Paper Mario: The Origami King – Give It a Chance to Make an Impact

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.

Let’s begin:

 

The World:

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.

 

The Characters:

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.

Bobby.

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.

That’s…. heavy.

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.

 

The Story:

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.

 

The Mechanics:

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’t needed at all.

And finally, party members.

The fact that Bobby, Professor Toad, Kamek, and Bowser do not have customizable battle moves is a major point of contention among the fanbase, and while of course it would have been nice to have (maybe give them each at least two different moves), I’m not sure overt complexity was needed.

Battles are meant to be quicker than in the older games, and your allies are meant to be supporting you, but you are also meant to be strong enough to fight enemies without them, as you are often forced to do given the fact that for much of Worlds One and Four, and for all of the Vellumental Temples, you are on your own (well… you have Olivia of course, but she is meant to provide advice as opposed to having attack powers in battle).

And narratively speaking, it works.

Bobby is meant to not have any abilities, as it fits his character as one who is very, very imperfect but whom Olivia accepts without question.  Professor Toad is meant to be the character with the most basic battle abilities, who can help in a pinch, sure, but whose use is more potent in the overworld through his ability to dig for treasure and provide knowledge to the Shroomses mystery.  And then Kamek and Bowser, though their attacks are structurally different, they are meant to be more-or-less of equal strength, who can provide the genuine boost when needed to clear the board if there are enemies left.  Not as important as you – but important.

This is the point being: the battles do not need to be immaculate.  It’s not perfect, and I do wish that at least the health system was more linked to your battle progress or something, but again: unlike SPM’s system or Sticker Star’s, it doesn’t break the narrative.

Lining up a puzzle in battle

It would great to have the old system back, I’m not going to lie, but with regards to constructing a strong narrative in general, the battles and mechanics in general just need to be serviceable. Because good worldbuilding, good characters, good charm, and a good story just need a foundation by which to stand on, and are not fixed to one genre.

So… for those who find the new battle system enjoyable, great!  But if not, if you can at least bear with the battle system, it really does allow the narrative to stand on its own two feet – and a great narrative at that – the best Mario narrative in a long time.

 

Conclusion:

When I think about The Origami King, my mind is often drawn to the Shogun Studios Parade that closes out World Two, as I believe that it encapsulates everything that is great about the game.  You are experiencing a worldbuilt reward of seeing an area you just helped save cheer you on, with Mario exhibiting genuine hand motions and joyous body language, which directly serves as the conclusion to what I believe is the most inventive of the artistry-gone-bad motif in Rubber Band.  Furthermore, the scene serves as the anchorpoint that drives Bobby’s arc, who represents the thematic essence of story, as it is the moment he remembers everything.  So the scene represents your own triumph with feedback from the world, yet simultaneously also Bobby’s tragic memories of him losing his friends whilst also foreshadowing his eventual sacrifice, which altogether serve as the crux for the game’s ultimately optimistic theme.

And people say the Paper Mario series isn’t deep…

Simply put, Paper Mario: The Origami King may not be what we all thought we wanted on paper (mind the pun), but very much so is a return to form.  It is a game with quintessential Paper Mario qualities such as subtle emotional storytelling, emergently complex characters, and intricate, lived-in worldbuilding with a surprisingly mature central theme about making an impact surrounded by the motif of artistic creation.

It is indeed held back by its own reputation, that people think that it didn’t do enough for the franchise in returning it to the old ways or the fact that people think it didn’t move away from Color Splash enough.  Without the Paper Mario series baggage, on its own the game holds its own, and even within the greater Paper Mario lore it holds subtle nuggets of character growth and even world-built growth.

Take, for example, the fact that this is the first Paper Mario since the very first game to take place literally in Mario’s hometown.  TTYD took place in Rogueport and lands across the sea.  SPM was interdimensional, and Color Splash took place on Prism Island.  I honestly don’t fully see Sticker Star as canon, especially because it feels like Color Splash was the developers acknowledging the mistakes of Sticker Star and trying to apply a similar formula but at least moderately better – almost like a do-over.

Let’s agree: it is the first Paper Mario game since the original to take place in Mario’s hometown and also feature character development.

Origami King sees Mario, Luigi, and Bowser clearly evolved from their personas in the earlier games, in genuine mature ways, and it is the first game in a long time in which the world feels like it engages back with you.

Returning back to the small elements of the game that I see as legitimate flaws (i.e. the lack of development in Peach, the jump-cut from World Three to World Four), I am going to posit a theory before landing on my final conclusion, in that: I believe that the last bits of this game were rushed.

It can be understood.  Nintendo obviously had this game in development, and it was near completion, but once the pandemic hit, everything shut down, and Nintendo therefore had nothing else left to release in 2020 outside of Super Mario 3D All Stars, and needed to at least release something.

This becomes even more fishy with the fact that Origami King seemingly released out of nowhere with no build-up.  All of a sudden, there was a virtual announcement in May and then the game was out two months later.

So, the development team most likely just quick-patched the gaps (Bowser even references this, suggesting that a room in Original Peach’s Castle wasn’t even created – this is probably because it was PLANNED to be created, but the developers ended up with not enough time).  It is likely that the game had every world completed except the Origami Castle, AND maybe a theoretical Orange Streamer that would have occurred in the middle of the game to bridge 3 and 4.

This is further suggestible considering that early rumors after the game’s May announcement hinted that there were going to be seven worlds, in the same way there were seven worlds in Color Splash.

Six Paint Stars representing six different worlds in Color Splash’s Port Prismapreceding the reveal of the final world.

Why is Origami Castle so short?  Ran out of time.

Why are there no original enemies in Origami Castle?  Ran out of time.

Why is there no battle with Origami Peach?  Ran out of time.

Why is Luigi rushed away from the fray before the end?  Ran out of time to program his fight choreography.

The evidence for a theoretical Orange Streamer being cut is because such a theoretical Orange Streamer would probably have little to do with the A-plot, and this would make sense.  Bobby’s death feels like the end of Act One, so it would have made sense for the next few chapters to just be stand-alone adventures before pushing forward into the endgame.  The Purple Streamer is somewhat stand-alone, but in truth is the culmination to a ton of lore, so it was clearly set up to be part of the endgame from the beginning, complete with the Origami backstory.

Maybe you were meant to take a train or something from the desert to a new area, following the Orange Paint Star example from Color Splash and the Orange Crystal Star example from TTYD with Orange signifying a train world in the Paper Mario universe, wherein you meet a new partner, have some adventures, solve a mystery, and then maybe the train would take you directly back to Toad Town where you would then reunite with Captain T. Ode and the Super Marino.

Orange MacGuffins in previous Paper Mario games have typically corresponded to worlds/chapters involving trains.

This would have solved the issue of feeling like the pipes are optional throughout the game EXCEPT FOR WORLDS 3 TO 4, and would have allowed the gamer to settle into a more episodic feel (i.e. a true Act Two) before pushing the endgame forward, which of course is what SPM did with Chapter 5 (see my post on that game for more details).

So, in terms of development, it is likely that the most episodic of the streamers would be developed last because it would be the least interconnected to the A-plot, and therefore would be the easiest to be scrapped once a theoretical deadline was rushed.  Same with some small enhancement bits in the final level.

The game was probably close enough to completion to be delivered, but still with enough mini-holes that they stand out.

Again, this is just a theory of mine and is not confirmed by the developers at all, simply suggestible due to rumors of seven worlds and Bowser’s line about the Peach’s Castle room not being completed.  But considering how much care was taken in this game for (a) the worldbuilding of this game, especially by making every world linked – yes, through the pipes, but ALSO through interconnected means BEYOND just Toad Town connections like trams and boats, and (b) ALL of the characters getting evolved humanity and ton of development, specifically with Bowser, Luigi, and EVEN MARIO getting moments of evolved humanity – it leaves one wondering why the 3-to-4 transition feels rushed and Peach’s development feels so bare.

All the same, these do not break the experience – and if I am being honest, though the STORY of SPM is stronger, as a gaming experience, TOK is stronger.  Because the parts that are flawed are not game-breaking whereas the mechanics vs. story problem in SPM arguably is sometimes.  I was very much overjoyed that the boss battles in TOK are legitimately difficult.

TOK is not TTYD, I will say that.  The experience is different, and there is not the same level in terms of the multitude of characters.  Instead, it is a game that exists almost between all of them.

