July 17, 2020
It all starts in a familiar way, with an invitation from Princess Peach. Toad Town is hosting a special origami festival, and Mario and Luigi are among the requested guests. Say no more! The brothers head out to the event, only to find that the ordinarily thriving town is virtually abandoned. Worse, Peach has been transformed: Her body has been reconfigured into an origami form, and her normally friendly personality replaced with a detached automaton.
Peach is among the latest victims of King Olly, the diabolical ruler of the Origami Kingdom. After she drops Mario into a dungeon, Olly wraps Peach’s castle in five massive streamers and places it atop a far-away mountain. Fortunately, all is not lost. Mario meets Olivia, one of the few origami creations who isn’t his enemy. Together, Mario and Olivia need to figure out how to unravel this plot and restore Toad Town and the rest of the land to its normal, flattened format – even helping a partially origami’d Bowser along the way.
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That’s the elevator pitch for Paper Mario: The Origami King, the latest entry in Nintendo’s RPG series. It may be hard to believe, but Paper Mario is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. Over the course of that journey, players have become comfortable with a “Mario, but flat” conceit that, if you step back, is about as weird as it gets. The tone is often as strange as the paper-thin setup, too, with plenty of humor and silliness scattered throughout. The Origami King is building on the past, but is also taking the series in some new directions, including an interesting ring-battle system and the introduction of open-world levels you can traverse seamlessly.
Ring Fight Adventure
“When continuing a game series, it’s much easier to carry over the basics from an existing game system rather than building new systems for each new installment,” says Kensuke Tanabe, producer at Nintendo. “But that’s not how you create new experiences or unexpected surprises. As a game designer, I want to deliver new experiences and surprises to our fans, so I always challenge myself to create something new. To be sure, I will sometimes use the same system in a subsequent game to further develop that system until I feel it has reached its full potential. But my goal is to continue to tackle new challenges as much as possible.”
This is a subject Tanabe knows a thing or two about. He worked on Super Mario RPG back in the Super Nintendo days, and has been involved with every game in the Paper Mario series since Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door released on GameCube in 2004. For the most part, combat has been consistent over the years, with turn-based battles that incorporate a little bit of timing. If you manage to hit your attack at the right moment, your attack will squeeze out some extra damage. It’s fun, but Tanabe and the developers at Intelligent Systems wanted to push themselves further with this entry.
“Mr. Naohiko Aoyama, who is a member of the staff at Intelligent Systems and the director of the previous entry in the series, Paper Mario: Color Splash, asked for a battle system in which the enemies surround Mario to attack from all sides,” Tanabe says. “That became our starting point when thinking about how the battles would work.”
The designers thought about how best to reflect this feeling of being surrounded, and came up with an unusual take on a battle grid. Rather than setting the action on a traditional checkerboard, they arrived at something similar to the concentric rings and segments of a dartboard. Then players could rotate each of the concentric circles to line up attacks. But something was missing.
“We kept thinking about what to do, until one day an idea suddenly popped into my head while I was in the shower,” Tanabe says. “The idea was based on a Rubik’s Cube. It inspired me to add vertical rotations to the horizontal rotations, so we got the slide mechanic added to the program, and it worked well. That is the moment I was convinced we’d be able to build our battle system.”
When combat begins, players have a set number of turns in the planning phase to optimize their positioning. The goal is to line enemies up in groups so that Mario can take them out efficiently. His stomp attack hits enemies lined up in a row, and his hammer deals more concentrated damage to groups of enemies that are standing side-by-side and one row deep. It’s almost like a puzzle, with each combat scenario having an optimal solution. You can spend coins to purchase more time to think if you’re running low on time, or your Toad friends can give you hints – provided you pay them. Even if you blow it on your first attempt, you can still rearrange the stragglers once both you and the enemies have taken turns.
Each of the five streamers encasing Peach’s castle is guarded by a member of the Legion of Stationary, which are realistic depictions of familiar art supplies such as colored pencils, rubber bands, and tape. Tanabe says the team initially wanted to use the same basic battle system in these boss encounters, but they ran into a problem: Since you fight these bosses one at a time, you didn’t have anything to line up.
“It occurred to us that one way to avoid introducing a different system would be for the boss battles to be the opposite of regular battles, with the boss in the center and Mario creating a route to the boss from the outside,” Tanabe says. “I drew concentric circles on a whiteboard, put mock-ups of some panels using magnets with arrows and other things drawn on them so Ms. Risa Tabata [the assistant producer] and I could simulate how a battle would play out multiple times. We felt that we had gotten something pretty good out of that process, so I proposed it to Intelligent Systems.”
A New Crease On Life
These bosses aren’t just waiting in one location for Mario to find them. Instead, they’re scattered around the world. That creates a striking visual, as players can see the streamers far in the distance, while also giving them a hint as to where their next challenge lies. One of the biggest departures with The Origami King is that the story isn’t chapter-focused as past games have been. Instead, players can travel from region to region seamlessly in an open-world setup.
“One major feature that makes the world where this adventure takes place special is that there are huge maps to explore at every turn,” says Masahiko Magaya, director at Intelligent Systems. “Because the game is laid out this way, we were careful during the design phase to make sure there is always something in the player’s field of vision to catch their attention.”
Players can watch the scenery unfold through several modes of traversal. Mario can run around, but crossing major distances might get tiring. Fortunately for his feet, he can drive a boot-shaped car around (a nod to Super Mario Bros. 3’s shoe power-up?) and pilot a boat. I also saw him aboard an airship, where he takes command of the ship’s defenses to fire rockets at incoming paper planes.
That variety extends throughout the game. Players can expect to encounter lots of one-off activities and miscellaneous diversions. During his travels, Mario encounters a host of Toads who have been folded into different origami forms. Hitting them with his hammer reverts them back to their normal form, then several things can happen. They might return to Toad Town, restoring valuable services to the location, like selling items or opening the dock. The Toads may also join Mario in battle, watching from the sidelines and helping when asked (and paid). You can also go fishing, if you’re looking for some downtime.
Mario doesn’t do any of this alone. Olivia is a constant companion throughout the adventure, and other characters join and leave along the way. The shuffling cast is a function of the story, so players aren’t deciding which allies to bring along.
“We never considered whether or not we should implement a party-based system like some other games,” Tanabe says. “As we worked on Paper Mario: The Origami King, we decided we could create more memorable moments if Olivia and the other characters team up with Mario along the way. In other words, we first determine what elements are needed in a game and then figure out how to implement and program them. Bobby, the Bob-omb, was the first character we decided to include, and from there we chose the characters that would be the best fit for the events in each stage of the game. Bowser Jr. was an exception. The director, Mr. Masahiko Nagaya, personally had strong feelings about including a storyline where a son sets out to save his father, so in this case, we decided to include the character before deciding exactly what we would have him do.”
With an interesting combat system and a larger world to explore, Paper Mario: The Origami King looks like a nice evolution for the series. There are certainly some elements that are foundational to Paper Mario, but it’s great to see that Nintendo and Intelligent Systems are willing and able to color outside of the lines.
Paper Mario: The Origami King comes to the Nintendo Switch on July 17.