On Nintendo’s Nostalgia-Based Model: Part III

Why TTYD remains the king of Mario narratives, and where Nintendo (and the upcoming Mario movie) can go from here

Each of Mario’s genre-specific games you remember for being their own, and each one leaves you with a feeling of loss after you finish said game because you know that, from a narrative perspective, it more or less stands alone.

Mario has done a Ghibli-esque realistic fantasy (Super Mario RPG, “SMRPG”), a grand, “Lord of the Rings”­-esque high fantasy adventure (Paper Mario, “PM64”), an operatic space narrative (Super Mario Galaxy, “Galaxy”), a true Odyssey/war movie (Paper Mario: The Origami King, “TOK”), a classic action-adventure story cut from the cloth of Indiana Jones (Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, “TTYD”), a multiverse-spanning weird sci-fi movie set against the end of the world (Super Paper Mario, “SPM”), and the list goes on and on (see below).

I said earlier that I felt that TTYD, Galaxy, and SPM stood above the rest in this regard, feeling that they were the examples where Nintendo fully leaned into its genre elements to the point where you can outright say “this is a great story” without adding the qualifier “for a Mario adventure.”  Stories that reach beyond their bases to touch on mature themes on the same level as any story told in their respective genre in any other franchise.

But there is one extra element I have yet to touch upon, and the real reason why, from this angle, TTYD remains the king of Mario narratives.

Yup. Still the best

Chapter Five: Why Thousand-Year Door Remains King

Four years ago, I said that TTYD was the greatest Mario narrative, which isn’t that hot of a take at all, but now having replayed the game, it becomes clearer why that is beyond the standard reasons that most people posit.

Not because it has better gameplay, or better overt character development, or better mechanical-narrative balance [6].  Other games do this in their respective genres just as well, and some of these genres require less of these components to feel whole.

What TTYD does is nestle a full half-dozen more fully-fledged genres within its own master narrative… and is able to balance (more or less) all of them.

Something no other Mario game does or even dares to do, and the main reason why, of all of Mario’s adventures, TTYD in more ways than you think is the most replayable and accessible game of his entire repertoire.

Even though I felt a little disconnected at the beginning of my TTYD replay, it was mainly because I was mentally comparing it to PM64, so I was entering the game with the mindset of wanting to play an expanded-overworld high fantasy game, so it took me a little bit to adjust to the action-adventure style of TTYD (not in gameplay, in genre).  Think about it, if you’ve just watched Lord of the Rings or The Dragon Prince, you’re not necessarily likely to pop in Guardians of the Galaxy or Pirates of the Caribbean (unless you’re an Orlando Bloom fan).

But if you’re already entering TTYD from a desired headspace for adventure, or simply a neutral headspace, the game whisks you on its way with its prologue of lore, intrigue, and mystery.

But then it changes.

After settling into the feel of dealing with rogue-ish Rogueport denizens and the rugged feel of action-adventure NPCs, the game transports you to Petal Meadows and turns itself into a fantasy game again.

Now, if you’re entering this area from a PM64-mindset, it still feels somewhat limited as the epic scope of Mario’s PM64 adventure pales in comparison to a simple story of befriending a cowardly Koopa villager and helping him find his courage by slaying the encroaching dragon and saving his dad.

But that in itself is as classic a fantasy story as there ever was.

And after mining out some more of the game’s lore, teasing the location of Peach and the introduction of TEC, plus the introduction of a chaotic third party in the form of Bowser, the game whisks you away to Boggly Woods and turns itself into a game of magically realistic fantasy like SMRPG.

Whereas you aren’t really meant to think about why there is a dragon terrorizing this Koopa village in Chapter 1 (as you wouldn’t in any high fantasy story, everything there often just is), Chapter 2 makes a point to let you know just how ancient and old these woods feel, and especially The Great Boggly Tree.  Unlike Chapter 1 which is meant to feel nigh-present, Chapter 2 is meant to feel like you’ve stepped into an area of hundreds of years ago.

And like many a magically realistic fantasy story (like SMRPG itself, but also something like Howl’s Moving Castle), these bastions of the natural world (the Punies) are being set upon by villains who represent technological progress, and who seek to impose their will on this natural world in order to obtain this world’s power.  And only by you allying together with the locals (and a wind spirit in the form of Flurrie) will be able to stop it.

But no time to stop after that.

Because the Chapter 2 perpetrators also happen to be those who kidnapped Peach and who are challenging you for the Crystal Stars, this connects bits of the narrative’s master arc.  And, through TEC, begins to touch on one of its themes such as the ability to overcome one’s own darkness (or in TEC’s case his own programming) by embracing the magics of the natural world (i.e. love, represented through Peach).

But again, no time to dilly-dally, and you can see where I’m going with this.

TTYD is the only Mario adventure to have fully-formed genres within its chapters, and I think that is a big reason why it is so beloved.  Each chapter so distinct, with its own complete story, and yet the game as a whole never feels out of balance, and never feels too far away from its core center.

