It has been some time since I’ve sat down to write another post, partly because of my efforts needed both for my own career and the state of the world. In the past seven months, I have worked on two separate job projects that ironically transitioned seamlessly from one to the other, and I have spent a lot of energy towards both understanding and trying to help society at large in its current state.
As such, there has been less time I’ve been able to devote to my favorite pastime, but during a particular restful period a few months ago, I was able to sit down with the game everyone has a complicated opinion about these days – Paper Mario: The Origami King.
As we usher in what will hopefully be a better year than the last, I am reminded of the nostalgia and history that goes with a game series as long-running as Paper Mario. When I first wrote my post on Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD) almost two years ago, I posited that it was the best interconnected Mario narrative amongst all canon – that from a beat-by-beat perspective, it told an interweaving story that changed and grew, whilst all-the-while touching on its central theme of overcoming darkness.
As part of this conclusion, I compared it to its potential successors, and discussed that, indeed, some other games had better individual storytelling elements: that TTYD’s immediate successor, Super Paper Mario (SPM), held the series’ deepest villain (Count Bleck), that Super Mario Galaxy introduced the series’ most complex female character (Rosalina), and that the Mario + Luigi series as a whole came the closest of imbuing our titular protagonist with genuine personality.
From left to right: Count Bleck speaking in Super Paper Mario, Mario meeting Rosalina in Super Mario Galaxy, Mario getting annoyed in Mario + Luigi: Superstar Saga, and the world map from Paper Mario
When I later wrote my post specifically on Super Paper Mario, I also realized that I was yearning for a game that did all of these things, but that also tapped into a sense of deeper, lived-in worldbuilding the way the original Paper Mario (PM64) did, and a game that at least had mechanics that, while maybe not perfect, at least didn’t feel broken in places, which unfortunately SPM did.
A game had yet to exist that captured all of these elements in one package – a game that told an interconnected, evolving story with a complex villain and complex female deuteragonist, that at least had Mario react more the way a genuine person would, and which was supported by its mechanics enough to not feel genuinely imbalanced.
And I know this is going to be a controversial opinion, but the truth of the matter is that Paper Mario: The Origami King (TOK), the newest game in the series, comes oh-so-tantalizingly-close to achieving all of these elements – the first one since TTYD itself, and only the second since Super Mario RPG (SMRPG) that preceded all other Mario RPGs.
For more details about these older games, please read my two original posts on TTYD and its successors.
For anyone who hasn’t caught on to the great Paper Mario debate of 2020, The Origami King’s main storyline involves a piece of origami whom has been brought to life, named King Olly (below), who becomes genocidal and decides that he wants to turn the entire Mushroom Kingdom population into origami like himself. So, after turning Princess Peach into origami in the game’s prologue, he absconds with her castle and retreats to the top of a mountain, with the castle itself protected by multi-colored streamers that make it impenetrable until Mario finds and destroys these streamers.
Along Mario’s journey, he is aided by Olivia (below), King Olly’s sister who unlike her brother is optimistic, good-natured, yet also impeccably naive, and this creates a central underlying question in the game of: how does someone as good-natured and sweet as Olivia be the sister of a would-be-dictator who wants to rebirth the world in his image?
I’ll touch more on the elephant in the room later, but the fact remains: the interesting thing about linking these three games together – SMRPG, TTYD, and TOK, is that, on the surface, their A-plots are not that dissimilar, as in all three games, the Mushroom Kingdom is put to the test by the arrival of an otherworldly villain seeking to dominate the world, and Bowser himself plays a secondary role of varying degrees of being helpful. And all three games directly place you in conversation with the world and its ordinary denizens, with the inclusion of sidequests that you can do to help NPCs and an effort to make the world feel like a place worth fighting for.
But the games stem from vastly different genres, despite these similarities from a narrative perspective. Super Mario RPG introduces itself as a more advanced RPG akin to Final Fantasy and other titles with complex battle mechanics, even though the game eases you into its fighting style. You have a large series of stats that can be potentially upgraded, lots of weaponry to collect, a series of different moves to learn, you can hold an unlimited number of items, the list goes on. The world itself also includes extremely out-there characters who don’t necessarily fit into the Mario universe, but make sense given the game’s tone. The conclusion that SMRPG is more of a Final Fantasy game with a Mario skin is not completely wrong.
Combat in SMRPG
TTYD pares back some of these advanced RPG elements (building on the simplifications that Paper Mario itself created) to simplify the amount of macro-stats and pure number of things you can do from an RPG-perspective, but within those guidelines, keeps a ton of strategic elements in place within its more base-line stats, items, and abilities. The world itself strikes the delicate balance of Mario characters and new characters, and yet the new characters feel completely at home within the Mario universe, something SMRPG wasn’t as successful at.
Combat in TTYD
I’ll say it up-front: The Origami King is not an RPG. It isn’t. It is an action-adventure game within the Mario RPG narrative structure we have some familiarity with. For starters, there is no level-up system and no advanced battle mechanics, as battle are now fought as pseudo-puzzles that involve you properly placing enemies around a concentric stage in order to defeat them, and the ways in which you do advance are through collectibles and not EXP (i.e. finding advanced weapons in treasure chests, collecting heart pieces).
Combat in TOK
In general, the game prioritizes methods by which you can explore the overworld, such as by using Olivia’s 1,000-fold arms technique to help you find hidden objects, or by using confetti in order to fill “non-bottomless” holes around the world.
The 1,000-fold arms (left) and an excess of confetti (right)
Additionally, though there are still a series of denizens and characters that the game implores you to help and save, for the most part they are based purely on established Mario types and enemies. Kamek and Bowser Jr, longtime supporting Mario characters, play key supporting roles. The other “partner” characters in the game, Bobby and Professor Toad, are plays on specific Mario types (Bob-ombs and Toads) as opposed to more original types.
What I mean by this is that: the SMRPG characters, other than staples like Mario, Peach, Bowser, are wholly original. Mallow and Geno are new characters of completely different races/species with new lore that appear in the universe for the first time. The new TTYD characters, unlike the purely new types like the X-Nauts and Vivian, while indeed based on established Mario races, have new backstories. Goombella is not a Goomba that was in Bowser’s army; she is a citizen who went to college and became an archaeologist. Admiral Bobbery was not a Bob-omb who fought Mario in mainline games; he is a sailor who lives in Rogueport and just happens to be a Bob-omb. The same goes with Koops, the Yoshi Kid, and Ms. Mowz.
In Origami King, however, all of the “new” characters are implied to be baked-in to not just established Mario races, but established lore. Bobby, while tasked with protecting the ship-liner The Princess Peach, is simply an ordinary Bob-omb and in truth doesn’t have a name until Olivia gives him one. The Koopas that you meet on your journey do not have new names or come from new villages, they are more or less Bowser’s army who are now refraining from fighting you because you have a common enemy in the origami-folded soldiers of Olly’s new army.
Now, these two design choices in The Origami King (eliminating the level-up system and only having established Mario characters outside of Olly and Olivia) have been met with a great deal of contention, particularly because these choices appear to have been high-up studio decisions on Nintendo’s part, creating restrictions that the immediate game design team at Intelligent Systems had to work around in order to create the game.
Fans continue to ask why Nintendo continues to refuse to go back to the inclusion of new characters within Mario races, or incorporate old-school RPG elements that we all grew to love in the earlier games, particularly after even-greater contentions from Sticker Star and Color Splash, which employed a similar action-adventure structure.
This post…. is not about that.
At some point in the new year, I have ideas for two more posts. I am going to take a deep-dive into Nintendo’s evolving design philosophy across its different game series, and specifically how Paper Mario represents these changes in execution. I am also currently re-playing the older Paper Mario games in preparation for an even deeper retrospective on the series as a whole, and the emotional work that a series like Paper Mario can do for us during trying times like this one.
But again… these are posts for a different day.
This particular post is solely on The Origami King, and the fact that, working within these restrictions given to them by Nintendo, Intelligent Systems has crafted a game that manages to tell the most emotionally-driven, worldbuilt, interconnected Mario story in more than fifteen years, all the while sporting a villain that, while not as complex as Count Bleck, still manages to be imbued with a strangely touching element of tragedy, and a female deuteragonist in Olivia who undergoes possibly the most growth of any female character in a Mario story (yes, even Vivian), and who does so from a completely platonic perspective, which is huge. What’s more – all of it is connected to the game’s central theme that someone small and ordinary can make n impact, and the journey itself even manages to have a genuine emotional effect on Mario.
That’s right – the silent protagonist who barely shows any emotion across his entire repertoire may not necessarily grow, but he indeed shows a side of him that we haven’t seen before.
To say nothing of the character growth from Bowser and Luigi, which simultaneously manages to serve as an expansion on their growths from earlier Paper Mario games.
