Paper Mario: The Origami King Taught Me Patience

Being someone with the attention span of an overcaffienated dying moth in a Dave & Busters, it’s very difficult for me to enjoy anything for longer than a few minutes. Despite this, I take incredible pleasure in obsessing constantly over stuff. I enjoy pouring encyclopedic whale-diarrhea into the open steaming overpopulated cesspool that is my memory.

Three years ago, my friends and I were in the type of packed, loud, youthful bar that only someone who is not me could have recommended we finish our bar-hopping evening, and I ran into a sorority girl I knew from school. She was the only media student at CSUSB who lived in a sorority-funded house near the campus. Naturally, every pseudo-filmmaker became her friend so she would allow us to use her house in our films for free.

That evening she had been drinking heavily with a group of men I could only assume were all in unrequited love with her. I said, “hello”. We started a casual conversation which ultimately ended up in my favorite category at that time: movie. In the loud crowded dance-ful bar I hovered over this young woman and gleefully re-enacted the following meme:

I have a recurrent life struggle that involves learning almost everything about a game, movie, book, series, or entire genre then failing to watch, read, or play past the prologue. Then I walk around with this laughably large amount of talking points at-the-ready, but once the conversation about that subject comes up I am legally required to say my least favorite 5 words ever: “I haven’t played it, but…” Most folks just want to talk about the aspects of the media they engaged with while they consumed it, the hole in my information doughnut. Most folks are normal folks. This girl was as normal as normal folks get.

The girl at this bar was in no way the first or last person I had dumped by thoughts onto. (I mean, honestly, this entire blog is an attempt to filter out these urges in a productive manner so I don’t violently mansplain Gundam or Shin Megami Tensei facts and opinions all over my wife or strangers in the street.) Starting my statements with “Do you remember that one part…” or “I loved when…” would have made that conversation unfold more smoothly. Unfortunately, I came in with “Did you know…” type statement which don’t make for engaging conversation whatsoever.

After about three minutes of pure one-sided conversation, this woman, who was quite drunk and therefore more honest than any of my mansplaining victims likely ever had been, turned directly to me and, with a jestful drunken smile and laugh, said,

“Oh my god, I hate talking to you.”

My first reaction was absolute shock. I asked her why and she said, “You’re just so…” then she placed both of her hands on her head, expanded them out in a little burst motion while sticking out her tongue, and finished her statement with the word, “… bleh!” There was no anger or even frustration in her voice as she said this. I don’t think she had any negative feelings towards me. It was just her honest opinion unfiltered by the social norms fortified by sobriety. I wondered how many others held this opinion without expressing it.

This is all because I am interested in the aspects of media that do not bode well for conversations, yet still have a burning desire to talk. I am a monologist, not a friend. I am an anecdote collector, not an experiencer. For this reason, I’ve always struggled with two things: socialization and video games.

Video games are, without a doubt, the most interesting entertainment medium in the world right now. More is happening that is captivating and unique in video games than movies, books, TV, or music. For this reason, I have spent the last 7 years of my life constantly watching gaming youtubers, reading gaming news articles, and learning about gaming history. For the reason of my insatiable hunger for factoids, I rarely ever finish a video game for longer than 10 hours. After 10 hours, I feel like I have experienced the vast majority of the game’s characters, mechanics, aesthetics, pros, and cons. All that is left after the first 10 hours is the completion of the story. After 10 hours, the game begins to feel like a chore. For this reason, my favorite games are typically shorter independent experiences. My favorite games of all time are Undertale, Portal 2, Celeste, and Journey.

I want to change this about myself, so I set out to play and write about $60 games that require a much larger time commitment than I usually am interested in. Now that college is over and I have more free time between work hours I want to dedicate more of myself to this hobby of mine. I want to play larger titles and write about my experiences and thoughts on this blog. For these reasons, I purchased Paper Mario: The Origami King.