TTYD is:

  • A Straight fantasy in Chapter 1
  • A Ghibli-esque industry vs. nature story in Chapter 2
  • A white collar, political intrigue-and-mystery story like JFK or The Insider in Chapter 3
  • A true horror narrative in Chapter 4
  • A Lost-esque shipwreck tale in Chapter 5 (this Chapter I think brings the action-adventure core of TTYD back to the front as well)
  • A fully-fledged whodunit in Chapter 6

All the while balancing:

  • Its master arc of an Indiana Jones-style action-adventure story between Mario, the X-Nauts, and Bowser, that exists in the background for the bulk of the story until it takes center-stage again once you blast off to the Moon (and the story’s endgame) beginning in Chapter 7
  • This tension between the age-old story of scientific progress pitted against the present day, which in itself is pitted against the magic of the ancients and how that magic can either be used to heal (i.e. Peach + TEC) or to destroy
  • Subtext of high vs. low class sprinkled across both Rogueport and the middle chapters
  • And even some “mob movie” elements when it comes to the Don Pianta arcs in-between chapters

This almost begins to feel like Sense8, which has 8 fully-fledged subgenres nestled within a main master genre that connects them all together.

This is an extremely delicate and difficult balance to pull off, and the fact is that, outside of a few gameplay hiccups (see below), TTYD not only does it, but does it to near-perfection.

You can see that, if you are an avid fan of any of the above genres, you can find something within the game for you, thereby giving you an in towards connecting with the characters and master story, thereby allowing a wider array of people to appreciate the story at large.

And I think other Mario adventures touch on pieces of different subgenres to make up one large one, but the Chapters in both PM64 and SPM don’t feel fully-formed enough, or separate enough from the main story, to stand alone.  Threads are there, like the overarching Boo’s Mansion mystery in Chapter 3 of PM64, or the space-faring quest in Chapter 4 of SPM, but overall these Chapters exist as expanded adventure building blocks that maintain focus on the story’s “A plot”.

And other Mario stories like those in the Mario + Luigi series (see below), or those in Luigi’s Mansion or Super Mario Sunshine primarily focus on one location, so therefore maintain at least some level of connective tissue for their main genre, but they do not hold fully-formed mini-genres within them.

I think this is also why I became so disappointed in Odyssey in the end, as I thought that Odyssey was doing what TTYD did so well first – giving us a Soul-esque ethereal purgatory in the Cap Kingdom, then some baseline adventures to ease us into familiarity, but THEN giving us some magical realism in the Wooded Kingdom and the struggle between the natural world and the tech, then a horror-esque vibe in the Lost Kingdom, and an overtly noir-esque feel (something Mario hasn’t done before) in the Metro Kingdom.  All while maintaining a grand “A plot” in the form of a chase movie.

But then the game doesn’t follow up on either of these (its would-be master arc nor its potential mini-arcs), and simply then settles into being a barebones Mario adventure without much connective tissue in the second half.

And aforementioned, Origami King indeed feels like a war movie or a real odyssey because the places you go to feel like you’re passing through rather than having fully-fleshed out plots.  You visit them long enough to get a taste, but you pass through rather than stay.  The “whodunit” in Shogun Studios is minimal, the horror-mystery in the Sandpaper Desert ties back into the main plot, and the straight sea adventure for the Purple Streamer ends up answering questions about “the Gods” before leading into full Gods + war movie territory for the final Streamer.  And there is excellent use of body horror sprinkled throughout the game and especially with the Scissors arc, the game doing this element much better than Color Splash.  Still, I would argue that though it pulls from different genres and does so well, its stories are not fully-formed nor self-contained like in TTYD.

This is therefore evidence that Mario has tackled even more genres than you think (especially when you include those in TTYD and the strands of those present in Odyssey and TOK), even though there are still plenty more (i.e. disaster story, post-apocalyptic, true superhero genre, western and/or space western, dark fantasy like Castlevania or Attack on Titan, psychological thriller where you enter people’s minds, true cypberpunk, etc.) that it hasn’t.

And again, this opens Mario up to plenty of fans who enjoy one or more of these genres.  Sometimes you are in a mood to just play through an adventure where a group of good people come together to fight evil, so therefore play the original Paper Mario.  Sometimes you want to engage with a multiverse-hopping end-of-the-world epic with love at its center, so you can play Super Paper Mario.  If any of the genres that Thousand-Year-Door tackles interest you, pop in the game primarily to play that particular genre, but pause to see if any of the others give you a new experience that you enjoy.  If you want to see a majestic odyssey story, meeting and losing friends along the way, play the most recent of these types of Mario games, The Origami King.

And again, while I respect Origami King for at the very least trying a new angle, the game is the only one of the past sixteen years now to even fully attempt to do so.  In the meantime, Nintendo could be doing so much more than simply repurposing old games for nostalgia-based purposes.

I’m going to be really sad if this movie isn’t good

Chapter Six: I’m Not Sure Where We Go Next, but Maybe a Movie

One could argue that Nintendo’s current focus is less on coming up with new Mario genre stories or even repurposing old games, but actually primarily on releasing and marketing the upcoming Super Mario Bros. movie.

I remain cautiously optimistic that this movie will actually be able to tell a full-fledged Mario story in also a new-ish style, for a multitude of reasons.