This post is not going to employ Christopher Alexander’s A Nature of Order, but is simply going to analyze the game from the perspective of character, the world, the story (and thus the theme), and mechanics.
NOTE: And it goes without saying, but MASSIVE SPOILERS for Paper Mario: The Origami King ahead.
I will start with the world because, in my opinion, it is the worldbuilding that announces itself in Origami King right off the bat, and immediately tells you that this game, at least from the perspective of world building, is going to be more like the original Paper Mario games.
The game opens with Mario and Luigi driving to Toad Town in Luigi’s kart, having been invited by the princess to the Origami Festival, and immediately something is off. No one is present in town, the buildings seem oddly chipped and abandoned, and there is no music playing at all during this scene. Luigi is affably oblivious, but the player can clearly tell that this is not right.
A game without an emphasis on worldbuilding would have skipped this scene. It would have had Mario and Luigi simply arrive at the castle with introductory music and kick-started the action. But no: Origami King wants you to feel this sense of unease before the action begins.
The main storyline and key characters are then set up in the game’s prologue at Peach’s Castle where you are initially thrown into a dungeon by Origami Peach, and then you meet Olivia and free your old nemesis Bowser from captivity, before Olly reveals himself (which I will get to in a bit) and an action scene ensues that finds you separated from Bowser and thrown from the sky. But the worldbuilding takes center-stage again immediately afterward.
Landing in the Whispering Woods, you find Olivia again and then begin to explore some more. As you do, a series of whispery text dialogue appears, wondering who this red-glad Italian man is and commenting on the majesty of his mustache. When these whispers later reveal themselves to be the trees of the Woods, you are then tasked with finding the mysterious Soul Seed to help revive Ol’ Grandsappy, the oldest tree in the forest, who then promptly bursts into a jazz-and-soul song number with his fellow trees when you revive him.
This entire sequence, which is the de facto introductory sequence of the game wherein you are learning the mechanics and getting your bearings, is the game’s world announcing itself for what it is. Like the original Paper Mario, the world is going to commentate on your appearance and your role within it. You are also going to be tasked with doing things and finding objects to help the denizens of this world. And, when all is said and done, there are going to be musical numbers to announce the charm bubbling beneath the story (and also what will become one of the game’s central motifs).
Though these trees never appear again in the story, the key is clear: the world matters.
And this aspect then continues to play out over the course of the journey afterward. When you arrive back in Toad Town from the Whispering Woods, you have to defeat a series of Paper Macho Goombas (i.e. enemies that you fight in the overworld as opposed to in the battle system) and free some Toads in order to get the town up and running again. Then, as the game progresses, you are tasked with freeing more Toads from being origamified and when you do, they return to Toad Town and it grows. What’s more, there is a mechanical reward for this as every Toad you free joins the Audience in battle to help aid you if you need them too.
So, as we can see here, the world responds to your actions in it, and is supported by the game’s mechanics.
This doesn’t sound like much, but coming off of games like Sticker Star and even Super Paper Mario in which it felt like you were more passing through the world as opposed to engaging with it, the fact that Origami King employs this level of interactivity in its worldbuilding (and right off the bat mind you) is very potent.
It is further refreshing just how interconnected the world feels, a way that a Paper Mario game hasn’t truly felt sense, honestly, the original game. There are no level maps like in Color Splash, nor are there sections or segments the way SPM did things that makes you feel you are hopping from place-to-place. It is even an improvement on TTYD itself, which had you accessing most areas via pipes and other quick-transport means, and doesn’t suffer from the left-to-right problem or an influx of too much backtracking.
In Origami King, you access new worlds by: walking, taking a tram car ride, riding a boat down a river, setting sail to the high seas, teleporting to the sky, and flying on Bowser’s airship. Sure, there are a handful of instances where you have to use pipes to teleport and such, but for the most part there is a great emphasis on world interconnectivity, which truly makes the landscape feel like a place you could genuinely wander around in real life, as opposed to a game map.
If anything, World One (i.e. the Red Streamer) initially feels draggy the most, as it is the biggest culprit of feeling like you’re just passing through it, and comes at a point after the Whispering Woods introduction and the restoration of Toad Town which held a lot of worldbuilt engagement, and also comes at point when you’ve more or less figured out the battle mechanics and want to get on with more action.
I understand what the world is doing, however. It keeps the narrative and mechanical elements simple in order to introduce the game’s main structure of having you find a vellumental temple and then the subsequent dungeon, within which the streamer coalesces and you have to fight a member of the Legion of Stationery – King Olly’s nefarious art objects brought to life – in order to destroy the streamer.
World One indeed contains some hidden gems once you reach the Earth Vellumental Temple and later its dungeon – Overlook Tower. See, a lot of games employ the idea of introducing mystical elemental powers that you have to master in order to gain access to new areas, like Zelda games or even Luigi’s Mansion. But Origami King, in addition to making these elemental powers be a clever paper twist through the name “vellumental”, imbues the temples within which these powers reside with a good amount of mysticism.
The four Vellumentals: Earth, Water, Fire, and Ice
The Earth Vellumental Temple is actually the strongest in terms of this, as instead of being a straightforward dungeon within which to unlock an ability, it is instead turned into a shrine that nearby Koopas deem a pseudo-religious experience.
Overlook Tower, serving as World One’s main dungeon, is even more successful at this. Instead of just being a dungeon, it is a genuine tourist attention with a dining hall and a mezzanine cafeteria high in the sky that has been taken over by Olly’s forces. And as you make your way up the tower, the journey is just long enough to feel the expanse of this mission without overstaying its welcome.
But of all the worlds, World Two (i.e. the Blue Streamer) is probably the most sublime.
Even before you get to Shogun Studios, you have to traverse Autumn Mountain which is probably, aesthetically at least, the game is at its most gorgeous, before you investigate the Water Vellumental Temple and ride a boat down the chaotic Eddy River, with a musical interlude in between, all of which serve as an introduction to Bobby’s character.
Along the way, you meet a group of three friends (a Goomba, a Spike, and a Shy Guy) just hanging out along the hills of Autumn Mountain colloquially called Friendship Plaza. You initially have to help the Goomba and Spike navigate through some high yellow grass and defeat some origami enemies if you encounter them. They are having a tuna can party and pseudo-picnic, and eventually help you open a can of tuna that you need in order to find the oar man who will drive the boat down the river for you.
This exchange makes this area feel a like a real place – a picturesque location where you can bring your friends, play music, sing, hang out, and eat canned food.
You pass through the Eddy River, which is a fun mini-game of chaos (directly contrasting the peaceful environment you just came from) that is enhanced by the lighthearted music that is subtly aggressive, and then you reach Shogun Studios.
And Shogun Studios is quintessential Paper Mario.
Again, as you enter, the lack of music is legitimately unnerving. And you slowly realize that this bustling, would-be amusement park of sorts has been taken over by Olly’s forces, and you have to solve a mystery of finding out the source of all this chaos, while also exchanging a series of objects that forces you to interact with the denizens of the park. As you defeat more origami soldiers and open up the park, you get to participate in some fun mini-games and events wherein you can win prizes and collect treasure, and it feels oh-so-rewarding because now you are getting to have fun in the park in the same way all these other characters can now have fun because you are defeating the bad guys.
The climax of the world, at Big Sho’ Theater, involves you participating in a series of theatrical stage plays, which range from a West Side Story-inspired clash with some Paper Macho Koopas in which you have to save Birdo, to a western-style pistol showdown, to even a riff on Swan Lake in which you join in some ballet with some Paper Macho Shy Guys and then have to beat them up with your hammer. After each performance, the stage moves up a level within the theater.
Then, you reach the highest level of the theater and meet the diva herself, Rubber Band, who makes a stage entrance that feels reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera that precedes a legitimately hard boss fight and Rubber Band’s overdramatic stage death in rhyming couplets.
In the end, you free all of the Toads whom have been literally tied to their seats in the theater by Rubber Band’s… rubber bands… and then they throw you a parade for saving the park as you, Olivia, and Bobby walk down the street in triumph.
Shogun Studios does for theme parks and the theater industry what TTYD’s Glitzville did for wrestling and fighting.
Any Paper Mario fan can attest that if a Paper Mario chapter or world is compared to TTYD’s Glitzville, long considered the greatest Paper Mario chapter of all time for its mystery and heightened worldbuilding and characters, that means especially high praise.
Subsequent chapters/worlds are similar in style. World Three (i.e. The Yellow Streamer) and World Four (i.e. The Purple Streamer) are both massive in terms of size, encouraging you to explore them while discerning the worlds’ central mysteries (i.e. the lore surrounding the Temple of Shrooms in World Three, and the locations of Diamond Island, the Sea Tower, and “Paradise” in World Four).
