can easily bash beautiful crafted paper trees, flowers, shrubs and basically any ‘natural’ scenery to collect confetti – all without leaving a dent on the sumptuous design. With the confetti, Mario can begin to repair the non-bottomless holes scattered throughout the five regions. Also, as a neat aside, your confetti bag is upgraded after defeating each area’s boss.
Of course, confetti isn’t the only paper-based object players can collect. You’ll also find collectibles, battle items and even Hidden Toads. The latter are, perhaps, one of the most engaging aspects of the game. Hidden Toads are everywhere; concealed as uniquely shaped origami in the overworld, rolled into balls, or found in weird nooks and crannies. We won’t spoil any of the game’s secrets, but many of the locations are both ingenious and highly entertaining too.
Collected Toads also have a use in battle. While they won’t pose much of a threat to enemies in terms of attacks, they can help by making battle-based puzzles easier – a crucial feature for youngsters, those who lack depth perception and those who panic when against a clock. Using the ‘cheer’ feature in battles by paying Toads copious amounts of gold coins are an absolute life saviour in some battles. But to explain how they help, first let’s talk about enemy battles.
As alluded to earlier, The Origami King introduces a unique ring-based battle system to defeat enemies effectively within a set time limit (usually between 20 and 75 seconds). Essentially, players are required to arrange the enemies on the board into two formations – a line-up and a front-facing group – by utilising horizontal and vertical alignments. Once enemies are aligned in either of the two formations, players can use their standard boots, hammer or any other equipped weapon or item to defeat the sets of folded Goombas, Koopa Troopers, Para Troopers, and so on. Aligning enemies perfectly will enable Mario to deal 1.5x damage during that turn. Even if you fail to align all enemies correctly, you’ll still receive the same amount of action points for that turn. Plus, you can guard against attacks by blocking at just the right time.
Occasionally enemies will attack in waves. This means after you’ve defeated one set of enemies on the board, another will take their place. Instead of relying on breakable weapons (which have around 15 or so uses), you can also use items such as fire flowers, POW blocks and the Tanooki Tail to deal additional damage. And, after you’ve defeated the mid-boss Earth Vellumental, Olivia will gain the sacred elemental power which allows her to transform into a replica origami of the Vellumental. While magic circles only pop up from time to time, they can certainly help turn the tide in your favour. However, it’s worth noting that enemy battles only reward players coin-based bonuses when defeated, so there are no experience points or level ranking systems in The Origami King.
Unlike standard enemies, boss battles differ slightly. Using the ring-based system, Mario must navigate a maze-like structure, operating the arrows and action points at his disposal to make his way into the centre of the field to attack. Players must slide the circles around horizontally to create a path to the boss, while avoiding any obstacles and ensuring any on-switches and magic circles are activated along the way. Items such as hearts, treasure chests and helpful hints can also be collected before ending the turn with an action spot at the centre of the ring. Origami King’s battle system is purposefully built to assault the senses and force the player into a ‘flight or fight’ mode of attack. For example, there were plenty of times when I haven’t been able to physically visualise the route to the boss, landing me with a wasted turn and a frustrated demeanour. Trust me, The Origami King has heard many vitriolic curse words during play. Thankfully, Toads are my adorable lifeguards, throwing me some goodies, alongside a beautifully dotted line on the board to help me understand where the blasted arrows end. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for puzzle-based innovation. But the execution here is a little off-piste.
With all that said, Paper Mario: The Origami King is shaping up into a beautifully crafted world with a hearty and humorous storyline. Between mini games at Shogun Studios and a river rapid ride, to mysterious match ‘em up puzzles in the Whispering Woods, there’s plenty to see and do in the overworld. But with breakable weapons and a battle system that already feels far too repetitive, can Paper Mario unfold its dog-eared pages into something that entertains for hours on end? We’ll have to wait and see.
A copy of Paper Mario: The Origami King for preview purposes was provided by Nintendo UK. A full review of the game will be published in due course.