I had an overall negative opinion about Paper Mario: The Origami King for the first 10 hours. There were good peppy moments that I enjoyed, but overall it made me angry too often to say I was having a good time with it. If not for swearing to write this review (and having paid $60 for it), I would have given up on the game in the Shogun Studios level. I had written a scathing review of the first 10 hours to get ahead for my review of the whole, assuming it would be the same experience the rest of the way through, but, because I stuck with it and pushed through to when the story actually took off, I can say that I finished and have a positive opinion of Paper Mario: The Origami King.

As we all know, the Paper Mario series exists beneath the shadow of The Thousand Year door, a fluke in Nintendo’s history where a game was permitted to make unique characters out of Mario assets and explore areas foreign to the classic elementally based locations. TTYD is lauded as an exceptional RPG and many believe that until Paper Mario begins to resemble it again, the series will never be good.

The Origami King still does not allow for differentiating characters and the levels are mostly recognizable Mario locations, but the game has still found many different ways to be fun, engaging, and pause-demandingly hilarious. Paper Mario: The Origami King is a huge step forward for Paper Mario and a sign of hope for the future of the series.

I would have never realized any of this if I hadn’t played through the game. All of the good would have been obscured and only communicated through the excited explanations of others on the internet. The game still has many flaws, but I don’t regret a moment of my time spent playing it. Had I tossed it aside as I usually do, I would have wasted 10 hours and $60.

So what did I find in the last 20 hours of my playthrough? Keep reading to see.

Characters

In some dark scary boardroom on the 13 ½th floor of a Japanese skyscraper, Shigeru Miyamoto and his goons tied up every Nintendo character designer who ever edited any staple Mario characters, even as much as drawing a moustache on goomba, and chopped all of their heads off. These designers’ heads sit on spikes on the top of every corner in the Paper Mario offices looking down on the developers as a constant reminder of their heresy.

For this reason, nary a single character besides a Toad with a full time job and 401k can wear as much as a non-regulation hat. The only characters that can be truly original must contain zero art assets from previous Mario games and are not permitted to exist after the story of the game is complete. A recent VGC interview with Kensuke Tanabe confirms this.

Paper Mario games must also be focused on the fact that the world is made of paper-craft. What seemed at first to merely be a method of presentation to work around the graphical limitations of the Nintendo 64 has now become the sole theme and aesthetic philosophical core of the series.

So, the problem of Paper Mario is that new characters must fit into the world’s aesthetic, yet cannot be normal inhabitants of that universe.

How do you create a new set of characters that fit into a pre-established highly-thematized world, yet feel like outsiders who can be erased from the history of that place after the story is finished? How do you create a character who is made of the same material of that reality yet is unlike anything that reality has ever seen, whose existence is at odds with the core rules and ideas of this pre-established place? Is there even really a better answer to this question than putting origami characters into a world of paper?

Not only is the addition of Olly and his origami army a great answer to this problem, but it is a weirdly perfect solution to a problem exclusive to Paper Mario. It hadn’t occurred to me while first seeing it, but after learning of the limitations the Paper Mario team was under, it’s a brilliant way to get the most out of what they were given.

For one, this puts all of the members of the normal Mario reality onto the side of the player. Major complaints from earlier Post-TTYD Paper Mario games is that every non-enemy NPC is a generic Toad. Now that the enemies are origami renditions of classic Mario baddies and the whole of the established Mario universe has banded together to fight this alien menace, the wealth of cute quirky former enemies can now populate spaces and provide much-needed variety to the areas’ citizenry. Areas are still toad-heavy, but it’s a far more diverse crowd.

This also allows two brand-spankin’-new characters to enter the story, Olly and Olivia. It is revealed that Olly was Pinnocchio-ed into existence by an origami-master Toad. Once Olly became sentient he made Olivia and an unstoppable Origami army through the same process that created him. Olivia recognized that Olly’s actions are unjustified and tyrannical, so, she aligns herself against her own creator. I love this. Philip K. Dick would love this. The development of these living beings, the hostile takeover of the Mushroom Kingdom, and the zombie-ish enslavement of the paper citizens through being folded into militant automaton versions of themselves are all consequences of a single act of playing God and creating a life. All of this is included in a narrative with goofy musical numbers, boss-battles against Staples® products, and mushroom people.

