I was recently struck by the urge to replay Paper Mario and, instead of going through the hassle of digging out my old systems or signing up for the more expensive Nintendo Online account so I could play it on my Switch, I’ve spent my time finally playing through Paper Mario: The Origami King. I bought it shortly after it came out two years ago, based on some reviews I read, started playing it right before I moved into my current apartment, and then never played it again after moving. I’d gotten distracted by getting my wisdom teeth removed and the PS4 I purchased with the moving and dental work budget I had leftover when those were all finished. Ghost of Tsushima was incredibly compelling and I had some other PS4 games I still hadn’t played. I barely even used my Switch for months.
Now that I’m playing through it again, I’m finding out why I might have stopped playing it. Combat is a chore. Every battle starts with a puzzle of needing to shift the enemies around in a certain number of moves or less so you can line them up, get bonus damage, and get bonus money when the battle is over. Sometimes, you can spend some of the truly ridiculous amount of money you get to bypass the puzzle portion (you have a crowd watching you battle and you can toss money to them, causing them to do a bunch of stuff like restore health, solve the puzzle, and hurt enemies in small ways), but it feels like a huge, glaring flaw that you get nothing but money from battles (and most of what you spend money on is battles, so it’s a cyclical nightmare). Every battle feels incredibly pointless and yet the world is laid out such that avoiding battles takes a great deal of effort. Sure, you can eventually beat some of the weaker enemies by attacking them in the overworld (by jumping on them or hitting them with your hammer), allowing you to bypass the battle entirely, but that’s usually only after you’ve completely cleared an area. And when enemies return every time you leave the map to go into a building or travel from one map to another, you wind up refighting the same enemies multiple times.
Given that combat is the constant companion of the every other part of the game, it drags down so much of what I consider enjoyable and fun. There’s a boat ride portion, where you’re trying to get coins, dodge rocks, and cover all of the holes in the world as you ride a small canoe down the rapids caused by your actions upstream. There’s a religious scam you reveal that manages to survive despite the clear absurdity of the mythic figure being presented to the adherents (though some admit that they’re just there to enjoy what is actually a pretty decent production rather than out of religious fervor). There’s a bunch of fun jokes about being a paper person in a world sometimes bein literally torn apart by paper mache monsters with an appetite and origami monsters intent on folding the world into butterflies or different bugs. There’s so much to love in this game (like a dancing turtle monster, an overzealous child-like companion, and a Bob-omb with amnesia who seems just happy to be included) that I can only ever barely enjoy because I know I’m about to have to do a bunch of repetitive puzzles and frustrating battles.
Sure, sometimes the battle mechanics come together and create really fun encounters. The first two boss fights were a blast, using the familiar and already frustrating mechanics in a fun new way. The third was dreadful, though, because it clearly expected me to use certain abilities but the puzzle mechanics wouldn’t allow me to use them. I almost lost the battle because I was supposed to use an ability to dodge an attack but the two times I needed to dodge the attack, the puzzle couldn’t be completed in a way that would allow me to use the associated ability. It was so frustrating that the one time the battle mechanics were fine, they wound up failing me multiple times in a single boss fight. I’m not sure I should expect them to always have a potential perfect solution, but given that there are awards for getting through encounters without damage, including boss encounters, it seems to me like they expect me to be able to solve each puzzle perfectly each time if I’m decent at puzzles. And I am! I’m actually pretty good at puzzles!
I don’t see it much, since I tend to only pick up titles after hearing from reviewers with similar preferences whose opinions I trust, but this is one of the most clear instances I’ve encountered of the mechanics getting in the way of the game. The idea of sorting enemies on the stage to set up perfect attack patterns in order to boost your damage to the level required to defeat all enemies in a single well-timed attack sounds fun on paper, but it becomes a serious and exhausting drag after the first couple hours. Even worse is how punishing that system gets if you’re not good at puzzles or if you’re bad at the game’s action commands. Sure, they get around this by providing the ability to bribe your in-battle audience for help, the ability to purchase more time to solve the puzzles, and incredibly forgiving action commands with multiple tiers of effect in case you’re a bit off, but that doesn’t make the battles any less frustrating.
I stopped playing because of the battles. You don’t experience points for them, you only rarely get a reward for engaging in battle, and the puzzles all repeat after the first handful in each area. They are a waste of my time and, since they’re a major part of world exploration, a huge time sink that has driven me away from the game before even my second plot-based boss fight (there’s boss fights for new powers and boss fights to advance the plot). I had the thought as I set the game aside that I was bored and just didn’t feel like engaging in any more battles, even though I really wanted to continue the story and continue exploring the interesting world the game has created. I just couldn’t stand the thought of fighting more goombas but with different colored shoes and more hit points.
I genuinely don’t know if I’ll go back to the game. I don’t think the combat is ever going to get any better and I can just look up the plot online. Or watch someone else play the game, skipping over all the boring parts so I can see the bits I’m actually interested in. I just can’t stand the idea of another dumb battle, which says a lot because this is coming from someone with nearly 400 hours in Fire Emblem: Three Houses because they wanted to unlock all the support conversations and play throough every possible permutation of the plot. At least I got something for all of those dumb, repetitive battles. XP, money, and character support conversations are a great reward for doing the “who has the best weapons” dance on every battlefield.
There’s a great game in there, buried underneath a mountain of onerous battles, and I just don’t know that Paper Mario: The Origami King is worth it.