Games

'Paper Mario: The Origami King' Has Exposed My Broken Brain

You might think manipulating a circle is no big deal, but you haven't met me, the person who hates shapes.
July 17, 2020, 1:00pm
A screen shot from the Nintendo Switch game Paper Mario: The Origami King.
Screen shot courtesy of Nintendo

Can I be honest for a second? A little vulnerable? [deep breath] I don’t know how to explain this in a way that doesn’t sound incredibly weird, but folks, shapes have never made any sense to me. They make my brain hurt in a way that is, at times, legitimately shameful! It’s one of those things where you realize that your brain just does not work in a certain way, and when you watch other people interact with shapes in a normal way, all I can do is quietly curse. This all goes a long way towards explaining why I had problems playing The Witness.

As a child, I never knew what to do with a random stack of LEGOs, but hand over some directions and I could build anything. In high school, algebra made sense. You follow the formula, and it’s basically impossible to screw up. Geometry, though? Bane of my existence. I sprinted towards an easy A in algebra, while barely holding onto a C- in geometry. My inability to understand how to geometry single handedly sunk my otherwise good ACT score.

Normally this is whatever, but it’s presented a huge problem recently, because I’ve been playing through Paper Mario: The Origami King, the latest in Nintendo’s long-running RPG franchise. The Origami King is all about looking at, analyzing, and really internalizing the shapes presented to the player, in order to be successful at the game’s unique combat system, wherein players manipulate a circle to try and line up and bunch enemies together.

The combat is wholly unique and a little hard to explain, but imagine a dartboard with Mario in the bullseye. Enemies are dropped into spots on the dartboard, and you have to position the enemies in straight lines or tight groups, because otherwise Mario will be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. You accomplish this by rotating four smaller circles (easy!), or sliding pieces of that circle back and forth (much harder!). If you succeed, the game rewards Mario with enough additional damage potential that you’re likely to finish the fight in a single round.

Moreso than a typical RPG, The Origami King is less about grinding to have more power than the enemies you’re facing because there is no grind! Instead, you’re rewarded for being smart. When you line up everything fast, the game offers a “puzzle” reward for good reason.

While Paper Mario has been pegged as an RPG series, over time, Nintendo has moved the goalposts on what “RPG” means further and further apart. Most fans seem to wish Nintendo would just make a sequel to the beloved Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, very much a traditional RPG-ass-RPG, and they’ve shown little interest. Instead, Nintendo has historically used the Paper Mario series to experiment and play with different ideas.

In The Origami King, for example, you do not earn experience points after battles and it does not feature a leveling system. There is a health bar and technically Mario can get stronger by collecting and equipping certain items, but it throws out a lot of straight “RPG” conventions, and it’d actually make more sense to call The Origami King a puzzle game in RPG clothing.

You would not, however, call what I’ve been doing while playing “successful.”

I’m supposed to think one or two steps ahead to make everything line up, and I…can’t. As I try to think about how the shapes should morph into alignment, I could feel my brain break. The reason I called all this shameful early on is because that’s exactly how it feels: “Okay, cool, my brain doesn’t work in this specific way and this game is exploiting a longstanding personal weakness that’s out of my control.” I’m out here confronting my brain demons and sweating profusely, while an adorable version of Mario hops around, oblivious to my pain.

It’s a gross feeling made complicated by the fact that I actually really like the combat, especially the fantastic boss fights, where the game takes some cues from, of all places, Mario Party. Here, the boss is placed at the center of the circle, and there are no enemies. Instead, you need to have Mario run past arrows that determine which direction he goes in, and try to run over other useful bonuses along the way. You can’t even attack the boss without lining up an “attack” option in front of them. These moments feel so grand and fun that I would move my Switch out of handheld mode and into docked mode simply so I could take in the entire circle on my big TV. I felt like a commander planning out their battle plan.

Nonetheless, it remains true I’m terrible at a game meant to be approachable. This is curious because it’s the opposite of The Origami King’s obvious intention; this is a game where you’re rarely going to lose any progress. There’s no penalty for leaving fights. You could skip everything but the bosses and be fine. Even in a pinch, there are ways to make fights much easier by spending a very tiny bit of the enormous pile of money the game is constantly tossing at you. You can spend money to generate more time to solve a puzzle, you can spend money to summon friends to fight enemies and heal you, and even in those great boss fights, you can spend money to have the game highlight Mario’s potential path.

Shout outs to that last option, though, which honestly felt like an accessibility feature that should just be a toggle. Being able to focus on how to manipulate the board, rather than beating myself up for being unable to conceptualize it, made everything a lot more fun.

One problem: those boss fights are rare and the moment-to-moment combat has fewer flourishes. Even for my bad brain, I started recognizing the sets of patterns The Origami King was playing with, making standard fights equal parts a pushover and boring. The game slowly adds more variety to these fights over time, but it happens too slowly. It’s almost as though The Origami King realizes it’s playing with some big ideas and wants players to spend time coming to grips with them, but waits too long for the training wheels to come off.

This issue is exasperated by the lack of interesting things to do elsewhere.

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The focus in The Origami King is twofold—exploration and combat—and the ceiling of your enjoyment is directly tied to how much you enjoy doing the very specific tasks being asked in those modes. In exploration, it’s about searching high and low for hidden toads, each of whom quickly delivers a witty one-liner upon being found. The lines are pretty good, as is all of the sharp writing in The Origami King, but this is not a game where you’re going to spend a lot of time marinating in the storytelling, and the act of searching for these toads is frequently tiresome and a trite collectible. It’s something Nintendo often avoids in its games.

I find myself in a strange place with The Origami King. It’s weird and different in some very good ways, but too often, I’m waiting around for something more interesting to happen. It seems like the perfect game to slowly pick at during this obnoxiously hot summer, and maybe it gets more interesting in the second half as more ideas are layered into combat, but I can’t help but feel The Origami King is built around a cool concept and not much more.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).