The Scorching Sandpaper Desert and The Great Sea, respectively
World Three, which takes place in the Scorching Sandpaper Desert, is immediately eerie as, when you enter the world, the sun has been blotted out and the main outpost of the area, Shroom City, has been abandoned by the Toads that typically live there and instead been habituated by Snifits who have turned the city into a pseudo-Las Vegas. Have a listen.
Through a series of quests by which you unearth the mystery of the Temple of Shrooms and the method by which it can be uncovered, you meet a new ally – Professor Toad, whom can dig in the sand to find buried treasure – and discover the Fire Vellumental Cave before finally venturing into the Temple of Shrooms.
Within the Temple, you find out that this world has been taken over by Hole Punch, one of Olly’s minions, who simultaneously hole-punched the sun out of its place in the sky, and has also kidnapped and hole-punched the faces of Toads whom are now trapped in the temple, turning them into, basically, faceless zombie versions of themselves. The twist is that the Hole Punch doesn’t want to dominate all life, he simply wants to control these beings so he can engineer a massive disco dance party in the center of the temple.
This area balances the mystery element of the worldbuilding excellently. You are not given all of this information immediately and have to talk with the Snifit denizens, use Professor Toad’s knowledge and abilities of the world, find a series of mysterious giant Toad statues that house clues, and few others to get pieces of information as to what the Temple of Shrooms is. Beyond that, the mystery of the temple is linked to the area’s central villain AND how his actions have enforced this mystery through the Toads being missing and the loss of the sun.
The chapter is reminiscent of a Paper Mario 64 chapter, in which there isn’t a ton of overt character development, but a lush landscape that you get to explore, connected to a central mystery as to what is happening to the landscape, and a new ally whose abilities you need to utilize in order to solve the mystery.
World Four, whilst similar, is distinct in two ways. Firstly, it is immediately linked to the World Three by the finding of Captain T. Ode, a mysterious sea captain whom has been frozen in ice underneath the Sandpaper Desert who has aggressively sea-based music. He in actuality is the long-lost owner of a submarine, the Super Marino, that is housed as an exhibit in Toad Town’s Musée Champignon, and whom you need to utilize as part of the next world.
This area takes place on The Great Sea, and unlike World Three, in which there is a direct progression as to how the steps of the mystery are meant to unfold, World Four does not have this. After an initial quest in which you need to travel to Bonehead Island to clear the fog that is dominating the sea, the rest of the area is immediately and completely opened up, and it is simply by traveling to the different islands that the mystery is gradually unearthed – you realize that there are Toad Statues stationed around the Sea that each speak of “Paradise” – a “Paradise” that you can only find by collecting orbs through challenges on Diamond Island that will allow you to access the Sea Tower.
You are not explicitly told where to find Diamond Island. Instead, the player is meant to piece clues together from disparate adventures to different island and dive underneath the sea at a specific location in order to find it. There, you find the last vellumental temple – the Ice Vellumental Temple – which allows you to access three challenges that grant you the orbs of Power, Wisdom, and Courage. Together, these allow access to the Sea Tower, where the Purple Streamer happens to lead to.
Where World Three has a clear progressive mystery, World Four’s mystery is completely emergent, and is honestly only given stakes in as much as the player is interested in them, which is new for a Paper Mario game. Yet, it strangely works, not just because of the contrast to the previous chapter, but because of how the emergent lore that is introduced is connected to deeper macro game lore that pays off in the next chapter.
This is enhanced by the fact that World’s Four main hub is actually the moving cruise liner, The Princess Peach, which was gutted when a Paper Macho Gooper Blooper attacked it soon after Olly transformed much of the world to origami. After you clear the fog, The Princess Peach will start traveling the seas to pick up every Toad that you happen to find on the islands. When you actually find every Toad, the music onboard changes if you visit it, and you feel this great sense of reward that this cruise liner that you once saw outright destroyed has now been fulfilled with everyone home.
And again – this is an optional quest. You do not need to restore The Princess Peach in order to complete the main plot of World Four, whereas in World Three you restore Shroom City simply by completing the main plot and freeing the captured Toads from Hole Punch, highlighting the differences of these two worlds.
Of course, there are other key elements that enhance these sections of the game, as they hold the culmination of Bobby’s arc, and the backstory of Olly and Olivia, both of which I will touch on in a bit.
Olly’s backstory taking place in World Four is ironic due to the fact that, of all the worlds, his imprint is actually the least apparent in World Four. Sure, the Gooper Blooper attack gutted The Princess Peach and said Gooper Blooper’s existence is due to Olly’s actions, but it’s not like World Two where Rubber Band and Olly’s origami soldiers had taken over Shogun Studios. The world’s boss, Tape, is simply a blowhard pseudo-mafioso boss who sits atop the Sea Tower and doesn’t do much.
Sure, he’s captured some Toads and taped them to the Sea Tower, but there isn’t any worldbuilt feedback. These Toads are not linked to restoring The Princess Peach, and thus saving them from Tape does not impact the world in any tactile way.
World Four is instead more about the surrounding lore, including Olly’s backstory and also the lore built up by the Vellumentals and also lore related to the mysterious King Shroomses from World Three, who apparently ruled back in ancient times. Sea Tower is in fact literally the culmination of all of the Vellumentals, asking you to use all of their powers to traverse it, as it is meant to be the core vellumental tower that they hail. After defeating Tape, you must use the vellumental powers together to unlock the pathway to “Paradise” – Shangri Spa, which sits atop the clouds.
It later turns out that King Shroomses was devoted to Shangri Spa, and that Captain T. Ode stole from Shangri Spa the then-water taxi leading to Diamond Island that would become the Super Marino. He then tried to sell it to King Shroomses in exchange for being king, but King Shroomses refused and, as punishment, encased Captain T. Ode in ice.
Now, this lore isn’t necessarily the deepest in cinematic history, but for a Paper Mario game, it is surprisingly extensive and emergently deep.
The subsequent area of Shangri Spa, which makes up World Five and thus the Green Streamer, is somewhat shorter than the other worlds, but not so much that it is detrimental. With no more vellumental temples to traverse, it instead uses the character of Bowser Jr. as a pseudo-MacGuffin that forces you to traverse through the different spas of the area. Early on in the chapter, the main villain of the area, Scissors, attacks Bowser Jr. and cuts him into pieces. You need Bowser Jr. to fly up to a platform and defeat the Sumo Bros, whom are blocking your pathway to Bowser’s Castle, which has crash-landed in Shangri Spa.
This instead treats the restore-Bowser Jr. section of the world as the first half, with the second half being investigating Bowser’s Castle, allying with Bowser’s Castle to defeat the origami soldiers stationed there, and eventually defeating Scissors and his demonic creations, thus defeating the leader of the Legion of Stationery and the last streamer as well.
In general, this idea of a pseudo-heaven in the Mario universe is done very well. It isn’t the Overthere from SPM, but it is more angelic than the typical sky worlds of Mario’s universe, and fits the established worldbuilding of the game. Shangri Spa is the hub of the ancestral and mythical lore connected to the vellumentals which seems otherworldly, but it is indeed a place of peace and tranquility as opposed to the afterlife. It’s a way of tying in the sky worlds of the Mario universe into something that fits the world building.
This entire sequence almost reminded me of the second half of Super Mario RPG. In both SMRPG and TOK, after the game’s midpoint, you have to traverse through the water area that leads to you finding a pathway to the sky world, which feels culminating in itself due to the worldbuilding set up by the respective game so far, with Mallow in SMRPG and the Vellumentals in TOK. This eventually leads you to Bowser’s castle (which feels culminating in and of itself), which then leads you to unlocking the goalpost that’s been set up by the game’s opening (Exor in SMRPG and defeating the streamers in TOK) and thus reaching the game’s final area (although Bowser’s Castle itself in SMRPG plays a more existential role).
And indeed – Shangri Spa is the culmination of the lore built up by Shroomses, T. Ode, and the Vellumentals. Bowser’s Castle explains what happened to Bowser and co. after the opening (which is always in the back of your mind, given his prominence in allying with you in the game’s opening).
And Bowser’s Castle is indeed filled with dread in this game just like it was in SMRPG. The section after Olivia is stolen by the Handaconda (a creation of Scissors) is genuinely spooky, and almost made me think of Twilight Town from TTYD with how naked you feel without your ally (i.e. we’ve lost partners in this game before, but the only other time Olivia was incapacitated, Bobby was with you, so you never felt truly alone until now). And the spooky stick figures that fight you during this section are reminiscent of the faceless Toads from World Three, but spookier because the faceless Toads can’t hurt you but THESE WILL. The level of bare-ness that they are is just creepy, reminding me of Slenderman in a way, and I actually felt myself hiding behind pillars at one point when they appeared out of nowhere.
