Whether you’re an old-school Paper Mario fan from the era of the original game and The Thousand-Year Door or you’re a new-school fan thanks to Color Splash, I think the majority of the Paper Mario fandom can agree on one thing: the writing is a significant part of what makes the series special. Whether looking at witty NPC dialogue, relatable partner characters, or a dark and compelling storyline, the creators of Paper Mario have put their writing skills on full display with most of the entries in the series. It is this aspect of Origami King which appealed to me in the initial trailer – seeing an altered Princess Peach offering Mario the opportunity to “be reborn” while making origami puns seemed like the perfect combination of quirky and creepy.
I’ve written now about two of the core pillars of Origami King: the puzzle-RPG combat mechanics as well as the overworld and its restoration. In this article, I’ll be discussing how the story and characters work together to make up the third and final pillar of the game. This will include a no-spoiler section for those who haven’t played the game as well as a spoiler-filled section where I share my thoughts on the events of the game and the characters within it in more detail. So if you want to avoid specifics about the story but still are curious about my overall impressions, the first few paragraphs of this article are for you.
Origami King starts with a very familiar Mario premise: bad guy kidnaps Princess Peach and her castle, and Mario has to travel all over the Mushroom Kingdom in order to stop his evil scheme and rescue the princess. Olly, the Origami King himself, does sort of have a unique motivation outside of just kidnapping the princess, but it is a motivation that I found to be contrived. Olly’s character is in essence a subtweet of anyone who has been critical of recent entries in the series, and seeing Nintendo double down in defense of some of their most unpopular design decisions is pretty rough. I found it to be meta in the worst way, Nintendo trying to wink at an audience that was the butt of the joke rather than being in on the joke. While Olly’s actions create opportunities to showcase the qualities of other characters in the setting, he himself is thoroughly unremarkable, as stereotypical as they come.
That’s not to say that all of the game’s villains are written poorly. Olly has in his service a set of origami crafting supplies called the Legion of Stationary, and I must say that I am impressed with the way in which the writers managed to cram so much personality into pencils, rubber bands, tape, and other supplies. These characters get very brief amounts of screentime but their impact on the world is often quite visible before you actually meet them, so getting to see the “face” behind the challenges you’ve faced over the course of a chapter is often a fun moment.
While Origami King does not have a formal chapter structure like earlier Paper Mario games, it still has chapters in everything but name. Each streamer cuts a path through a unique environment that generally has its own story to tell. These individual chapter stories vary in substance and quality; like any entry in the series you may find particular chapters stand out as the best moments in the game while others may be difficult to stay motivated to complete. In my experience, I found the chapter two and to a lesser extent chapter three to be the most enjoyable portions of the game while chapter four felt like something of a slog. This will likely vary from person to person, though.
Part of what sets apart different chapters are the characters who travel with you. Chapters two, three, five, and the endgame each have one or two distinct partner characters who travel with you in the overworld and can stand beside you during battle. Chapter four sort of has these characters but they are confined to the boat on which you travel so they stand out noticeably less. And the first chapter has no partner character, instead giving you plenty of time to focus on the one character who stays with Mario throughout the full length of the game, Olivia.
Olivia is Olly’s sister and she is your constant companion throughout the game. As such, she has the most opportunity for character development and her arc is one which I felt delivers quite well. Olivia’s personality is wholesome and endearing – she is young and knows little of the world, which creates lots of opportunities for her curiosity and naivety to show through. Like a child in the best ways, Olivia is about the journey and not the destination and often encourages you to revel in the distractions of the world. It is her reactions to Olly’s evil designs which give them any potency at all, making Olivia a very important character for the narrative of Origami King to be successful.
