The past few weeks, I’ve spent every evening winding down the night with Paper Mario: The Origami King. It’s essentially a charming and consistently funny Mario cartoon brought to life, making it a joyous respite from so many other parts of our complicated COVID-19 lives. But it’s also a source of frustration; the game’s once-novel combat system has revealed itself to be a bothersome chore, and I now openly groan when I find myself in a fight.
The result is that I do not want to engage with fully half (!!) of what you spend time doing in The Origami King, which is a weird place to end up with a game you’re otherwise loving. On Twitter, I presented the following idea:
Exploring the world, talking to characters, solving puzzles—that’s the part I’m enjoying! Can you imagine a version of The Origami King where it was that fleshed out for 20-ish hours? In an ideal world, The Origami King would either have more engaging combat or fully ditch the RPG mechanics it’s iffy on, but at this point I’d settle for an option to turn off combat entirely.
This idea isn’t without precedent, either. Games like Mass Effect 3 have a “narrative” mode, which makes combat a cakewalk. Some JRPGs, especially re-releases of old games, have embraced “fast forward” features that speed through repetitive elements. In the case of The Origami King, you could remove combat entirely and the rest of the game would work fine.
The Origami King is the first Paper Mario game I’ve spent time with, but I’m well aware of the criticism from hardcore fans over developer Intelligent Systems running away from the idea of an “RPG” that originally helped define Paper Mario and was key to why they fell for it.
On paper, The Origami King arguably does away with a lot of these conventions, given the complete lack of experience points and leveling up, but in practice, it merely hides those concepts elsewhere. Enemies become more powerful the further you get into the game, necessitating the use of more powerful weapons, unless you want those fights to really drag out. The game drops a fair number of those weapons randomly, but you’re also going to spend a lot of money buying them, and the best way to earn cash is, no surprise, by fighting!
So in essence, money is experience points and you’re leveling up through weapons. (It’s really fun to run out of high-end weapons and spend 10 minutes travelling back to a shop.)
There are also “health” upgrades you can acquire, which raise your overall damage output.
My opening hours with The Origami King were stressful because they exposed how my broken brain cannot handle manipulating shapes. Over time, I solved this problem the same way I’ve dealt with the same issue in real-life: brute force memorization. Eventually, I saw the same patterns in combat enough times that I could recall what to do from memory. The Origami King does introduce some wrinkles—ghosts that become invisible when you move the board, for example—but combat happens enough that even this becomes repetitive.
And this is where the irritation really adds up. If you don’t participate the game’s obfuscated leveling system, you’re going to spend a lot more time in fights doing the same thing over and over again, just waiting to do enough damage to clear them off the board.
The game’s thrilling boss fights are required to progress. Otherwise, The Origami King includes two ways to avoid fights—but both have problems. You can choose to “flee,” and if successful, the enemy vanishes from the map. “If” is the key word, because half the time, fleeing fails. Consequently, Mario gives up a turn, and you’re stuck. (It’s possible to attempt to flee again, but typically, I would give up and start fighting). The other solution is by whacking an enemy with a hammer before combat begins, but because enemies are artificially harder the further you get into the game, the most likely thing to happen is you fail to defeat them, enter combat, and uselessly whack one enemy for a few points of damage.
The end result is that you’re spending a lot of time in combat, and increasingly, I’m putting on a podcast and zoning out whenever that happens now. The Origami King even includes an option to spend money to have the game automatically move many of the enemies into the right spot, making even the most challenging fights trivial. The Origami King has so many options to help avoid combat, without being honest with itself and letting you skip it entirely.
The arc of the Paper Mario games seems to be Intelligent Systems trying to find ways to reinvent the RPG, when in reality, maybe it should just leave the genre behind and embrace what Paper Mario has become. The games, and the people playing them, would be happier.