One of the biggest concerns among the Paper Mario fandom leading up to The Origami King was whether or not the battle system would have the depth of the original Paper Mario or The Thousand-Year Door. These systems used badge customization to give you lots of control over Mario’s stats and abilities, had partners with unique movesets to manage alongside Mario, and utilized enemy positioning and weapons to create situations where different attacks were needed to defeat the opponent. At their best, these games made you stop and think about how you approached each battle and encouraged you to experiment with different badges to form the strategy that worked best for you. Would Origami King be able to manage this same level of depth?
As information came out about the game the answer seemed more and more to lean towards “no.” The lack of experience points pointed towards an inability to grow Mario as a character. Partners were present but only attacked at random rather than being under the control of the player. And while the weapon system seemed to promise a variety of attacks, the accessory system didn’t look promising as far as adding the deep level of customization possible with badges. All signs pointed to The Origami King being a simpler Paper Mario experience.
During my time with The Origami King, I pretty consistently found myself pleasantly surprised by the complexity the battle system could bring to the table. This game does not have mechanical depth in the same way that The Thousand-Year Door does but that doesn’t mean it lacks depth entirely. The two games present different types of challenges, and today I want to highlight the ways in which The Origami King uses the new ring battle system to present compelling puzzles with their own mechanical richness to enjoy.
Let’s start by talking about the basics. The core combat system in The Origami King is a ring-battle system that takes place on a battlefield consisting of four concentric rings. Each ring has eight segments, and four rings total means that each layer of the field is four rows deep. These segments can be moved in two different ways. By spinning a ring, you can move segments from side to side within the same layer – notice the orange arrow showing the progression from one to four. By sliding a row, you can move segments across layers. When sliding, the edges of the arena loop so that a segment slid off of the edge of one side appears on the edge of the other – notice the blue arrow showing the progression from one to seven. The star icon shows a spot on the battlefield that the number 1 could reach either by spinning or by sliding; which method you choose to use would depend on how you want to impact the other segments around it.
Mario has two basic attacks which have various more powerful versions as you acquire weapons: the jump and the hammer. Each attack has a different range and presents different complications. Jumps hit enemies in a straight line (the purple attack range on the visualization above), but jumping on an enemy with a spiked head, a sharp weapon held upwards, or pointy teeth will result in pain for Mario. Hammers hit enemies in a 2×2 square (the yellow attack range on the visualization above), but hammering is worthless against enemies who are flying in the air. This means that any given attack needs to pay attention to both enemy position (are they in a line? a square?) and enemy type (do they have spikes? are they flying?).
During a standard battle, Mario stands at the center of the ring and enemies stand around him, generally in groups of 4, 8, or 12 enemies. During the puzzle phase of combat, you’ll have a number of ring moves (1-3, generally 2 or 3) where you can try to position enemies into lines or squares to attack. If you successfully line up enemies into perfect groups, you get a damage multiplier. During the combat phase, you get actions equal to the number of attacks you *should* be able to finish the fight in. So if you’ve got eight enemies, they should be able to be arranged in two groups of four and therefore be defeated in two attacks, so you’ll get two actions. Those are the basics of Origami King: rotate enemies into lines or squares, then take them out with timing-based attacks. If you do it right, you get a coins not only for finishing the fight, but also for solving the puzzle and not taking any damage.
The game adds complexity to this in a couple of key ways. The most subtle is the invisible health bar on your enemies. Origami King doesn’t make a big show of its RPG mechanisms but there is definitely math taking place in the background. Mario starts with a base attack power that then gets multiplied by the lineup bonus, added to by your weapon’s power, and increased again by perfectly input action commands. This is most noticeable with the hammer, where the damage difference between a “nice” hit and an “excellent” hit can be as wide as six points of damage. While your basic jump is more than enough for Goombas, as you face more difficult enemies you will need to pay attention to whether or not a specific weapon is strong enough to take them out. In other words, lining up enemies perfectly isn’t a guaranteed victory – if you don’t use a strong enough attack, you won’t finish enemies off and they will get to retaliate.
The next layer of complexity comes from the puzzles themselves. In the early game every puzzle generally consists of one very obvious slide or rotation to lock enemies in place, but as you move through Origami King these ring puzzles do become harder to solve. How much mileage you’ll get from the ring puzzle difficulty depends to some degree on your personal skill at visual memory and being able to conceptualize how to move the rings to get particular segments into particular positions. One common intermediate puzzle is one requiring you to rotate a ring one segment too far, sliding another enemy onto that ring, and then rotating the ring into the right place so that two enemies can slot into the correct lines. Sliding gave me a lot more trouble than rotating, as I found it much harder to visualize where a slide would put my opponents and the slides have a lot more possibilities as far as unique positions they can create.