Like World Three, the area balances the progression of action to outright horror and dread very well, but whereas World Three subverts it by turning the area’s climax into a dance party, World Five pushes forward with it, with several side characters literally being cut to pieces (i.e. basically killed) until you defeat Scissors and repair the area and Bowser joins you for real. Scissors himself isn’t like Hole Punch who just wants to dance. Scissors EXPECTS to kill you and believes he is just toying with you – which is scary.
I’ll touch on it more when I talk about Bowser, but it is interesting that in this game, the world seems to be more in harmony already as opposed to Olly’s interference, and although Bowser individually has helped Mario in the past, I think this is the first time he’s lent his entire military to the cause.
I love the scene in which Kamek (Bowser’s second-in-command, whom replaces Kammy Koopa from the earlier games, and whom joins you to help repair Bowser Jr.) calls on Bowser’s minions to fight WITH MARIO and then the mechanics allow you to aid them in the melee of the great hall of Bowser’s Castle.
And the airship scene that follows Bowser’s Castle is amazing.
Bowser musters his forces at large and flies them, along with you, on his airship towards Peach’s Castle. This then includes a giant mini game in which you help fight off Olly’s giant paper airplanes, after which Bowser’s airship eventually crash-lands into a volcano, Hotfoot Crater, and you are forced to fight your way out of it. During this chase, Kamek and Bowser Jr. sacrifice themselves (don’t worry, they don’t end up fully dead) so you and Bowser and Olivia can continue on to the final battle.
For the final area, I will touch on it more on the story section. The area itself is not very massive, although it is a nice twist to initially feel culminating by entering Peach’s castle again, only to then feel unnerved when Olly transforms it to his own Origami Castle, made in his image, that you have to fight through (with Bowser as your actual, genuine party member at this point) to the final climax.
The area itself is fairly short, and this is actually a shame from a worldbuilding perspective, but the area makes up for it through the payoffs to the character development and story beats set up thus far.
All in all, however, the worldbuilding in Origami King sees the series at its most solid since at least TTYD, and in some ways since PM64 given the interconnectivity of its landscapes, and this basis allows for the game’s characters and (once again) emergently complex narrative to build upon itself.
Though there are lot of core characters in the game, as well as the primary secondary characters in Olly and Olivia, I am not going to start with them. I am going to start with the character that encapsulates what this game is trying to say, and also the character that represents Paper Mario: The Origami King at its finest.
As mentioned, you meet Bobby on your way to Autumn Mountain after defeating the red streamer and riding the tram for the first time. He is introduced as a character who is struggling with amnesia and doesn’t remember who he is, who has lost his fuse (i.e. the symbolic thing that makes him who he is, and thereby denying him a purpose) and then immediately captures an element of irreverence combined with an innocent goodwill:
Olivia, enter the good-natured one, suggests that he join you on your quest, but he casually disregards the offer with some sarcasm. After a beat of silence, he begins to slink closer and closer to where you are sitting, and admits that he’s changed his mind. Olivia is overjoyed, and Bobby joins you once you reach Autumn Mountain. At this point, he is actually simply called “Bob-omb,” but Olivia gives him the name “Bobby” out of endearment.
However, he immediately proves to be, at least mechanically speaking, virtually useless. He barely is able to aid you in battle (his one move, Bomb Bump, only works about half the time and only damages one enemy), and frequently finds himself lost or in trouble as you try to navigate through the tall grass of the mountain, and then in Chestnut Valley.
Sure, he helps you by standing on a platform to help unlock the Water Vellumental Temple, but overall, if you were looking at this from a mechanical perspective, he is more of a nuisance that you have to tolerate.
Bobby is of course apologetic about all of this, saying at one point “I can’t do anything… why would you want me?” and Olivia encourages him to continue traveling with you, but Bobby is also balancing out his sarcasm with his innocence. He acts like he doesn’t care, although he clearly does. He claims that he isn’t normally into theater, yet clearly gets into the Big Sho’ Theater performances and congratulates you after you complete the stage scenes, remarking “Hey. Ballet is better with hammers.” He sits passively in the boat along the Eddy River, but clearly gets into it as you navigate the mini-game by wiggling and shouting out advice and remarks as you avoid obstacles.
And all the while, he is treated as an equal. Mechanically speaking, he doesn’t do much. But narratively speaking, he gets to take pictures and engage with you in Shogun Studios, and even gets to participate in the hero’s parade after you save the park. He may not do much, but he is part of the team now, and that’s enough. For Olivia. For Mario. And for you the player.
The fireworks that go off during the parade trigger Bobby’s memories, though he doesn’t explicitly tell you the details after he remembers, simply saying that he knows who he is now, and would be happy to continue traveling with you.
Immediately afterward, you reach Sweetpaper Valley and, in an especially chilling scene, Olly has a boulder thrown from a cliff’s edge onto his own sister, crushing Olivia underneath and rendering further passage into World Three impossible.
Bobby appears active and angry for the first time, and tells you he knows what to do in order to save Olivia. Keep in mind, Bobby is less about big-picture-saving-Peach stuff, and is more about the moment: his friend is in trouble, and he’s gonna do something about it.
Asking you to trust him, he leads you back to Toad Town, where you enter World Four (which I’ve always found to be an interesting subversion that you actually enter a subsequent world before you have to enter it at large) and find The Princess Peach, which has been ransacked and left for dead. The area is creepy and unnerving, just like empty Shogun Studios or future scenes like the Temple of Shrooms or Bowser’s Castle, and Bobby is acting like a fully realized character: no longer passive and irreverent, but directly facilitating movement through the cruise liner in order to find a mysterious lockbox that apparently is his property.
Though he still isn’t able to support you much in battle, the mechanics do support this change in Bobby’s importance too, as Bobby serves Olivia’s role during this time of the game. When you press X, he becomes the one giving you advice and tips on where to go.
When the Gooper Blooper eventually attacks, Bobby remains true to form and knows he can’t actively help you in fighting, but at the same time races to the confrontation with you. He is still the Bobby we know and love, but more engaged and fully realized.
When the Blooper is defeated, you return to Sweetpaper Valley with the lockbox in tow, and Bobby tells you the truth.
He was a Bob-omb on that cruise ship, with him and his friends looking to get away and relax, only to be thrown back into action with the Blooper’s attack. Bobby, whose professional role was as a guard for Peach and, well, the good guys, lept back into action to defend the ship, only to have his fuse ripped off and himself thrown from the ship into the sea. Waking up in Toad Town and unable to remember anything, he then wandered the plains and eventually bumped into Mario and Olivia on the tram.
He knows that his friends onboard that ship were all killed, and that he hadn’t been able to do anything, thereby telling us that defeating that Blooper was also a bit of revenge on Bobby’s behalf.
But he also knows that his best friend, also named Bob-omb, died a long time ago in an accident, and this friend left him his fuse as a keepsake – the item that was in the lockbox.
With some delicately somber music to play him out of the narrative, Bobby puts his friend’s fuse on and, after telling Mario that he is grateful for the time spent together, blows up the boulder – and himself.
So who was Bobby?
He was a character who already lost the thing that meant the most to him – his best friend – and is now carrying around a memento of that loss in order to remember this friend, only to suffer even further loss in the form of his other friends, his memory, and, symbolically, his purpose as a Bob-omb, but who finds new purpose in saving his new friends.
Some of his last lines before his death are:
“Big M… If I can save a friend like this, it means I’ve finally become the sort of Bob-omb I always wanted to be. This is what every Bob-omb hopes for – a chance to change something for the better. To make an impact.”
As a player, you do not see this coming.
It’s Nintendo after all. There have been characters like Luvbi or Tippi whom have sacrificed themselves in relation to the game’s central MacGuffin or to save the world, but usually the game is leading up to something like this. And scenes that play out like a pseudo-heroic sacrifice are ultimately subverted, like Twink’s banishment in the original game or TEC’s shutdown in TTYD, in which they ultimately rendered “ok” in the end.
Bobby’s moment is subtly foreshadowed, but not explicitly. You could almost argue that Bobby didn’t have to do this. Maybe he and Mario could have scoured the plains looking for dynamite, have found some sort of item, or… something. But no. It was Bobby’s choice to do the thing he was unable to do in the past – give his life to save his friends – and thereby restore his sense of impact and purpose.
And that’s… death.
It’s not necessarily foreshadowed, or necessarily predictable, and there’s not necessarily a good moment for it. But it comes. And one can only hope that when it does, we have found a way to make an impact and protect those we care about. Bobby himself knows that Bob-ombs are not meant to live forever, so is going to make an impact in whatever way he can.
