In the long, indoorsy days of late-stage lockdown, a summer Paper Mario release promises – and delivers – a bright technicolour escape. Paper Mario is a playful, RPG-alike branch off the main Super Mario tree, and from the jump, Origami King is charmingly self-aware, full of self-referential pastiche. The writing is almost millennial in tone: sharp, knowing and flirting with self-deprecation. In combination with tight scripting, this humour makes it a scream from start to finish.
The simple Princess-Peach-Has-Been-Kidnapped-Again story is just a frame that allows the game to play with you as you’re playing it, tongue firmly in cheek. Every crumpled-up Toad hidden in a bush knows it is a Toad, knows it is made of paper and has something scathing to say about being hidden in a bush in the first place. (It also probably knows that you preferred Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door and didn’t like Sticker Star.)
Landscapes are rendered exquisitely in cardboard and craft materials. There is a tactile element to this design: playing it feels like moving a tiny figure around a hand-constructed diorama. Houses become like milk cartons or boxes, composed of layers of paper and card. The sets are seldom what they seem at first – as the origami theme suggests, they have potential to shapeshift.
In battle, Origami King slows right down. When a fight commences, we snap into a battle arena that is also a puzzle disc, which must be solved before Mario can jump on any enemies. I understand the conceit here – that the movement of the puzzle board is an extension of the origami theme – but it is finicky and over-complicated. Speedier fights against enormous papier-mache Goombas and Koopas are far more dynamic, and I would have gladly forgone the battle arenas entirely to leap around the world with my hammer instead.
Much of what you do in Origami King is absurd – such as sourcing the perfect disco track to lure a dancing hole-punch out of his hiding place – but beyond the trademark Mario playfulness and levity, there is also a dose of pathos that lends some contrast to the bright, sharp dialogue. A brief section where Mario is accompanied by a Bob-omb is executed beautifully, with some lovely moments of reflection in the aftermath.
This is a highly detailed game that spans several huge, very involved worlds – one of which is an incredibly specific riff on the The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, to give an idea of scale. For me, the heart of the game is in its hidden coffee shops. Sometimes, Mario will discover a hole in the wall that, when mended with magical confetti, becomes a door – and the cave beyond it contains a cafe, populated by familiar faces. You can restore health here, but that isn’t necessarily what the coffee shop is for. It feels reminiscent of the tea-break sequences in EarthBound: a moment of pause, to ground the player within the fiction in front of them.
It might be made of papercraft, but Origami King has a lot of structural integrity, and unexpected depth. If you don’t fold at the tricky battle mechanics, the reward is an elevated, postmodern delight.