Super Mario’s roleplaying adventures have always been playful twists on the genre. RPGs can be uptight, all melodrama and end-of-the-world theatrics. But games like Super Mario RPG and the Mario & Luigi series took what made RPGs great — the strategic battles, lengthy adventures, and vast stories — and infused them with humor and charm. Paper Mario: The Origami King continues this tradition but updates it in lots of clever ways. It’s the rare game where being funny is its biggest strength.
As with most Mario adventures, The Origami King involves trouble with Princess Peach, but not in the typical damsel in distress way. At the outset, Mario and his brother arrive at Toad Town for an origami festival, only to discover the city is mostly deserted. Inside the castle, they find a disturbing — and origami-fied — version of the princess. “Why haven’t you joined me in folding glory?” she asks. As it turns out, the princess, and much of the Mushroom Kingdom, are under the control of an evil origami wizard bent on reshaping the world in his image.
It’s an admittedly silly premise, but it works; the villains and their intentions feel appropriately evil, and it’s a great excuse to venture across the world. As part of his scheme, the origami king uses five gigantic pieces of ribbon to rip Peach’s castle out of the ground and transport it to a remote mountaintop. The goal is simple: destroy the ribbons to get into the castle. Your destination is almost always in view; when you’re out in the world, you can see the ribbons stretching across the landscape until you finally manage to remove them.
The Origami King plays out sort of like an open-world RPG. You play as a flat rendition of Mario venturing across the world — to ancient deserts, underwater dungeons, and abandoned theme parks — all while solving often arcane brain teasers to open up new areas, eliminate the origami menace, and dispose of the ribbons. There are RPG-like mechanics like equippable weapons and additional party members, including an amnesiac Bob-omb and a Toad archaeologist. Battles are clever turn-based affairs that are essentially puzzles: you have to spin enemies around on a wheel to line them up so you can get the right attack in before a timer runs out. In most RPGs, I mash the attack button through random battles, but here, I had to actually pay attention.
Many of the elements streamline what can often be a tedious and fiddly genre. The battles, outside of bosses, are snappy and fun, and you only have to worry about a few items and skills to succeed. If you get stuck, a helpful origami friend named Olivia is available at any time to give you helpful hints, sort of like a less annoying version of Navi from Ocarina of Time. The Origami King strikes a nice balance between being approachable but still having depth. It’s also wonderfully tactile. While Mario can jump, he also has a hammer to smash everything and anything around him, which he does to open up secret areas, solve puzzles, and rescue flattened toads hidden almost anywhere you look.
The game looks and plays wonderfully, but really, the star is its sense of humor. It’s downright silly. There are copious puns and visual jokes and all kinds of things that don’t make sense but are delightful regardless. For instance, since you’re made of paper, you can travel around the world via fax machine; the game calls this “fax travel.” At one point, after wandering through a forest of talking trees, I came across firewood chanting “light me!” and “we must burn!”
Everything is goofy: the most difficult bosses are sentient office supplies, and there are multiple surprise musical numbers and performances, including a multipart stage play that ends in a Shy Guy ballet. Much like the most recent Luigi’s Mansion, a lot of the silliness comes from slapstick comedy, as you take your hammer and smash things to see what happens. It could be an unusual toad unfolding after previously being disguised as an origami frog or butterfly, or a secret cafe full of grumbling Bowser minions. At the very least, you’ll see colorful confetti rain down from the tree you just bonked. The story even has rare moments of poignant drama to round out the experience; Paper Mario is not a game where I expected to be shocked by a character’s death, but the team at Nintendo pulled it off masterfully.
The fact that The Origami King is a great game almost feels like a bonus. It could’ve simply been a vehicle for Nintendo’s goofs, and I would’ve enjoyed it, such is the rarity of truly funny comedy games. But it also happens to be a fantastic example of how to freshen up the classic RPG formula with a few new ideas and clever simplification. In virtually every regard, the latest Paper Mario is anything but flat.
Paper Mario: The Origami King launches on July 17th on the Nintendo Switch.