Even more so, death doesn’t necessarily mean the world is saved or massively impacted.
After Bobby’s death, Olivia retreats into the nearby cave, unable to speak to Mario or feel like she can go on. And even Mario – the emotionless protagonist that typically doesn’t speak or respond to much of anything, actually hangs his head. He turns away from Olivia ever so briefly. He lowers his eyes after choosing to sit with Olivia.
Even Mario – the most stoic of all protagonists – is affected by this.
Bobby wasn’t Peach or Luigi or anyone massively significant or even someone that mechanically impacted the journey much in battle. But he was Mario’s friend. And that’s enough.
Of course, the Monty Moles that live in this area – the Breezy Tunnel – are simply going on with life, and do so as somber music plays around you. They don’t know Bobby. They don’t know what just happened. They just see an exploded boulder and see it as something that is potentially profitable.
Life around you goes on even if you yourself are devastated.
For any game.
For a Nintendo game, let alone a Mario game, that kind of thematic work just doesn’t happen. Ever. For it happen in this game, and in the middle of the game nonetheless, is astounding.
And of course, to help Olivia feel able to continue on, Mario is visited by Bobby’s ghost who reminds him of laughter – the moments that he, Mario, and Olivia shared together (take note that in this final scene, Bobby is wearing the fuse, symbolically suggesting that he has restored his purpose).
And the hint is implicit – you must put on a Paper Macho Goomba mask that made Olivia laugh hysterically in the past, and this reminder of joy and memory helps restore her enough to be able to continue the adventure.
There is minor whiplash from the Breezy Tunnel to the Scorching Sandpaper Desert, which follows, as there is little evidence after the aftermath moment that Olivia is affected, and the adventure pushing forward with the mystery so soon after that. But… you later find out that Olivia is more affected by this then she lets on.
Which gets us to Olivia as a character.
At the start of the game, Olivia appears to be the most pure, charming, sweet character you’ll ever meet. You initially find her hidden behind a wall in the Peach’s castle dungeon, and she pleads with you to save her. Afterward, she overflows with gratitude and gives you gentle advice on how to escape, and later on encourages you to rest on a bench (which in itself is a mechanical tip because resting on a bench restores all your HP) and you wonder: how is she the way she is while Olly is satanically malevolent?
As you later find out, she is the way she is because Olly is aware to the point of being ruled by anger, whilst Olivia is simply naive.
In World Four, you stumble across an island called Mushroom Island where Luigi has been resting (we’ll get to him in a bit). After finding a key to unlock a hidden door, you end up wandering into the basement of the house on the island, and Olivia exclaims, “I almost forgot since it’s been so long… but it’s so nice to be home…”
As you later find out, both she and Olly were created here by the Origami Craftsman, a Toad that simply so loved origami, art, and creation, that he taught himself a spell in order to actually create life from his creations, which birthed Olly, the “Origami King” meant to be the headliner for the aforementioned Origami Festival. Olly himself learned this trick and crafted Olivia, giving her sentience as well. However, Olly began to grow angry at the Craftsman, and eventually turned on him and Toads as a whole, for a reason the Craftsman doesn’t know. He only knows that he created Olly to be kind, and knows that he was before he turned cruel.
So… Olly saw… something that made him turn cruel, where Olivia was left sheltered and didn’t get to see any of it, and because she doesn’t see this “awareness” that Olly has (i.e. she doesn’t agree that becoming origami is the equivalent of purification, nor that Toads are all pathetic), she is now seen as Olly’s enemy.
So… here we have the difference: Olly apparently knows something that, to him, means that Toads must be the enemy, whereas Olivia doesn’t know enough, hence why she is so fascinated by the world around her (she hasn’t seen much of it), and more or less runs her decisions based off of her emotions as opposed to logic, as she has emotional strength but not necessarily the wisdom of experience.
This contrast is highlighted in World Five, when Olivia is directly put in contrast by Bowser’s second-in-command, Kamek, who is purely logical and non-emotional but is often not given space for his ideas by Bowser. When both Olivia and Kamek suggest to you which which way to go in the Spring of Jungle Mist, Kamek always turns out to be suggesting the right direction. Olivia may have the emotions, but Kamek has the wisdom.
But thus is the drawback. Someone that is that naive and that open to the world leaves herself (or himself) open to the ways by which the world can crush you, and as the game progresses, it becomes clear that the trials of the adventure are beginning to have an impact on Olivia’s mental state.
In Bowser’s Castle, after she is stolen by and subsequently rescued by the Handaconda, she immediately defaults to her cheery veneer and sense of optimism…. and then it breaks.
She leaps into Mario’s arms, hugging you and telling you that she was so scared and didn’t know what to do, but could only hope that Mario would come for her.
Again, this moment (refreshingly so) is not played for romance at all, but instead played for the fact that, by this point, Mario and Olivia are genuine friends. Mario being there for her helped her get through what was at that moment the hardest moment of her life – Bobby’s death – and here again is committing to the fact that he will fight for her as a friend, of which she is so grateful for.
Because that is the trick – for someone so emotionally open and genuine, you need friends who will stand by you when life gets hard, and that is the difference between her and Olly. Olly wants to be better than the greater world, whereas Olivia wants to meet people and engage with the world. So Olly’s struggles (which in the end turn out to be based on a relatively minor perceived slight) turned him inward and cruel, whereas Olivia can persevere through them, not just because of who she is, but because she has her friends by her side.
She doesn’t just have her emotions. She now is developing emotional fortitude.
After you save Bowser again at the end of World Five, Olivia once again expresses her fears – that she isn’t going to be strong enough to face Olly and that she is too weak-willed to power through – but guess who stands up for her here? Bowser of all people (with a stirring tune to boot).
Bowser (and this is well-established by this point in the franchise) does not like outsiders bullying into the Mushroom Kingdom and messing him up. So he will be with her until the end. It’s a little crass, but it gets the job done.
Immediately after, as Bowser is preparing his forces, he musters a group of Bob-ombs to join his airship, and Olivia is taken aback. In her innocence, she has no idea of the fact that Bob-ombs and Goombas and the like number the thousands in Bowser’s army, and assumed that Bobby was the only one of his kind, but of course this isn’t the case.
Bob-ombs in fact are replaceable and the fact that you eventually use these Bob-ombs as ammo to take down the enemy paper airplanes… it makes you feel…. weird… about it. You know these Bob-ombs are fulfilling their purpose and desire to make an impact… but you feel… bad about it.
Because Olivia herself has given them purpose through her affection and innocence. She enables you to see these replaceable creatures as beings, each of which has a soul. Olivia getting to say thank you to “new Bobby” in this scene showcases this duality – Olivia needs her friends to give her emotional strength, but her friends need her too in order to enhance their souls and sense of meaning and… well… help show them the simple joys of life.
This is enhanced – again – through Mario.
When Olivia is stolen by the Handaconda and Mario is forced to wander around alone, he takes a short look behind him as he wanders, showing that Olivia being taken almost makes him feel – just a little lost, so that when you are actually reunited, it is that much more powerful.
All of this culminates in a later scene in the Origami Castle that precedes the final battle, in which Olivia once more has a crisis of conscience as she recognizes that she is going to have to fight her brother and possibly kill him. And Mario, without hesitation, moves to sit next to her on the nearby bench.
This scene between Olivia, Mario, and Bowser on the bench is brilliant. It not only showcases Bowser’s personality, but it highlights that this story is really Olivia’s story – she is the one who changed from a naive girl at the beginning to one who is now processing genuine trauma but is trying to complete doing the right thing, and leaning on her friends (which includes Bowser) in order to do so. And Bowser has the right amount of snark, understanding, and care (in his own Bowser “tough love” way).
I posit that Olivia is the deeper character between her and TTYD’s Vivian because, yes, Vivian goes from being a secondary villain to one of the heroes in TTYD’s Chapter Four, herself encapsulates the game’s central theme of overcoming darkness. However, beyond Chapter Four, her arc in the narrative is more or less complete, whereas Olivia’s continues across the entire game. And whereas some of Vivian’s progression is undone in TTYD’s epilogue, Olivia is pushed to its genuine thematic conclusion.
Olivia from TOK (left) and Vivian from TTYD (right)
Which gets to the point of all of this:
All of these characters are people trying to do the right thing and make an impact. Bobby showcases it in the most literal sense, and Olivia is the one who is narratively asked to shoulder the deepest burden of this theme, and grow within it, but every character is going through this, and it is worth highlighting four of them:
Bowser, Kamek, Bowser Jr., and Luigi.
