The Paper Mario series has evolved in strange ways over the years. It started as a conventional turn-based Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) for the Nintendo 64, then saw a fantastic GameCube sequel called Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. The series next flirted with being an outright platformer with Super Paper Mario, and then leaned into card- and sticker-based adventuring in Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Paper Mario: Color Splash. The newest game, Paper Mario: The Origami King for the Nintendo Switch, mixes up the formula again. It’s a lighthearted adventure with some JRPG elements built into a sliding-puzzle-based combat system. Unfortunately, that combat system is a slog, and bogs down an otherwise charming and fun quest.
The Folded Man
The game starts, as so many Mario games do, with Mario and Luigi being invited to Princess Peach’s castle. When they arrive, the princess appears to be different, a folded origami figure speaking with stilted tones rather than the simple paper cut-out she is supposed to be in this series. This is the work of Prince Olly, an origami royal who’s been turning paper citizens of the land into origami soldiers, and who wants to claim the world for origami supremacy. He steals Peach’s castle into the sky, wraps it up in colorful streamers that extend all over the kingdom, and leaves Mario in a daze on the ground. Olly’s sister Olivia appears to help Mario stop her brother’s machinations and save the kingdom again.
From here it’s the typical formula for a Paper Mario game. Mario travels the world collecting and destroying a handful of colorful objects before he can defeat the big threat and save the kingdom. In this case, the collectibles are the spools of each streamer wrapped around the castle, extending to the far corners of the land and guarded by powerful, unique officers in Olly’s army. It’s the usual Mario RPG adventure.
The world of Paper Mario: The Origami King is a land of craft supplies, where nearly everyone is made of paper. Buildings are folded cardboard, grass and water are carefully cut colored paper, and characters are bright pieces of art with white outlines. It’s a cute, eye-catching aesthetic that has its own uniquely Paper Mario style even when compared with other Nintendo Switch games like Yoshi’s Crafted World and Kirby’s Epic Yarn.
Wandering around the papercraft world feels like any other Mario RPG. You can jump and hit objects with a hammer, often exploring to solve puzzles and find hidden treasures. Hitting trees and rocks shake free confetti, which you can collect and then throw to fill in “non-bottomless holes” in the landscape that rewards you with coins and sometimes provides a new path. You can also attack or be attacked by Olly’s “folded soldiers,” origami versions of classic Mario enemies like Goombas, Koopa Troopas, and Shy Guys (regular paper versions of these enemies can also be found around the game, but they’re generally NPCs you can talk to, and are actively hiding from the folded soldiers themselves).
Running into a folded soldier triggers a battle sequence. You can also jump on enemies or hit them with a hammer to do some damage before the battle starts, but they can do the same if they attack you from behind. Nearby enemies can also pile on to create wave battles where you face multiple waves of enemies.
However you end up in combat, the result is the same: a half-puzzle, half-turn-based battle using sliding rings. Regular battles put you in the center of a series of concentric sectioned rings, with enemies scattered all around you. By rotating the rings or sliding the sectioned columns around, you can arrange the enemies in groups of four to align them against your attacks. You get a bonus to damage if you line them all up into groups. Mario’s jumping attack bounces on enemies in a straight line, while his hammer attacks the two closest rows of two in a square. Once you’re done moving the rings around, you can attack, generally with one move for every four enemies present each turn.
Mario can equip different weapons for his boots and hammer to provide different benefits, like iron shoes to bounce on spiky enemies and a throwable hammer that hits the farthest two rows instead of the closest. Mario has three weapon slots for each weapon type, so he can prepare with multiple weapons in addition to his standard boots and hammer. The extra weapons degrade with use, though, so you need to stay stocked up. Paper Mario: The Origami King has no experience system, and the damage you deal is determined entirely by the weapons you use and the maximum health you have (which can be upgraded by finding heart containers in the game).
Combat is Paper Mario: The Origami King’s weakest element because of how these elements combine. Since your goal is simply to align enemies, this makes the puzzle solving overly simplistic and unrewarding. Sadly, you can’t skip this step, because the damage bonus you get from lining them up is vital in most cases; enemies often have enough health that you need that bonus to beat them in a single round.
Damage is based solely on your weapons and maximum health, so there’s little feeling of JRPG-like progression or gaining strength outside of intentionally going to earlier areas of the game to fight weaker enemies. Plus, the weapons degrade and break with use, so you don’t get the satisfaction of being a better-equipped Mario as you play. If you don’t do that, you risk being caught in a dungeon with your frustratingly weak basic boots and hammer. The game throws thousands of coins at you, so keeping stocked isn’t that much of a chore, but it adds to a repetitive slog that doesn’t feel very rewarding, even with the puzzle-solving elements.
Boss fights are a bit more stimulating, because the ring inverts to place Mario on the outside and the boss in the center. Here you need to arrange arrows and other ring icons to direct Mario towards the center, where an attack or action icon will let him do damage. These are varied and complicated fights that make the puzzle aspect of the combat system feel much more engaging, as each boss has its own attack patterns, weak points, and gimmicks to affect the board and force you to be much more careful in how you arrange it. These fights can take longer than regular battles, but the variety is much more interesting. The game could have kept ring fights reserved for boss battles and used standard turn-based JRPG combat for regular enemies like in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, and it would have been all the better for it.
Lots to Find
It’s a shame combat is such a chore, because Paper Mario: The Origami King is otherwise very charming and entertaining, with plenty to do. Outside of battle, you can explore a large, interesting world of craft supplies filled with secrets and amusing gags. You can look for papercraft treasures (models of objects in the game), hidden Toads to rescue, and pits to fill in every area, providing plenty for completionists to enjoy. Nearly every Toad, and every other character, has some amusing personal quirk or a funny joke to share.
It’s a very large world as well, comparable with previous Paper Mario JRPGs. There are fields, caves, autumnal valleys, mines, and even a samurai-themed amusement park. You’ll find allies, solve puzzles, and assist different characters as you make your way around to find the different streamers and free Peach’s castle. There’s a lot to do and a game can last you dozens of hours, punctuated frustratingly by the repetitive, dull combat.
Don’t Put a Ring on It
Paper Mario: The Origami King is a fun, colorful JRPG that trips itself up by either overthinking or underthinking one of its core elements. The ring battle system is repetitive and frustrating, lacking the strategic depth to make it satisfying as a puzzle game and lacking the mechanical sense of progression to make it satisfying as a JRPG. It has a fun world and an interesting story, but the fights are an endless draft. Nintendo could have done away with the ring battle system entirely and just gone with a conventional turn-based RPG combat system, or done away with its weapons and come up with a more satisfying puzzle system, but instead the game ends up caught between those two elements. The fights generally just aren’t very fun, which is a shame, considering how charming the rest of the game is.