They say Mario turns 35 this year, but that's if we look at his first side-scrolling platformer, as he actually turned 37 just yesterday if we take into account the original Mario Bros., and he's as old as 39 if we're counting from his first appearance in Donkey Kong as Jumpman. Those three classics were all about jumping, sure, but we all know how the biggest star in video games has been employed as pretty much everything but a plumber, from sportsman to doctor, as well as a driver, a fighter and a construction worker. Some of the additional activities that Nintendo has cooked up for its mascot over the years have given birth to their own successful franchises, and as we wait for the company to unveil the supposedly postponed 35th-anniversary celebrations and revivals of some of the best Mario platformers, it's a game in a spin-off series that will be the one that marks the milestone.
Light-RPG Paper Mario is no lesser franchise to do that, as it debuted 20 years ago on the Nintendo 64 and was heavily inspired by 1996 SNES title, Super Mario RPG. And what does this all mean? It means that Paper Mario: The Origami King is now releasing on the Nintendo Switch as the sixth entry in a long-running series with a strong legacy, and that usually means having to deal with tradition and innovation while trying to please both long-running fans and newcomers alike. And even though every entry ends up being a million-seller, developer Intelligent Systems has been struggling with that tricky balancing act for some years now, as if there was no right formula when it comes to meeting fan expectations while also keeping their offering light-hearted and family-friendly.
The Origami King nails the approach and the structure of the game, as it feels wider, more open from the get-go. It stays true to some of the core concepts that excelled with the Gamecube's The Thousand Year Door, the most beloved entry in the series so far. It also keeps the beauty and the comedy at probably the highest levels they've been in the franchise. And, finally, it tries to innovate with a revamped combat system that takes advantage of Intelligent Systems' expertise in the field. So, what could go wrong? Well, nothing went totally wrong, but let's say that the struggle can still be felt.
As it's the biggest new feature and perhaps the most controversial one in the long run, let's talk about that combat system. Paper Mario usually blurs the lines between RPG and adventure as it takes a bunch of systems from the former to expand the experience of the latter. Combat is one of those elements, and other than in Super Paper Mario, it follows the traditional turn-based route, with an added touch of button-pressing synchronisation for attack and defence bonuses. You (and your party, if any) are normally faced a bunch of foes in a line or in groups, but The Origami King adds a new dimension as it places everyone on a circular battlefield. Before you have the chance to attack, and if you want those battles to last the least amount of time possible - and believe me, you will - you have to align the enemies just right by moving the concentric rings around you. It doesn't make much "logical" sense, but it feels interestingly chess-like at first. Only by succeeding here will you make the most of your line or area attacks, as you usually need to create rows or groups of assembled enemies.
The problem is that the novelty is over all too soon and the system gets repetitive quickly. You might love or hate the idea, but in the end, it's all about the very same three or four moves and then repeat very similar attacks again and again. If you love it you won't find much challenge after a few hours. If you hate it or don't master it soon enough, you'll probably end up throwing a bunch of coins at the Toads in the audience to help you arrange the rings (don't worry, you'll be quite wealthy as long as you're curious during your adventure).
This could be ok if the combat meant more, but another problem is that, as expected (and feared by some fans), there isn't any real character progression here. With no levels to reach, no special abilities to unlock or skills to customise, battles are all about aligning foes and then using the weapons and items at your disposal, which will eventually drop from question blocks and are made of gradually more powerful building materials. This means that all the gold you earn goes to exploration items and helping during combat.
At times it can get boring to the point that you really don't want to face some of the enemies after five or six encounters. The only progression here, other than the upgraded weapons, comes from increasing your 'Heart Points', which means not only more health to resist damage but also that Mario gets stronger, eventually being able to take down enemies by jumping on or hammering them without entering combat.
Where the new ideas shine, though, is during boss fights, as the enemy is placed at the centre and Mario has to find a way to either their weak spot or to some of the items/pads scattered around the rings. As it's one well-designed concept per boss instead of your average grunts, it's here that IntSys introduced some great ideas about how you should approach these longer battles. They feel varied, deep, fresh and lots of fun - everything the normal combat lacks.
Another issue is how some of the sections clearly act as filler. And as we could say the same about many of the combat encounters, it really feels like this game would work much better as a more compact, better-paced adventure. Don't get me wrong, you will appreciate the huge amount of content, the expansive world, and the overall value on offer, but when some of those errands feel bland and shallow, and they then add a bunch of indifferent battles, it can really drag on.
Interestingly enough The Origami King is much better level design-wise than you average RPG, and I really enjoyed exploring every world and section in search for the missing, folded Toads. Secret rooms, funny mechanisms, little mini-games and more make Toad collecting more engaging than the combat itself, which says a lot.
While exploring those interesting levels you'll enjoy some of the very best visuals in the series so far, and you'll literally laugh your ass off with the characters, the scenarios, and the writing in general, which given my gripes makes the game as a whole feel like a missed opportunity. Paper Mario has always been awesome at showing more of our foes, learning about their personalities and their motivations, and The Origami King does so by putting the Mushroom Kingdom's lore to some of the best use I've ever seen.
So yeah, if you've been following the series through the years, you know that we've been here before. Let's face it, Paper Mario really doesn't want to lean more towards its RPG roots, nor to be deeper or more engaging, as the game remains indecisive when it comes to implementing some of the more elaborate mechanics.
The Origami King's amazing sense of humour and its great level design and boss battles are interwoven with some fairly mundane sequences and an unexciting combat system that never really gets going. If you were ok with all that in previous entries, add a number to score below. If you're unsure and wanted more addictive mechanics in there, or if you think you won't enjoy that much reading, then the score below stands. This could've been more, I would've loved it to be more, and I think we can demand a bit more, but it seems like the game and its creators prevented it from evolving into what this could have been.