Though Bowser serves as a form of symbolic progression as you spend most of the game trying to find a way to restore him to normal (you find him partly folded in the game’s prologue and are not able to un-fold him until just before the final battle), there is also character growth here too, especially compared to the Bowser of twenty years ago. As stated previously, Bowser has teamed up with Mario before, but it is usually begrudgingly and due to him wanting something personally. This time around, Bowser more or less admits his faults right off the bat when he tells Mario that he knows they have their differences, but asks him to free him. And later on, when he announces to Olivia that he is going to help, he seems more willing, like he accepts that this is how things work: when there is greater danger, Bowser helps.
In other games-in-which-Bowser-eventually-teams-up-with-you, he is a villain at first and you usually have to fight him at least once into submission until he agrees to join you. This time around, it is immediate.
Furthermore, there is an implicit sense that Bowser is making these improvements for the sake of Bowser Jr., when he appears slightly shaken after Bowser Jr. stays behind in Hotfoot Crater to save you from a swarm of Goombas, but states that he recognizes that Junior will be ok and at some point needs to fight his own battles. This be “tough love” pushed to the extreme, but is true to Bowser’s character, and shows that, at least in some way, he fights for a greater purpose of parenthood, which itself serves as a secondary theme that also exists between Olivia, Olly, and the Origami Craftsman.
He reiterates this in the final conversation with Olivia, when he says that he basically has learned emotional fortitude from raising a son with access to a vast amount of weaponry, so therefore Olly doesn’t scare him, which helps put things in perspective for Olivia, and shows the qualities in Bowser that are almost… admirable?
The same is said for Kamek, who clearly lives in Bowser’s shadow, but is also a very knowledgeable being who hides it behind passivity and, in some cases, cowardice (like when he immediately flees from the pursuing Paper Macho Chain Chomp). However, Kamek clearly knows the right way to go based on instinct, and also holds his own in battle (he is almost as strong as Bowser in this sense, able to attack four enemies for massive damage). Kamek also clearly does not want to be compared to Kammy Koopa from the older games, highlighted by the time Olivia mistakenly calls him Kammey and he simply states, “Don’t… call me… Kammey.” Since we know Kammy as the ultimate sycophant who behind her veneer was actually quite stupid, it is clear that Kamek sees himself as better than that.
Kamek sees his purpose as making sure Junior is protected and also in the form of managing Bowser’s army. But, although it is subtle, he undergoes growth by coming to the realization that Bowser’s army needs to team up with Mario for real, and eventually by sacrificing himself to give Mario, Olivia, Bowser, and Bowser Jr. time to escape Hotfoot Crater.
Then finally with Bowser Jr., his characterization isn’t as nuanced as Kamek (who clearly has self-esteem issues but is actually very smart and logical, which clashes a little with the more emotional Olivia). But he implicitly is doing all he does to impress his dad, very headstrong to the point of not thinking, but is hinted at finding his purpose and his strength through his heroic sacrifice. Also, the fact that Bowser clearly has faith in his son’s growth suggests an optimistic future for the kid.
And then… the character who exists outside Bowser’s army: our favorite man in green, Luigi.
If you’ve played the past Paper Mario games, you can see the growth across the games for Luigi’s character. In the first game, he simply stayed at home wishing he could go with you without doing much. In the second game, he went on his own adventure, wanting to be like you. In the third game, he was part of the main narrative and in many ways bit off more than he could chew. In Color Splash, you can find him hiding out as a collectible but overall he exists more as a background character. In Origami King, however, he clearly has drive for some agency, as he wants to help and find the key to Peach’s castle, but also gets himself trapped in certain locations and in other cases wanted to lie back and rest.
Luigi across the Paper Mario franchise
Luigi sees his purpose as finding the key to Peach’s castle because that is how he believes he is going to help you, but he can’t help being… well… Luigi. He typically finds himself needing help, keeps finding the “wrong” keys, and, of course, this culminates in the ending twist that reveals the Castle Key was stuck to the back of his kart all along.
But of course, by Luigi simply trying to do the right thing, he ends up finding important other keys around the kingdom for you by accident. And his existence brings the final key to you just when you need it. So, Luigi failed at doing the thing he thought he needed to do for you, but he ended up helping you simply by trying. And like Bobby, though he is a character that indeed does need to be saved a lot, that doesn’t make him less endearing.
I especially like the easter egg in World Four when, to access a book in the Origami Craftsman’s house, you have to team up with Luigi and perform the game’s version of a Bros. Move to reach a higher ledge, echoing moments from the Mario + Luigi series.
So, here we have the central characters of the series (Mario, Bowser, and Luigi) connected to both the main supporting characters driving the theme of the story (Bobby and Olivia) and the ancillary supporting characters who experience character growth as well (Kamek and Bowser Jr.) all teaming up to make their impact.
It is telling that, at least for the moment, the game’s climax seems to be pitting Mario, Bowser, and Luigi (the central characters of the series) to team up with Olivia to fight Olly and save Peach. Luigi getting shafted at the beginning of the climax works for comedy (he is too overzealous in his desire to help and that leaves him open to trickery) but not completely, as Mario, Bowser, and Luigi being reunited (3/4 of the main characters) to save the fourth (Peach) is a wonderful series callback. To then pull the rug under immediately afterward is a bit of a shame, but we’ll get to that later.
Of course, Mario, Bowser, and Olivia teaming up is still cool.
But where exactly does Olly and his Legion of Stationery fit in?
Well, this ties in with the game’s expanded theme, as well as its central motif.
As I’ve covered a lot of the beat-by-beat stuff already, here I will focus on how the game’s structure of the narrative is balanced to allow the theme to build on itself.
Considering that while the opening of the game both announces the importance of worldbuilding and the fact that Bowser is going to be your ally in this game without a second thought, the rest of the game’s themes are still more or less hidden. After the opening action scene, Peach is still captured, Luigi and Bowser are both missing, and Olivia remains by your side chirping positivity into your ear.
This is another parallel across both Super Mario RPG and TTYD. In both these games and this one, the deeper motivation of the narrative is left hidden at first. SMRPG features you roaming around the Mushroom Kingdom not exactly knowing what to do because Exor has destroyed the bridge to Bowser’s castle, and it takes until you meet Geno and hear about the Star Road before you realize what exactly is at stake in the game. In TTYD, you are left on your own – you have the map and you know you need to find the Crystal Stars, but Peach’s whereabouts are kept hidden until the middle of the game, and what exactly lies behind the Door is kept a mystery throughout. This is in contrast with both Paper Mario and Super Paper Mario, in which the inherent stakes are announced very early on, although SPM subverts a lot of these by introducing Count Bleck’s hidden depth and the fact that the stakes are even higher than you think.
In Origami King’s case (and this is another reason why World One feels a little bare), once you restore Toad Town and find Luigi early on, you simply continue the adventure and ease into the pattern of finding a Vellumental Temple, capturing it, using its abilities to reach a dungeon, traversing the dungeon, and then battling a member of the Legion of Stationery. You know you have to defeat the streamers, but you don’t know why exactly Olly is doing what he is doing, or why Olivia is so nice compared to her brother. What Origami King does cleverly is slowly mine out the emotional stakes of the game – learning how to make an impact – through Bobby that culminates in his death just before World Three.
And from this, this theme then gets imparted to Olivia slowly, as does the game’s expanded, secondary theme that actually serves as a motif:
The idea of creation, and this element of making an impact taken too far.
The first member of the Legion of Stationery that you meet are the Colored Pencils, who serve as the boss on Overlook Tower. But more than this, they actually have… personality. They have given themselves a name – Jean-Pierre Colored Pencils the 12th – and exhibit a desire to have their majestic artwork be seen and appreciated, hence all of the drawings that you can see as you make your way up the tower. You defeat this enemy and think “huh, that was minorly unnerving,” but there is more.
Next up is Rubber Band, who sees herself as the greatest thing that has happened to the stage since ever, and sees herself as the star of the performance even though, at the time of her announcement, she has yet to appear onstage, and literally has tied Toads to the chairs of the audience so they can bare witness to her greatness. Even in death after you defeat her, she can’t help but bow out through the lens of a rhyming soliloquy.
Did you think that was disturbing?
Next up is Hole Punch, whose sole desire is to have a giant disco dance party in the underground of the Temple of Shrooms. So, naturally, he hole-punches out the sun so that thus there is endless night for the sake of this dance party, and literally hole-punches out the faces of captured Toads (i.e. basically zombifying and lobotomizing them) so they can forcibly join in the party. Of course, even once you find music to Hole Punch’s liking and start the party, he immediately crashes the stage and makes it all about himself.
Colored Pencils saw themselves as a grand artist, so they took over Overlook Tower, holding its members hostage and drawing all over the landscape. Rubber Band saw herself (or is it himself?) as a grand stage performer, so she tied all the Toads of Shogun Studios to the audience and constructed a makeshift stage performance wherein she was the star. Hole Punch blotted out the sun and lobotomized dozens of Toads so there could be an all-night, never-ending dance party to his liking.
