The good and bad (and great!) of Paper Mario

After 60 hours with Paper Mario: The Origami King, I’m still not sure if I appreciate the new folds to the Paper Mario series or wish the Nintendo Switch title had gone back to its role-playing-game roots.

Let’s focus on the good first. The Origami King features the traditional Paper Mario humor and does it better than any game in the series so far. The game made me laugh, but it nearly made me cry, too, which was a new one for a Paper Mario game. The storytelling here is excellent, your companions are inspired and the humor seems to land well regardless of age.

The bad for series veterans: There’s no leveling, you don’t control what your allies do in battle and the combat system holds your hand to the point that solving a puzzle often means taking no damage even far into the game.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about this same concern with Paper Mario. The past few entries in the series haven’t had that same satisfying progression as Paper Mario on Nintendo 64 or Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door on GameCube. Despite The Origami King falling into the same pitfalls as its more recent predecessors, though, I found myself conflicted on whether it mattered all that much.

Were the narrative, novel exploration approaches and sometimes-satisfying boss battles and treasure hunts enough? Does what’s there outweigh what the series has lost?

Unfortunately, I’m not much closer to an answer than I was at the end of the adventure. I can, however, lay the info out there and help you make a buy-or-pass decision. Here’s a look at the good and bad (and great!) of Paper Mario: The Origami King.

Good: A compelling story

On-point humor has been a penchant of Paper Mario games since their inception on the N64, but The Origami King brings in ups, downs and emotional moments better than any other game in the series.

I did not expect to be moved by literally anything other than the wisecracks in Paper Mario. That’s not what I know the games for. But there are plenty of tender moments in The Origami King and ones that truly evoke sadness, anger and intrigue. This isn’t just a joy ride anymore; there are plenty of folds to the latest Paper Mario.

Bad: Puzzlingly simple combat

Paper Mario’s puzzle-solving twist to enemy encounters could be so much better.

The bare bones of the combat system show a lot of potential: You twist and shuffle opponents into favorable positions for your attacks, and in doing so correctly, you gain a boost to your attack power. The problem is, almost every time you nail an all-too-often easy puzzle, the enemies are all but defeated.

Part of this might be that the demographic for this Paper Mario game isn’t near-30-year-olds like myself, but The Origami King is lenient with its combat to the point that you can go through dozens of fights in a row without taking damage. The power boost for a proper layout, plus the fact that you take all of your turns before the enemies get a shot at you, plus the ease of getting additional attack bonuses for timing your mid-attack button presses correctly, makes fights feel pointless early on and a breeze later in the game as you find more powerful weapons.

The game also gives you cop outs if a puzzle is too tough to solve. Need more time to figure out where your foes should go? You can literally buy it with coins. Want the configuration solved for you? Pay your Toad compatriots in the stands, and you’re all set. And although you need to use stronger equipment that can be purchased as enemies build up more health over the course of the game, I didn’t have to buy a weapon throughout my playthrough; the game is liberal with the goods.

Avoiding perfect puzzle configurations or sticking to your base items can make combat a bit more difficult. However, if you’re looking for a challenge in a fight, you’re likely going to be frustrated by The Origami King.

Good: A secret-filled world

At first, I was worried the hunt for collectibles, crumpled-up Toads and hidden blocks in The Origami King would get old. However, it’s safe to say the payoff for those searches and some of the game’s other challenges is worth any game completionist’s time.

Be it by foot, boot car or boat, Mario and his friends get plenty of ways to explore the Mushroom Kingdom and an incentive to smooth out every crease in The Origami King’s environment.

Finding a tough-to-spot Toad can lead you to a well-deserved laugh. Hidden block rewards ensure you’ll only have to spend your hard-earned coins on collectibles you have to buy or other odds and ends. Traversing the fields, deserts, oceans and dungeons of The Origami King is made all the more enjoyable when you keep the search for these secondary objectives in the back of your mind. Throw in a few challenges unrelated to the main storyline throughout your quest, and there are plenty of bread crumbs along the way to keep you going when the battling gets tedious.

Bad: Mario doesn’t grow

One of the things that stood out most for me when playing Paper Mario as a kid was the sheer number of things you could customize.

You could use badges to change the sound effects in battle, automatically dodge attacks when at low HP, inflict status conditions and to give your partners new abilities. There were nearly 70 ways to change up your playstyle in the original Paper Mario, along with a leveling system that let you choose whether to focus on growing your health pool, the points you used for special attacks or the amount of badges you could equip.

The Origami King has some amount of mix-and-match, too. You can increase your HP by finding special hearts, which in turn increases your attack. The badges you equip offer increases to defense, time you have to solve battle puzzles and some cosmetic changes, among other things. But the wealth of options fans loved in the beginning of this series is gone, and with that goes part of the game’s charm and what separated it from even other RPGs at the time.

If it wasn’t clear yet, I’ll just say it: The Origami King is an adventure game. It does not cling to the roots of the series but includes some callbacks to those games and does take a semi-open-world approach. The Mario you get at the end of the game, though, is the one you had at the start of it — a little stronger but not nearly as built for you as he has been in the past.

Good: Cutscenes and set pieces

Some of Paper Mario’s best moments are also the most bizarre, which, you know, sounds about right.

The Origami King really leans into the silly side of things sometimes, from its love for dance and music to its nonsequitur dialogue. Even tiny things, like moments sitting on a bench with your allies or coffee shop trips, can be unexpectedly fun. This is another aspect of the game that really encourages exploration. Small doses of the tone this game brings in its best moments make you want to see more.

Great: Olivia

The origami princess is the real star of this game. There are so many things I could say about Olivia, but so as not to belabor the point, I’ll just say this: She’s as unforgettable as any character in this series. Her dialogue, from the deadpans to the big emotional moments, is just sensational, and you can see her literally and figuratively grow as the story unfolds. If nothing else, you’ll probably want to stick this game out just to see her origin story and what becomes of our overly folded friend — and I’ll leave it at that for now.

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