The worldbuilding is strong like the original PM64, and the central storyline (between Olivia and Olly) with focus on our outright lead characters (Olivia, Olly, Mario, Bowser, Luigi, Junior, Kamek, Bobby) is reminiscent of SPM.  The adventure-style of the game and tone is more reminiscent of Color Splash, and the bits of lore sprinkled into the worldbuilding, complete with stand-alone mysteries (like the Blue Streamer!), and interconnected narrative growth with subdued emotional pathos are all reminiscent of TTYD.

To say nothing of certain narrative beats feeling surprisingly similar to the original SMRPG, and the mini-games sprinkled throughout TOK drawing on some history from the Mario + Luigi series, with a Bros. move reference even to bring it home.

It’s the game that I in part wanted – one that combines them all – and also is an exercise of how to continue a series narrative that has in many ways already reached its true climax (the ending of SPM), which is in some way using the “Return” story beats as purposed by Joseph Campbell.  SPM might be macro-belly of the beast with the greatest dangers, but TOK is a return to your original world with the differences and growths that you have learned.

Like TTYD, in the same way SMRPG did so before it, TOK actually comes close to doing bits of everything right.  Since TOK stems from a different genre, I can’t say that it is better than TTYD, but I cannot say that it is outright worse either.  Same with SMRPG.

I haven’t even touched that deeply on the emotional power of this game’s soundtrack – an aspect of the series that has remained consistent across all of the games – and the fact that in many ways it is the strongest soundtrack since SMRPG, with different types of battle music, even some leitmotifs with regards to Bobby and Olivia, and an overall arc to the music that is used to actually talk about the theme.

We can compare elements of The Origami King to the games that came before it, but if we keep blanketly judging it for it being an experience different from those older games, we will inherently see its differences as overt flaws, and subsequently see those flaws as game-breaking, and thus refuse to even give it a try.  Like Bobby, had Olivia seen him as unimportant, she wouldn’t have given him a chance.  But instead she saw through his imperfections, and… well… we know what happened after that.  Likewise, if we see the game for what it is, we will see its differences as the backbone of a potentially beautiful experience given the circumstances, and its flaws as minor inconveniences.

I’m not even going to rank the games at this point.

See you all next time when I look back at the Paper Mario series and Nintendo’s design philosophy as a whole.  Until then, I encourage all to give this game a chance like Olivia gave Bobby a chance, and above all, happy new year.

May your 2021 be more hopeful than 2020.

 

The Rest of My Mario Narrative Series

The Greatest Mario Story Ever Told (and Why It Still Isn’t Perfect)

Challengers to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Expanded)

Deep Analysis of Super Paper Mario: A Nature of Order Applied to a Complicated Narrative

In Defense of Super Paper Mario within a Series Context: An Underrated Narrative Masterpiece That Could Have Been the Greatest of Them All

 

Additional Analysis

Good Game Design – Paper Mario: The Origami King – Snoman Gaming, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PNWcQTtdDE

Learning to Love Paper Mario: The Origami King – KingK, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0XqPA7J61o

How I Learned to Love Paper Mario Again (Paper Mario: The Origami King) – Garrulous64, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2q_CW949Kc

In Defense of Paper Mario: The Origami King | A Fold Above the Rest – AntDude, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEdSiooFnrs

Paper Mario’s Fandom Explained With a Broken Family Analogy – Thane Gaming, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YkQABvDXmk

Paper Mario: The Origami King Review: “Something Special That Should Be Celebrated” – Sam Loveridge, GamesRadar+, https://www.gamesradar.com/paper-mario-origami-king-review/

Paper Mario: The Origami King Review – The best Paper Mario to come out in the last decade – Rebecca Spear, iMore, https://www.imore.com/paper-mario-origami-king-review

I’m Still Not Over the Bob-omb Thing – Beth Elderkin, GIZMODO, https://io9.gizmodo.com/im-still-not-over-the-bob-omb-thing-1844673118

In Defense of Super Paper Mario within a Series Context: An Underrated Narrative Masterpiece That Could Have Been The Greatest of Them All

Hello.  About a year ago, I constructed a design blog post maintaining that Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD) was the greatest Mario story, that it built off of the Mario structure while also combining it with a multitude of rich narrative themes and characters.  As part of this post, I compared this game to its potential successors and why none of them quite reached heights that TTYD did.

At the time, I had yet to play Super Mario Odyssey, but, having more time at home lately because of obvious reasons, I recently had the chance to do so (see an expanded section of my original post or more details).  And I was struck by the number of similarities that Odyssey drew on from not just TTYD, but its predecessor Paper Mario (PM64).  Yet, while I recognized that the game mechanically was about as sublime as a game can get, the story began to lose some steam in the second half of the narrative, with a particular fake-out at the end of Act Two irking me most, due to it promising an idea of progression in the narrative stakes, before immediately removing said progressed stakes from the story (no, this isn’t an Odyssey post, but bear with me).

From this experience, I decided to give TTYD’s immediate successor, Super Paper Mario (SPM), another try.  I had just played a game with perfect mechanics but with a storyline that lost steam overtime.  So why not replay the game that, in my mind, has the opposite problem?

For those who are unaware, the Nintendo Wii’s Super Paper Mario tells the story of a lost prophecy called the Dark Prognosticus.  At the start of the game, the villainous Count Bleck forces Bowser and Peach into marriage which unleashes the Chaos Heart.  This dark artifact powers what characters refer to as The Void, a purplish, black-hole-like mass that hovers over the worlds of the game.  Overtime, as the prophecy states, The Void grows in size until it threatens to swallow every world whole and erase them from existence.

Mario needs to collect magical MacGuffins called the Pure Hearts, which, if united, have the potential to counteract the Chaos Heart and stop the Void from ending all worlds.  Joining him in his adventure this time are Peach, Bowser, eventually Luigi, and a series of blocky “partners” known as Pixls.  The first of these Pixls is the butterfly-like Tippi, who acts as your guide like Goombario and Goombella did in the previous games.  In general, Pixls replace the standard party members from the older games.

Unlike the original two games, Super Paper Mario is entirely in 2D and does not have any turn-based RPG elements, playing instead like an action platformer.  Early on, Mario is granted the ability to “flip” into 3D, and this ability can then be utilized to solve puzzles and find other secrets as the story progresses.

I had major issues with the mechanics when I first played SPM many years ago, and upon the first few hours of my new playthrough, these mechanical flaws were still bothering me.  But at the same time, I remembered that the storyline got more complex as the game progressed, so I continued playing…

…Wow.  I somewhat remembered and knew from its reputation about how Super Paper Mario has the deepest story of the Mario lineage, but I had forgotten just how much.  Whereas Odyssey began to lose momentum in its second half, Super Paper Mario simply gained more, and more, and more, until by the last frame of the game I was crying.  What was this?  (COMPLETE SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW)

I said in my original post about TTYD that The Thousand-Year Door makes the player believe he/she is playing a standard Paper Mario sequel shuffling through familiar locations for the first chapter or two, but then by Chapter Three spreads its wings and becomes a more complex tale filled with lore, prophecy, and examinations of power and love beyond the standard Mario/Peach/Bowser conflict we would expect from a Mario game.

SPM, in truth, for the first several or so chapters, it feels the same, but even more trimmed down.  Without the turn-based RPG elements to lean on, the game feels especially minimal, and, even with the ability to switch from 2D to 3D, it feels like playing a paper version of Super Mario Bros. and, gameplay-wise, does not feel like a sequel to TTYD at all. The gameplay is trimmed, the story feels trimmed, you are not really engaging a whole lot with the blocky world around you, more so just passing through, and you fight Count Bleck’s minions once in order (like you would Bowser’s Koopalings in the older games).

Your journeys in each chapter more or less consist of you moving from point A to point B, with some discussions along the way.  There are a handful of interesting subplots, like the mischevious Mimi enslaving you into manual labor in Chapter 2 to pay off a debt, or the supernerd chameleon Francis stealing Tippi in Chapter 3 and then forcing Peach into a dating simulator in order to win her back, but overall there is a lack of worldbuilt complexity that, combined with the trimmed-down controls, makes the game feel jarring.  Even with the added draw of Bowser as a party member and a brainwashed Luigi as a boss, the game doesn’t really feel like a Paper Mario game.

Mimi’s Manual Labor (Chapters 2), and Francis’s Dating Simulator (Chapter 3)

Until it does.  More nuanced conflicts around the world are slowly explored, and hidden depth is revealed.  For example, in Chapter 5, a conflict between two races in a prehistoric world, the Cragnons and the Floro-Sapiens, is revealed to be more complex: you have been working with the Cragnons the entire chapter to rescue members of their tribe who have been kidnapped and brainwashed by the Floro-Sapiens, and their leader King Croacus IV.  But at the end, it is revealed that King Croacus IV went mad and started brainwashing Cragnons in order to protect his people because the Cragnons had been dumping waste into the Floro-Sapiens’ water supply, their most precious resource.  Neither side is inherently evil, we get to explore ideas of what turns someone cruel, and these nuances need to be acknowledged for the conflict to end.

