Paper Mario: The Origami King hands-on preview – the charm of Nintendo magic

The first big Nintendo Switch release since Animal Crossing is the funniest game since The Thousand-Year Door.

For perfectly understandable reasons a lot of fans are getting very agitated about Nintendo’s continued silence this year. It’s almost 12 months since they’ve announced a major new game and while there are believable rumours about upcoming Super Mario remasters there’s been absolutely nothing official. But there is one new game that’s revealed this year and if you’re getting withdrawal symptoms from Nintendo magic then Paper Mario: The Origami King has it in spades.

Since traditional hands-on previews can’t happen at the moment, thanks to the coronavirus, we’re in the difficult situation – much like with The Last Of Us Part 2 – where our first hands-on is only a week before the game is out.

This preview is useful though, as a way to avoid any misconceptions about what the game is, as the Paper Mario series is an unusual one amongst the Nintendo pantheon, in that the first two are highly regarded but more recent sequels have been increasingly pillorised – and not without good reason. The Origami King is an attempt to return the series to its former glory, although it does not go about doing so in the manner many fans will have been imagining.

The first Paper Mario was a straight-up Japanese role-playing game and spiritual successor to Square’s Super Mario RPG. It featured more action elements than usual for the genre, but it also had stats, levelling up, and all the traditional trimmings of the genre. So did sequel The Thousand-Year Door, which is rightly regarded as an all-time classic and the high watermark for the franchise. But The Origami King is not a role-playing game and its similarity to The Thousand-Year Door is not as pronounced as many would assume.

The important distinction is that The Origami King is not, in any reasonable definition of the word, a role-playing game. There’s no levelling up or any significant character customisation. At this stage of the game at least there are no other party members that fight in combat and there’s no equivalent of magic, summons, or other genre mainstays. It doesn’t fit neatly into any genre pigeon hole, so, like The Legend Of Zelda, it’s best to just describe it as an action adventure.

The fact that the combat is turn-based may have some insisting that the game still counts as a role-player, but that’s irrelevant since games like XCOM are turn-based and they’re certain not role-playing games. In any case, the combat system in The Origami King is fairly unique as while it revolves around jumping on enemies, or hitting them with hammers, in the traditional Paper Mario fashion (including timing your button presses to do more damage) there’s a brand new puzzle element too.

Instead of taking place on a flat 2D plane combat occurs on a dartboard-like stage with Mario in the middle. The stage is divided up into different rows and columns that can be rotated around him, with the idea that before you attack you have a limited time to try and line-up the enemies so they’re in a neat row or 2×2 formation that can be attacked all at once. You only get a limited number of times you can move the stage, depending on how many enemies there are, so rather than a tactical consideration this is treated more as a straight puzzle-solving exercise.

It’s an odd concept but the combat is a lot of fun and it’s highly satisfying to reorganise a seemingly random mess of enemies into neat rows with just a couple of moves, right before you attempt to knock their blocks off. The controversial element though is that because there’s no levelling up there’s no real reward for combat beyond coins and confetti (used to paper over holes in the game world), both of which are in ample supply outside of combat.

But while it feels like this should be some fatal error on a part of the game design it doesn’t really feel like that, in part because combat is very fast paced and never so frequent that you ever get sick of it. Unlike previous games, there’s no faffing around with collectable stickers that you’re never sure if you should use or not and no encounter lasts long enough to overstay its welcome.

Boss battles play out a little differently in that you’ve still got the same circular stage but this time you have to plot out a course with arrows for Mario to follow, making sure he also runs over marks allowing him to attack or pick up extra health along the way. It’s very abstract but enjoyably weird, which is a pretty good way to sum up the whole game.

The plot is typical nonsense and starts with the arrival of the self-styled Origami King, who has folded up all the 2D inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom, including Princess Peach, and turned them into zombie-like, origami versions of their former selves. Bowser has also been captured, although folded up into an impotent square, and Mario and Luigi are next in line until they meet up with The Origami King’s non-evil sister Olivia.

As implied, part of the reason why the combat doesn’t seem a waste of time is it’s not really the focus of the game. Instead exploration and comedy is. The Thousand-Year Door is acclaimed for being one of the most consistently funny games ever and in that respect The Origami King is close to its equal. Most of the best jokes come from the near infinite range of toads you have to rescue, many of which have also been folded up into origami and hidden in plain sight.

Their little wise cracks when you find them are frequently hilarious and quickly becomes the main reason you want to find them (they can also be a mild help in battle, as part of the crowd). ‘It’s a beautiful day where I bet nothing bad can happen’ says one, before adding: ‘Unrelated, I have amnesia’. While another proclaims how much they enjoy peace and quiet, before musing that they should probably give up their job as a teacher.

The Origami King is a great deal of fun in terms of both its combat and exploration but it’s most important feature is just how damn charming it is. Even when it’s not being outright funny the attractive cartoon visuals and general sense of fun and silliness is impossible to hate. Which is not the easy pass it may sound like, as all the previous games had those same elements and yet the last couple were a chore to play through. But The Origami King is not and we can’t wait to talk about it more next week.

Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: 17th July 2020

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