Finally, the enemy types themselves bring on a layer of challenge, and it was this layer that I found most fascinating when playing through the game. For examples, spikes (the heavyset Koopas who throw spiked balls from their mouths) can hold a ball over their head that protects them from jump attacks. If the arrangement on the rings puts them in a line and you don’t have a Hurlhammer, you won’t be able to take them out. If you see a group of Ninjis on the field, you don’t want to arrange them in a square because they will simply dodge your hammer attack with their ninja skills. And boos frustrate your puzzle solving skills by disappearing off of the battlefield – if you don’t quickly memorize their placement on the rings, you won’t know how to move them into a lineup to get your damage multiplier. Figuring out how to approach these trickier enemies and getting them into just the right lines was when the game’s standard battles were most enjoyable for me.
I appreciate it when games use boss battles to introduce new mechanisms, particularly when each boss has unique mechanisms that help them to feel unique. Origami King does this well and the boss battles are welcome breaks from the standard battle rules. Instead of Mario standing in the center of the ring, he stands outside of the ring and the boss occupies the center. The segments which normally contain enemies instead contain panels that activate Mario’s movement, enable him to attack, give him helpful bonuses, and magic circles which power his most potent abilities. Each turn you want to create a path that leads Mario through the most helpful panels and ends in meaningful action, but depending on the boss what actions are going to be most effective will change, and the way you move will be altered by their abilities. To avoid spoilers I’ll focus on the three bosses who were shown in the game’s promotional materials as examples: Colored Pencils, Rubber Bands, and Tape.
Let’s talk about movement first. Each of these bosses has an ability that targets the board itself, complicating your ability to move about freely. In the case of the pencils, targeting reticles indicate which segments you do not want to pass through. If you walk through a targeted panel, you’ll get blasted by a pencil-missile and take damage. Conversely, the rubber band places rubber band panels on the field that simultaneously function as arrows to facilitate Mario’s movement as well as a healing opportunity for the boss. Instead of avoiding them, you want to touch them to maneuver Mario through the field and to reduce the boss’s overall health. Meanwhile, when the tape places strips of tape on the field, it binds rings together which can prevent them from being rotated or slid in certain patterns. You want to get rid of tape quick, because if too many pieces are on the battlefield you won’t be able to change the placement of the panels at all, preventing you from making optimal paths to reach the tape and make attacks.
Not only does each boss affect the field differently, but they have different weaknesses in battle too. For the Colored Pencils, they have a weak point inside the pencil case, but simply attacking that weak point isn’t as effective as slamming the case closes when the pencils are about to fire off missiles. The Rubber Band loses rubber bands when you strike it but can suck them back in and heal up, meaning that instead of prioritizing basic attacks you want to use magic circles to permanently clear rubber bands from the battlefield. The tape has a dispenser which can be busted up with hammer attacks, but only if you attack it from specific angles. Whether you use jump or hammer attacks, the angle and distance you attack from, activating magic circles and choosing just the right time to utilize them – all of these factors change from boss battle to boss battle and they make each fight a delight to play.
Origami King’s battles are mechanically complex puzzles. It’s a different feel than The Thousand-Year Door with a lot less emphasis on building your character’s stats and coming up with unique strategies. Instead, the challenge comes from learning to see the patterns in the puzzles. Mastering manipulation of the rings enables you to create the perfect lineups in standard battles or the ideal path to your desired action in boss fights. Solving the puzzles delivers a satisfying payoff, and for me the moment in each boss fight when a ligthbulb went off and I thought “aha, that’s how I’ll win this!” were exhilarating, even when those realizations happened because the action I took in that particular moment were very wrong.
The system isn’t a perfect one. The lack of customization means that once you know the patterns and the correct solution to a boss fight, you’re not really going to have that “aha!” moment again. The joy of puzzles come in the solving of them, meaning the replayability here is going to be lacking compared to older Paper Mario titles where you could approach the same battle very differently depending on your choice of partner and badge. And while I loved the boss fights pretty consistently throughout the game, the standard battles could get frustrating and they didn’t bring in clever new mechanics nearly as often. The typical pattern there would be that it was fun to get into battles right at the start of a new area and learn the tricks for the new enemy types, and then battles would become a slog once those new enemy types became rote. What I will say, though, is that they were no more a slog than the random battles in any RPG which features lots of enemy encounters. I found myself actively seeking them when I needed coins or confetti and avoiding them when I didn’t.
The combat system is just one part of Origami King and there are plenty of other factors which contribute to my overall opinion of the game. But because the battle system is a hot topic among those of us who are inclined to compare it to The Thousand-Year Door, I wanted to dedicate some space to that topic on its own. I enjoyed the battles in Origami King generally and the boss fights were particularly satisfying. If you’re looking for mechanical depth and are okay with that depth coming from puzzles rather than character building, there’s a lot to enjoy in what Origami King brings to the table.