Then, the stakes of your mission are revealed in an especially brutal way when a world called Sammer’s Kingdom is destroyed in Chapter 6, and all that is left is blank nothingness.  And you think, “okay, that got really dark.  I’m guessing that the game will return to its normal linear storytelling now.”  Nope.  In the very next scene, Count Bleck’s minion Dimentio kills you and sends you to the Mario universe’s version of Hell, the Underwhere, and you have to find your way out while simultaneously finding a way to “fix” the powerless Pure Heart you found in the destroyed world, and locate the next Pure Heart at the same time.

Dimentio sends you to the Underwhere just after you witness the end of a World

Your party is scattered and you get to know Queen Jaydes, leader of the Underwhere, King Grambi, leader of the Overthere (the universe’s version of Heaven), and their presumed spoiled daughter, Luvbi.  Not only are they instrumental in “fixing” the powerless Pure Heart, but it is revealed that Luvbi is the next Pure Heart.  And that even though her parents love her (and this is played for real), she has to return to her true Pure Heart form and thus cease to exist as Luvbi in order to further the cause of protecting the world.  Ouch.  Now the game is really bringing an idea of nuanced love being repurposed to further the cause of saving the world.

All the while, Count Bleck’s minions appear and re-appear and begin to reveal complexities that we didn’t notice at first.  For example, O’Chunks looks like a brawny idiot, but is actually just a guy who wants to be “tough” and is looking for respect.  The brainwashed Luigi, who goes by Mr. L, fights you twice and expresses a ton of “I am the best” egoism before he returns to being Luigi your ally when you meet up with him in the Underwhere.  Is this Luigi being brainwashed, or is this a side of him that he has been repressing?

On top of that, your “guide” Pixl, Tippi, begins to express repressed pain, and we realize that what appeared to be a pared down knockoff of Goombella, mechanically, actually harbors the deeper character personality.  All the while, a mysterious backstory about two people named Blumiere and Timpani is explored in text interludes, two people who were in love but where kept apart by circumstance.  Eventually, if you are paying attention, you will slowly realize that these two people were Bleck and Tippi before they became Bleck and Tippi, and that this story is more than just a simple story about defeating a demonic villain in order to save the world.

By the time the ending came along (which I will get to later), I realized what this game was about: hidden depth, the nature of what turns people “good” and “bad”, and the idea that true love can genuinely save the world.

And then I realized that that is what all of the original three Paper Mario games were about.

The subtle truth is: from PM64 to TTYD and now to SPM, this series was actually telling the arc of a complete trilogy.  Because yes – in SPM, the world seems more “alien”, and less nuanced than it does in the previous two games, and Mario and the rest of your party seem like they are passing through the worlds.  But that was the point.  Because throughout the entire series, the games had been slowly paring down the traditional narrative elements we are most familiar with, and moving Mario and his immediate allies further from their immediate comfort zone, in order to land on the thesis statement that the games were expressing all along.

From here, I will go through all three games to explore that Super Paper Mario is not just an astounding story in its own right, but that it also is the perfect “last chapter” in a trilogy of three games, paying off every established narrative thread in subtlety progressive and condensed fashion…. narratively speaking.  The mechanics of SPM still hold it back, but I don’t think we realize just how close this game was to absolute veneration.  Had the game simply changed one and only one aspect of its mechanics, we would most likely speak of SPM, not TTYD, as the greatest of them all.

NOTE: This post is about exploring Super Paper Mario from the lens of a trilogy.  For those interested in an even deeper dive on the design details of the game, please view my post here, which applies A Nature of Order to Super similarly to how it was applied to TTYD in the original post.

Before getting into this trilogy argument, I will touch about aspects that help make a complete trilogy.

Ken Miyamoto, author and produced screenwriter at ScreenCraft, discusses the tenets of great sequels in his featured article The Ten Commandments of Writing Great Sequels.  Included among these are [1]:

      • DO NOT remake the original
      • BUT DON’T reinvent the wheel either
      • Give the audiences something new but similar
      • Take the original characters FORWARD and understand that they are the franchise
      • Build on the original’s mythos
      • Know that a sequel is only as good as its villain

When looking at sequel, and especially a threequel and/or series-capper, yes, we want the themes and stakes to progress and reach their highest alongside core character development.  And we want the world to expand, bringing these characters to new adventures that also utilize a familiar structure.  But also, we want the themes to contract.  Well-renowned series like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter build on what came before but also contract their worlds, shrinking the number of characters or areas of travel to their most base elements, and, often, their most personal.

Even series like Toy Story or Planet of the Apes that are built off of more stand-alone adventures, with new characters in each adventure, progress their stakes while, overtime, shrinking the number of elements down to the core thematic elements and moments, if done well.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe is also a prime example of a series escalating its villains and giving us the most powerful and most complex, Thanos, in the last Act.

The new Planet of the Apes series in particular is good foil to Paper Mario (light spoilers to follow): in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the story is as much about the human world that helps creates both sentient apes and the Simian Flu, as it is Caesar’s rise to becoming a leader of the apes; in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the old world has been seemingly destroyed, and the ape world is rising in its place, but a shadow of the familiar human world still remains, and the conflict comes from people looking to exploit these worlds and those with good hearts looking to prevent war; by War of the Planet of the Apes (2017), we don’t see any expansive series of battles, but we see a distressed world at its most bleak, with very few additional characters outside of those already introduced, and the characters looking to escape before the world destroys itself.

With each movie, the human world contracts and the ape world expands, and the most direct human foil to Caesar’s character progresses from mild and kind to twisted and villainous with each movie, as the stakes grow higher.  You can almost read the series, tonally, as a metaphoric progression from summer, to fall, to winter.

 

Now, this series deals with far more complex themes than Paper Mario does, with issues of race, extinction, and other serious real-world problems, but this idea of having separate adventures within a progressive story, while having one world contract and another expand and grow darker alongside the character development of its main characters and stakes, is an idea that Paper Mario employs as well.  The new Planet of the Apes series works because even though each movie is stand-alone, each movie builds off of the one that came prior, in terms of its worldbuilding and its themes.  I maintain that the Paper Mario series does the same.

Now, of course, because Paper Mario is a game series and not a film/TV series, it has to do all of that from both a narrative and game design perspective to be considered fully effective, as mechanics and story should be interconnected in games.

Snoman Gaming’s video on “What Makes a Great Sequel?”, (which ironically was covering TTYD) states that, in addition to the aforementioned traits, good gaming sequels must “try out new concepts while still retaining their identity” [2].

 

A Side Note on the Father of All Mario RPGs

One last point before getting to the Paper Marios: I would remiss if I did not give a shout-out to the father of all Mario RPGs: Super Mario RPG.  I do not consider it to be part of the Paper Mario trilogy, and neither did Nintendo.  Super Mario RPG (SMRPG) is a fantastic, unique, original game that stands by itself, and introduced Mario to the RPG landscape through nuanced battle mechanics and a complex story to boot.  For more on my thoughts about SMRPG, view its section of the discussion here.

However, the original Paper Mario, which was released five years after SMRPG, does not treat itself as a true sequel to SMRPG.  While it retains a handful of stand-alone elements like the idea of shooting stars being able to grant wishes, a realm where star-based beings live in the sky, and an island full of Yoshis, the game completely repurposes its characters and the rest of the setting.

Whereas Bowser teams up with Mario and company in SMRPG, PM64 treats him as the main antagonist, which, if PM64 were viewing itself as a sequel to SMRPG, would be a character regression.  Some of the more wacky elements present in SMRPG – like talking moles, sentient frogs, and “out-there” villains like Punchinello or Booster – do not appear in Paper Mario.  Like SMRPG, the setting in Paper Mario is still the Mushroom Kingdom, but this game’s version of the Mushroom Kingdom employs more lands based on traditional Mario archetypes, like grass land and desert land from the earlier games.  Whereas Super Mario RPG’s setting feels fully novel, the setting in Paper Mario feels more familiar, which reinforces its feel of a back-to-basics storyline (see below).

