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.

On Nintendo’s Nostalgia-Based Model: Part II

A deep analysis on both the pros and cons of Nintendo’s design model. Set against my own replays of the first two Paper Mario games. Part Two

It’s not a newly made point: Nintendo’s modern-day game design model is based off of nostalgia.

The model itself not necessarily new nor revolutionary either.  And as I aforementioned stated, based on my own experience in replaying the Paper Marios in the macro, I fell right into the umbrella of why Nintendo has been doing what they have been doing with their re-releases and “similar but different” nostalgia games.

But just the same, I also recognized evidence that this model works in the micro as well.

Getting into the bulkiest parts of this analysis

Chapter Three: Old Games with a New Lens

Paper Mario (left) and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (right)

I did get something new out of these replay experiences, both in terms of gameplay feel and realizing new things about their respective stories, theming, and connective tissue.

Now, having gone to school and studied game design, by analytical brain is running far more hotwired in recognizing some of the reasoning behind the game’s choices.  And additionally, having seen the world evolve to place more fraught with sociopolitical tension, I now am much more keen to notice subtle hints of it in all of my narratives, and these were the biggest micro-areas where I noticed new things about my proverbially “favorite” games.

In the case of the original Paper Mario (PM64), in the case of having sociopolitical tension, there is… well… none… which is not a surprise to me.

I remarked in my first post that PM64 sets up its stakes early, but then, beyond the prologue, is a self-contained story that then just has Mario going through the different chapters, Peach helping in the interludes, and restoring the world chapter-by-chapter, until it gets to the endgame.

In replaying it, I realized that this isn’t exactly true because the game can actually be distinctly divided into two halves.

In the first half, across the prologue and first four chapters, there is a steady build-up as we learn about the characters of Mario, Peach, and Bowser particularly, but also with regards to the threat level.  The prologue immediately sets up the game’s magic system with the story of the Star Spirits and the Star Rod, before then immediately jumping to the present and showing us a legitimately well-done “fallen hero” arc, before then finally setting up the stakes of what Mario needs to do.

Chapter 1 then acts not just in terms of self-contained gameplay, but in terms of pitting Mario against adversaries with the most personality (and whom attempt to get in your way the most number of times).  Chapter 1 gives a real face to the type of adversaries guarding the Star Spirits, and makes you invested in defeating them.  Afterward, Chapter 2 has the grandest sense of adventure and is used to introduce us to the true expansion of its world building (it is indeed when the world, Toad Town included, opens up).  Chapter 3 almost then acts as a culmination, in that it is set-up to have Mario’s greatest adversary.  Tubba Blubba is “invincible,” the plot is more intricate, the denizens of this world have true “shades of grey” agency, but then you win.  So where do you go from here?

The narrative then cleverly plays a trick on you, in asking Peach in the subsequent interlude what Mario hates most.  In a gameplay sense, you can answer these questions as a gag, pick items, and then have Kammy Koopa place these items in the next world because now Bowser is becoming more and more desperate to stop Mario.  But like the Green Goblin in Spider-Man says, to really hurt the hero, “you attack the heart.”  And Bowser actually does this, in a way, as Shy Guys then directly start attacking Toad Town for Chapter 4.

From a narrative perspective, this can be described as the moment when the villain fully goes on the offensive to snuff the hero out for good because he’s had it taking losses.  You feel this in the gameplay, too, with your hub world now under siege and unable to entertain your usual routine in-between chapters.  So, even though the “what does Mario hate most” is played as a gag from a literal sense, the story then actually plays it seriously with Bowser’s answer to “what would Mario hate the most” actually being “then let’s attack his friends.”

This then culminates itself in your victory in Shy Guy’s Toy Box, the most complicated Peach interlude at the time in baking the cake, and then a positive narrative feedback moment with Twink meeting a Star Spirit for the first time and you feeling this fulfillment.  From here on, however, the narrative truly pauses.

Bowser recedes into the background, there is less set-up about your next adventures, and THESE chapters (Chapters 5 and 6) are fully self-contained, one an adventure and one a world restoration with callbacks first to Kolorado and then to the flower garden, respectively.  But then, we find out the reason why Bowser retreated.

After Chapter 6, Peach’s truly most extensive sneak interlude reveals that Kammy Koopa is… building something, and she wouldn’t do anything if not for Bowser.  As we later find out, she is hard at work constructing the platform that will boost Bowser’s power in the final battle.

Because in actuality, after you complete Chapter 4 and Bowser’s heretofore attack on your home soil fails, he resigns himself to the fact that Mario IS going to save all of the Star Spirits.  Chapter 7 is then less about the Crystal King’s history and more about learning through Merlow and Merlumina of the history of Star Haven, the Star Kids, and their ancient tribe tasked with protecting them, giving more weight to (a) your last great adventure up through Crystal Palace, and then (b) the lore, in order to tee up the true endgame.

This subtle realization gives further weight to Bowser’s character, and makes you realize that PM64’s narrative is not as static as you once thought.

But more than narrative, in replaying PM64, what struck me is really just how spectacular the overworld and exploration is.  Like, I enjoyed Origami King’s overworld, but the desert, the size of Tubba Blubba’s castle, the expansiveness of the jungle in Chapter 5, the epic quest up Shiver Mountain in Chapter 7, the game really pulls out all the stops in these areas, and I realize that even more when later replaying Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD).