Firstly, let’s be honest.  The previous Super Mario Bros. movie of 1993 was a disaster, a box office bomb, and despite having a minor level of cult status, has remained a black eye not just on Mario as a potential movie franchise but on video game movies as a whole – for the better part of thirty years.  I find it hard to believe that Nintendo would risk such a cataclysm again without taking the utmost care to do it differently.

Secondly, all things considered, when it comes to transitioning to a different kind of mechanical genre or media, Nintendo’s track record with Mario is actually pretty good.  SMRPG is a little all over the place, but tells a coherent-enough story with enough emotional pathos whilst also showcasing very well-balanced mechanics to augment its RPG style.  The JRPG-style of Paper Mario allowed Nintendo to focus on worldbuilding whilst allowing its more pare-downed mechanics to grow over-time.  Despite having a minimal story, Super Mario 64 remains a classic for the 3D platformer genre, and is one of those games where you can actually say that the lack of story isn’t a major issue.  Even the Mario + Rabbids series manages to work despite having a completely bonkers premise.

So I have a level of faith that, with a first go-around with a truly animated, linear movie with its core characters, Nintendo will have put care into it.

And lastly, well… preliminary observations of what the movie is so far actually look promising [7].  The fact that Luigi seems to have been the one kidnapped this time around changes things up a bit, but I can envision it working for a movie.  This will then allow Peach to be the one to formally provide exposition and introduce Mario to the Mushroom Kingdom without it feeling bland, whilst still having a core emotional drive in Mario wanting to save his brother.  And based on the trailers, it very much seems that the movie will be going for some Guardians of the Galaxy / Mummy-style banter with at least a touch of a rugged edge, like the captured Luma in trailer talking semi-seriously about death.

I can easily see a scenario where the movie is indeed able to balanced the action-adventure vibe that TTYD perfected, whilst using the novelty of a kidnapped Luigi to tweak the main plot enough to fit the genre balance.

However, that’s the good scenario.

Because on another hand, I remain quietly concerned.

Mainly, because the past instances when Mario goes beyond the most standard of genre adventures, it is utilizing a larger multitude of “special sauces.”  It was able to at least partially make the crime drama feel of Super Mario Sunshine work by setting it wholly on a tropical island.  With Super Mario Galaxy, it utilized fully the concept of the space opera and planet hopping.  TTYD, SPM, TOK, and every Mario + Luigi game feature villains that are not Bowser, and uses these new villains to help craft the balanced stories they are trying to tell.

Basically, my concern is that the standard Mario story of simply moving through his worlds, with Bowser as the villain, is not large enough to shoulder the needed mystery and intrigue of the action-adventure genre, and that the haphazard moments and elements of banter will just end up making the movie feel like it is pulling itself too much at the seams, and then ultimately make it feel too chaotic to come together.  Especially because the movie appears like it is also going to be pulling elements from Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart in addition to the core Mario elements [7].

But again, we’ll have to wait and see to find out which one of these scenarios pans out (or maybe there is one in between that I haven’t thought of).

Still, though, the fact that the things we know about the movie make it apparent that Nintendo is at least trying something new with the Mario franchise should feel like a bresh of fresh air, regardless of whether it is able to make all these elements be coherent in the end.

Because from a gaming perspective, I honestly do not know where Nintendo goes from here without at least a modicum of innovation (both narrative and mechanical).

Sure, they could do a Super Mario All-Stars and package these more mature games just with a Switch skin?  For Galaxy and Sunshine, this has already been done.  And I think fans of TTYD and SPM would absolutely love this, because it almost feels like Nintendo is trying to forget them.  Even the Mario + Luigi series, which Nintendo seemed to redirect its focus towards after 2007, transitioned away from its potential for maturity into more standard Mario adventures, last seen in Paper Jam, before Alphadream itself went bankrupt.  So it’s not a lie that both series could be ripe for a re-skin or a re-package.  The same with their mutual grandfather, Super Mario RPG.

But such a direction is limited.

Because the truth of the matter is that, if we’re basing Nintendo’s style the last 15 years on this Nostalgia model, it is running out of games to use it on.  It’s now already done the 1980s classic Mario games and most of its Nintendo 64 library. It could start retreading some of these GameCube-era, early Wii, GameBoy Advance, or early Nintendo DS games if it wants, make a kind of similar-to-Galaxy-in-space-but-its-not-Galaxy kind of game (i.e. Super Mario Galaxy 2), or grab a little one of Mario’s disparate worlds and set a story there like it did with Sunshine.

But the more obvious answer… it could simply branch out and start tackling the aforementioned original genres it hasn’t tackled yet, which is what it felt like Mario games were doing in the late 1990s / early 2000s before they seemingly pulled the plug on such matters after 2007.  I think that’s why I got intrigued by Odyssey at first, because at first, yes it was a love letter to SM64, but it also felt new.  A “Mario does a road/chase movie” kind of feel, before the nostalgia side of the game overpowered the portion of it that was new.

But again, the presence of Paper Mario: The Origami King and the preliminary details of the Super Mario Bros. movie do suggest at least a modicum of promise.

Because I want to see Mario tackle other classical genres, games that are new or even base their mechanics on games that came before, but that stick to a single genre, like a PM64, Sunshine, SPM, or Galaxy; or better yet, nestled additional sub-genres into its main genre like TTYD – and never lose sight of its core elements.