Olly immediately establishes himself as a more impending menace than Bowser has ever been by literally bending the reality of the Paper Mushroom Kingdom. His imposing threat of altering the Mushroom Kingdom citizens into his mindless origami slave zombies gives a feeling of existential terror. The most sacred of truths of the Paper Mario universe are warped by this otherworldly entity. No one in this paper world knew about origami at all, making them all completely powerless to it like “dip” for the Who Framed Roger Rabbit cartoon characters. Olly’s takeover is a fate worse than death.

Contrastingly, Olivia is a simple character who is friendly and excitable. She is a master of the game’s mechanics, yet a stranger to the setting. She is the first “Hey, Listen” character I’ve experienced that never annoyed me. I actually adore Olivia. She’s simple, but by the end I felt completely bonded to her. When she sacrifices herself to remove her and Olly from existence I felt feelings in my feely parts. I was emotionally engaged with her, and I was sad to see her go. Once you beat the game, you can go back to the moment just before the final boss fight so that you can have all your post-game fun with your buddy in your pocket (also, the world wouldn’t be as interesting to explore without enemies). The only complaint I would have about Olivia is that she is often used as the “you are having fun” medium for the game designers. She yells things like, “Wow this is amazing!” and “That was so much fun!” typically during moments I found frustrating. At least someone enjoyed the ninja-house part.

While Olly and Olivia have some decent characterization, the mainstay Mario regulars are contractually bland. Our main buddy throughout the 2nd and 3rd fifths of the game is a laid-back Bob-omb Olivia nicknames “Bobby”. Bobby also has amnesia, so despite having a technical personality trait, laid-backishness, he is basically a blank-slate Bob-omb.

While playing the game, I found Bobby frustrating. I liked him a lot, but he refused to become interesting. I knew there was a rich personality with a lifetime of experiences behind his faux relaxation, but his contractual obligation to exude nothing but Bob-ombian normality stopped us from getting any closer. When he did get his memory back, it angered me, because almost nothing interesting was revealed. Bobby definitely surprised me by the end of his section in the story, though…

If you haven’t played this game and are merely a spoiler-hungry review-diver, I implore you to go and play it before continuing to read. If you read past this sentence, I am not even sure I would recommend Paper Mario: The Origami King. What I am about to discuss completely changed my opinion about this game. What I am about to discuss added an entire star to my final score. I’m not certain that if you hear about it here, it will have the same effect. Last chance. Alright.

Olivia gets trapped under a giant boulder in the middle of the game. Bobby comes up with a way to get her out that requires him and Mario to go to Princess Peach’s abandoned yacht to find a missing object he remembered when he got his memories back. Being lead through this tangent in the game did feel like sort of a chore. All I wanted was to blow through this section, get Olivia back, and continue our forward progression. This is also the first time Olivia was gone, meaning I could no longer hint-pause the combat to get extra time solving puzzles. I was anxious to get her back and be done with this stupid bourgeois yacht. Bobby gets what he needs and we return to the boulder.

Like waiting for a retail employee to collect my order from the back of the store, I tapped my foot and looked at my watch waiting for Bobby to do what he needed in order to get Olivia back so we can get going. Imagine my surprise when Bobby says he’s ready and there is a fuse sticking out of his head. I hadn’t even noticed the absence of that fuse before this sequence. My heart stops. I sit up on my sofa. Bobby explains that this is what Bob-ombs do. The fuse lights. I am certain that something will stop this from happening. Bobby sprints towards the boulder. Mario runs after him, desperately trying to stop him. Bobby and the boulder explode. Bobby is dead. Our Bob-omb buddy just sacrificed his life to save Olivia. The characters mourn his death and speak of him as an absent friend at various points of the rest of the game.