Because in a weird way, it was easier replaying PM64 than it was TTYD [4].  Don’t get me wrong, I still love TTYD, but the gap between the joys of exploring PM64’s overworld vs. TTYD is larger than I thought, and it actually I think makes PM64 easier to get back into without worrying as much about what kind of headspace I’m in.

But also, there is the fact that PM64 is better in terms of story than we give it credit for.  It tells a straightforward, “hero’s journey” story, with the lore and stakes set up in the game’s prologue, along with the game’s villain, then proceeds to (a) give the hero a colorful antagonist to fight first, (b) expand the world out to a true, overworld-style scale of adventure, travel, and journey, (c) include a Second Act twist in which the villain goes on the offensive, only to fail, (d) focus the third act on some smaller adventures, but mainly a slow, steady build-up of the hero reaching the destination he’s needed to reach from the absolute beginning, in order to “save the world.”

It’s a Mario skin, and simpler than many others, but the fact remains.  This game really reminded me of watching Lord of the Rings.  In which the characters are not necessarily that complex, but that’s okay, there is far more of a focus on the journey than on any sociopolitical angles, and it really is a true adventure from point A to point B, set up in stakes by its prologue, with a few twists here and there, but overall… pretty straightforward.

I had low-key always remembered TTYD as feeling more like Lord of the Rings, with its deeper focus on lore, the supernatural, and deeper characters, but this isn’t truly the case.

And the switch from this grand, Lord of the Rings-level feel of PM64 almost makes the switch to TTYD feel at least partially jarring.

Because TTYD, from an overworld perspective, is not as “grand” as its predecessor [4].  Its stakes are not abjectly clear from the very beginning, and there is far less of a “chosen one for the people hailed to defeat the villain” and more of a “everyman stranger reaches a strange new place and has to mine out the mystery of this place to find out why certain things are happening, and what may happen next.”

And the gameplay supports this, keeping its cards fairly close to the chest, especially early on, and not really focusing on an expanded overworld at all.

The interesting thing about my TTYD replay is that this disconnect of playing a “scaled down” version of PM64 in terms of world built size bothered me mostly in the first two chapters. Maybe it was that the emergent mechanics hadn’t had the chance to take flight or that just it isn’t until Chapter 3 that really shows off what TTYD can do (in the same way Chapter 2 does so for PM64, which is earlier – with PM64 regarding it’s expansiveness and TTYD with regards to its fighting).  Most people harp on Chapter 2 as being a black sheep chapter for TTYD, but I also got a little bored with Chapter 1 as well, which a lot of people love, because it reminded me of Chapter 1 from PM64, but with the world less expanded somehow.

But it was Chapter 3 that not only reminded me, “Yup.  This game still holds up,” in terms of mechanics and intra-chapter storyline, but also made me realize that, unlike PM64, TTYD actually does have a sociopolitical element to its plot (something I especially realized after Chapter 4 too).

In playing Chapters 3 and 4, you realize this comparison between the high class and the low class, not unlike Arcane honestly, in which both universes – directly juxtaposed – show the ideas of how evil develops in each.  In Chapter 3, you have a person at the head of an organization (Grubba) on a floating, glittering city, manipulating the media (basically) in order to stay in power far long after he should be able to, with cover-ups and disappearances from the highest level, even though in PLAYING Chapter 3, there is comfort in that the fights are organized, you can’t be killed in them, it still feels “safe”.  How evil lulls you to sleep under a high class order and is able to develop without resistance.

Whereas Chapter 4 directly feels dangerous, in which people are literally experiencing body horror with zero control, and you find out that Doopliss is targeting them simply because he is bored and wants the thrill of it.  And this is how evil spreads in the lower classes, in which you have a gangster or even someone like the Joker spreading chaos simply for the sake of it, and what you end up with is local terrorism, but because there isn’t real order in any way, it isn’t taken care of until someone like Mario steps into the fray.

This take only became more apparent as I continued to play across the next three chapters.

Chapter 5, in a way, pits the higher class against the lower class, in the form of Flavio and Bobbery.  Flavio sits comfortably in Podley’s Inn with his Skull Gem, singing about his travels and hoping for more adventure (and money), while Bobbery languishes in a state of depression over the death of his wife – a result of her falling ill whilst he was out at sea (which feels like a parable for a working class tragedy).  And even after he first agrees to join you to be the ship’s navigator, he still exists outside of the main party.  This is, in many ways, because Bobbery is looking for a good way to die.

He gladly sacrifices himself to fight two Embers to allow you and two of your crew to escape unharmed, and then speaks about wanting a last wish in the form of Chuckola Cola, which Flavio won’t give you until he sends you on an extended goose chase around the island to get a Coconut to replace it with.

After you give Bobbery this last wish, he speaks himself off the stage, if you will… but doesn’t die.

After this point, it is almost as if the more depressed version of him reaches closure, because from here on out, he becomes a true fighter.  Your biggest advocate against Flavio when he begins to dilly-dally over the need to use his Skull Gem to open the way to Pirate’s Grotto.  Later on, trying to give you advice over how to deal with Don Pianta, who he knows.  And later still, being the voice of determination needed to convince the Fahr Outpost Bob-ombs to reactivate the Big Bomb Cannon.