Now for the goodbye section

Epilogue: Farewell, for Now

I said before.  Mario doing different genres is akin to choosing your favorite movie across Lord of the Rings, Guardians of the Galaxy, Everything Everywhere All at Once, the list goes on.  And that depends more than anything else on your taste, and that’s a good thing.

Don’t try to cater to everyone by doing nothing with Mario’s potential.  Pick a specificity, but do different specificities in different ways each time, and this way, probably the same amount of people can be reached (or at least close), but you’ll unlock the far greater depths that this franchise can do. 

And I think that’s why I always return and think about what Mario can be.  Legend of Zelda has to be high-level fantasy.  Donkey Kong has to be a jungle adventure.  Yoshi has to pull on tropical vibes.  Metroid and Star Fox have to be space epics.  But Mario, conceptually, with its multi-varied worlds, out there methods of connective transportation, and dimension-hopping vibes, can literally pull on an infinite number of genres and sub-genres if it wants to.

Which is why watching Mario play it safe the last 16 years is comforting from a nostalgic perspective, but also makes this gamer yearn for more.

Personally, this is likely going to be my final “Mario narrative” article in this series, unless I decide to do a deep analysis on the movie or decide to fuly replay the games of the Mario + Luigi series and discover something new that can apply to these concepts.

But until a chink arrives that upends the current Nintendo direction, I genuinely do believe that I have said everything I feel I’ve needed to say.  I might try to port these kind of analyses to YouTube or maybe apply them to different franchises, but, maybe like Nintendo too, I am not completely sure where I will go next with this, but hopefully we can figure it all out together.  For any of us that have ideals of what Mario (or any narrative) can be, let’s not forget to lose our voices, and keep being vocal until we see our ideals realized.

Thank you to all of those who read this series.  I’ll see you on the other side.



Matthew Floyd

Roll credits


[1] Lowart, Super Mario 64 – The Problem with Nostalgia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jB_QLSb2Yi0

[2] The Geek Critique, SUPER MARIO RPG: The Lost Legacy of the Legend, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-X9bHursFE4

[3] The Geek Critique, PAPER MARIO: The Dark Side of Nostalgia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCfvEITOz18

[4] Lowart, Paper Mario VS The Thousand Year Door | Comparing Paper Mario 64 and TTYD, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NhElqiOIAQ

[5] The Red Guy, Super Paper Mario | Review, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOIwiUkF1Ks

[6] The Red Guy, Paper Mario The Thousand Year Door | Review, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VkfRPFoj4Y

[7] GameSpot Trailers, The Super Mario Bros. Movie Clip | The Game Awards 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OO_Dby7G48E

[7] Illumination, The Super Mario Bros. Movie | Final Trailer, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjNcTBXTk4I

More videos to watch if you want

Additional Analysis

Nintendo’s Nostalgia Problem – HauntRants, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCe7w-pBa6w

The Decline of Mario RPGS – ThrillingDuck, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O89Bd1dIlCY

The Problem with Super Mario Odyssey – Nintendrew, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNiOCMVw0wE

Everything Wrong With Nintendo’s Design Philosophy and Why Paper Mario had to Die – Ceave Gaming, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQrZX1lEKnc

Why Paper Mario Changed: A Look at Nintendo’s Design Philosophy – Retro & Chill, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbdK_lzSax0

What Makes Paper Mario Special – A Retrospective (Paper Mario N64) – Zillennial Dissonance, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2lB_lBi4AI

Paper Mario Retrospective – Cloud Connection, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DjoO-PJGZW0&list=PLUadlyYdIn0XZrLh59nlICYStie1vJ2cg

Paper Mario is Wonderful – Lute, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cL4RpmtreEU

Extra stuff, like a postgame


The Role of the Mario + Luigi Series

Of note is the fact that I have not talked much about the Mario + Luigi series in as much depth as the aforementioned games.

This is partly because, outside of the first game in the series, Superstar Saga, I have only played their respective games once, and not recently either, so it is harder for me to make concrete judgments on the series.  In addition, though, this is because, in the little I have gleamed, unlike their peers, it is harder to nail down specific genre elements for the series (or at the very least the first three or four games before Paper Jam simply acted as a hodgepodge hybrid), and yet at the same time that is not to say that the Mario + Luigi does not have any identity at all.

If I remember correctly, the Mario + Luigi series are more of road stors in which their areas really blend together as opposed to the Paper Marios or the mainline games, and yet at the same time have elements of weird components that the mainline games do not have.  The middle three games (Partners in Time, Bowser’s Inside Story, and Dream Team) in a way then act as expansions of this baseline formula, as these games have elements of deeper genre identities than Superstar Saga does, at least on the surface.

Partners in Time plays out like a Terminator-esque, time-travel adventure in which, yes, the time-travel conceit is more of a concept and not necessarily used fully in the way an Interstellar or a Looper uses it, but this concept does give the game stakes in the same way the first three Terminator movies do.