Before this part, I wasn’t taking the story of the game seriously. I thought it was all just hacked-out holding-pattern story-writing. Now the boring, lonely beginning section changed in my mind into a slow, simple buildup. I realized that if I had given the game up, I would’ve missed this moment. From then on, I enjoyed the game so much more. I recognized that there was more going on than what I was seeing. The frustration and annoyances felt much smaller.

I was so impressed by how, despite the game’s best efforts to make Bobby a blank-slate, I still connected with him at a deep enough level to mourn his death and appreciate his sacrifice. Bobby had no interesting backstory or discernible characteristics, but spending time with him naturally made me care in a way so subtle I didn’t even notice it was happening. I thought about how despite the character being shallow and uninteresting, I still cared about him. Was this Stockholm Syndrome, or the natural inclinations of human socialization?

Later on we fire dozens of Bob-ombs out of a cannon to their immediate deaths, though. I couldn’t help but feel a bit conflicted about this action. It could have just been faceless nameless non-sentient cannonballs, instead of identical clones of my best bud I was still mourning. This highlights a natural dissonance of Nintendo’s “no original characters” rule. If every Bob-omb is the same and I cared for one Bob-omb as a friend, how can I comfortably kill them again? If Bobby wasn’t special, then that means all Bob-ombs have the potential to be loved. Paper Mario: The Origami King could’ve been retitled Mushroom Kingdom History X starring Edward Norton as Mario.

“Character” and setting.

Character seems to be the main thing holding back Paper Mario in terms of narrative. By ‘character” I’m referring to all of the things that would be listed on a sheet of descriptions for a place, event, or person. I’m talking about history, personality, difficult experiences, pros, cons, likes, dislikes, aspirations, culture, ideology, and backstory. The richness of character depends on how many things we can place on that sheet. If you put too little, you end up with Mario himself or Level 1-1, surface-level people and places that just act as visual prompts for movement and colors. Put too much and the player needs to read thousands of words in the pause menu in order to understand what is happening during gameplay. TTYD is loved for striking the perfect balance of character and world-richness without sabotaging the fun. The Origami King greatly struggles with this.

My favorite location in the entire game was the repurposed Shroom City in the Sandpaper Desert, because of how rich it was with character. In the midst of the desert, a city built and populated by toads with eons of history is now repurposed by Snifits into a neon-lit party-town to combat the missing sun over the desert. (I guess this desert has its own sun. It’s fine.) Beneath the neon lighting you can see an old Egypt-y sand town full of ancient messages written in a language only your archeologist Professor Toad friend can read. On the very surface of this city is a jumping happy party place, but literally underneath that is a mystery of vanished toads that inhabited this space for ages. As I walked around this city I felt the need to explore and come to know the location better. It was no Final Fantasy town, but I was at least engaged.

Shogun Studios is a theme park overrun by the bad guys. That’s really it. The workers are hiding or kidnapped in the rides. Its more interesting than grasslands, but still as shallow as any theme park. This is also the game’s point-and-click adventure segment where you must walk back and forth through the whole park, getting into battles, and looking for doors you haven’t gone through yet. This is the point where the crushing sense of loneliness and boredom made me want to play something else. Walking through an empty Disneyland sounds intriguing on paper, but schlepping back and forth through the same empty areas looking for whatever random key is needed to progress gets old quickly.

RPG towns should be places that are rich with intrigue. When leaving a location, the player should feel like they just experienced a new culture. A town should feel like a person, dripping with traumas, tendencies, internal conflicts, and flaws. The people within those towns should also feel like people. Town NPCs should have stuff going on in their personal lives, even if it’s as simple as, “My good for nothing husband hasn’t been home since yesterday. I bet he’s at the saloon again.” Then if that guy is in the saloon, congratulations, you’re involved in a marital dispute in this town you came to rest in. These are beautiful little moments of rest, reprieve, and appreciation between battle and story intensities. It’s unfortunate that Paper Mario is so geared against this, and it really hurts the parts of the game where you’re just walking around, which is a lot of it.