At the same time, Flavio is able to slowly learn humility.  First by the threat of losing his Skull Gem in order to open the cave, and then, in the Chapter’s finale when he realizes he actually needs to negotiate with the “defeated” Cortez (and lose his Skull Gem for real) in order to barter passage on his ship to fight Lord Crump and his X-Nauts.

Of course, by the end of the adventure, he still takes all of the credit for a “successful” voyage, even though it was the poorer crewmen who set up their makeshift town in the first place, Bobbery’s convincing of him to lend a hand in the first place, and a caught-in-the-middle Mario doing most of the actual legwork and fighting.

I’m not going to go as far to say that Mario in Chapter 5 is an outright metaphor for the middle class, because I don’t think this was intentional, but the symbolism for the higher and lower classes in Chapter 5 is.  Bobbery, the stand-in for the poor, needs to come to terms with his own hardship and maybe even his own death wish, before stepping into the best version of himself – a fighter despite it all.  Flavio, the stand-in for the wealthy, needs to learn humility, initially coerced and later freely given, even if he’s still going to take credit for the eventual positive results.

Chapter 6 later on gives the higher class even more shades of grey, as you need to befriend them in order to solve the mystery on the Excess Express.

And then Chapter 7 brings this duality back into the forefront when you need to get Goldbob’s signature in order to launch the Big Bomb Cannon (just like a poorer area of society is “required” to get permission from the wealthy to simply succeed in their jobs), and then the only way to convince Goldbob is to “speak his language” and offer all the money you have in exchange to show how much you care.

At the same time, you are led to believe that General White, the operator of the Big Bomb Cannon who lost his job and fell into a state of depression, is representative of this depression in poverty, aimlessly wandering alone without any direction.  When in fact, General White found a new purpose in his life, and he actually has been looking for you this whole time, making him then to be a second example after Bobbery of someone climbing out of their depression.

This all then leds to this sequence’s culmination, in which these destitute Bob-ombs come together and shoot you to the Moon, feeling like a moment where a poorer society comes together for one greater purpose.  And I feel like it says something that this, from a story perspective, is the last you see of the public until the game’s climax (as the story instructs you, more or less, to move directly from Chapter 7 to Chapter 8 without pausing in Rogueport).

This worldbuilt subtext I saw in this playthrough contributed to why I didn’t hate the areas that most people hate in TTYD (i.e. the Punies in Chapter 2, the backtracking in Chapters 4 and 5, the lack of replayability in Chapter 6, and the General White sequence in Chapter 7) [4].  I have my own suggestions as to how these areas could have been improved, yes (which can be viewed in the Appendix of this article), but overall I genuinely felt like they provide story purposes.

Chapter 2 is meant to introduce you to the idea of directly helping people on their ground defend their home.

Chapter 4 is meant to dial in the feeling of isolation and being alone in the first of the backtracking sequence, followed by the relief of finally having Vivian with you in the subsequent ones.

Chapter 5 is meant to highlight Flavio’s hypocrisy, as you feel the monotony of needing to run around both to get a Coconut to replace the Chuckola Cola even as Bobbery’s life presumably hangs in the balance.

And finally, the General White sequence of Chapter 7 is meant to be this culmination of returning to all of the places you have visited before sending you off to the story’s endgame.  This is even reinforced in the prelude before Chapter 7, as Frankly tells you that he needs time in order to do some research to find a way to get to the Moon, and you basically have to wander around and appreciate the world around you during this time.  So then the General White sequence reinforces this feeling, and while I do think there were areas where it could have been refined in order to be less tactilely annoying, I also think that the culminating sequence of you literally being launched to the Moon is a more-than-decent payoff.

I could go on more about other examples of this subtext, such as how you get emails from the Rogueport Restoration Committee trying to bring awareness to what’s going on in the town, which does feel like a middle-class attempt to improve things; how the book of Luigi’s adventures, Super Luigi, becomes increasingly overpriced; or how, in Rogueport, you cannot really leave the town unless you know your way around Rogueport Sewers (and thus know how to fight) or you have enough money to ride the Excess Express or the Blimp to Glitzville.  This does create this sense of claustrophobia within the town, and makes it feel less grand and open than PM64, but now I realize this is likely on purpose.

This is likely how all of Rogueport’s denizens feel, trapped in this town and beholden to Ishnail’s thieves or the Pianta Syndicate, with no real means to get out.  And why the prospect of travelling to Keelhaul Key in Chapter 5 excites so many of the downtrodden who come on the journey with you (and many of those who then stay there), as this is the only means for those without money or fighting acumen to leave Rogueport.

I also love the visual flourish in the game’s final chapter, in which you have to solve the Tower of Riddles to start up this old piece of ancient technology to open new passageways in the Palace of Shadow, which is both a hint that the ancient peoples of this 1,000-year-old town knew advanced technology before others, thus contributing to why the environments below-ground feel ritzier than above, and also creates this link between this sociopolitical subtext within the game along with the game’s other main worldbuilt theme involving newer technologies set against a much older world.

But all in all, this is where I realize both sides of Nintendo’s model.  It works for “new” experiences on one hand, in which a person like myself, either by playing one of Nintendo’s “newer” versions of a similar experience or by simply replaying an old game, gets something new out of it, subtextually or otherwise, simply by the fact that I have gotten older.