Bowser’s Inside Story sets itself up to be a kind of Last of Us / post-apocalyptic adventure in which a contagion has infected the vast majority of the Mushroom Kingdom’s population, and a would-be fascistic villain is moving through the lands, scooping up the scraps in order to build himself his own empire, but at the same time, I have thought that the game’s aggressive focus just on Fawful’s weird personality and some of the completely bonkers characters in this game like Broque Monsieur undermine this would-be tone, and move the feel more towards a straight-forward adventure from point A to point B (in which outside of Fawful’s personal vendetta against you, you also don’t necessarily feel his effects on the world enough), rather than its peers it could have stood up next to.

And then similarly, Dream Team is the franchise’s would-be Inception story, in which you navigate through different areas of Luigi’s mind in order to fight a greater threat.  But again, I found many of the locations a bit scattershot, as opposed to the aforementioned Inception that has fully-formed environments to ground its dream-based concept.  So again, I felt the execution left a little to be desired.

Also, these games need to lean on their worldbuilding and concepts, because unlike the Paper Marios or a game like Galaxy in which you have a core NPC who changes, I can’t argue that there is much in terms of character arcs in these games.

The titular bros are absolutely personable, but I can’t think of any real “theme” that gets explored like in PM64 (which again, doesn’t either have a ton of whole character arcs, but the fantasy-based theme of good people coming together to restore a broken world is expanded upon with each chapter).

You really feel an IMPACT of your adventure in PM64 and TTYD (PM64 with regards to the world, and TTYD with regards to the characters (every chapter and each of your partners has a mini-arc, pretty much) and aspects of the world as well).  And though SPM doesn’t necessarily include you much in an impact on the world (beyond the macro level), the abject character arcs of Bleck, Tippi, Dimentio, Nastasia, and even Bowser/Luigi in some aspects carry it.

Origami King has a true character arc for Olivia, augmented by Bobby’s, Kamek’s, and Bowser Jr’s (even though there aren’t much more than that, though Olly has a little).  In Superstar Saga, there is no arc for Cackletta, or the bros, and though you feel the hurt of Cackletta on the Beanbean Kingdom, restoring isn’t fully reinforced.  Partners in Time the horror aspect of the world building is extreme, and in Bowser’s Inside Story the threat is personal, but I can’t think of any real character change or arc in any of these.

Also, going back to the ideas of my original post, what is the Strong Center in Mario + Luigi?

Take Superstar Saga.

After the Bros. reach Beanbean Castle Town around the 1/3rd mark of the adventure, this area in turn becomes your would-be Strong Center, which you then have to help repair (literally, at first, in terms of helping Queen Bean) and then in terms of aiding the town’s recovery.  However, the town never fully feels like yours, and the lack of any fully-developed NPCs who ground the town to its thematic stakes doesn’t help either.  Also, unlike Super Mario RPG, at no point in the game’s endgame does this Strong Center really evolve beyond this except that Cackletta-turned-Bowletta starts firing at it again.  I think with a little more character work on Beanbean Castle Town or on Bowser actually (Bowser’s Cruiser feels like you initial Strong Center, and it would have been interesting to carry this element forward through Bowser and then have it clash with your new Strong Center in the endgame, but after the prologue, Bowser either has no memory or is possessed Cackletta, thereby diminishing this potential) – there was definitely something here to work with.

The Beanbean Kingdom itself feels real and lived in (I think Popple also gives a lot of color to this world), but this game really could have done more when it came to either Queen Bean and Prince Peasley.  You find them each in a state of distress, with Queen Bean’s mind in peril and Prince Peasley captured in an egg, but once you save them, they more or less each simply become your patrons who try to help you.  Instead, the game could have made Queen Bean fearful and ineffective even after rescuing her mind (similar to how Lord of the Rings does with Theoden), thus giving her an arc to find the strength again for the sake of her people, and also contrasting her more with Peach.  Alternatively, the game could have made Prince Peasley into an initial asshole instead of a Big Damn Hero, and could have had him gradually learn humility and the fight to help others as a result of your actions.  Either one of these (especially since this would have given character-based stakes to the world and heretofore Strong Center) would have pushed this component – as well as the game – I think into the upper-high echelon of Mario narratives.

So what is Superstar Saga then from a genre perspective, beyond just an RPG?

In some ways I could argue simply that Superstar Saga is simply an action movie, in which our heroes are navigating from threat to threat, fight to fight, and the action doesn’t let up akin to Mission: Impossible, especially because the central MacGuffin feels almost like a tactical weapon as opposed to some mythical, spiritual center.  And action movies can indeed be open-world, as the game indeed almost feels more like a Zelda game in its expansion than a Mario game, but at the same time doesn’t feel like open-world fantasy easier since the plot is zippier and more straightforward.

But given the action genre is such a wide range, it’s best to try to narrow it down, and given the introduction of the Beanbean Kingdom and your connection to its monarchy, I’d also wager to say that the bros’ first adventure has the bones of a political thriller.  It also has aspects of political scheming and negotiations between Peach and Queen Bean, some levels of mystery, and decent twists like the fact that Peach tricked Cackletta with a fake Peach.  But the best of these movies, like Casino Royale or Jason Bourne, give their titular protagonists something serious to chew over, or an NPC that either changes or seriously affects the psyches of said protagonists.  And Superstar Saga doesn’t really have this.

Still, however, despite its genre components being fairly backbone, from a plot-based perspective alone, Superstar Saga is a very well-done game.

