Unpacking My Reaction to Paper Mario: The Origami King

I picked a hell of a time to revisit Paper Mario. About three weekends ago now, I found myself starting but not finishing various writing projects related to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. I came to the realization that the sudden fascination with writing about it was coming from a desire to replay the game. I plugged up my GameCube and started working my way through the game again. My time with The Thousand-Year Door inspired multiple articles, and last week on Monday I shared one specifically about the rumors related to a new Paper Mario releasing in 2020. The game was rumored to be a “return to form” for the series, and I spent some time unpacking what that phrase would mean to me. Little did I know that only three days later would I get to put those words to the test when a trailer for the next game in the series dropped unannounced on Twitter.

My reaction to seeing The Origami King was an emotional one. That may seem silly to say – it’s a video game trailer, after all – but it was a reaction informed by a lot of other circumstances. Last Sunday, I announced that I would be livestreaming on my own Twitch channel for the first time. I had been inspired by my casual playthrough of The Thousand-Year Door to share my experience with Paper Mario with my following in the form of streaming the game. On Wednesday, I posted this article describing my reasoning for choosing the game. It wasn’t a choice I made lightly – I specifically chose The Thousand-Year Door because it is a game which has a lot of meaning to me, coming into my life at a time of transition and uncertainty. For better or worse, Paper Mario is tied irrevocably in my mind to my coming of age; it influenced what I found funny and what I found narratively interesting during one of the most impressionable times of my life.

I think the intensity of that emotion was also informed by the larger context of the world today. To say that we live in uncertain times has become a meme at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less a reality. Even as my state comes very close to relaxing our social distancing measures, there are still so many questions about what’s coming. Are we reopening at a time when it is truly safe to do so? What will become of my job as words like “layoff” and “furlough” are tossed about by upper management? In a world of many unknowns, I found comfort in the familiarity of an old favorite video game. On Wednesday – the night before the trailer was released and the night before my first livestream – I beat The Thousand-Year Door for what was probably the dozenth time in the course of my life. In a time when the United States is split on how to handle the pandemic, Paper Mario tells a story about coming together to defeat a common threat. As the whole world sends their positive energy to Mario to cheer him through his final battle, it’s easy to see the appeal of a game whose message is about working together.

So there I am Thursday morning, my mind caught somewhere between the finale of the game and the beginning of my first live stream, when a friend sends me the tweet with the reveal trailer for Origami King. In that moment, all of my expectations and feelings, every complicated emotion I had written about over the past three weeks reached a boiling point. It was that context that informed my reaction to the trailer below:

As I watched, I scanned each shot desperately for obvious signs of familiar elements. I looked for characters with unique designs traveling alongside Mario to indicate that they may be partners. When brief glimpses of combat scenes played, I tried to ascertain whether or not the attacks being used were the result of an expendable sticker inventory. In that moment I was evaluating whether or not The Origami King would meet my very highest expectations. The rumor that had been circulating for months – a “return to form” for Paper Mario – was foremost in my mind as I watched. When I could not see obvious inspiration from The Thousand-Year Door, when the trailer came to an end and everything I saw reminded me more of Sticker Star than the original two titles, the only feeling I could manage was one of disappointment. I quote tweeted the trailer with my initial reaction: “return to form, my ass.” Origami King didn’t meet my expectations, and I needed a moment to be upset about it.

It wasn’t enough for me, though. Despite the dismissiveness of my statement I wasn’t ready to completely give up on the game. I don’t want Paper Mario to be bad. So I looked through the reactions of other people online for any morsel I could find, any hint that maybe I just missed subtle signals that this game could be exactly what I wanted it to be. What I found were plenty of people like me – people looking for the hidden signs that this game could live up to their TTYD expectations – but there were also plenty of people who were legitimately excited for what The Origami King was bringing to the table. Those looking forward to the game seemed to be referencing primarily the art style and the snippets of dialogue shown.

My first positive concession for the game was to admit that yes, the dialogue did look pretty solid. In the opening of the trailer, an origami Princess Peach approaches Mario and asks him “will you crease yourself and be reborn, like me?” Regardless of whether Mario says yes or no, she responds “right answer. wrong answer. It matters not. Your replies are paper thin,” or something to that affect. Sure there are obvious puns happening here but along with them come a dark and sinister tone. It’s a good reflection of the combination of silly and serious that I so loved in The Thousand-Year Door and in Super Paper Mario. Those games are funny, witty titles that relentlessly break the fourth wall and never take themselves too seriously. But they also tell stories much darker than most Mario games will dare, and have deep lore that the player can choose to explore if they so wish.