But on the other hand, this is where I truly began to realize just how much Nintendo is neutering the potential of the Mario franchise with this model.

And now… the big kahuna

Chapter 4: A Franchise with no Genre

After finishing TTYD, I didn’t know which game to play next, and didn’t even know which game I wanted even to play next.  And this is the same way I felt after I finished PM64, this feeling that I didn’t really how to capture the feel I had playing that game again, and that even said game’s direct sequels didn’t truly feel the same.  Sure, everyone talks about PM64 and TTYD being almost one-and-the-same, but… they’re really not, and they’re more unique experiences/vibes than you realize.

One can make the argument that TTYD hasn’t received its “newer” update and that is why I felt so unmoored after replaying it, but it’s not like I felt an abject urge to play Paper Mario: The Origami King (TOK) after finishing PM64, given that TOK is indeed meant to recapture the sense of an expanded overworld adventure that PM64 had, along with RPG-ish (key word “ish”) elements.

But the bigger reason, I think, is just that PM64 has its own distinct feel when you really get down to it.

So does TTYD.

And many a Mario game before and since.

And hence lies the rub, the abject reason for and greatest strength that Mario has as a franchise, the reason I’ve loved it more than any video game franchise even though its stories (even its great ones) are comparatively bare, the reason why (contrary to what one might believe) it actually can do more than a franchise like Legend of Zelda or Metroid can.

Everyone more or less agrees that Mario, from a game design perspective, can criss-cross across genres, from online board game play, to car racing, to RPGs, to platformers, to sports games [5, 46:00].  But the agreed-upon lack of overall story in these games (comparatively speaking to other franchises) belies the point that should also be obvious.

The Mario franchise exists without any narrative genre either.

Unlike The Legend of Zelda, which has to tell different kinds of high fantasy stories by default, with its expanded medieval-esque Hyrule and lore-based characters, or how Metroid has to tell different kinds of science fiction stories if only because its protagonist is an armored bounty hunter cut from the same cloth as The Mandalorian, Mario exists without any of these restrictions.

Its differently-colored, distinctly diverse different worlds, and equally distinct cast of characters, open the door to, well, anything.

See, Mario adventures in brass tacks are hodgepodges of locations and travels with no real connecting tissue (the original platformers and Super Mario 64 are examples of this).  But therefore, a creator can add whatever connecting tissue he/she wants, and some of the best Mario games apply a variety of different genre norms to this connecting tissue.  For those games that Nintendo released that were expansions on the original formula, they did this every time in a way that made each individual game stand out in a unique way.

This is the stuff that was present in Mario games from the late 1990s until 2007, and it started with Super Mario RPG (SMRPG), which, yes, from a gameplay perspective gives off “Final Fantasy” vibes with a Mario skin, but from a narrative perspective is actually a magically realistic fantasy story cut from the same cloth as a Studio Ghibli movie, before transitioning into PM64, which feels a “classic high fantasy story” like Lord of the Rings, again of course with a Mario skin.  Yes, it has all of Mario’s traditional worlds, but Peach’s presence at the center, Bowser feeling threatening, and the Star Spirits as MacGuffins set up from the very beginning exactly like a prologue in such a fantasy story.  It is more kid-friendly of course than other high fantasy peers, but it uses the genre’s connecting tissue to create its own unique tone within the Mario framework, with a touch of maturity.

Same with Super Mario Sunshine, which borrows the tropical setting and leans into it wholeheartedly, yes, but it also draws off of old-school crime stories like The Long Goodbye in which your hero is forced, in one way or another, to play detective or else it’s his livelihood.  And of course, it has a second-act twist in which the perpetrator is discovered (and keep in mind, this game introduced Bowser Jr. to the Mario canon, so the twist of him being the perpetrator was a real twist), and then a third act in which the hero has to chase the villain down.

This is admittedly a minor stretch for this game, hence why I don’t hail it along with its peers as high for using its genre to its fullest potential (nor does it use Mario’s worlds to their fullest potential, only taking place in one real location), but you can’t deny that the skin of the genre was at least used to craft the game.

Still, TTYD, Super Mario Galaxy (Galaxy), and Super Paper Mario (SPM) stand the tallest, for me at least, because they feel the most adult, the stories in which you don’t have to add the qualifier “for a Mario game” when talking about how well the story holds up.  Galaxy is an old-school space opera, with planet-hopping and almost Star Wars-level pomp using Mario’s worlds, but also with the heart to match it, and its story with Rosalina at its center is strong enough to stand up against any space opera story like an individual Star Wars movie or, say, The Fifth Element.

I’ve said before that TTYD feels the most balanced, and after replaying it, I can get a feel as to why – this is because TTYD is cut from the same cloth as a classic action-adventure MacGuffin movie, like the Indiana Jones series, or classic adventure movies like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Mummy, and even Guardians of the Galaxy.  You have your heroes, your villains trying to awaken an evil or obtain a MacGuffin that could do damage, along with third-party rogues that can cause harm themselves (i.e. Bowser).  These stories also often have a subtle touch with exploring class, like the East India Trading Company vs. the Pirates in the aforementioned Pirates trilogy, or the well-lit ritz of Xandar vs. the decrepid gambling arenas of Knowhere in Guardians.  These stories will also attempt to tie in aspects of a changing world, represented by new technology, set against the most ancient ones.  TTYD does all of this, managing to pull the Mario universe’s characters and elements of its locations into this adventure, along with a sci-fi vibe achieved through the X-Nauts’ plans, plus an ancient element through the utilization of Hooktail and the other dragons, and Shadow Queen and titular location.  Without losing sight of its core tone being a mature adventure movie.