See a pattern (beyond the fact that the game managed to make sentient office supplies compelling)?
The members of the Legion of Stationery sure do want to make an impact, just like our heroes do, but go about it in a completely selfish and twisted way. Furthermore, because all of these office-supplies-brought-to-life-by Olly highlight a different artistic pursuit, the exploration of this theme is done so through the motif of “how far can you push artistry before it goes bad?”
It is a legitimate question to any artist. How far do you push your work before it becomes all-consuming, selfish, self-destructive, and eventually dangerous?
This is contrasted with Olivia, who clearly has fancy dreams and likes to play-act ideas like being an elevator operator and even has desires of singing of her own, yet does so completely harmlessly, selflessly, and with a lens of joy within which she does not want to put others through too much trouble.
This is also contrasted with other worldbuilt scenes of artistry already seen throughout the game, like the communal joy that the trees of Whispering Woods find through song, or the soft melodies that the oar man sings with you as you ride down the river – moments that show artistry as soothing, healing, and beautiful, as opposed to those built from ego.
Around the midpoint of the game (the end of World Three), these contrasting themes are now clear. Post-Bobby’s sacrifice, the essence of the hero’s journey in this game and what these stakes are are clear too. And though we still don’t know exactly what is driving Olly, it is clear that his minions, themselves the product of creation brought to life, are beings that take creativity to such extremes that it damages other people.
I honestly wish the game sat more here with this, as by the middle of World Four, the game is already beginning to push its endgame when, narratively speaking, we barely feel like we are past the halfway point. Additionally, the way you leap from World Three to World Four (simply by taking a pipe back to Toad Town and using T. Ode to leap towards The Great Sea) is a little jarring, as up until this point the worlds have felt especially interconnected, and here is the first time that it feels like a leap to get you from one world to the next, and might be the only point where the game feels rushed.
The Great Sea itself is a moment to take a breath, which then subtly serves to give you Olly and Olivia’s backstory (that they themselves are creations, and Olly went too far with his “vision” of creation, of course), which then sets up the endgame through the culmination of Vellumental lore. From a micro-perspective, the way the introduction of the endgame is navigated is very well done, but from a macro-perspective, I still wish there had been more time to sit with the middle before beginning the push to the end.
Tape himself is the only villain that seems underdeveloped, as he doesn’t seem like he wants to… do much. He just wants to sit on top of the Sea Tower, but given the fact that he hasn’t impacted the surrounding world much, and at this point the surrounding lore outside of him feels more significant, he ends being somewhat forgettable. One can make an argument that he represents the corporate side of artistry, that you eventually reach the point where you sit atop the tower and think you are important but really have nothing to with the goings-on of the world anymore, but, admittedly, this is a stretch.
Of course, Scissors is a different story.
See, Origami King gets away with a lot of body horror tonal elements due to its kid-friendly aesthetics. In the opening scene of the game, a Koopa is literally squished into a different shape that you witness through shadow.
In World Three, the Toads that lost their faces act as zombies, and the music supports it too, and then you save them by literally ripping the skin off of its main villain.
But with Scissors, you are playing with death. Literally.
When Scissors leaps out of Bowser’s Castle and cuts Bowser Jr. to pieces, the implication is that Bowser Jr. has just been murdered, but since you are in Shangri Spa, which has heavenly properties and healing springs, you have the means to “bring him back to his true form” (i.e. bringing him back to life).
When you eventually reach Bowser’s Castle, it is Scissors’ own creations (the Handaconda and the Cutout Soldiers) that steal Olivia and attack the members of Bowser’s army. Considering that Scissors is the leader of the Legion of Stationery, it makes sense that he would have reached the point of making his own creations, and of course these creations are rudimentary, but are scary in this bare regard. These creations are soul-less, unfeeling, without color, and are designed for one purpose: to kill you.
That’s not a joke. Though you are able to save Olivia and defeat the Handaconda, the rest of Bowser’s forces, including Kamek and Bowser Jr., have been cut to pieces and are not moving. At this point, they are basically dead, and Olivia even says that you need to defeat Scissors to honor their sacrifices.
Scissors further humiliates his victims by strapping them to a Paper Macho Buzzy Beetle and having it fight you. And then when he actually fights you himself, he is brazenly confident, constructing a narrative around the fight so that he can give you a chance before then killing you at the proper moment that feels the most satisfying for him. This is simultaneously a criticism of a writer’s creativity taken to its most dangerous extreme, and also the logical culmination in terms of danger for the Legion of Stationery.
Though Scissors is beatable (and after which Kamek, Bowser Jr., and the others are restored), his boss fight is considered the most difficult, as, past the halfway point of the fight, you must dodge every single one of his attacks, or else he causes 999 damage and kills you instantly.
Again, all this tonal stuff regarding body horror imagery through the lens of paper gimmicks, coupled with the villainous extreme of creation turned evil, and supported by genuinely difficult battle mechanics – it ain’t a joke.
Which I think is maybe why the actual final level of the game – The Origami Castle – has been called by many as a letdown. Though it is indeed the culmination of a lot of narrative arcs for the characters and features the revelation of Olly’s motivations, we have thus already passed the most horrific, most dangerous, and most intense moment of the game by defeating Scissors. What would be more dangerous than that?
The truth is, the final world doesn’t go for danger, but instead goes for a gothic tragedy.
Mechanically speaking, Origami Castle is legitimately short. There are two main areas to the castle before you reach the Stapler (the last surviving member of Legion of Stationery who serves as Olly’s personal bodyguard), and I do believe that there should have been three or four, but more on that later. The music was extremely evocative by this point, and I love that – unlike in other areas – it doesn’t cut to the battle music during battles, it stays consistent to create this feel of continuous build-up, which is great.
And while I do wish there had been original enemies introduced to the Origami Castle (more on that later), there is a nice subversion that the “final wave” of baddies is a giant group of standard origami soldiers that you can defeat quickly with some mechanical trickery of flipping the bridge (intelligence > strength).
It also can be explained that these enemies were all that Olly had to work with anyway, as he is not a military genius or anything (i.e. Bowser obviously would put Koopatrols in his castle, and Count Bleck had a ton of time to prepare his castle and thereby has his own top lieutenants in the form of Bowser’s brainwashed minions + his own denizens, but Olly doesn’t have his own military in this fight).
People complained about the Stapler, but I liked it. He’s not as tonally dangerous as Scissors, but plays instead like a feral, manic dog that you have to fight as the final guardian before facing off against the Big Bad – not an individual, culminating secondary villain, but an extension of the main villain. It also pays off the reveal of the shadowy figure from the beginning that was folding people in the Peach’s Castle dungeons, as well as the culmination of why Bowser is not fully folded, but also unable to undo his half-folding. The music is chaotically excellent, and the battle itself isn’t so easy that it breaks immersion.
Defeating Stapler finally unfolds Bowser, and I’ve already spoken about the strength of the scene between Mario, Olivia, and Bowser that follows.
I love that Mario and Olivia’s friendship is silent, but that it uses silence as a way of conveying it. Mario just sitting next to Olivia on benches after Bobby dies and in this final scene shows us that sometimes, just BEING THERE for friends in need is all they need – again, that understated mature storytelling that this series is brilliant at. And again, even for Mario, remember that one look behind him after Olivia was taken by the Handaconda that shows that HE cares too.
Now on to Olly.
Yes, Olivia being there as a statue just outside his main chambers in the castle shows that he still cares about his sister, and the Origami Backstory continues to do a lot of legwork in terms of humanizing him. He reveals that, throughout all the narrative, he has been hard at work folding paper cranes to eventually make a final wish to turn the entire world to origami for good.
Though this can come across as deux ex machina, this 1000-crane technique works for me because that is a real-life reference to origami lore, and also explains why Olly is just sitting in his castle more-or-less cool with Mario destroying streamers during the adventure. He doesn’t have to defeat him, just delay him.
The final battle with Olly is in three phases – first you fight him as you would a normal boss (and a normal final boss too for that matter, as he reveals he possess the abilities of all of the vellumentals as well, positioning himself as your equal).
After this phase, Olivia tries to appeal to him, but he refuses and grows even bigger, so Olivia “folds” Bowser to make him even stronger, and then you are tasked with playing the supporting role, smashing the ground to help Bowser defeat Olly in a battle of the titans.
I actually think the fight should have ended here. It would have been a nice subversion showing that Mario doesn’t always have to be the one in charge, but instead it is his “great rival” and his newfound friend (whom herself has undergone the most character development of them all) landing the final punch.