Over the next couple of hours I would regularly check Twitter to see if there was any new information. There were some differences between the Japanese and English trailers as well as the Japanese and English websites, and one key distinction that came out pretty early was that the Japanese trailer had a much longer combat demonstration than what we saw in the main trailer – about twenty seconds of footage showing Mario engaging the ring system, selecting an attack, and then executing that attack against a group of Goombas:

Taken in context with some of the combat scenes we see in the larger trailer, it appears that Origami King has a turn-based combat mechanic with a heavy emphasis on puzzle elements thanks to the ring system. On a given turn, you have a limited amount of time to rotate the arena’s rings to line up your enemies in order to maximize the amount of damage that you deal. Mario has his familiar jump and hammer commands as well as items he can choose from. In an English screenshot, we can see his menu options also include getting a hint from his partner Olivia, a “cheer” mechanic that appears to engage the Toad audience watching from the stands, and of course the ability to run away. Things we clearly don’t see in the combat window are an FP bar for special attacks or any partner characters assisting Mario in combat.

The combat system is the aspect of the game where I am seeing the most hesitancy from the community-at-large. The apparent lack of partners combined with the fact that we cannot say for certain whether or not stickers are gone as well as whether or not Mario can level up and increase his stats leaves some people nervous about the game. One of the biggest drawbacks of the sticker-based combat system was that the expendable inventory made random battles against enemies detrimental rather than beneficial. No experience points meant that Mario didn’t get stronger by engaging enemies; not only that, but the expendable sticker inventory actually meant that battling needlessly made Mario weaker by depleting his supply of attacks. In a turn based RPG where combat is the primary game mechanic you engage, incentivizing your players to avoid fighting is a weak design choice. It is one that many people are concerned is still returning in Origami King, and while we don’t necessarily have strong evidence that it is back, we don’t have strong evidence that it is gone either.

There’s a pretty harsh divide between people who want to believe that Origami King will be closer to The Thousand-Year Door and those who are skeptical that it could be. It’s pretty obvious, for example, that there are partner characters who will travel with you in the overworld. While they don’t have special icons in the UI to depict any abilities they might have or stats for combat, you can clearly see them walking around with or talking to Mario in a variety of scenes. What’s not clear is whether or not partners will be able to participate in combat. The fact that we don’t see stats for them – not even an HP bar underneath Mario’s – seems to imply that they cannot participate in battle. Yet there’s a now-deleted trailer that seems to clearly show a Toad partner standing beside Mario while he attacks:

Is this an indication of partners in combat? While the creators of the video seem to conclude that yeah, this is probably a good sign that partners can fight alongside you, there are plenty who are still skeptical about it. I include myself among that number. There’s precedent in other Paper Mario titles for characters who walk around with Mario in the overworld and even who appear in the combat window but who do not actually help Mario or actively participate in combat. This is typically during a tutorial scene, but there’s nothing right now to give us concrete evidence that partners are anything more than close-up cheerleaders when you’re fighting.

I’ve seen reactions all over the spectrum. There are players who are deeply excited for this game and have already predownloaded it. Others have stated that they will never buy this game and that for them, this is proof that the Paper Mario series is well and truly dead. Perhaps the most common sentiment I’ve seen, though, is the one which I would say best matches my own feelings: “cautiously optimistic.” It is clear that this game is not going to be a “proper” sequel to The Thousand-Year Door. We don’t know how close it will come, either. But not being The Thousand-Year Door doesn’t mean this will be a bad video game. There are plenty of video games that are not The Thousand-Year Door that are fantastic. Maybe The Origami King isn’t exactly what we wanted, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.

At the end of the day, I’m trying to remember that I have been through this experience once before. When Super Paper Mario was shown to be a platformer rather than a turn-based RPG, I was pretty disappointed that the mechanics were changing from the ones I had come to love in The Thousand-Year Door. But my younger self was willing to give the game a chance anyway, and what I found was that while I didn’t like the gameplay as much, the storytelling and witty dialogue still delivered and I was able to experience a game that, while not my favorite of all time™, was still a game that I enjoyed a lot and have a lot of positive memories with. The Origami King may not be The Thousand-Year Door followup of my dreams, but that’s okay – Paper Mario doesn’t have to be TTYD to still be good. Looking at it that way helps me a lot, and while I’m still cautious I am also looking forward to trying out this game.

I’m curious about your thoughts, adventurers. If you’re a longtime Paper Mario fan spanning back to the originals, how do you feel about The Origami King? If you’ve only played the more recent entries in the series, does this game seem like one you’ll enjoy? I’m interested to hear how others feel about the game, so please feel free to share your suggestions in the comment section below.

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