Again, Indiana Jones, Pirates, and the like can still be enjoyed as kids.  But they also have this mature edge that feel like they also have truly something to say.  So you don’t have to say “TTYD is a good adventure story for a Mario story.”  No, it’s just a damn fine adventure story that indeed has something to say.  And for me, this was “the overcoming of darkness.”

SPM, the sequel to TTYD, also feels very sci-fi, with the weird settings and weird creatures you meet, and the characters dabbling with doomsday devices, tapping into the multiverse-hopping genre before it became cool with Rick and Morty, Doctor Strange, and Everything Everywhere All at Once.  Like these movies or series, the search for love is what unites these worlds at their most disparate, and that is the point.

Unfortunately, I think SPM veered so far off of the reservation that some fans started complaining it didn’t feel like a Mario story, and I can understand where they are coming from.  At the same time, I think in order to embrace the wackiest elements of the genre it was emulating, SPM had to leave some of Mario’s traditions behind [5].

Still, I do think this was the moment Nintendo decided that they were drifting into the “too weird” territory, and then immediately dialed it back to focus on what makes Mario familiar.

You can also make the argument that with Galaxy and SPM, the Mario franchise completed its culmination of growing up, in a subtle way like Book 4 of Legend of Korra or The Dark Knight Rises.  But unlike a Zelda or a Samus game in which it might be difficult to do “reboots” without falling into the overt nostalgia-model category, the Mario franchise absolutely can.

If I’m going to make additional comparisons, I can think to similar TV shows that also I would argue exist outside of any true genre, Community and Seinfeld.  For a piece of media without a genre, I do think you need to be careful if you’re going to craft stories that go so far beyond the known characters/setting (therefore allowing the chosen genre to swallow up your IP whole) that they end up alienating a portion of the audience.  Think “The Betrayal” in Seinfeld or “Grifting 101” in Community, or even the episode in Rick and Morty (another show that, despite primarily being a multiverse-hopping show, also in some ways exists without a genre) that solely focused on parodying heist movies.

These examples are in many ways is equivalent to SPM, which went so far that it ended up convincing Miyamoto to impose extreme levels of new restrictions (even though the game itself sold the most copies of any Paper Mario game up until that point and has a cult following to this day (i.e. those who like the game don’t just like it, they love it)).  Okay, if that’s the case, then don’t go THAT far, but you can still find a balance more than just doing nothing with your narrative potential.

My point here is that Miyamoto and Nintendo could have chosen to dial it back to just using Mario’s traditional worlds if they felt that was safer, while still utilizing a different genre narrative for connective tissue.  They didn’t need to go full-on bare bones.

Since 2007, the only two Mario games I think that exist with any connective genre tissue at all are Super Mario Odyssey (Odyssey) and Paper Mario: The Origami King (TOK).  Color Splash felt like it tried a little for some horror genre elements by bringing you to an initially-barren location with an unseen force that can hurt you (which would have been cool, as right now Luigi has the horror genre all to himself), before undercutting its own premise to “visit this location and do some stuff.”

Odyssey has the same issue.  Like Super Mario 64, there is no direct connection between the types of worlds you visit in Odyssey, but they fit the “Mario mold” if you will, and, at least in the first half of the game, the constant tension to try and catch up to Bowser gave off the feel of an old-school road/chase story like Duel or Mad Max: Fury Road, and then was fairly disappointed when it then devolved into a simple just “visit this location and do some stuff.”

TOK I think does pull off an Odyssey-style story better than Super Mario Odyssey.  TOK has you travelling to far-off locations in an open world, meeting new friends just for shorter sequences of your adventure, and then continuing on your own despite having learnt something from the time you spent with those friends.  It even has touches of God-like lore with the backstories of the Vellumentals and the existence of Shangri Spa.  Before its third act becomes something else entirely by bringing all factions of the journey together (to the point that a part of me would argue that TOK is pulling on the genre threads of war movies).

But either way, it says something that TOK was the first game in thirteen years that I felt actually tried something new and expanded Mario out to a new genre.  Yes, some of its overworld elements borrow heavily from PM64, but I wouldn’t call TOK a fantasy movie.

And this is the power that Nintendo holds in their hands.  They could take any one of their Mario titles from 1996 through 2007, redo them so they can satisfy their “new but familiar” model, but also subtely use threads from a genre they haven’t tried before (i.e. a post-apocalyptic story in which there is an extreme limit of NPCs, or the ever-popular superhero genre where, like SPM, you allow the player access to multiple characters but give them different special abilities that are solely theirs (and I genuinely find it amazing that Nintendo hasn’t done a true superhero movie with Mario yet)).

Because they have done Mario + new genre before to spectacular results, from Sunshine to Galaxy to PM64 to TTYD.