This, combined the game’s reinvented aesthetics, make Paper Mario and its sequels feel especially dissimilar from SMRPG.  To paraphrase Snoman Gaming, Paper Mario wouldn’t be a true sequel to SMRPG because it does not retain its identity [2].  Nintendo saw what worked and what they liked from SMRPG, and then remade the characters and the world from the ground up for a new series: Paper Mario.  In some ways, they had no choice, because, from a business standpoint, they used a new collaborator on the series: Intelligent Systems, because of a soured relationship with their collaborator from SMRPG, whom retained the rights to the SMRPG world [3].

This is a part of what gives Super Mario RPG its mythos and position in Nintendo lore: there is no other game like it.  But as such, for the extent of this post, it will be viewed as a game outside the Paper Mario trilogy.

Now, let’s begin by diving into Paper Mario.  Keep in mind, I will not be touching on the details of PM64 and TTYD as much as Super, because I have detailed them already in my original post.

 

The Original Paper Mario: An Expanded Familiar World with a Simple Story

Paper Mario is your standard Mario story with a more developed world.  As discussed in the original post, it is already acing the “give audiences something new, but similar” tenet [1] by using the established Mario structure to tell its story.  The charm of Paper Mario in its entirety is that it is new in its expansiveness, but mostly familiar.

The first game sets up Mario as a silent hero, Luigi as the forgotten brother, Bowser as the bumbling villain that wants Peach for himself, and Peach as a distressed damsel but who has more of a mischievious side than we give her credit for.  The underlying plot is Bowser stealing the Star Rod, which leaves the Mushroom Kingdom denizens feeling like their wishes are not being granted anymore, and things feel a little more hollow.

There is a wide variety of characters in this world, from Jr. Troopa to Kolorado, who are not directly connected to the main plot of Mario vs. Bowser.  There are characters dealing with mysteries and happenings in their own lives, from the mysterious Moustafa in Dry Dry Outpost to the Shiver City Mayor who nearly dies, whom you speak with on your quest but who are mainly just going about their lives and whose plot connections are more world-related.  There are characters who want to do right by themselves and look up to Mario as a symbol in order to do so.  Even if these characters don’t shape the plot, they expand the world being created by the game.

By the end, peace is restored, Bowser’s minions have been removed from the kingdom, and Mario and Peach are happy.

Original PM64 feels and is Mario’s story.  You can make an argument that it is the only story where it actually feels like there are stakes for him /personally/ because, for Bowser, he /has/ made it personal.  Additionally, there is the fact that Mario loses to Bowser and almost/kind-of dies in the opening minutes of the game, so there is the subtle feeling of a redemption arc throughout the game, of atoning for a previous failure.

Paper Mario
World Home, Traditional/Recognizable
Connection to World Significant, you are famous and well-known
Lore / Prophecy None
Overworld Expansive
Mechanics Basic RPG Fighting Mechanics
Paper Element Purely aesthetic
Stakes Saving Peach, Restoring Peace to the Mushroom Kingdom, Restoring the Ability to Grant Wishes
Mario’s Connection to the Story Personal
Villains who are not Bowser or His Minions None
Presence of Supporting Characters Expansive
Depth of Supporting Characters Not especially so, not necessarily connected to the main plot
Idea of Love Saving the World Minimal
Death? No deaths (Twink is hurt, but he returns)
3rd Act Twist? None

 

The Thousand-Year Door: A Familiar yet Different World with a More Complex Story

TTYD shifts the story, leaving some elements of what we expect from a Mario adventure but moving it slightly farther away from tradition.  The Rogueport-hub-world where the action takes place isn’t /necessarily/ the Mushroom Kingdom, as it is not the grass/desert/ice/island worlds that we’ve come to associate with the Mushroom Kingdom.  But it is clearly still close enough where Mushroom Kingdom denizens make it their home.  The game contracts – slightly – as there is less overworld to explore, most new locations are accessible through less connected means like pipes, and pathways become more linear and left-to-right, but the storyline gets deeper.

Remember your core characters, for they are the franchise [1] – Mario, Peach, Bowser, and Luigi.  Things start out and Mario and Peach are happy.  She’s off travelling and feeling comfortable by herself but finds a treasure map and wants to share it with Mario.  Meanwhile, Luigi, left at home again, decides to go on his own adventure and we feel his confidence growing slightly, even if his story in the Waffle Kingdom is different from Mario’s.  Meanwhile, Bowser has very much officially LOST and is now looking for meaning (and spends the entire game searching for it, being one step behind the heroes and villains throughout).

However, there is more world out there than the Mushroom Kingdom and we are introduced to the idea of prophecies and lore.  Hidden treasures abound and there are theories of an ancient evil existing long ago.  Additionally, it becomes clear that the people that are our main characters, specifically Mario and Peach, can be exploited.  Mario is the great hero that the villains plan to manipulate into collecting all of the Crystal Stars to open the TTYD for them.  And Peach, pure of heart, is used to open the chest containing the map and be a vessel for the demon.

The X-Naut villains have more depth, not necessarily beyond their roles in their evil plans (Grodus is not redeemed in any way, and neither is Crump), but in terms of the larger world.  It is confirmed that even if there is “peace” among the Mario/Bowser/Peach faction temporarily, there are still other forces out there that are perpetuating nefarious activities.

The demon proves too powerful for Grodus so he cannot manipulate it, and the love that Mario got from helping all of these towns, as well as Peach, is used to quell the Shadow Queen from plunging the world into darkness.  So there is a connection to the world as well as the main story plot, which moves slightly farther from the Mushroom Kingdom.  Keep in mind, the Shadow Queen never mentions destroying worlds completely, she just wants everyone to be her slaves in darkness from a more elemental purpose.  Not “lives will end,” but “lives will be far worse,” and this fear is greater than “oh no, the Princess is gone and wishes can’t be granted” from the original.

TTYD is somewhat Mario’s story, as his kindness towards Vivian and developing reputation in the worlds he visits shapes the A plot around him.  Also, TTYD feels the most like Peach’s story, given her sideplot with TEC reflecting the themes and her pure-of-heart-ness trying to be exploited.

In general, in TTYD, the main characters (Mario, Peach, Bowser, Luigi) are at their most separated, with the game sending each one off on their own plotline, with these main characters barely sharing any scenes together, before bringing them all back together in SPM.

Supporting characters in the game like TEC, Vivian, and Bobbery have more in-depth character arcs and are more directly related to shaping the narrative plot, but there are still a lot of supporting characters like Pennington or Jolene or King K who have their own characterizations and arcs independent of the TTYD plot itself.  In many ways, there are less named NPCs in TTYD than in PM64 (i.e. slightly less party members, less characters with repeated side quests), but the ones that are present typically have more character depth than the original.

Jolene’s completed arc (left), Pennington speaking aboard the Excess Express (right)

Gameplay-wise, though there is less overworld to explore in a connected way compared to the original, the battle mechanics at the base level are more advanced, with more choices to make in terms of partner strategy, more action commands to utilize when it comes to Special Moves, and more wild cards to think about in battle like the “audience” participation.

NOTE: In the following, red indicates a reduction, and green indicates an increase.

Paper Mario Paper Mario: TTYD
World Home, Traditional/Recognizable Farther from Home, not fully the Mushroom Kingdom but with some Mushroom Kingdom denizens
Connection to World Significant, you are famous and well-known Somewhat, you are less well-known but come to be appreciated by the world
Lore / Prophecy None Yes – You have to stop the Shadow Queen from awakening
Overworld Expansive in all directions, extremely connected 3D but somewhat linear in terms of play space, less connected
Mechanics Basic RPG Fighting Mechanics More Advanced RPG Fighting Mechanics
Paper Element Purely aesthetic Aesthetic, but now with abilities to turn into different types of paper
Stakes Saving Peach, Restoring Peace to the Mushroom Kingdom, Restoring the Ability to Grant Wishes Higher – Saving Peach, but also Stopping the Shadow Queen from plunging the world into darkness
Mario’s Connection to the Story Personal Direct (Peach connection), but Impersonal (the villains are not after you in particular)
Villains who are not Bowser or His Minions None Yes (Grodus, Shadow Queen), but basic
Presence of Supporting Characters Expansive Slightly Less Expansive
Depth of Supporting Characters Not especially so, not necessarily connected to the main plot Many connected to main plot, slightly more depth
Idea of Love Saving the World Minimal Yes, on the fringes (Vivian-Mario, TEC-Peach, Bobbery-Scarlette, world’s love represented in the Crystal Stars against the Shadow Queen)
Death? No deaths (Twink is hurt, but he returns) Yes, on the fringes (Bobbery-Scarlette backstory, TEC is “shut down” and villain Grodus is killed by Shadow Queen, although both return in the post-game)
3rd Act Twist? None Yes, Beldam was the mastermind.  You don’t fight her after this reveal, but Peach is possessed and you do fight her

 

Super Paper Mario: A Contracted, Unfamiliar World with the Deepest, Character-Driven Story

Then comes Super.  Our core characters have now been very much established, and the action begins immediately with our characters thrust together.  Bowser has reestablished his forces and wants to mount a new attack, but Count Bleck beats him to it.  He forces Bowser and Peach into marriage (with Bowser gleefully accepting) and unleashes the Chaos Heart.  Luigi, clearly far more confident than he was in the original, rushes to stop it, but it is too late, everyone is captured, and the Void begins to grow.