The game’s other partner characters include Bob-Omb (affectionately nicknamed Bobby), Professor Toad, and Kamek and Bowser Jr. Each one brings a different flavor to the chapter or so during which they travel with you. Like Olivia, Bobby is a character defined by curiosity but his reasoning is different – Bobby has amnesia. His enthusiasm to form new memories is a big part of his charm but his character arc features what is perhaps the most significant story moment in the game. Professor Toad is a researcher and archaeologist whose contribution to the story is primarily to make quips about being a teacher. He’s fine but unremarkable. Finally, getting to see Kamek and Bowser Jr. interacting with one another is a treat. Kamek’s role as the longsuffering advisor to Bowser hasn’t really been explored in other Mario games, and he has a personality that is meaningfully distinct from Kammy Koopa, who served the role in previous Paper Mario titles.
A common concern for Thousand-Year Door era Paper Mario fans is whether or not the various NPCs have unique designs and personalities. The game does a good job of giving each little Toad, Snifit, or Koopa a little something that helps to make them unique. Toads in different areas may have subtle design differences or unique stances that help them to stand out a bit more. Most significant NPCs have a rarer color on their mushroom hat or wear different clothes than other Toads. There is still a lot less variety in general in the types of characters you will meet in the world, but they are at least full of personality and written to be quite funny.
Naturally there are familiar characters present as well, characters like Luigi and Bowser who have made some sort of appearance in every Paper Mario game. Bowser often shines best when he is a reluctant ally or secondary villain and that is no different in Origami King. He’s stuck in a folded-up shape throughout the course of the game and this makes for some funny gags when Bowser is on screen. His personality is as wacky as ever; his blustering confidence is a great pick-me-up and it’s weirdly charming to see his parenting philosophy on display (and to even see Bowser say the words “parenting philosophy” is really something). Luigi’s role in the game is consistent with his goofy personality. He contributes to your progress in a way which is entirely on-brand and never failed to elicit a chuckle from me.
Overall, if you’re looking for Origami King to blow your mind with its storytelling, you may want to check your expectations. The eerie tale promised by Peach’s opening lines is never quite delivered upon, and instead we see a wacky, heartfelt journey focused primarily on Olivia’s struggle to face her own brother. The moment-to-moment interactions with NPCs are certainly funny and the partner characters who join you throughout the game are the key elements which make the story worthwhile. For the rest of this article, I want to elaborate on my previous comments regarding Nintendo’s defense of their design choices and the ways in which the story both succeeds and fails at the message it is trying to communicate. To discuss that point will involve major spoilers, so if you want to avoid them this is a good time to set the article aside and come back to it at a later time.
FRIENDLY REMINDER THAT EVERYTHING BELOW THIS HEADING IS A BIG OLE SPOILER FOR PAPER MARIO: THE ORIGAMI KING
There were two key characters in Origami King whose story arcs I felt were intended as a defense of the new Paper Mario design philosophy, the one that has driven the series since Sticker Star as a direct response to the criticism of Super Paper Mario. One of those defenses I felt was effective and compelling. The other I felt was tone-deaf and unnecessary. The rest of this article will focus on each example and why they either resonated with me or fell completely flat.
First let’s talk about Bobby. Bobby’s character arc comes to its climax when Olivia is crushed beneath a boulder by Olly, both as a way to prevent her meddling but also to stop Mario’s progress throughout the game world. Bobby realizes there’s a way the rock can be removed, but he needs something to make it happen. This takes Mario to the Great Sea, where he obtains a locked box from the VIP room of the cruise ship known as The Princess Peach. Upon returning to the rock, Bobby reveals that the object in the box was a bomb fuse. The fuse belonged to Bobby’s best friend, and the fuseless Bobby can use it in order to explode and remove the rock trapping Olivia. Doing so will kill him. Unlike previous Paper Mario games, the act of exploding is deadly to Bob-Ombs. Bobby encourages Mario not to be sad; this is what Bob-Ombs live for, after all. These short-lived creatures who exist only to explode one single time live to make an impact. Bobby certainly does make an impact with his sacrifice. Olivia mourns him for a time, but Mario helps her to realize that Bobby made this choice to give her a chance to accomplish her goals, and that the best thing she can do to honor his choice is to keep moving.