When you have games that execute this concept, you can go far out to the Mario reservation and do a lot of wacky stuff, but then by returning to the “felt center” of what the genre is trying to say, it creates connective tissue that holds the game together that then makes it stand out and feel unique.  One can argue that some of these games balance the “Mario” with the “uniqueness” better than others (these will also included in the Appendix), but rather than other games in franchises which feel like they blend together, it’s not a bad thing that I felt a sense of loss after replaying PM64 or TTYD, feeling like there was no true game like them.

These are games that you remember for being their own.

To be concluded…


[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

On Nintendo’s Nostalgia-Based Model

A deep analysis on both the pros and cons of Nintendo’s design model. Set against my own replays of the first two Paper Mario games


Hello all and happy Mario day.

More than two years ago, I completed my deep analysis and review of Paper Mario: The Origami King.  Itself coming two years after my original post on Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.  At the time, I stated that I was in the process of replaying the original two Paper Marios as part of a deep retrospective on the series in the near future, plus a review of Nintendo’s Mario game design model as a whole.

Those indications ended up only being partially true.

Two years later from that, I have indeed finished replaying the original two Paper Marios, but the near future has now become a much larger delay.  And my intent for a deep retrospective has evolved into something more extensive for when it comes to Nintendo.

Partly because I went through a large swath of personal changes in my own life, from getting my own apartment finally to losing my roommate to a return of some old health issues.

But also… because for the first time in my life, it felt difficult to replay these two games that, outside of maybe Super Mario Galaxy and Telltale’s The Walking Dead, I would cite by default as my favorite games of all time.

So my deep retrospective has now become an attempt to understand why it took me two years to replay these games.

And as we gear up for the upcoming Super Mario Bros. movie in about a month, it’s time to dive in on how Nintendo utilizes the strengths of its most famous franchise… and why I am both cautiously optimistic, but also quietly concerned, as to how the first true big-screen adaptation of the red-clad plumber is going to play out.

So it begins…

Chapter One: Replaying the Paper Marios

For the first half of 2021, I remained stuck in my childhood home, both continuing to wait out the worst of covid and also attempting to build up a decent amount of savings before moving out on my own.  Once I finally did move out in September 2021, there were immediate practical issues to figure out and furniture to be bought, but once that too quieted down, I booted up the original Paper Mario (PM64) on my 15-year-old Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console.

My replay, which more or less took place around November 2021, occurred as I was settling into my new routine of life, during a small window of peace for both me and my then-roommate before omicron hit in full a month later, which would ultimately start a chain reaction that would lead to her moving out in early 2022.

But during this window, which also coincided with Nintendo release’s of Mario Party Superstars for the Nintendo Switch, I realized a fundamental truth for when it came to replaying old video games.

I needed to be in a different headspace than when I was younger.

See, when first stumbled across PM64 in 2001, it was during a time when my family moved from New York City where I was born out to the Hamptons in Long Island, where I would then spend the rest of my childhood and teenage years.  Where my parents still live.  At the time in 2001, I, then a shy, eight-year-old boy, did not know anyone from anyone in this new, alien town, and this – compounded with being home-schooled at the time – led to many isolatory years.  During this time, PM64 was a great source of comfort.  It felt like I was stuck inside and kept apart from the things I wanted, but a simple click of the Nintendo 64 meant I could go on a grand adventure as Mario, across many multi-colored worlds, in order to achieve redemption after a great failure.

When I planned to replay PM64 in early 2021, the situation was too similar.

Stuck inside, in my old childhood home, in my childhood town.

And now, the prospect of replaying PM64 under these circumstances did not feel like salvation, or escapism, it simply felt depressing.  Sure, I could play Hades or watch Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time to escape that way… but these were new experiences, new journeys, new ways of escaping.  It was one thing to be back in the mindset of needing to escape whilst being stuck in my childhood home, but the prospect of escaping using the exact same methodology as I did twenty years ago… was too much.

In retrospect, it is thus is not a surprise that, almost instantly after I crossed into a new threshold of life, I was ready to try PM64 again.

Now, it was “escaping” using an old method, but under new circumstances.  And thus, in a way, it wasn’t even escaping after all, under such circumstances.  It was a way to rest at the end of the day, after going for walks around Astoria, and wind down, after spending the last several hours of worrying about what to eat for dinner.

Under these circumstances, replaying the game was a joy… but the thought remained.  I honestly could only replay it as long as the circumstances were different.

And this notion was compounded by what came after.

I had indeed started to replay Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (TTYD) in early December 2021, and I hold TTYD up as maybe the highest, gold standard of any game I’ve ever played in my life.  That’s why I started this series of posts in the first place anyway.

But once omicron hit… and the wave of depression came… and then both me and my roommate came down with covid… and then this opened up a series of triggers that nearly fractured our friendship fully to the point that her moving out was the only option… I couldn’t bear looking at TTYD.

That wasn’t the case when I first played TTYD in 2004, which occurred almost exactly around the time my maternal grandmother passed away.

At the time, with my family in mourning, myself still not having anything resembling a core friend group, and not really knowing how to feel… TTYD was my salvation.  The journey of overcoming darkness.  A familiar universe now covered with rougher edges and darkness.  But with the belief that a return of light and love was absolutely possible.