Oh dear – just like the X-Nauts, there are more beings out there who want to manipulate our characters and old prophecies to create harm on the world.  Just like Grodus, who had Crump and the Shadow Sirens as his minions, here Count Bleck has Nastasia, O’Chunks, Mimi, and Dimentio.  We can already see the game playing with established familiar tropes, but then shifting them.

Unlike TTYD, our heroes didn’t STOP the bad guys in unleashing an old prophecy in its infancy, like Mario defeating the Shadow Queen before she can wreck havoc on the world.  The prophecy is well underway by the time the action starts.

Mario is sent to Flipside to find the Pure Hearts and reverse the prophecy, and Flipside feels far farther from the Mushroom Kingdom than we’ve ever been, at this dimensional nexus of worlds.  There are no Toads to be found, no partners to obtain except for some thinly-drawn Pixls, no Mushroom Kingdom denizens who recognize you.  This is true with the enemies you fight as well.  Although some Goombas and Koopas exist, there are a lot of wacky, multi-colored enemies composed of arrays of creatively-drawn aesthetics, which only ever appear in this game.  You are as far from home as you’ve ever been, and the stakes are at their highest.  A world literally is erased in front of you in Chapter 6, so more than other game in the series, it is very clear on what will happen if Count Bleck wins.

The world in SPM is smaller in terms of its space and characters, but expansive in its scope.  On top of that, the game is less interconnected than TTYD was, which in turn was less connected than PM64 was.  Chapters are divided into four sections, and you frequently teleport in location from the end of one section to the start of the next section.  Whereas PM64 had you accessing new locations using connected means like walking or train level, and TTYD often had you using pipes to do so with a handful of more connected means like trains, you access all new locations in SPM through interdimensional doors.

But this lack of physical connection ends up mattering less because of the way that the characters and themes begin to show hidden depth, connecting everything in a different way.  By moving the action farther from the Mushroom Kingdom, SPM is satisfying multiple sequel tenets of not remaking the original and honing the focus onto the series’ main characters.  New, but familiar [1].

As such in the game, traditional expectations get subverted.  There is an inter-Peach chapter after Chapter 1, and you wonder “oh my, just like the first two, I see a pattern repeating.”  Nope, she gets mysteriously saved immediately and joins your party.  This game isn’t about saving Peach.  Bowser?  You find him at the beginning of Chapter 3 and Peach convinces him, playing on their history that has now been built up, to join the party.  Okay, this game isn’t about fighting Bowser.  Luigi?  He gets brainwashed into Mr. L, who you meet in Chapter 4, far from the hapless brother from PM64 and far from the trepidatious hero trying to have his own adventure in TTYD.  Now, he’s your enemy.  You need to save him, but the story isn’t about saving him, because it’s bigger than that.

In many ways, the first four chapters of the game explore the most traditional Mario archetypes (i.e. saving Peach, defeating Bowser, fighting each of the Big Bad’s minions) to tell you that this is game is about more than that.  The first chapter itself combines the “traditional” Mario worlds (grass land and desert land) into one chapter to basically say “we are going to burn through what you expect from this game really quickly, to then explore what you do not.”  And then after Chapter 4, the game starts subverting the high-level stakes themselves.  The game first tells you what it isn’t, before revealing what it is.

The world reaches farther than ever in terms of unique locations, but has also shrunk in terms of its characters (and literally in terms of 2D space).  Over time, more aspects begin to show depth.  This is true of the Cragnon-Floro Sapien subplot in Chapter 5 and the Luvbi subplot in Chapter 7.

But most especially, this is true with the backstory between Blumiere and Timpani, and the realization that Blumiere was Bleck and Timpani is Tippi, your “guide” Pixl.

So, not only is there a progression across the three games from Goombario (more or less just a fan of you), to Goombella (someone connected to your guide on all of the lore), to Tippi (someone connected to your guide on all the lore – a.k.a. Merlon – but who also is the key to the plot’s backstory and theme), but now this deepens Bleck and removes any comparisons to Grodus.

You thought he was just another Grodus, leading a bunch of dark minions intent on exploiting prophecies and our characters to (this time) literally erase all worlds?  Nope.  He’s a man with a broken heart because Timpani was taken from him.  The series’ most complex villain nailed at the very end, but there’s more!

In TTYD, Beldam (Grodus’s minion) is revealed to be the true mastermind and true servant to the Shadow Queen.  In SPM, Dimentio is revealed to be the true mastermind and the true evil towards the Dark Prognosticus.  In TTYD, these machinations release the Shadow Queen, who possesses Peach and becomes the final boss.  In SPM, as Count Bleck is resigning himself to his own death in order to stop the prophecy, Dimentio takes command of the Chaos Heart and Luigi and literally merges with them both, becoming the final boss.

In the end, remaining villains AND heroes combine forces to defeat Dimentio.  Unlike the previous two games, it is not the world’s love that restores the main MacGuffins (in this case the Pure Hearts) in the final fight – it is your party’s love for you and then the love/respect between Count Bleck and his minions that does the trick (which is also emblematic of the world contracting but deepening).  The story is these 8 or so characters.

Afterward, with Dimentio defeated but the Chaos Heart still threatening to destroy all worlds, Bleck and Tippi renew their love, using love to banish the Chaos Heart and all those connected to the prophecy… including themselves.  They thus sacrifice themselves to stop the prophecy and save all worlds.

So, in PM64, the story is Mario vs. Bowser.  In TTYD, our main core characters are present fighting an old prophecy.  In SPM, in truth, though our heroes are there fighting an old prophecy, it is really Count Bleck and Tippi who, in the end, are the ones shaping the story.  The game uses Mario and the others to tell their story, getting closer to this central theme as the game progresses, and using the hidden complexities of both its main characters and thematic foils like Luvbi in order to do so.

The last chapter, Chapter 8, even feels like it has “curtain call” moments for these main characters of the story.  Each section within the chapter ends with a member of your party (Bowser, then Peach, then Luigi) seemingly sacrificing himself or herself to save the rest of the party, and the game uses these moments to showcase the core character elements of both your party and the villains they fight.

Bowser fights O’Chunks to prove that he is the toughest guy around, and then, with a cave-in threatening everyone, continues to hold up the ceiling to prove that he is the toughest guy around.  But he also is adamant about getting Peach out of the room safe, so we can see that Bowser, at his core, is a wannabe tough guy who hopelessly loves Peach.  O’Chunks is also a wannabe tough guy, but he respects the “code” and therefore wants the heroes to succeed if they have beaten him.

Peach fights Mimi because Mimi insults her neediness of “boys.”  But the Peach of the Paper Mario series is far more competent, so she has to fight for her dignity.  But, even after winning, she can’t leave Mimi to die, because she is pure of heart, and lingers for too long, putting her life in danger when the floor collapses.  So, Peach is a competent princess whose pure heart gets her into trouble.  Mimi is a spoiled girl, but one capable of more than just tricks and who doesn’t necessarily know a whole lot of kindness, so is therefore surprised by Peach’s act of sacrifice.

Luigi fights Dimentio so that the others won’t be lost in vain, but also because Dimentio insults his mustache, meaning that he also has an ego and a sense of worth that he feels he needs to prove.  And, unfortunately, he doesn’t win, because Dimentio tricks him into getting close enough to knock both of them out.  This suggests that someone like Luigi, who is naturally good-natured but has cripplingly low self-esteem and a need to prove himself, can be easily manipulated by someone like Nastasia, or especially by Dimentio who is a master manipulator without a heart at all.

There is a line in the final battle where Dimentio says that Luigi is, according to the prophecy, the “ideal host for the Chaos Heart,” and I’ve always thought about this line’s inclusion in the game.  It could be just a throwaway line about prophecy, but it could speak to those hidden depths.  Is the reason because he is a good person, but who also harbors a lot of repressed hurt and anger?  Is this a warning to all of us on our potential to turn cruel, like Bleck did?

