Paper Mario: The Origami King Review – Innovative Turn-Based Combat

Paper Mario: The Origami King may not be the very best entry in the series but its combat system makes it one of the most memorable installments to date.

Photo: Nintendo

Turn-based RPGs have been around since the ‘80s and have offered many different variations on combat. Since this genre is one of the oldest in video games, it’s become increasingly rare to see new innovations in turn-based combat.

Paper Mario: The Origami King is one of those rare titles that brings something wholly unique to the genre, offering turn-based combat that’s ostensibly simple but over time reveals itself to be deceptively complex and mind-numbingly challenging, particularly later in the game. Nintendo is known for introducing new, innovative concepts in its games, and Paper Mario: The Origami King’s combat is one of their very best contributions in recent memory.

This is how combat works: Mario is positioned inside a circle, from which four concentric circles (or rings) radiate out. Each of those rings is divided into twelve segments, making for a total of 48 tiles surrounding the paper-made plumber. Enemies are positioned on the tiles in jumbled formation and…this is where things get interesting.

Each turn is essentially a puzzle. Your primary task is to slide the tiles around in order to line up the enemies neatly so that Mario can attack them in groups. Mario attacks in various shapes (lines, squares) depending on which weapon you choose (boots for stomping, hammers for smashing or throwing), and there are often multiple ways to slide enemies into the correct formations.

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Check out how this works in the video below:

You’re given a limited number of moves and a very limited amount of time to figure out your plan of attack, but if you align the enemies perfectly and press A at the right when Mario attacks to earn extra damage (a trademark feature for the series), it’s possible to take every single enemy out at once while taking no damage yourself. If you aren’t able to align your enemies correctly, however, they’ll have their turn to attack. When your turn comes around again, the enemies are re-scrambled and you’re faced with a new sliding-tile puzzle to solve.

The brilliant thing about the puzzle mechanic is that it raises the stakes of combat. In other words, the puzzles aren’t arbitrary. If you aren’t able to solve the puzzle, there are consequences, and the battle will be much more difficult to win. If you don’t improve your puzzle-solving skills, you’ll have a tough time with Paper Mario: The Origami King. You won’t be able to simply brute-force your way through the enemies in the game. This makes combat more intellectually stimulating than most turn-based RPGs, and I found myself looking forward to even the most common enemy encounters just to give my brain a workout.

The combat system seems relatively simple at first glance, and in certain respects, it is. Mario is your only controllable character, which is highly unconventional for a turn-based RPG, and there’s really only one way to approach normal enemy encounters — line ‘em up! But there are nuances that bubble to the surface and make combat engaging and addictive, and it all elegantly ties into the game’s exploration sections.

As you traverse an origami-invaded Mushroom Kingdom with Olivia, whose brother, Olly, has kidnapped Princess Peach, seized her castle, and sent his origami minions to loot and pillage the rest of the kingdom, you’ll uncover dozens of Toads hiding from Olly’s troops, folded up and tucked away across the game world. As you rescue them, they become the “audience” to Mario’s fights, sitting in the stands surrounding the circular battlefield. During the battle, you can pay them coins to cheer extra loud and get involved in the fight, causing damage to your foes, which can be useful when a puzzle is particularly tricky to solve. And in certain sections of the game, you’re joined by an ally who will do extra damage to enemies should you fail to solve a puzzle.

Coins can be spent in other ways to aid you in battle, too. You can spend them to add to the puzzle countdown clock (I used this feature with embarrassing frequency), and you can, of course, spend them on items and weapons before battle to give you an extra boost. Needless to say, using coins during battle is definitely helpful.

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Release Date: July 17, 2020
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Action-adventure

I tried to avoid all forms of extra, in-combat help, only using them as a last-ditch effort. Sure, the Toads and allies’ attacks could help me in a pinch, but having to use them meant that I’d failed to solve the puzzle, which ate me up inside. This forced me to improve my puzzle-solving skills, which is by far the most enjoyable thing about the game. This isn’t a knock on the game’s other strengths, of which there are many.

The art design is delightfully whimsical and imaginative, with environments and set pieces that made me laugh out loud and drew me into the story. And the characters and dialogue are fantastic as well. I even got a little choked up when one of the allies you meet early in the game does a particularly selfless act to save another. I enjoyed this game in myriad ways, but I can’t emphasize enough how much I adore the combat.

Since the game’s release, the combat system has been a point of contention among critics and fans alike, with some loving the puzzle-infused combat and others claiming it’s too repetitive and suffers from a lack of a traditional RPG character progression system. I can certainly understand why one would itch for a leveling system, But I couldn’t agree more with Nintendo’s decision to omit a leveling system from the game (you can improve your max HP and strength stats when you find and equip special items, but that’s the extent of it). 

Combat in Paper Mario: The Origami King was engaging and rewarding enough to compel me to finish the game, and I felt a traditional progression system was unnecessary because you do make progress as a player as you play through the game — it’s just not tracked onscreen in the form of extensive stat menus. Getting progressively better at the puzzle aspect of the game is addictive in the same way that playing, say, Tetris or traditional Mario platformers might be. No, you don’t level up in-game. But you do improve as a player, and this is enough.

There is also an additional layer of depth to combat in the form of the game’s boss fights, which are grueling and can take upwards of 20 minutes per try. They use the same radial battlefield as normal fights except that the bosses occupy the center circle and Mario must work his way from the outside circle to the center. Tiles feature various symbols that cause different effects. Arrows cause Mario to run in a certain direction, attack tiles allow you to, well, attack. Magic tiles allow you to use various special abilities that Mario acquires throughout the game, though you must step on an “On” button tile in order to turn them on. The objective is to slide the tiles around in an arrangement that gets Mario into an advantageous position to attack the boss where it’s weak. Sometimes, it’s in your best interest to set Mario up for a normal or special attack. Other times, it’s more advantageous to use a special ability defensively to avoid an impending boss attack.

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The boss battles are the most challenging puzzles in the game, and there were many times when I felt incredibly frustrated because I couldn’t figure out the best plan of attack, let alone line up the tiles to implement them. But when I did finally suss out how to best dispatch each boss, it felt deeply rewarding.

There are perhaps better overall entries in the Paper Mario series than The Origami King (The Thousand-Year Door is tough to beat as it’s a masterpiece), but this installment easily boasts the best combat system in the series, and for my money, one of the best combat systems of any turn-based RPG in recent memory.