Bobby’s sacrifice on its own is a powerful moment, and another layer is added to the story it conveys when you meet other Bob-Ombs in the setting. At a later point in the game, a whole crew of Bob-Ombs appears before you and Olivia cries out “Bobby?!” in surprise. The figure standing at the front of this fresh crew of bombs reminds you that all Bob-Ombs are named Bob-Omb, they live to explode, and their only goal in life is to make an impact. Bobby is not unique because they slapped a hat on him or because he had a cool scar or because of a tragic backstory. Bobby is unique because he did what all Bob-Ombs do at the right moment in order to make an impact that resonates throughout the rest of the game. It is an effective counter to the idea that all Paper Mario characters or even partners need to be some brand new unique contribution to the Mario canon. The characters that already exist in the way that they currently exist can be given meaningful stories.
I was all-in on Bobby’s character arc and I loved how they handled it. I may have even literally muttered to myself “well-played, Nintendo” when they convinced me to love what was essentially just another Mario minion. If they left their defense of their design philosophy to that powerful moment, I would have left the game impressed. Instead, there is a second character whose actions and dialogue struck me as pointed responses to the criticism Paper Mario has faced in recent years. But while Bobby’s story showed the creative possibilities of Nintendo’s design choices, this second character’s actions felt like a juvenile tantrum in response to valid criticism. The offending character is Olly, the Origami King himself, a character whose entire villainous motivation boils down to “I hate Toads.”
Olly was created by a character that you meet in the setting, a Toad who is referred to as the Origami Craftsman. The Craftsman brought Olly to life using a forbidden origami-folding technique. Olly, in his anger at an “imperfection” left upon him by the craftsman, decides to take over the Mushroom Kingdom and get rid of Toads entirely. Olivia calls out Olly on this, questioning why he would attack all Toads if only a single Toad was responsible for his creation. Olly dismissively declares that all Toads are the same, and all of them deserve to be crumpled and destroyed. As one of the only distinct, non-Mario characters in the game, Olly declares that Toads would mar the uniquely crafted world he intends to create.
Recent Paper Mario titles have faced a lot of criticism for their use of Toads and only Toads as the NPC characters of the setting. Compared to the broad and interesting casts of the first two Paper Mario games, a world full of nothing but Toads, bad guys, and Mario felt shallow. Classic Paper Mario fans are vocally critical of new entries, yes, but there is a validity to the criticism of the Toad-filled world that isn’t unique to “Thousand-Year Door sequel or bust” fans. To literally villainize the criticism of your game, to make it the bad guy for players to defeat, shows a resistance to constructive criticism and change that I personally find to be disconcerting. As someone who creates things, my mind has to be open to the possibility that there is a better way to do what I do. A better way to write articles, a better way to stream games; these are things I strive for in order to improve my craft and give a better product to the people who support me. Nintendo took valid criticism of their series and made it into a villain in the form of Olly, an act which to me feels like a silly way to say to fans “this is what you sound like.” No one is asking you to kill all the Toads, Nintendo. But fans who want the series to grow and be better would like to see characters who are given unique identities and stories to tell. I can say with confidence as a classic Paper Mario fan that Bobby, a generically-designed character who is simply a classic Mario enemy, does a much better job of capturing what I want from the series when I say I want unique characters than Olly, a new creation unique to The Origami King.
None of what I have shared here necessarily changes my ultimate opinion of the story. The partner characters – particularly Bobby and Olivia – are where this game shines. The NPCs and the Legion of Stationary create opportunities for fun, bright moments or clever wordplay that make the moment-to-moment of Origami King fun to read. But I truly wish that Nintendo had done something more creative with their villain rather than using him as an opportunity to complain about fans who want them to be better. The issue with Sticker Star and to a lesser extent Color Splash is not really about Toads specifically – it is about an unwillingness to give unique identities to the characters in your setting, to give personality and depth to anyone who isn’t Mario, Peach, or Bowser. Bobby is a clear demonstration that Nintendo can do what fans are asking them to even within their philosophy of not creating new characters; if in a future Paper Mario title we see more characters like Bobby and less like Olly, I’ll be happier for it.