When we look back at 2020 as a year in video games, besides the release of next gen, it is going to be remembered as a year of many standout titles, controversial sequels and re-imaginings, public feuds between companies, and the year where everybody collectively tried to decrease the length of their backlog but pretty much doubled it instead. As of September 2020 though, I wonder what we will make of Nintendo’s 2020; while the global pandemic helped most gaming companies make huge profits, Nintendo had a whopping 428% increase in profits for the first fiscal quarter thanks to Animal Crossing which even surpassed Super Smash Bros in units sold, but besides that and a few re-releases of classics, there hasn’t been much other. Obviously, the Switch keeps getting new games from 3rd party developers and ports of already released games, but in terms of 1st party, you pretty much have Animal Crossing and Paper Mario. In my mind, Nintendo’s 2020 will not be marked by controversies or arguments, bickering about power and exclusives (although admittedly that does happen more often by Nintendo fans); it will go down as a very solid year for Nintendo, where quality was preferred over quantity, and both these titles have quality moments of wholesomeness and child-like joy to offer in a time where we desperately needed it.
Before I get into the review, I want to acknowledge something: Paper Mario, as a spin-off franchise, has its roots in RPGs, but the last couple of entries tried to break away from that and with The Origami King, it barely keeps any RPG elements around; fans hoping for an RPG return have been disappointed, but I’m not one of those fans – I just like Nintendo games a lot and this is my first foray into this spin-off franchise, so I don’t have that history with the franchise or any of those hopes and expectations. What I wanted from this game was a quirky story with wholesome characters, an engaging combat system, and good use of the franchise’s gimmick look of paper cut-outs; what I got came so agonizingly close to being a truly fantastic game that I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed by the shortcomings it has.
The story begins with Mario and Luigi arriving at Peach’s castle for the Origami Festival and, not before long, all hell breaks loose as Ollie – an origami that came to life and the eponymous Origami King – steals Peach, her castle, and pronounces his plans to turn the world into Origami, which is where Mario comes in. Alongside Ollie’s sister Olivia and a host of companion characters, Mario sets out to explore the world and destroy the paper streamers holding the castle out of reach from our heroes. Similar to other Nintendo titles, the story here is not that interesting or engaging on its own, but the characters and situations that come out of that story are the highlight of the journey; from multiple dance routines and music numbers, to quirky and joyful characters, the game is an action/adventure thrill ride that has some genuinely surprising writing in it. The humor is on point and very funny, both in a self-referential and family-oriented way; Olivia especially is a very funny character and her interactions with other characters or the very obvious self-referential comedy done through her, made me giggle and look forward to her next line. Alongside the companion characters and the whacky toads, the enemies in the world also bring that element, especially in the boss designs, like the colored pencils case or the Rubber Band. What came as a surprise though was the attempt of the game to have genuinely touching and dramatic moments; by genuine, I mean cheap attempts to garner empathy and sadness, but because they work as intended I can’t help but tip my hat to Nintendo and call those moments ‘moving’, because I was genuinely caught off guard and felt exactly what they wanted me to feel. What is less of a surprise though, is the excellent soundtrack of the game; from catchy songs like the battle and menu theme (shoutout to the café edition of the menu theme!) to more subdued pieces like Paper Mache Soccer track, this is another excellent musical offering from Nintendo. In short, exactly what I want/expect from a Nintendo title, but with a few surprises along the way.
