One of the downsides of my current three-posts-a-week schedule is that when song releases ramp up, they don’t leave me a lot of room to write anything but reviews. I’d been sitting on my Diamond Rio deep dive and my thoughts for Paper Mario: The Origami King for a while now, but it’s only now that the charts have calmed down enough to let me talk about them (which says more about Taylor Swift’s loss of clout in country music than anything else).
I had a lot to say about this game in my early impressions post, and unfortunately the TL;DR version of this post is that after finishing this game, most of what I said and felt then still applies. However, there are two major things that I wanted to expand upon before rendering my “worthwhile” judgment:
- The Good News: The new character design gets better over time, and (gasp) existing characters have a lot more personality than usual.
One of the unintended revelations of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is how flat (no pun intended) Mario was as a character compared to his Rabbid counterparts (and even characters like Luigi and Peach!). For the most part, Mario was a typical stoic silent protagonist, smiling and scowling at the appropriate moments and generally letting his attacks do the talking. The Paper Mario developers were apparently taking notes, because in this game he gets a chance to show more emotions and some actual personality traits. He cries when he’s sad, he freaks out when he’s in distress (though there are still moments when he seems preternaturally cool in an anxious situation), and most noticeably, the man busts a move whenever he gets a chance (he’d been waiting for this chance since Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix). The player sees their emotions reflected in Mario more than ever in this game, and I really enjoyed seeing him loosen up.
It’s not just Mario, though: Luigi, Bowser, and especially Kamek and Bowser Jr. get to show a bit more personality this time around, and it’s much more interesting than their generally-one-note roles in past games. Background characters get a bit more interesting and fleshed-out as well: The back half of the game features professor Toads, Ancient Toads, angel Toads…for a game in which the producer said they couldn’t “create original characters that touch on the Mario universe,” this is the most variety I’ve seen between different Toad characters in quite some time. (On a side note: I have some theories as to why this rule was put in place—primarily I think it’s because Nintendo doesn’t want another Waluigi situation, where a character spawns a rabid fan base that throws tantrums and goes after developers whenever they feel their “hero” has been wronged.) The text remains sharp throughout the game, but there’s more going on with characters visually and personally here too, and that’s a good thing.
- The Bad News: If I were to sum this game up in one word, it was be “unintuitive.”
In general, Mario titles are designed in such a way that they’re very easy to just pick up and play—you just seem to know what to do to progress, no matter the situation. This game, however, is the exact opposite: I found myself seeing no obvious way to continue and thinking “WTF?” far too many times. Not only were the lack of overworld visual cues I mentioned in my last post a common theme, but battles tended to come in two varieties: You either saw the solution immediately, or you never saw it at all. Rarely did I find that spending just a bit more time thinking through a situation made any difference at all.
The worst part about this is that the game basically concedes this point, but instead of doing something about it, the developers just gave up and settled for heavily and explicitly hinting at your next move rather than making the puzzle easier to understand. Whether it was Olivia’s super-specific hints, the Puzzle Solver provided by the Battle Lab, or the hint envelopes specifically placed on the field in boss and Vellumental battles, the game seemed to be consistently telling the player “Yeah, we know this doesn’t make sense.” When Kensuke Tanabe said “This is an adventure game after all,” he wasn’t kidding: There was times when trying to figure out my next move here brought back painful flashbacks of cycling through random items and commands in Monkey Island, desperately trying to figure out which combination worked.
But we haven’t hit bottom yet: The number of insta-death scenarios increases substantially as the game goes on, forcing the player to learn from their mistakes in the most blunt and ineffective way possible (and heaven help you if you hadn’t saved recently…). The amount of padding increases as time goes on as well: The Shy Guy quiz show randomly tossed in during the green streamer segment was an irritating waste of time, and the final boss battle might be the worst one I’ve played in any RPG or adventure series (the battle has three parts instead of the typical two, and the second and third parts were absolutely awful).
So when all the chips are tallied…is Paper Mario: The Origami King worth buying? Originally I said that it depended on “realizing what sort of game you’ll be getting into,” but after playing through the whole thing, my answer is a flat “No” no matter how you slice it. This is a below-average RPG, a below-average adventure game, and even a sorry excuse for a puzzle game. It’s easily the worst Paper Mario game I’ve ever played (with the important caveat that I have yet to experience Paper Mario: Sticker Star), and in a world where much better options exist (Dragon Quest Builders anyone?), I can’t recommend this game unless you’re a Paper Mario completionist who really wants to experience it.
I know that the Paper Mario series is all about experimentation and unique experiences, but this game wound up being a bridge too far for me. Here’s hoping they rein things in a bit when the next title comes out in 2024.