And while I think gameplay­-wise, Partners in Time is a little more un-centered, it might be the most coherent of the series in its Terminator-esque genre, which I give I give it credit for.

And then Bowser’s Inside Story and Dream Team did at least try both novel genres with original gameplay mechanics (and in many ways exist as the only two games Nintendo released in between 2007 and 2017 that even tried), but at the same time I think the execution of both of these games left a little to be desired.

Paper Jam, like Paper Mario: Color Splash and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, I don’t necessarily think was trying.

Remember, I have only partially played both of them

Full List of Mario Genre Games

This article has talked a lot about the different genres that Mario has tried, so it feel right to list them all here in one place:

         –Super Mario RPG (SMRPG, 1996): Magical realism / immersive realism / contemporary fantasy, in which our normal world is set against by villains that represent the spectre of industry, and our heroes have to find and embrace the symbols of true nature in order to find peace, like many a Studio Ghibli movie like Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, or Castle in the Sky (even though SMRPG feels like it has other narrative threads that pull attention away from this in a haphazard way)

         –Paper Mario (PM64, 2000): Straight, classic, high fantasy like Lord of the Rings or The Dragon Prince, in which the magical stakes of the adventure are revealed in prologue straight away, and a follow a group of thin-in-personality, but grand-in-adventure “good” people as they come together to fight evil and restore the world.

         –Luigi’s Mansion (2001): Straight horror through and through like The Haunting of Hill House or even The Shining.  Though one can argue this game is not part of the Mario canon and is Luigi’s genre in the same way the jungle and the tropics belong to Donkey Kong and Yoshi, respectively, I do think this game counts, given that elements of this game, like E. Gadd and King Boo, have since become staples in Mario’s mainline games. (even though I’d be down to see a mainline Mario game full-on tackle this genre as well)

         –Super Mario Sunshine (Sunshine, 2002): The skins of a crime drama / noir-lite story like The Long Goodbye, in which our hero is being threatened by the law, and needs to uncover a culprit whilst also aiding in a strange world, complete with a second-act twist of the culprit revealed and an outright weird connection to our protagonist’s love interest (this is the closest that Chinatown’s “she’s my sister and my daughter” found its way into a Mario game, but I still think that this is a genre that Mario could push more)

         –Mario + Luigi: Superstar Saga (2003): The first game in the series in many ways exist outside any genre, but looking more closely reveals at least the skin of an action story, along with that of the spy/thriller genre akin to the Mission: Impossible or Jason Bourne series.  This game could have pushed it a LOT more by giving Queen Bean or Prince Peasley a character arc or making the locations more lived-in or political – in these kinds of thrillers, YOU are often working within a regime, which you are in working for Queen Bean’s kingdom, and whatever tension could have been mined from this could have been increased a lot.

         –Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD, 2004): Brings together the elements of the action-adventure/historical/mystery genres that tend to play with ideas of some long-dormant supernatural – series like The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean, OG Indiana Jones, and Guardians of the Galaxy come to mind, as our hero must uncover the secrets of long-lost MacGuffins in order to, yes, save the world, but also those he/she cares about.

                   -Chapter 1: Classic medieval fantasy where you help a cowardly villager defeat a dragon and save his dad

                   -Chapter 2: Magically realistic fantasy, like Ghibli again, in which you have to ally with the locals most connected to the natural world in order to beat back an encroaching threat that represents the dangers of technology/industry

                   -Chapter 3: White collar thriller/mystery akin to JFK or The Insider in which your mission is to expose a deep cover-up at the center of “civilized” society

                   -Chapter 4: True horror, and maybe the closest a non-Luigi Mario game has ever gotten to it, complete with body snatching and a deeply spooky environment

                   -Chapter 5: Elements of the parent action-adventure genre, but also elements of a Lost-esque “group of misfits are shipwrecked and need to get along” motif

                   -Chapter 6: A straight Agatha Christie-style whodunit, complete a train like Murder on the Orient Express.

         –Mario + Luigi: Partners in Time (2005): Time-travel-y action sci-fi like The Terminator , in which time travel is used more directionally and as an omnipresent threat than the super-cerebral translations of time-travel like Interstellar or Looper.  Though this game is maybe the most coherent in its genre within the Mario + Luigi series, the game still could have pushed the time travel aspect more, like somehow being around the baby versions of certain characters changes present characters, same with making the present more potentially damaged as you see the past version of the Mushroom Kingdom become more and more subjugated.

         –Super Mario Galaxy (Galaxy, 2007): Full-on space opera sci-fi like Star Wars, and even though the mainline characters of Mario, Peach, Bowser, and Luigi are not given a ton more depth, their core elements are able to shine through, and Rosalina connects them all through this theme of ever-present, spiritual love.