Luigi’s Nuanced Character Arc in Super Paper Mario

Again, though the last act sets up Mario to have a curtain call against Count Bleck, he… doesn’t.  We already know who Mario is, he proved himself back in the first game.  But the other characters are less clear.  As the fight with Count Bleck progresses, your party returns, and the conflict becomes more about Tippi and Bleck than about Mario or anyone else.  And after Dimentio’s attempt to take control, it is Tippi and Count Bleck’s sacrifice that is front and center.

Finally, in the game’s denoument, the last two key characters, Merlon and Nastasia, get their “curtain call” moments, and who also serve as the closest audience surrogates for feeling the losses of Tippi and Bleck.  Merlon, who saved the then-Timpani long ago when she was near death by turning her into a Pixl and then cared for her for some time, appears visibly distraught and gets a chance to make a speech about what loss means in a greater prophesied world.  And Nastasia, who came to genuinely love Count Bleck over her time serving him, even though she knew he could never return it, cries over this loss while still attempting to remain hopeful for the future.

Additionally, it is worth noting that Merlon himself has a role in all three Paper Mario games.  Though it is never confirmed if it is the same Merlon or multiple Merlons with the same name, this case of progression across the games is true with him as well.  The Merlon in PM64 can give you directions in exchange for coins and serves as one key story beat, but mostly is a flavorful NPC who serves as comic relief due to his overlong stories.  The Merlon in TTYD can power up your partners, and thus is more important to your progress and is someone you will visit far more than just once.  The Merlon in SPM, who is the most important of these Merlon incarnations, serves as both your guide who knows about the game’s lore and as Tippi’s caretaker.  He is a side character who, as early as PM64, is clearly not from Mario’s world and comes from somewhere far more ancient.  And by SPM, he is at his most complex from a character perspective and most important from a game perspective.  This speaks to a larger theme at play.

The progression of the Merlon character

As the three games progress, Mario’s world contracts and the larger world, filled with more lore, lore-related characters, and complex villains, expands and deepens.  We’re not fighting for our home world anymore, we’re fighting for something greater.  Unlike PM64, we are not going to get a parade.  And unlike TTYD, it is likely that much of this universe will not even know that it was us who saved them.  But that’s not what matters here.  We’re not fighting for known denizens, we’re fighting for something more thematic and elemental.  In the end, it is the complexities and conflicts of this world not familiar/known to us that determine the fates against the highest stakes of the series.  That the resolutions to these complexities strike such an emotional chord speak of proof to how well-done the story was/is.

The game plays the resolutions for real.  Yes, the series played with death in TTYD, first by having the TEC subplot, wherein he learns to love Peach and then is “shut down”.  You do feel his death, but he is a side character.  Though he does serve a thematic and plot-related purpose (i.e. echoing the nature of love as well as informing Peach that the villains plan to have the demon posses her), he is not playing a central role.  The same is true with Admiral Bobbery’s backstory, where it is discovered that he turned his back on the sea because of his wife Scarlette’s ultimely death.  This is backstory that isn’t impacting the central plot, but is touching on themes.

TEC’s shutdown (left), and Scarlette’s letter (right)

In SPM, Count Bleck and Tippi disappear and it feels like they genuinely died.  And they are not side characters.  Like TEC/Peach in TTYD, it is a love story.  But the “deaths” here are the main center of the plot, which happen at the climax/denouement of the game, and it is far deeper.

Merlon’s quote in the last scene of the game- “To feel sadness is to live… But as long as you are alive, the future is a blank page” feels like a series thesis statement.  Bad things happen to all of us – we lose people, we can be underappreciated like Luigi and feel sad as a result, we can feel heartbreak like Bleck has felt – but as long as we are alive, it is up to us whether we give in to our pain like Bleck did, or whether we get up and fight for each other and the world (like Mario did in the prologue of PM64, and like Bleck and Tippi do at the end of SPM).

The last frame of the story, after the credits, and the trilogy, is Blumiere and Timpani, in true form, walking down a hill together somewhere.  Is it heaven?  Is it a world they escaped to?  Are they alive or dead?  Who knows.  We realize that this entire trilogy was a story of love.  In PM64, it’s Mario’s love for Peach, Bowser’s twisted love for Peach, her love for Mario and the world, and the world’s love for the Star Spirits.  In TTYD, there is love (and we see it form) between TEC/Peach, between Vivian towards Mario, or the past love between Bobbery and his wife, but there is also a love from the world towards you that helps save the day.  In SPM, though all of these other loves are present, it is the love of these two seemingly “side” characters, your most advanced “guide” character, Tippi, and your most advanced villain, Count Bleck, that end up being the Strong Center of not just SPM but the entire series.  It’s the frame the series chooses to end on after all.

Notice the progression of affection between the main series characters (i.e. Mario/Peach, Bowser/Peach in PM64), then to affection between main series characters and supporting characters (i.e. Peach/TEC in TTYD), and then to love between supporting characters (i.e. Blumiere/Timpani in SPM), but with each progression becoming more fleshed out, dynamic, and developed.

SPM isn’t really Mario’s story (save for a handful of moments when you save Tippi in the aforementioned Chapter 3 and she develops an affection for you).  It isn’t really Peach’s story either, as she gets rescued early and then isn’t a driving force of the plot.  However, it /is/ the culmination of Bowser and Luigi’s character arcs.  And truthfully – the game isn’t meant to be Mario’s story.  The game is Tippi and Count Bleck’s story, who personify the theme of the trilogy, and that’s ok.

And in the end, the series closes with an image of their love, and you realize that that is what all three games were about all along.

Paper Mario Paper Mario: TTYD Super Paper Mario
World Home, Traditional, Recognizable Farther from Home, not fully the Mushroom Kingdom but with some Mushroom Kingdom denizens Farthest from Home, Very Unfamiliar
Connection to World Significant, you are famous and well-known Somewhat, you are less well-known but come to be appreciated by the world Not especially, feels like you are passing through except for a few moments
Lore / Prophecy None Yes – You have to stop the Shadow Queen from awakening Yes, already set in motion, character-driven – you have to undo the Dark Prognosticus set in motion by Count Bleck
Overworld Expansive in all directions, extremely connected 3D but somewhat linear in terms of play space, less connected 2D with some 3D elements, blocky, not connected at all
Mechanics Basic RPG Fighting Mechanics More Advanced RPG Fighting Mechanics Platformer, no Battle System
Paper Element Purely aesthetic Aesthetic, but now with abilities to turn into different types of paper Aesthetic, and now with paper becoming a core mechanic of the 2D/3D flip, finding sides of the paper world you didn’t see at first
Stakes Saving Peach, Restoring Peace to the Mushroom Kingdom, Restoring the Ability to Grant Wishes Higher – Saving Peach, but also Stopping the Shadow Queen from plunging the world into darkness Highest – Stopping the End of the World, Saving a brainwashed Luigi, and Restoring Count Bleck’s soul
Mario’s Connection to the Story Personal Direct (Peach connection), but Impersonal (the villains are not after you in particular) Indirect (barely through Tippi), and Impersonal (the villains know of you only through lore)
Villains who are not Bowser or His Minions None Yes (Grodus, Shadow Queen), but basic Yes (Count Bleck, Dimentio, Mimi, O’Chunks, Mr. L), and Complex
Presence of Supporting Characters Expansive Slightly Less Expansive Significantly Contracted
Depth of Supporting Characters Not especially so, not necessarily connected to the main plot Many connected to main plot, slightly more depth Almost all connected to main plot, significant and thematic depth
Idea of Love Saving the World Minimal Yes, on the fringes (Vivian-Mario, TEC-Peach, Bobbery-Scarlette, world’s love represented in the Crystal Stars against the Shadow Queen) Yes, Literally
Death? No deaths (Twink is hurt, but he returns) Yes, on the fringes (Bobbery-Scarlette backstory, TEC is “shut down” and villain Grodus is killed by Shadow Queen, although both return in the post-game) Yes, both existentially (destruction of Sammer’s Kingdom) and personally (death of Luvbi, and then Tippi and Count Bleck) – Central to plot and themes
3rd Act Twist? None Yes, Beldam was the mastermind.  You don’t fight her after this reveal, but Peach is possessed and you do fight her Yes, Dimentio is the true mastermind, and you must fight him after he uses a brainwashed Luigi to take control

 

Conclusion: What Could Have Been

Most people know that Super Paper Mario has one of the greatest Mario stories but has some mechanically flaws, but its nuances go deeper than that.

Are the overworld mechanics still a little irksome in SPM?  Kind of.  Until you realize that this entire story was slowly shrinking the play space from PM64 on to SPM in order to deepen the themes.