Set Pieces

Paper Mario is fun. Fun is Paper Mario. If I knew someone who was in a horrific car accident and had forgotten what ‘fun’ was due to blunt-force trauma, I would use a Paper Mario game to remind them. Which Paper Mario game I show them would depend on how much I liked them pre-crash. I’m not sure why I’d be in charge of someone I dislike’s video game diet, but adventure is out there, I suppose.

Paper Mario seems to shine the brightest when it takes away it’s standard gameplay and replaces it with bombastic histrionic live-theater participation segments. There are various moments like the Shogun Studios elevator segment and the “Shy guys finish last” game show. At seemingly random times, the game will pluck your from your adventuring and place you in these bright pachinko-esque Fusion Frenzian mini games. Along with the occasional music numbers, these segments are often fun, breezy, occasionally hectic parties.

Sometimes these segments can piss me right the heck off. The aforementioned ninja house segment, where you have to find every folded toad in a ninja funhouse while being attacked by the level itself and being thrown into battles with origami ninja boys who are the hardest enemies at that point in the game frustrated me. I went through this section 3 times until I found the hidden entrance to the employee breakroom where Luigi was hiding. I was having zero fun at this part.

When it comes to these segments, the bigger, louder, more colorful, yet simpler, the better. These big loud sections are what kept me going through the initial annoyances.

Combat and Difficulty

Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the combat. That being said, I love wooden block puzzles and calling myself a stupid piece of sh*t when I can’t solve them. The combat has been called “punishing” and “unforgiving” by other gaming outlets, but I didn’t find it all that hard. I just think it makes you feel dumb a lot. There was always a solution, I was just too dumb to figure some of them out. I even cheated…. a lot.

There is a timer counting down in the top right hand corner, but if you ask for a hint from Olivia she will tell you some useless information, momentarily pausing the clock. I used this cheat all the time. I used this cheat more often than I didn’t use this cheat. Ultimately, I think this crutch was far more detrimental to my enjoyment of the game than not.

For the few sections Olivia was not in the party, I was subjected to engaging in combat without my crutch, and, lo and behold, these sections were actually less stressful, combat-wise. Accepting that I couldn’t solve a certain puzzle in time made it less painful to fail. It gave a little more shame-leeway. I didn’t call myself a “stupid dumb idiot” for failing to come up with a solution in 60 seconds like when I had all the time in the world. So that’s my big takeaway: The combat is more enjoyable when you do it as it was designed. But, isn’t deciding to make Olivia’s hints pause the timer part of the design? They could have kept the timer running or obscured the board so the player couldn’t see it. If they didn’t want me to cheat like this, then why make it so easy to do?

Also, whenever I would fail at combat too many times in a row, the puzzles would suddenly start being easier. I think they may have worked in a difficulty drop when someone seems like they might be getting frustrated. I appreciated this until I noticed it. Then, every time I got an easy puzzle, I felt patronized. I’d rather feel too dumb than like a big baby that needs to have things simplified for him.

The game overall has a very laissez faire attitude towards difficulty. Scattered throughout the game are myriad “do you just wanna skip this part?” buttons. On one hand this annoys me, on the other, I get it. There were plenty of little annoyances throughout my playthrough, and I admittedly skipped through sections I didn’t find enjoyable when I could. (I would’ve skipped the ninja part if it was an option.) Paper Mario is a series mostly made to be enjoyed, and, while difficulty is enjoyable for many, Paper Mario is not the franchise that needs to really put our wits to the test. It’s a cartoon fun time chuckle-rich hang out session, not Dark Souls. A certain amount of challenge is necessary to keep the player awake, but if you can’t get past the part where you have to stop the falling pot by grabbing the rope at the perfect time, you’re probably no longer having fun. If beating a challenge makes you shout “FINALLY, JESUS!” instead of “I’M THE GREATEST IN THE WORLD!” there’s no shame in skipping it, in my lazy shame-filled opinion.