         –Super Paper Mario (SPM, 2007): Weird, multiverse-hopping sci-fi like Everything Everywhere All at Once, or certain elements of Rick and Morty, in which you can access multiple dimensions, versions of characters are side characters become weird or nonsensical (but this is the point), and we are meant to think about the fact that despite this weirdness, love connects us all anyway, and we wouldn’t want to see these worlds destroyed.  Of note, the multiverse-y tag as a subgenre wasn’t as omnipresent in 2007 as it is now, and even now Multiverse of Madness or Everything are themselves hodgepodges of different genres, so it says something that SPM nails many of these genre elements before it was popular (and sad that this expertly-crafted and legitimately balanced genre story is undermined by its mechanics)

         –Mario + Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story (2009): Has the skin elements of a post-apocalytpic/Contagion-style story in which a disease is beset amongst the public (in this game’s case being The Blorbs), and as you try to find a way to fix it, you realize that would-be fascistic figure is scooping up that which remains of the public and has his/her eye set on taking you down.  The game absolutely could have leaned into some kind of Last of Us / Walking Dead-ish narrative more, making The Blorbs feel more menacing, making Fawful intent on not just defeating you but defeating what remains of society, and making it seem more and more hopeless that the illness can be cured.

         –Mario + Luigi: Dream Team (2013): Has the elements of Inception-esque dream-hopping across different worlds within someone’s mind, but in order to nail this concept more fully, they REALLY should have pushed this aspect of distinct, fully-formed dream-like environments and put EXPANSIVE worlds into Luigi’s mind rather than focusing on more humorous conceits to use it for.

         –Paper Mario: Color Splash (2016): I’m highlighting this one because, with the concept of you having to go to some strange, abandoned island, plus the concepts of Toads being drained of color, this had the potential to go for a more isolated horror story or another try at a post-apocalyptic story, but the game devolves more into simply “go to this world and do stuff.”   It says something that The Origami King ended up doing this concept of spooky, body-horror-esque isolation better with the Scissors arc (and the Hole Punch arc too) than this game, even though this game, with its deserted island setting and colorless Toads concept, made it ripe for at least trying.

         –Super Mario Odyssey (Odyssey, 2017): As aforementioned, this game had the potential to pull a TTYD and do double duty.  It master arc is a would-be road/chase story, like Duel or Mad Max: Fury Road, and even after Bowser gets away at the 1/3 mark, the game had the potential to shift gears a little before bringing itself back to center for the endgame, but the game never does this, and from this point forward, the momentum stalls, and its one chance to get the momentum back (introducing the conceit of Bowser on a dragon) is never pushed to the fullest.  Still, the game does pull from a handful of other genres for a handful of moments.

                   -Cap Kingdom: Purgatorial, ethereal fantasy, like Soul, Heaven Can Wait, or The Good Place, in which you have been defeated, and are stuck in a “waiting phase” alongside other sprite-like creatures.

                   -Wooded Kingdom: Again magically realistic fantasy, as the natural wooded world is being beset upon by an aggressive use of technology.

                   -Lost Kingdom: Abandoned, isolationist horror, the kind of concept that Color Splash could have pushed more, as you have lost your ship and lost to Bowser, and feel especially alone

                   -Metro Kingdom: Straight noir, and the Mario franchise’s best use of it, complete with a femme fatale (Pauline), a decrepid, rainy setting, and a metropolitan city to restore.

                   -Ruined Kingdom: Dark fantasy, like Dracula, Castlevania, or even Attack on Titan, in which you have a wild creature out there that can kill you easily.  Still, I would have been okay sacrificing this moment of mini-genre pull instead for having the game utilize the concept of the dragon for a true endgame.

                   -Bowser’s Kingdom: The game wants you to feel the elements of the samurai genre in this kingdom, but for this to work, you would have had to face more sublimely strong enemies, or Bowser’s immediate lackies would have needed to be more personable and threatening beyond just the Broodles.

         –Paper Mario: The Origami King (TOK, 2020): The feels like a true, epic war movie and/or actual odyssey/saga done better than Odyssey (and even gets some of the horror elements in there that Color Splash didn’t deliver on), as you go on a large-scale quest through environments that, through lore, are meant to be inscribed with certain God-like qualities (utilized through the Vellumentals).  And along the way, you meet and lose friends, and ultimately have to join forces with not just one, but all of your enemies in a genuinely cinematically epic final battle, with all of the pathos and grandiosity that this kind of story needs.  Some of its micro-aspects could have been fleshed out more, but when its core moments land, they land hard.  Just ask Bobby.

How dark do you think Mario could realistically get?

My Notes and Final Thoughts for The Thousand-Year Door

As aforementioned, I have again stated that based on the logic of this thesis, TTYD remains the king of Mario narratives.  That’s not to say any one of us can’t have favorites, as sometimes you don’t want to play through multiple subgenres alongside an action-adventure story.  Sometimes you just want to take on the role of good people and save the world, and other times you want to go on an epic adventure on the scale of an odyssey, or help remember the majesty of the natural world and save it from industry.

But based on these logical components of genre, balance, and scope of trying out multiple different subgenres at the same time, TTYD is only one that does it truly to such a successful extent.

And yet, it still has its flaws, which I would like to address here [4].

In general, the areas of TTYD that most people hate (i.e. Chapter 2, Chapter 4’s backtracking, Chapter 5’s backtracking, the lack of replayability of Chapter 6, and the General White mission in Chapter 7) either didn’t bother me or made me realize that the game could have pared even one element back to make these areas more palatable.