All three games “feel” like you are fighting to save the world, but only in the last game is the end of the world actually literal.  The series’ mythos [1], as it is, is to collect MacGuffins that are based in lore and connected to a feeling of love, and to use them to defeat the Big Bad, but the series builds on it with each game.  All three games “feel” like you need love to save the world, but only in the last game is that phrase absolutely and directly true.

While I still probably would hail TTYD as the best on its own, as that perfect blend of an expanded but familiar narrative along with that perfect blend of expanded mechanics… SPM is a gem in its own right and as part of a greater whole.

Once you realize the story it is trying to tell, once you see it as the culmination of a trilogy that deepens existing narrative and thematic threads, and once you can forgive it for its mechanics, you realize that SPM actually is an underrated masterpiece.

But again – to love the story, you have to forgive it for its mechanics.

If the entire series is shrinking the overworld space but expanding the details below, then, in going with that progression, Super Paper Mario should have the most advanced battle system.  TTYD has a more condensed overworld space but a more advanced fighting system, so if that progression were to continue, SPM should be even more advanced.  If the details at the basest level are at their most complex, narratively speaking, in SPM, then so should the mechanical system.

And because TTYD didn’t shrink PM64’s battle system, it feels jarring that SPM doubles back on that apparent progression set in motion by its predecessor.  These mechanics are trying to “reinvent the wheel” when they did not need to [1].

The mechanics are not deeper, the gameplay action is not deeper.  But everything else is.

I have read some reviews about how, if Super Paper Mario had been the first entry of a series, people would have been more forgiving of its mechanics, and that is probably true.  There wouldn’t be a “this doesn’t feel like a Paper Mario game” feeling in terms of mechanics.  However, in that scenario, the narrative elements of the game would feel like less of a pay-off, and the idea of Mario not being the driving force of the plot could have bothered some players.  That’s the issue. Mechanically, the game feels like it should be the first entry of the series because of how trimmed down it is, or at least an entry of a series that isn’t Paper Mario.  But narratively, it not only feels like Paper Mario, but feels like the climactic, culminating entry of the series.

Had this problem been fixed, people would have stayed with the game through the first few chapters before the characters’ (and worlds’) hidden depth is revealed.  The first half of SPM is showing us our expectations of the game, before eventually subverting them, which is clever in its own right.  Then, once this subversion takes place, you realize that all of the elements are there, just hidden at first.  It’s just hindered by that initial feel of “wait… this isn’t a Paper Mario game.”  And even after, when SPM’s story is at its greatest, there is still a somewhat jarring feel that the deepest story of the trilogy has the most simplistic fighting mechanics.

Super Dimentio is a climactic, narratively satisfying villain undone by fairly easy final boss mechanics

The game could keep everything else.  Keep the 2D structure.  Keep the ability for Mario to switch from 2D to 3D.  Keep the somewhat simplistic Wii remote controls.  Keep the Pixls as your party, because the story isn’t about 12 or so underdeveloped characters, it is about one very developed character in Tippi, and let the player figure that out.

But bring back the turn-based battle mechanics and make them advanced.

Have each Pixl be a mechanic that you can utilize.  Allow the player to have two main characters (Mario, Peach, Bowser, or Luigi) out at the same time (or maybe even three, like Super Mario RPG did all those years ago, or even all four like Mario + Luigi: Partners in Time does).  Maybe have different main characters utilize different special moves that they can use between each other, like the Mario + Luigi series does with the Bros. attacks.  Make items require action commands in order to use them (which the game already employs), but have them be done so in a true RPG format.

Examples of more advanced RPG Battle Mechanics used in other Mario RPGs

Snoman Gaming’s video on the mixed elements of Super‘s design adds to this idea, suggesting the possibility that the 2D-to-3D flip be an in-battle mechanic, with some enemies’ defenses and weak points only being visible in 3D [4].

This way, there wouldn’t be any instances of a narratively rich boss character being defeated without any time to breathe.  The theme of deepening the most micro-elements of the story would carry over to the gameplay.  The game would start off marginally simplistic, but at least feel like Paper Mario, and grow more emergently complex in tune with the rest of the narrative themes.  Every sequel tenet would be fulfilled [1], and all of the progressions built up in the first two games would pay off.

In my original post on TTYD, I stated that I was still waiting for that one Mario game that combined every one of its narrative elements to create the perfect story.  Rumor has it that a new Paper Mario game is in the works for the Nintendo Switch, and, according to these rumors, it is being based off of the original two games.  Though I am ecstatic about these rumors of a new Paper Mario that will be, in theory, more akin to the original, Nintendo doesn’t need a new game for that story to exist, because it already does.  All Nintendo has to do is remaster Super Paper Mario with deeper, turn-based mechanics, and the rest would be history.  It already could have been.

NOTE (Updated 5/17/2020): These rumors have since become crystallized, with the newly released trailer of Paper Mario: The Origami King, and, first thoughts on the game feel… mixed.  The game looks like it has the first original plot since Super, and it indeed carries the potential of a deeper, darker story.  However, it’s hard to call it “based off of the originals,” because the mechanics and battle system still seem experimental.  In this case, it very much feels closer to Super than it does PM64 or TTYD: it feels like a game with a potentially deep story and experimental mechanics.

This further speaks of Super‘s role in the Paper Mario lineage.  Had Super had the mechanics to fully support its story, it is likely that fans would feel like the original trilogy was paid off in full, and would be more accepting of more experimental titles in the series, but that is not the case.  Fans have been clamoring for that new game that returns the series to its roots, because the series never got that third entry that followed-up TTYD and paid off the progressions set up by the series.  Super could have, and did, from a story perspective, but it didn’t from a gameplay perspective.  That is why fans are still fervently waiting for a game that does.

NOTE (Updated 1/2/21): I have since written a full-length analysis on Paper Mario: The Origami King, and why it actually checks off a lot of the boxes we have been waiting if we were to genuinely give it a chance.

Super Paper Mario not only could have been the deepest game-supported story of the Mario lineage in its own right, it also could have been the perfect culminating entry in a trilogy of game narratives, and that is not a chance that Nintendo will get to utilize anytime soon.  Even if Nintendo releases the perfect next Paper Mario game with all of the restored gameplay elements discussed above and a deep story in its own right, it cannot pay off all of the progressive narrative elements that Super Paper Mario already paid off perfectly thirteen years ago.

I read another pro-Super Paper Mario article written by Caroline Delbert stating that the world of SPM is “huge and ambitious,” and that, by this point, “the world had stretched until its parts no longer hold” [5].  And this is true.  SPM is an extraordinarily ambitious game with genuine, heavy stakes, with its world and narrative complexities condensed but stretched to their limits.  She asks, “Where could Nintendo and Intelligent Systems have taken this series next?”

The answer – they really couldn’t.  They couldn’t expand the world, stretch its characters, and condense its narrative to its core any more than SPM does.  On top of that, upon release, many fans were quick to disregard the entire game because of the mechanics, thus subliminally telling Nintendo that they didn’t want game-mechanic experiments interfering with a Paper Mario story.  So, Nintendo jettisoned story wholeheartedly in Sticker Star and Color Splash, gave fans what they wanted (turn-based battles), but left room for their own creative experimentations (remember: one cannot ask game designers to not experiment at all).  If you look at Sticker Star and Color Splash like this – as creative, spin-off experiments – and not as series canon, you can appreciate them a little more.

See, SPM is not a perfect game.  But by being overly critical of what we got, Nintendo stopped trying to blend story with mechanical tweaks.  There wasn’t a whole lot of longform story left to tell anyway, but it is likely that Nintendo would have tried to incorporate some sort of shortform story into subsequent Paper Mario games had fans been less vitriolic of SPM.

The fact remains, however.  Any new Paper Mario game likely will stand alone.  Any new Paper Mario cannot increase the stakes any higher than SPM.  Any new Paper Mario cannot condense its narrative to its base theme (true, sacrificial love can save the world) any more than SPM.  A new Paper Mario can tell its own shortform story, blend the Mario structure with some clever dialogue and a deep plot, but it cannot be the series-capper that SPM is.

And like SPM itself asks us to do with its themes, one has to look at the game with a nuanced lens.  It is far better to accept SPM for what it is than to dismiss it.

But the basic conclusion, simply stated, is this: Super Paper Mario is a great game… that could have been perfect.

If the gameplay mechanics had supported its deepening progression, SPM would simultaneously have the best interconnected game narrative from both a short form and a long form perspective.

And SPM, not TTYD, would be the one we’d all still be talking about.