Similar circumstances now presenting themselves in early 2022, my life feeling like it was covered in a kind of darkness again, and compounded by the existential horror brought on by invasion of the Ukraine that February, would I return to my old ways of escaping under the same circumstances?

Of course not.

It wasn’t until the fall of 2022, as my friendship with my ex-roommate achieved a modicum of peace and forgiveness, remaining intact even after so much; and as other practical, financial mischegas sorted itself out to mean I would be able to remain in my new apartment for the long term; and as I began to accept what it meant to be independent, for better or worse; it wasn’t until then that I was able to pick up TTYD once again.

And even then, it wasn’t smooth sailing, as another series of personal and existential anxieties, complete with coming down with covid a second time, interrupted my playthrough.  I remained paused at the end of Chapter 4 for months, but once the specific stressors that surrounded the holidays of 2022 began to calm down, and the prospect of wanting to release this article in conjunction with the Mario movie became more omnipresent… then I was able to finally finish TTYD in February 2023.

25 months after I originally intended to replay both games.

Because (and I later realized I wasn’t the only one in feeling this at attempting to play an older, beloved game [1]), I could not wrap my head around replaying them under similar circumstances as when I first played them.

A notion that, I think, Nintendo understands quite well.

And here we go….

Chapter Two: The Power of Nostalgia

Look at any major media franchise of the last 10-20 years, be it Stranger Things or Star Wars or Batman, or even Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, and you will see a trend as to how they release new content.  Or rather, how they release “new” content.

Because there is a difference to something like the Star Wars prequels versus the Star Wars sequels.

The Star Wars prequels, though themselves being prequels, are meant to be a progression.  The same can be said with the recently released Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon, or the 2012 sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra. Experiences meant fully to give something new to the people who recently watched or completed the original series.  Experiences that directly build off of their parent series, but are fundamentally committed to doing something narratively different.

In some cases, these series go too different that they end up alienating the original fans of the franchise, as some may argue both the Star Wars prequels and Legend of Korra did.

But the fact remains.  These pieces of media understand that, from a strictly narrative basis, they do not exist without the franchises they came from.

Contrast this with something like the Star Wars sequels, the new Batman movie of 2022, the new Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power series (I say this maybe since I’ve only read about it and haven’t seen it yet), Stranger Things as a franchise, or the Netflix series The Dragon Prince, which is not-so-subtly a direct spiritual successor to Avatar: The Last Airbender.

These series, unlike their more linear counterparts, do stand alone.  The Star Wars sequels tell their own story fundamentally “separate” from the original franchise.  The new Batman is an entirely different Batman.  You do not have to have watched E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial or Stand by Me in order to appreciate Stranger Things.  And you absolutely do not have to have seen Avatar: The Last Airbender to enjoy The Dragon Prince.

But the series are made for the people who watched their original inspirations.

And as such, these series do not directly follow their originals, serving more as “love letters” to their originals, and do this, they need the nostalgia to build.

Stranger Things likely would not have been popular if it had been released in the late 1990s, and despite the mixed reception to Rings of Power, if it had come out ten years ago, it wouldn’t even have been given a chance.

These series wait just long enough for their original audience to grow, and change, and evolve (and in some cases have children of their own, thereby bringing forward a new audience), before they release themselves.

If they didn’t, their original audience might simply not want something different from their original series.

But wait.

These new series are not different.

They may have new skins, or new faces, or new shades of color, but the thematic theses of these experiences are directly meant to mimic those of their originals.

If that were the case, why not release themselves 5-10 years after the completion of their parent franchise rather than 15-20+ years?  Simply just needing nostalgia to build?  Perhaps.

But perhaps, because as I experienced with replaying the Paper Marios, the original audience, in an odd way… doesn’t want the same thing so soon after the original thing.  In such headspaces, they want to see their parent franchises growing with them, or at least trying.  Releasing a “same but different” piece of media will only alienate them.

Look at what happened to the Amazing Spider-Man series for an example of such an effect, which only released four years after the completion of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.  And its abject similarities to the original trilogy turned its audience off more than it intrigued them.

One can fairly quickly see that Nintendo has been doing the same thing with the Mario franchise for years.  Heck, not even just the Mario franchise, but many of its franchises.

If you look at Nintendo’s gaming repertoire for the last, say, 15 years or so, there hasn’t really been a whole lot of original content since 2007, when Nintendo released Super Mario Galaxy and Super Paper Mario in the same year, instead choosing to focus all its attention on a nostalgia-based retrospective on older games.

In truth, this actually started in 2006, when Nintendo began the release of New Super Mario Bros., which is almost overtly a visually reskinned version of the original Super Mario Bros. from the 1980s.  And from 2007 through 2014-15, Nintendo released repeated games of the mold of this game, in some cases allowing two to four players the ability to play, in some cases pitting the experience in 3D, but all-in-all a continuation of this same version.

Now, these games never truly appealed to me as much as Nintendo’s games from the early 2000s.  Its progressive games.  Like Luigi’s Mansion or Super Mario Sunshine or TTYD itself that, while being odd and different and, on some levels, weird to have in Mario’s universe (i.e. characters complaining about being poor, Mario being kidnapped, Mario being arrested) felt like they were growing up along with me.