Instead, one more phase exists of Olly growing even bigger, you having to dodge his souped-up attacks, and you solving a puzzle so Olivia can reveal her final move given to her by the Craftsman in the form of a massive hammer smash – and it feels somewhat cliché. A lot of games do a “villain grows big in the very end,” and Olivia’s final move being a giant hammer isn’t necessarily the greatest thematic reveal.
Especially since Olly had already refused Olivia’s appeal before the second phase, so the fact that Olivia knocks him hard on the head subsequently makes him come to his senses feels especially quick.
The game almost seems unsure whether to turn Olly into an ultimate, irredeemable villain or a tragic figure, and kind of tries to do both by enhancing Olly’s rage only to turn him tragic after the fact, and it doesn’t quite work.
All the same, the subsequent scene itself is decently poignant. He realizes that his hatred of all Toads is due to the fact that the Origami Craftsman drew on him upon his creation, and thus he deems that he was made “impure” by a member of beings that he sees as replaceable and pathetic (which admittedly serves as a nice piece of meta-commentary for the Paper Mario fanbase). But it turns out that the Craftsman simply wrote to him his wish that Olly would be a good, just, and kind king.
So, Olly’s obsession with being a “pure creation” (which he himself now believes he is imparting to the world by origamifying everyone) and looking down on beings that he deemed lesser-than eventually led to his undoing, and immediately following this revelation of his mistakes, he dies…
While the execution of this tragic arc could have been improved, the arc itself is actually quite moving. This is then enhanced (and contrasted) by Olivia learning one last trick with her “father” the Origami Craftsman (who returns alongside Luigi and a very much alive Kamek and Bowser Jr. for the denouement) – showing us that parenthood is indeed a method of making a difference.
This is shown by how Olly rejected his Craftsman’s teachings, but Olivia embraces it, as she does all life and all imperfection (i.e. Bobby) and finally uses her own last wish (which Olly bequeaths to her in his regret) to undo everything Olly created – including herself.
Olivia’s “death” is genuinely sad, and unlike Bobby’s you can see it coming, but it is indeed the culmination of the game’s themes. It is sad that Olivia was a girl who had only just started to live, but it is clear that given the stakes, she has learned from her experiences with Bobby the poignancy of sacrifice for your friends, and has learned from her “father” the idea that creation can be used for good and to repair the world.
So, the Origami Festival goes off the way it was meant to, Peach is restored, and Mario looks on with a touch of sadness as Peach encourages him to be happy at the harmony around them. Nearby, the Origami Craftsman is making a new Origami Castle, and (if you reach 100% completion) new, yet non-sentient, crafts of Olly and Olivia.
This harmony at the end of the game is maybe the first time that both Peach’s crew AND Bowser’s crew are together in what seems to be genuine peace. One could argue that this is a continuation of the arc shown across SPM (if you remove Sticker Star from canon), with Color Splash having us all worried that Bowser regressed (before realizing that it was actually just due to the evil paint), with now Origami King showing us that Bowser, his crew, and the Mushroom Kingdom have all actually progressed. This is especially poignant with Mario, Luigi, Peach, Bowser, Junior, Kamek, a series of ancillary supporting characters like Professor Toad, and the Origami Craftsman, all there at the end.
Which leads to the one – and only – major flaw in the game’s narrative: Peach.
Simply put, she needed more to do. She needed some sort of fight early on in the final phase, or some moment where we see Origami Peach in full action and we realize what she has become. Or maybe she could have been a pseudo second-in-command for Olly who is sent to fight you multiple times during the course of the adventure, and we are forced to fight Origami Peach multiple times, each time it being emotionally taxxing.
For a series which probably humanizes Peach beyond the damsel in distress role more than any other series in the Mario franchise, in this game she is not only just a damsel in distress who doesn’t do anything, she then becomes completely silenced by the end – made to literally be part of the castle in literal objectification. Sure, you are worried about the Mushroom Kingdom and trying to stop Olly and possibly save his soul, but Peach does not feel connected to this plight in the same way she was in TTYD, when we went on a whole journey with her and TEC and eventually had to fight her directly. So, either Olly should have sic’d her on you while he finished more Cranes in his chambers, or the fight with her should have occurred to stall you when her castle was still Peach’s Castle, with Luigi possibly participating and thus serving as a character-based fight before introducing the real final level.
In a game that has one of the more developed, non-romantic female characters of the entire series (second only to maybe Rosalina, considering that Tippi is defined by romance in SPM, and Vivian has explicit feelings for you in TTYD), it is a shame that your MAIN female series lead is shafted to such an extent, and is the only thing holding the game back from feeling like a new, yet culminating entry of the entire series.
Yes, unlike some other Paper Mario games, the mechanics are not holding this game back. It is not an RPG, but it is not trying to be.
Off the top, I will confess that the battle mechanics are not perfect, and Chapter One is probably the area where you feel it the most. The game features a great deal of tutorials, the battle system is not so complex that it needs them, and Chapter One still includes a lot of hand-holding that is not needed, and without any reward system in place in battling nor the emergence of the deeper narrative yet, Chapter One is the one area that drags a little.
In general, the battles do not bother me, mainly because I like collectithons as a genre, and because battles are the least monotonous way to get confetti and coins (which together act as your primary resources). I honestly liked seeing my coin count go up because I didn’t know when or if I would need them, given the high prices of items and accessories.
And yes, accessories sort-of-but-not-really replace badges for this game, and there is some interactivity between them with regards to how they can help you in battle, but the accessories with the best use are the bells that help you find ? Blocks or treasure chests or Toads in the overworld, which again highlights the fact that the battle mechanics are serviceable, while the overworld mechanics are more nuanced.
There is a fantastic, tactile feedback structure with how the world interacts with you. You already have the 1,000-fold arms and the non-bottomless holes to fill in before you start to think about the more tangible collectibles. And it feels like there are enough rewards to finding these collectibles (i.e. the Toads restoring Toad Town and aiding you in battle, the ? Blocks often having advanced weaponry just before you need it) that make them worth it. To say nothing of the joy of seeing your trophy count and prizes expanding in the Musée Champignon (which I still believe was made French simply to highlight this sense of artistry having a main thematic role in the game).
The puzzles are intricate but without drag, both in-battle and in the overworld. And the game mixes up the mechanics enough where it always feels like there is something new to do. There are different mini-games and side quests (which is also a tactic that Super Mario RPG employed as well – the Wine River in SMRPG feels like a direct predecessor to the Eddy River, complete with jumping across things, collecting coins, and beautiful, friendly, yet increasingly intense music.) in which the game turns into a shooter, a timed platformer, or a search of treasure buried under the sea, etc.
NOTE: There are actually a large amount of subtle similarities between TOK and SMRPG when you start to think about it. For example, TOK brings back the superstar power-up that allows you to power through enemies without having to fight them, and also has a series of optional locations called Cafés where Bowser’s minions hang out and debate about their lives, which is not that dissimilar from Monstro Town in SMRPG. Especially so, your primary ally (Geno in SMRPG and Olivia in TOK) uses the game’s magic system at the end to restore balance whilst simultaneously sacrificing themselves. These are just three more examples of these similarities.
The game even mixes upon battling with the open-world Paper Macho fights, which serve to break up the standard tension from time to time.
And the boss battles are great. Sure, it is possible that you may find yourself skipping some regular battles, but the boss battles always employ nuanced strategy with you having to traverse the puzzle board yourself to strategically find and time the weakness of the boss (although admittedly I wonder what impact this will have on second-and-third playthroughs), all leading up to a climax that typically involves a 1,000-fold-arms finisher. Narratively speaking, it makes sense for you to possibly not care about the 100th overworld enemy but for you to be challenged by a genuine villain.
This is a major improvement over Super Paper Mario, which often had the opposite problem – overworld enemies, given the platformer style, could feel monotonous and repetitive in having to stop to fight them to gain EXP, whereas boss battles could often be over in a flash if you were even averagely powered. SPM’s method could find battles at the most narratively intense moments to be broken, and though TOK isn’t perfect, it is the better alternative of the two.
And of course, TOK is a major improvement over Sticker Star and Color Splash, with its destructive weapons system much more user-friendly compared to the stickers and cards. You almost never run out of weapons or items as long as you are cognizant, and there is very little in the form of backtracking in order to find the proper weapon.
The other criticism I would have is that the game didn’t need a timer, especially for the overworld bouts. These bouts are meant to emphasize puzzle-solving and strategy, and pushing the timer makes it more artificially stressful than it needs to be. Plus, the fact that you can spend money to gain absurd amounts of new time almost makes the entire thing perfunctory, so I’m not sure what the point was.
Boss battles I’ll admit the timer being useful, because having that heightened intensity and pressure during the high-level moments here is narratively potent, and furthers the need for quick ingenuity. But for the basic enemies, it isn