Some might agree with me by saying, “It’s also a game aimed at children.” In that case, I think I would have to disagree with you agreeing with me. Throughout this game I thought things like, “There’s no way a 10-year-old would have figured that out,” and “What kid would understand the term ‘affirmative gesture’?” Kids wouldn’t find the same pleasure in the humor or the puzzle combat as an adult would. I was a pretty dumb kid (even dumber than I am now if you can believe that), so maybe I’m biased, but I know for a fact I wouldn’t have gotten very far into this game until about age 14, and at that point I would’ve called it a “baby game”.

These games aren’t for kids. Nintendo isn’t for kids. Nintendo is for grown ups who need youthful joy drip-fed to them from a nostalgic IV. It’s important for Nintendo to maintain their family-friendly aesthetic, but that is only for the purpose of slowing down the millennial suicide rate. Nintendo is a major influence of me getting out of bed. I go to work to make money to afford a place to play Nintendo games.

Despite this, Paper Mario often made me feel like a child in a bad way. They always explicitly tell you stuff you already figured out on your own. Olivia always chimes in with solutions before you even understand the problem. Not much can be discovered with exploration, so diverging from the linear path will only lead you towards needing to return to it empty-handed. It’s better to just move forward without exploring, because we wouldn’t want baby to get lost!

The game is a sight-seeing tour. I think the Shogun Studios section annoyed me so much, because I was already feeling like I was at a theme park. The first few hours felt like the story-heavy rides where some young aspiring actor gets on a TV screen and says they need your help to save the world by sitting down on this roller coaster and keeping your hands and feet within the vehicle at all times.

The game is malignantly infected with hints. You access a hint at any time by pressing ‘Y’. I confuse buttons a lot, so, I accidentally hit ‘Y’ all the time and was subjected to getting a hint for a puzzle I had either already figured out or just hadn’t solved yet. Sometimes if you’re taking too long, Olivia will hit you with a unrequested hint! After the first 12 or so hours of resisting this, I started just pushing the hint button any time the solution wasn’t glaringly apparent. I enjoy figuring stuff out on my own, but after the game made it painfully clear it didn’t want me to strain myself thinking, I just let go. I allowed my mind to slip through the waterfall with ease as I watched all the puzzles I could’ve deduced on my own just fly by. All the fun of thinking about going to the gym, but never getting off the couch.

Humor

I played The Origami King how I play every game: In handheld mode on silent while simulateously trying to watch a tv show from the early 2000s and listen to my wife talk about her day. So, luckily, my wife was rippin’ a fat deuce in the other room for a bit so I could have the audio on and pick up on my favorite joke of the whole game. When you first meet Bobby on a gondola lift Olivia invites him to join the party. Bobby responds with a playing-hard-to-get obviously-disingenuous refusal that begs for Olivia to just give the lightest amount of insistence. Then, the music cuts out and Olivia directly and emotionlessly aplogizes for bothering him then sits back down. I had already written the rest of that scene in my head, where Olivia insists and says they’ll have fun and Bobby immediately gives in. The music cutting and the scene playing out in the complete opposite way made me laugh so hard my wife cut her poop short so see what was so funny. She didn’t get it.

I think most of the credit for the game’s humor goes to the localization team. There are so many little moments in dialogue that referenced trends, memes, and pop culture in a way that felt really fresh. The humor itself made up for all of the issues I had with the game. It is just uproariously funny and only a handful of jokes didn’t land. I recommend this game on humor value alone.

Conclusion

Paper Mario: The Origami King feels like the less successful child of a famous artist who has a strong fanbase. It’s like the Sofia Coppola of video games. It will, unfortunately, have to endure comparison to The Thousand Year Door, but there is also so much to like about it that is unique. Conversation about it will always eventually lean towards it’s famous predecessor, but there are many who love it for what it is. We can also only speculate how it would stand on it’s own if not propped up by a powerful family name.

It’s not a great game, but it’s good. It’s objectively good. There are things that bother me. I probably won’t play it again, but my memories of it are mostly good. After sticking through all of the crap I hated and found the fun, I’m definitely going to dig my heels in a lot more with games I don’t find myself enjoying immediately.

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