Because I didn’t grow up with the 1980s games, these soft reboots in the New Super Mario Bros. series kind of went over my head, but I have older cousins who absolutely loved these games.  They have game night parties with them.  They play them with their kids.  They could have a similar-but-not-TOO-similar experience with both each other and (now) the next generation of an audience for Nintendo.  The same way parents who grew up watching the original trilogy could go to the Star Wars sequels and expect to enjoy themselves, even though The Force Awakens is almost a direct copy of A New Hope (and why The Last Jedi, which undercut all of these unspoken rules, pissed so many people off).

And now, as we have gotten into the age of the Nintendo Switch, now 20+ years from Nintendo 64 era, we can see Nintendo’s nostalgia-based model on display for all of these games.  Super Mario Odyssey is, at its heart, a love letter to Super Mario 64, in a way fundamentally different than Super Mario Sunshine or Super Mario Galaxy are.  Sunshine and Galaxy are continuations of the Super Mario 64 formula, but use different kinds of narrative devices or connective tissue for its locations.  Whereas Super Mario Odyssey fundamentally is Super Mario 64, just with the added perk of being able to control your enemies.  The same way Super Mario 64 did not concern itself with its story tissue, neither does Odyssey really.

The list goes on.  Luigi’s Mansion 3 is meant to be a “return to form” to the original Luigi’s Mansion after audiences complained that the direct Luigi’s Mansion sequel, Dark Moon, was too different.  Yoshi’s Crafted World situates itself as a callback to Yoshi’s StorySuper Smash Bros. Ultimate is a kind of “get the entire gang together and put everything in it at once,” go as big as possible, with all of the courses and all the characters together, same as with Mario Kart 8, a pastiche of everything Super Smash Bros. originally was.

Even Paper Mario: Origami King, though I remarked that its interconnected story felt at least a little close to TTYD, actually draws its heaviest inspiration from PM64, not in its gameplay necessary, but with its worldbuilding and tone.  Like PM64, it tells you upfront what the mission is, and then it is all about exploring the world as you check off the different locations, even as it incorporates newer developments for Bowser, Luigi, and new characters.  Sure, these new developments borrow a little from TTYD, SPM, and Color Splash, but taken as a whole, Origami King is the closest thing you’ll get to a love letter to PM64, if not SMRPG itself, with Bowser teaming up with you to fight against a new evil, but with the worldbuilt tone of PM64, Peach getting kidnapped without any real twist to it, and a heavy emphasis on overworld exploration.  Even the ending directly plays instrumentals from PM64’s ending.

I really noticed this when Nintendo did it again with Mario Party Superstars, which could be read as a blatant cash-grab for not really creating anything new, but people love it.  I love it.  It is a direct return to the original series.  It brings back memories of playing the original Mario Party with my friends and family, in a package that is close to similar to the original, but with new touches.  And I can play it online with my cousins to have a similar-but-not-too-similar experience to the original.

These are the games I grew up with, and I’ve enjoyed “replaying” them in this new era, 20+ years later, in “similar but different” experiences.

This further resonated with me after watching The Geek Critique’s videos about both Super Mario RPG (a game he grew up with) vs. the original Paper Mario (a game he didn’t). [2,3]

I could make the argument that, by releasing similar-but-different games cut in the same cloth as a game 20 years ago, Nintendo is cutting through the possibly of a gamer not playing it because it is too similar, or he/she is in a headspace that in itself feels too similar, like me during my attempted playthrough.

But given that these games borrow so much from their predecessors, I’d actually say that Nintendo is betting on us all picking up copies in spite of this.

Because that is the extra element to this model.  Regardless of whether you are playing a game that is a direct love letter to a previous experience, or simply replaying the old experience, you are likely going to get something new out of it PRECISELY because, 20+ years later, you are,  more likely than not, going to be in a different headspace than before.  An early teenager playing the early N64 games is likely going to still experience something similar in his/her early 20s, but do that TWENTY years later and it’s likely going to feel especially different.  Same with a 15-35 gap, 20-40 gap, and so on.

You may have trouble getting over the proverbial activation energy of replaying the game, but once you are replaying it, you are going to get something new out of it even if you’re trying not to for some reason.

And of course, it behooves Nintendo to either re-release old games in package form like they did with Super Mario All-Stars, or make these Nintendo Switch “love letter” games, because, well, money.  Since otherwise, if someone like me gets an urge to replay an old game and get that similar-but-different version of the experience based on my own changed headspace, I’ll just replay the old game, and, well, that is less money for Nintendo.

But, again, this is what Nintendo – and all of these franchises using nostalgia models – are betting on.

That by waiting to do so, and then by making these “love letters” “similar but different,” it will solve the issue of a member of its original audience feeling skittish to enter into the same headspace he/she did when she was much younger.  That he/she will be at a point in life where, rather than wanting to evolve more, will actually be missing the memories of this nostalgia, and will be in a different enough area of life where missing these memories won’t feel like going backward too much, but will be a pleasant trip down memory lane, and he/she will want to get this experience again in the macro.

And then once in memory lane, will get something new-ish out of the experience in the micro, to thus allow the cycle to repeat again decades later.

My replay of the Paper Marios indeed showed me that this theory of a new experience in the micro is true, even though, at the same time, it showed me how Nintendo is underusing the potential of its most famous franchise.

To be continued…


[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

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.