         –Chapter 2: Overall the chapter does it job from a worldbuilding perspective, but to make the gameplay aspect of this chapter more balanced, it should have allowed you to lose a few Punies.  That way, if a little guy or two doesn’t fall down the needed hole or gets scared by a Pider, you can keep going, and only need to return to the Elder if something really catastrophic happens.

         –Chapter 4: The game should have introduced some secret path to get back to Creepy Steeple after you find out Doopliss’s name.  This is because every other trek has a narrative purpose (first you are with your party, second you feel the loss, third you get the positive feedback of having Vivian, fourth you feel a rush to get back to Doopliss because you’ve figured out his name).  It is JUST that last one that feels redundant, and that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back for a lot of gamers.  If Doopliss had cut through some forest path right there outside Twilight Town to get to Creepy Steeple faster and then you simply have to follow him through such a proverbial shortcut without having to worry about the enemies on the main route, I think it would have been fine.

         –Chapter 5: With regards to the battle you fight against the Embers where Bobbery has been hurt, the game should have given the player a Coconut as a reward for winning.  It’s this extra step of the backtracking that could have been avoided.  The others, going to Flavio and getting the Cola, and then going back again now with Bobbery to get the door open, again either have a sense of urgency or you have a new partner to try out, plus the added element of exploring Flavio’s hypocritical nature affecting you in gameplay form.  But the back-and-forth on the Coconut should have had a handheld moment to avoid, like how the game more or less gives you a POW Block in Chapter 1 before you fight the Bristles.  Sure, the Coconuts are below the bridge, but it’s not a guarantee you will find them, as your focus in these moments is heavily on Bobbery.  And the player shouldn’t be punished with more backtracking for that.

         –Chapter 6: This actually didn’t bother me, since there is narrative weight to the mystery and the reveal that Doopliss is now with the Shadow Sirens is a genuine twist.  Maybe there could have been a timer on you to make it more tense, or maybe there could have been a large-scale timer that is impossible to beat in order to try to get to Poshley Sanctum before the Shadow Sirens, but of the typical TTYD sour points, this one bothered me the least.  It’s also not that long.

         –Chapter 7: I get that the General White mission is annoying, and (more than anything else) the Glitzville part of the “chase” should have been FIRST so you only have to leave the underground pipes once before the rest of them.  Otherwise, solely using the pipes to move through the old worlds you’ve visited would have felt like a gameplay reward for you having found them, and mainly it doesn’t bother me because this gives you a chance to see all of the locations you’ve been to before the game pushes into the endgame.  The Moon and the Palace of Shadow in many ways feel connected, like you are not expected to pause and visit Rogueport during the Chapter 7-8 Interlude, whereas in between Chapter 6 and 7, Frankly directly tells you to wander around while he figures out a way to get you to the Moon, so this is the area where the game is telling you to reconnect with the world you’ve travelled before trekking off for your final battles.  BUT having said this, the Glitzville portion being in the middle and the having to wake General White up, like, 10 times, is where it gets excessive.  The game could have made it be two or three jumps to the head, and honestly by itself it is a funny gag.  But tagged on to an extended quest that sacrifices player enjoyment for worldbuilt coherence, having THIS at the end of it is where it feels like you are torturing the player.

         –The Epilogue: Probably the only area of TTYD that genuinely annoys me, and often in my replays I pretend that some of these elements don’t exist in my headcanon, but… they do [6].  It’s not Game of Thrones or Dexter. Like the ending of How I Met Your Mother that only becomes damaging in the last ten minutes, for me it isn’t enough to undo the rest of the game, but it still hurts.  The game should have kept TEC, Grodus, and Lord Crump dead, and (most of all) should have had Vivian either working with Goombella as her assistant, or maybe acting simply as a kind of caretaker for the Twilighters, the area where Mario saved her, and where people in depression can maybe climb out of it.  In my perfect headcanon, Beldam and Marilyn are trying to get Vivian to speak to them again, but Vivian has stated repeatedly that she needs more time before she does.  Given that the character of Vivian means a lot to a lot of people, giving her a more just ending should be a given, if and when Nintendo decides to do a “similar but different” reboot of TTYD.  Until then, we’ll keep pondering.  And hoping.

Goodbye TTYD

As part of this past replay of TTYD, I did something a little different than how I usually finish the game.  This time, after beating the Pit of 100 Trials and reaching 100% completion, I wondered around to very area I visited, tattled those that I could with Goombella, and then stood outside at the Rogueport dock with each of my partners in succession as if I were actually leaving.  While listening to the “Return to the Mushroom Kingdom” soundtrack.

And then, after turning off the cartridge, listened to the end credits on YouTube as a final goodbye.

Sort of like this series, that’s because I don’t know exactly when I will play TTYD next.  This cartridge has held fast for 19 years, as has my 17-year-old Wii.  Something could easily happen to it.  And maybe, like what happened to me this past year, I won’t feel like I am in a changed-enough headspace to play through it again.  My last replay before this one was in 2017, and who knows where I will be in five years.  Or ten.

But as for right now, thank you for all the memories.

This is mefloyd signing off.

Until the adventure continues again.

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

Why Paper Mario: The Origami King is better than we give it credit for, and why we should give it a chance

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.


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.


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

A deep analysis on why Super Paper Mario could have been a perfect final chapter to the original Paper Mario trilogy, and why it isn’t.

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.