The biggest surprise of the game though, has to be something that I knew about since the first trailer was shown: The combat system or, more accurately, the puzzle system. I think most people could predict that Paper Mario was not going to be a traditional RPG, given the recent track record, but personally could not predict how much the puzzle elements of the game would take center stage; it is a puzzle game when it comes to interacting with enemies and the only “combat” comes in the form of picking the obviously right weapon and hitting the generously timed prompts to deal extra damage. Regardless of the lack of combat, the puzzle mechanic is pretty neat; basically, the combat takes place in a circle with Mario at the center and the remaining circle having a number of enemies. On each turn, the enemies are shuffled and the player has to rotate (horizontally and vertically) their columns/rows to get them in a ‘perfect’ formation for attacking – this has to be done within a time limit, otherwise the turn will end or the player has to spend coins to get help in the form of extra time or cheering from the various toads you rescue (more on that later). As is expected, Nintendo actually manage to create a nice difficulty curve that starts pretty easy and ends up somewhat challenging, but unfortunately the decision was made to not have any character progression; for the most part, I didn’t mind this decision because combat was a handy way to stock up on coins and confetti, but there was an abundance of those resources in the world anyway – I just liked to grind them out so I would feel safe about buying something expensive. However, the last quarter of the game was an exercise in avoiding these battles as it actively halted my progress; combat items have limited uses so using them on anything other than a boss fight is a waste, especially when you reach the highest tier of items. Then, there’s the issue of the countdown for each turn; it’s not a problem for the most part until the shuffling of enemies becomes complicated enough that it made me feel like I was always out of time and never had the opportunity to experiment, I just had to memorize the shuffle and reverse it. It isn’t even worth treading battles as a grinding alternative later on as with early game; getting the most coins of later battles requires memorizing and mastering the puzzle system in a way that removed the fun from it, and using help gave so little pay off that it was simply not worth the effort and had better returns just exploring the world.
Speaking of which, it is by far the most compelling and entertaining feature of the game; the Mushroom Kingdom is a beautiful and pleasing place to explore, find all the missing toads, hidden blocks, fill all non-bottomless holes, partake in mini-games such as fishing and timed runs, and collect coins. It is reaching for that traditional “check-list completion” dopamine rush, but in a vibrant and joyful world, where secrets are always fun and challenging to find, but not too hard to get you stuck or leave an area without mostly completing it. However, I do have to lament the decision to not have direct fast travel; the game does feature fast travel points, but in a world that is filled with enemies and whose “combat” was starting to become annoying, alongside the slow pace of Mario’s movement, it just wasn’t worth it for me to track back to each area to find a hidden block that I missed.
Lastly, I just want to mention two other aspects I really enjoyed, namely the confetti mechanic and the boss battles. Throwing confetti to fill holes and create passages is a quirky enough idea that it never got old, but it also is a neat way to reward curious players and makes for a great photo prop; the game doesn’t explore it enough as it is literally another resource and I hope they keep it around to have a more prominent role next time. Boss battles are also very creative and fun to play; from Vellumentals of 4 elements to office stationery, the puzzle mechanics shift to a more interesting version (that is very involving and I get why it was not used as the primary mechanism). Essentially, Mario is now on the circle’s outskirts and uses arrows, Vellumental powers, items, and switches to make his way past traps and as close to the inner circle with the intend on landing on the necessary tile to execute his attack on the boss; this may require initiating a sequence of events that spans multiple turns or having to always pass from a switch before being able to dish out some damage. These fights were more challenging and exciting than regular battles and always demanded of the player to learn what the necessary sequence looked like for defeating the boss, which always made the first few turns an interesting (yet simple) strategy game that consisted of getting back health and trying out different things to see what worked. It also removed the time restriction, which I grew to hate as puzzles got harder (because I never felt like I had enough time to experiment the circle into a good solution), by giving a generous countdown that I rarely used coins to prolong.
For other companies, 2020 has been a hallmark year: PlayStation will finish this exceptional generation for them with two of the most beloved, talked about, critical and fan darlings in their history (at least one of them is all that and more), and lead into their impressive new hardware with style; Xbox, on the other hand, finally completed their comeback arc with great games, alongside an always improving console experience and PC integration, and a subscription service so good they evolved their philosophy and business model around it. With this in mind, Nintendo had a less impressive year of many delays and few offerings, but the company still manage to release some of the most interesting and engaging experiences of the year; Paper Mario may be overall solid, but it had everything it needed to be a sleeper hit, however its own shortcomings keep it from being that. In a year where bigger things will steal its spotlight (both in gaming and outside of it), I hope Nintendo do still recognize the potential a direct sequel has and finally iterate on the spin-off franchise rather than start all over again.