Paper Mario: The Origami King is an odd game, and a refreshing one; Nintendo works within genres, but they don’t feel tied to genre conventions, or even series conventions, and so you’ll just run into decisions that seem totally out of left field, but that end up being unexpectedly interesting, and unusally positive. And we see that in The Origami King, both on a small scale and on a larger scale.

To me, the prototypical RPG divides its world into towns, overworld, and dungeons. Which has a certain refreshing familiarity to it, but the problem I always have with that is that I mostly enjoy the towns, and that overworlds in particular often feel like filler material. If I’m remembering correctly (it’s been a while!), earlier Paper Mario games stuck with that structure as well; in The Origami King, though, there’s quite a bit of leakage of town-like aspects into the overworld, often to the extent that there’s no real distinction between the two. (Though dungeons are still there, following a pleasantly strict formal rule of two dungeons in each region, one to give you a new power and a second to make progress fighting the big boss.)

To be sure, this isn’t new to The Origami King: I wrote about a similar town / overworld interpenetration in Okami, and watching my wife play through the Final Fantasy 7 remake, it looks like that game completely eliminates the town / overworld distinction. (No wonder, given the parts of the original Final Fantasy 7 that it’s remaking; I’m now genuinely curious how the subsequent games in the remake will handle the overworld.) This blurring does feel entirely in character for Nintendo, though: one hallmark of their games is that you’ll so frequently find something interesting around the next corner, which in turn lends itself to adding the lived-in virtues of towns to what would otherwise be overworld areas.


A much odder aspect of The Origami King, though, is the way the game handles combat. The Paper Mario series has always been unusual in that regard; Pat Holleman has some great analysis of this in his Patreon, but one top-level take is that, because the numbers involved in attacks all fit within a small range, the combat in the games (and how that combat changes as you level up) has always felt quite different from traditional JRPGs: there just isn’t the room in Paper Mario games for the traditional JRPG numeric growth curve as you and your enemies level up.

In fact, what ended up happening in previous Paper Mario games is that, most of the time, a reasonable goal is to exit most battles having taken zero net damage. And so the combat ends up having a bit of a puzzle feel, where you try to figure out the right combination of choice of battle tactics, execution on those tactics, and badge equipping to let you defeat all the enemies while taking no more damage than your badges allow you to heal for free.


Combat in the previous games had a bit of a puzzle feel; The Origami King goes all in on that, where every battle is a tile-shifting puzzle. So, boss battles aside, you can literally finish every battle without getting hit at all, if you can solve the tile-shifting puzzle within the time permitted. (And if you pick the correct tier of weapon.)

This is a very different skill from other Paper Mario games, or indeed from the vast majority of other games period! It was interesting watching reviewers of the game grapple with this fact, because several of them were people who are good at platforming, good at RPGs, but who weren’t good at this sort of spatial puzzle. Which raises interesting questions about what we expect from a reviewer: it would be odd, for example, to read a review in a gaming publication of a first-person shooter where the reviewer wasn’t good at and familiar with the genre. But The Origami King just doesn’t fit into those genre boxes, and I’m sure when reviewers were being assigned to the launch reviews, it wasn’t so clear to them just what sort of beast the game was, and what that meant in practice. Which means that we got a glimpse of a world of what it would look like without an assumption of expertise for reviewers; I kind of think that that would be a healthier world, because it would in turn mean that reviews would be accepting of a larger segment of the potential player population for games, and that in turn would both put pressure on games to potentially appeal to a broader population and would give more space for games to play around with? Though the flip side is that there’s something valuable about digging down deeply into genre conventions, to explore more of the potential depth there.

Because of its unexpected nature, The Origami King also has to provide affordances for players of different levels of tile shifting skill. Money is fairly plentiful in the game, and you can use money to buy time and to get other forms of help in puzzles. But also the game contains accessories, and one kind of accessory gives you extra health in battle; the way this is implemented, if you, say, have 50 max health, get 10 extra health in the battle, and enter the battle in full health, then you’ll fight at 60/60 health; as long as you don’t get hurt for more than 10 points, then you’ll end up still at 50 health after the battle. Or if you enter the battle at 40 health, then you’ll start the battle at 50 out of 60 health, and if you don’t get hurt in the battle, then you’ll exit at full health. What this means is that you don’t have to be perfect in every battle: as long as you can find the correct solution half the time, you’ll end up spending most of the game at full health.


The battles are the most unusual thing about the game, but otherwise it’s a really well done Mario RPG game. You can poke around all over the place, whacking things with your hammer, and are rewarded for doing so (by finding origami toads, by hitting invisible blocks); and there are optional affordances to make it easier to track down that stuff, if you so choose. So there’s a nice video game “watch the numbers go up” feel (where the numbers in question are percentages of different kinds of items to have found), without that feeling abusive in any way: it’s an interesting game of understanding your environment, with many off-ramps when you feel like you’re banging your head too much.

And it’s a funny game. Nothing to write home in terms of overall plot, but individual lines and scenes were good, so I was always happy to talk to people and find out what was happening next.

It’s also one of the few games recently that Liesl and I have both been playing at the same time. Which is testament to the quality of the game, and to the fact that being a weird game doesn’t necessarily shrink the potential player base. And it was nice to see somebody else discovering stuff, and to learn from them; as I said above, I do think the game provided enough affordances for poking around and finding stuff, but still, sometimes it was nice to have Liesl point out something I missed.


Anyways, very good game. Not necessarily going to go down as one of the all-time greats or anything, but it’s extremely solid, and also unusual in ways that I was glad to experience.

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