The Paper Mario series thrives on a clever irreverence that can be hard to maintain. Its outlandish scenarios mash the absurdist, dreamlike world of the Mushroom Kingdom and the mundanity of the real world. It takes jabs at the very concepts that inspire it, nodding knowingly at the audience and whispering, “This whole thing’s kind of weird, right?” It’s a fun take on the usually-earnest Mario games, but that kind of slyness turns grating when the bits–or, in the case of a game, systems–that are supposed to prop it up don’t work, which is where the last couple of Paper Mario games have struggled. But in surprising course-correction, Paper Mario: The Origami King’s most clever trick is how its overhauled combat complements its sharp wit, turning the series’ Achilles’ heel into one of its biggest strengths.
Paper Mario: The Origami King’s conceptual gimmick is how its titular origami king, Olly, transforms the flat cutouts of the Paper Mario universe, folding them into subservient, 3D origami figures, and kidnaps Princess Peach along with her entire castle, wrapping both up in a wall of colorful streamers. So now Mario, along with Olly’s repentant sister Olivia, need to flatten everything out again. The origami premise adds a nice visual flair to the already-gorgeous papercraft look of the series, and you get to see yet another take on Goombas, Shy Guys, and Koopas, even if this time they’re imbued with a slightly creepy energy.
Like other Paper Mario games, The Origami King is less about plot and more about throwing a joke at you at every turn, whether it’s a smart turn of phrase, one-off bits that reward you for exploring its environments with a gag or item, or extended setpieces that deliver killer moments. Not every joke or bit lands, but they hit far more than they falter: a theater play that quickly takes a turn for the weird, a guessing game that has you desperately looking at a Snifit’s face for any sign of emotion, an extended sequences that riffs, of all things, on The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The Origami King is consistently sharp, using both Mario characters and its interactivity to tell some great jokes.
That’s been true of the Paper Mario series for a while now, but The Origami King also manages to find new life in its combat–something the series hasn’t done in a while. Moving away from the limiting and resource-dependent combat of the last couple of entries, The Origami King instead has you arranging enemies on a circular, tile-based grid around Mario. Your goal is to rotate or slide the tiles on the grid to arrange enemies in lines or squares, making them easy to plow through with your jumps or hammer. Every encounter is essentially a timed puzzle with one or more “correct” solutions, and you’re encouraged to solve them quickly, usually in a single turn.
Every fight requires just the right amount of involvement–not so simple that you’re mashing your way through them, but not so intricate that a few fights wear you out. Even early on, when fights require just two clearly telegraphed steps to solve, the extra effort it takes to arrange enemies then time your attacks properly made me want to wade into fights rather than avoid them.