[1] Ken Miyamoto, The Ten Commandments of Writing Great Sequels, Screencraft 2015, https://screencraft.org/2015/10/02/the-ten-commandments-of-writing-a-great-sequel/

[2] Snoman Gaming, Good Game Design – What Makes a Great Sequel? (Paper Mario TTYD), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPvEGVL0ouI

[3] Resonant Arc, Paper Mario 64 Review, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lxy1-8ZXUo&t=3s

[4] Snoman Gaming, Bad Game Design – Super Paper Mario & Color Splash, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvjmgnLTKKQ

[5] Caroline Delbert, Super Paper Mario is a Flawed Masterpiece, Dec 3 2018, https://medium.com/@cdelbert/super-paper-mario-is-a-flawed-masterpiece-e749da54b604

 

The Rest of My Mario Narrative Series

The Greatest Mario Story Ever Told (and Why It Still Isn’t Perfect)

Challengers to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Expanded)

Deep Analysis of Super Paper Mario: A Nature of Order Applied to a Complicated Narrative

Paper Mario: The Origami King – Give it a Chance to Make an Impact

 

Additional Analysis

The Controversy of Super Paper Mario – Nintendrew, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euZscfTm1qU

What Makes Super Paper Mario A Paper Mario – SuperMarioT, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7LZ9jamwFg&t=415s

Super Paper Mario: The Best Story in the Mario Franchise? – ZoopTheRat, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lMhp6Toh0Y

 

For Fun

Super Paper Mario Musical Bytes – Complete Package – Man on the Internet, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Fm1Teu2cY&t=8s

 

Deep Analysis of Super Paper Mario: A Nature of Order Applied to a Complicated Narrative

For my post on Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD), I used Christopher Alexander’s A Nature of Order as the lens by which to analyze both that game, its predecessor Paper Mario (PM64), and the basic Mario structure.  Of all the games that I then touched on as challengers to TTYD, one game stood out to me as worthy of deeper analysis, especially after playing it again recently.  Super Paper Mario (SPM), the sequel to TTYD, is known as a game was a fantastic story, but also a game that has clear flaws.  As the immediate successor to TTYD, it is only fair that I apply the same lens to Super Paper Mario.

Note: This post concerns an advanced, design-based analysis of SPM by itself, but this analysis is part of a greater discussion on Super Paper Mario within the context of Paper Mario as a series.  View my analysis of SPM in terms of the Paper Mario series as a whole here.

For the uninitiated, these patterns that Christopher Alexander explores in A Nature of Order can be described as such, in which he posits that there are inherent patterns in architectures, games, life, that, when employed and noticed, create a pleasurable feeling that things are balanced, comfortable, all right [1]:

  1. Levels of Scale: We are constantly interacting with things small, medium, and big, and changes in these scales can be seen and felt.
  2. Strong Centers: We are interested in things, like the solar system or atoms, that are centered.
  3. Boundaries: Boundaries create centers, and there are also physical and thematic boundaries that need to be crossed in order for change to occur.
  4. Alternating Repetition: We like going back and forth, like falling/rising tension flow in a story, or checkerboard patterns.  They are pleasing.
  5. Positive Space: There is an interplay between positive and negative space.  Sometimes negative space can enhance positive space.
  6. Good Shape: We like shapes that are not trying to be pretty but, through their inherent purposes, make pleasing shapes, like sails catching the wind.
  7. Local Symmetries: Our brains are programmed to spot tiny symmetries (i.e. in our bodies, between characters in a story) that feel connected, even if, globally, they are not.
  8. Deep Interlock: We like the feeling that things are interconnected, that things which happened ages ago, that felt meaningless at the time, have some significance.  Characters, stories, mechanics, themes, must feel connected or the feeling starts to fall apart.
  9. Contrast: We can perceive two things brought together in unexpected ways, or one thing (like comedy) enhancing another thing (like tragedy).
  10. Graded Variation: This regards things changing overtime; things we can’t spot instantaneously but when we look back at them, we realize the change that happened between now and then.
  11. Roughness: We don’t want characters and things that are 100% smooth, because imperfect things feel human, real, and natural in their messiness.
  12. Echoes: One thing echoes another, like game mechanics or characters echoing the central theme of a story.
  13. The Void: Oftentimes the most important things are in empty spaces.
  14. Inner Calm: We are not given all the information at once, so that emergent complexities can come out through natural tension.
  15. Not-Separateness: We like the feeling that pieces, even if they are physically separate, are not, and that if you take one piece away, the other suffers.  The world is connected.

A brief summary on Super Paper Mario‘s story: Mario and his immediate companions travel through dimensions to collect the eight Pure Hearts to counteract the Chaos Heart, and thus stop the villain, Count Bleck, from erasing all worlds using the Void.  The Void itself is being powered by the Chaos Heart, as is foretold in the Dark Prognosticus.  As the game states in its opening cutscene: “This is a love story.”  Outside of some flaws in its mechanics, most of its narrative elements support this story.  Further analysis reveals more about how the game’s narrative complexity reveals its core themes of: hidden depth, true love saving the world, and balance between Light and Darkness.

 

1 – Levels of Scale: From the beginning, we can see how SPM is inconsistent from its predecessors.  The small-scaled battle screen is gone, as is the larger overworld map to look at (although you can look at pictures of the worlds you visit, and, since the worlds are not connected away, can at least see a larger structure of your journey).  And yes, the 2D can switch to 3D, but this feels like a flip between two POVs on the same level of scale, rather than different levels of scale.

However, SPM does have chapters (medium levels of scale) made up of sections (small levels of scale), which all together make up the greater narrative (large levels of scale).

 

2 – Strong Centers: Like its predecessors, SPM has two physical Strong Centers: Flipside/Flopside, and Count Bleck’s dark realm… but also one key addition.  The opening pre-credits screen has you viewing the Dark Prognosticus set against a black screen, so you are set up be thinking about these dark spaces before the game even starts.

The game teases past central areas like Mario’s House and Bowser’s Castle before settling in on Flipside.  Flipside as a town feels like less of Strong Center than the previous two games, as the town itself isn’t necessarily rooted in lore or feeling the effects of the prologue in a strong manner.  It feels like you are passing through it.

However, Flipside is important because it is where Merlon resides, the one of the Ancients parsing through the Light Prognosticus.  Flipside is important because it is the representation of that light – the worlds you are trying to save.  In the same way Count Bleck’s realm, which you visit in between each chapters in cutscenes, represents the darkness surrounding the Dark Prognosticus.

But more than that – you realize that Flipside represents Tippi, who is closest with Merlon and who calls Flipside home, at least now.  In the same way Bleck’s realm is representative of Count Bleck.  It is no accident that, in addition to visiting Bleck’s realm and Flipside in between each chapter, you get a text-backstory scene from Blumiere and Timpani.

The game is telling us that its true Strong Center is Bleck and Tippi (a.k.a. Blumiere and Timpani) together.  And at the start of the game, they are split into two different centers, one of light and one of darkness.  Compared to the end of the game, that closes with the two of them walking away together, these centers unified as one.

In this sense, SPM has the strongest Strong Center of the trilogy.

 

3 – Boundaries: The game employs boundaries more similarly to earlier Mario games.  Each world can be accessed by walking through one of the multi-colored doors on the Flipside Tower (with the last door accessible on the Flopside Tower).  Throughout the game, you are unlocking new boundaries/thresholds to different worlds to find more Pure Hearts.  There is less of a main boundary in this game (compared to boundary between you and Peach’s Castle in PM64, and the recurring boundary of the Thousand-Year Door itself that reinforces its theme in TTYD), and more several smaller ones.

The last door, which appears on the Flopside Tower and leads to Castle Bleck, is treated as significant, but because the boundary hasn’t been reinforced the same way that the Thousand-Year Door was, it doesn’t feel as significant in a physical sense.  It does so though in a thematic sense because we’re finally reaching Castle Bleck which we’ve seen in the interlude and because of the intense stakes.

This is one of the categories that indeed makes the game feel like a Mario game, with the chapters and the boundaries to reach them, but also makes the game feel more trimmed down compared to its predecessors, especially in the beginning before you realize the depth of the Strong Center.

 

4 – Alternating Repetition: It says something that, on a macro level, the game employs as strong of an Alternating Repetition as there is, as we come to realize the pattern of completing a world and then Pure Heart, then followed by a small scene taking place at Count Bleck’s domain, and then followed by a Blumiere-Timpani cutscene, and then followed by a reprieve at Flipside.  So there is World / Castle Bleck / Blumiere-Timpani / Flipside / World.  We can see from the beginning that the game is hiding its Strong Center with this repetitive sequence.