A few years ago, I wrote a hell of a rant about Sticker Star. Sorry excuse for a game, terrible excuse for a Paper Mario installment. Color Splash was marginally better. It felt as if the dev team had personally read my blog and addressed each item in the lowest-effort way possible. My memories of Sticker Star are all negative. My memories of Color Splash include a train station and a nice cold place that almost had some beauty to it, but mostly it's negative feelings about the lack of plot or character development, mixed in with some pangs of optimism from some noticeable course correction. I call this course correction low-effort because it forced the game to oscillate between two extremes:
- Scripted-ass levels where everything is throwing shit at you (imagine a bullet hell where the penalty for getting hit is a five-minute timeout in the penalty box that the game passes for a battle system)
- Dialogue scenes that are actually just monologue scenes because no effort is made to allow you to respond or otherwise put yourself in Mario's shoes… so instead, to try to score those NPCs some character development points, each baddie concludes their assault by saying something to the tune of "oh Mario, I am so sorry that fate compels me to constantly attack you; you're really just such a great person, now please let me suck your dick"
Tragedy of a presentation, really… So if you're on the fence, go ahead and skip on Color Splash, too, however better than Sticker Star it may be.
But Origami King…
For a little bit, I was starting to think I was just old and bitter and couldn't even appreciate games anymore. But I swallowed my bias and gave Origami King a shot, and I have to say, I really enjoyed the game. I actually want to use words like "love" except there was still so much room for improvement that, were it not for the last two installments in the series, I fear I would have been unhappy with the title. Or maybe I'd have still liked it overall; hard to say. I'm happy to say, though, that this review affords the rare event where I get to rant about something I truly loved.
Shroom City. I truly loved Shroom City. That mole cave before it was good, too. Let me present a thesis defense for my personal opinion, here: Games need places for players to rest—this much isn't just my opinion, but a well-studied aspect of game design. Players don't like games where the action starts comin' and it don't stop comin' and it don't stop comin'… they need a rest, every now and again, or they get tired of the game (a sort of mental fatigue) and are unlikely to resume playing.
Anecdotally, if you browse random boards, you'll notice that occasionally a post makes it to the top that's nothing but a "neutral post"—a simple image or audio loop, possibly rain or someone sipping cocoa… something of that ilk. It's relaxing; it's a break from the quest for novelty. The original Paper Mario games had this, too, in the form of towns or just beautiful landscapes.
There were no secondary towns in Color Splash, although the game featured a grill (restaurant). There were no secondary towns in Sticker Star, nor anything else to give the game any character whatsoever (straining myself, I remember a secret exit to a mansion that led back to Decalburg, and that was kind of neat, but one-way so as to be frustrating). Researching counter-evidence for my opinion, I see that most of the "Places" listed in the Wiki for these games are places I remember being antagonized by something. None of it reminds me of "oh, yeah, that was beautiful." "Yeah, that was creative." "Yeah, that inspired wonder and amazement." It was all just frustration upon frustration. The only reprieves in these games were a couple screenfuls of content where nothing was deliberately antagonizing me, but these boiled down to a couple of fountains and patches of grass that happened to have no enemies on them. It was so egregiously bad that I believe the developers were forced (through bureaucracy if not just through an overwhelming sense of personal obligation) to literally call out
any beautiful landscape that exists amid the action in Origami King. They used your side-kick throughout the game, Olivia, a paper fairy not dissimilar to Navi from Zelda or Kersti from Sticker star, except this is Kersti 3.0, who has been worn smooth by three separate iterations on trying to make a sidekick who isn't annoying as all hell. I'm happy to say that they succeeded, this time, but I will nonetheless refer to her as Kersti 3.0 because her role remains the same: beat the game into a boringly linear installment that's as much video as it is game.
Regardless, I'm happy to say that this game, Origami King, didn't need
Kersti 3.0 to call out the beauty. It was prevalent, as in the first two Paper Mario installments, and as in most games I look back on so fondly.
Thinking back through some of my all-time favorite games, and also just through games I hold in a positive regard, every single one of them is full of specific moments of beauty I can recall. The Maridia tube catwalk and the entrance to Brinstar in Super Metroid. The gated building dividing the fungal wastes from the City of Tears in Hollow Knight. The long walk through the rain with the palace in the background in Undertale. The entrance to Torvus Bog, the opening of Phendrana Drifts, the majority of SkyTown in the Metroid Prime Trilogy. So many nameless scenes in Breath of the Wild. Orange Ocean's sunset in Kirby's Adventure. Fucking… Celestial Valley in Kirby Air Ride. Even Kirby Air Ride, ffs. Shooting Star Summit and Starborn Valley in Paper Mario. The Riddle Tower (and, in a different way, the Glitz Pit) in The Thousand Year Door. It's unfair to these games that I had to pick an example because they were all packed
with beauty and character. And I can't name anything
for Sticker Star.
But Origami King fixed this. There were multiple towns, multiple attractions, multiple things to be inspired by. There were trees filled with cherry blossoms. Landscapes with fallen leaves. Characters had things to say other than "ho ho ho! I am evil!" followed by "I'm sorry Mario ilusm bb lmsyd xoxo" two-second redemption arc. And Shroom City took the cake. Get this: it was a two-part arc. You move in and you see this fascinating temple ordeal with a lightshow in the background, the sun obstructed by some sort of darkness in the background:
And, spoiler warning:
After the arc for that chapter is complete, you return to a fully-illuminated version of the city, populated with Toads, blossoming with a new life in the sunshine with somehow even more beauty than before. Google more images of this.
So much character was packed into that arc. It was a glimpse at what the old games were like, and I sorely missed it.
Not to mention the music. Even the tracks in this game that should have annoyed the ever-living shit out of me
instead were endearing and magical, and I wanted to listen to them on loop.
To drive home this contrast, the single funnest and most beautiful place in Color Splash was duller and more devoid of character than the worst place in The Thousand Year Door. I am comparing Fortune Island with Keelhaul Key. In my very-biased opinion, islands are hard to do well because they're overplayed in videogames and frequently constitute a tragedy in real life rather than a place of beauty. Couple this with my lower-than-average appreciation for the tropics and you'll understand why Keelhaul Key (before the Grotto) didn't appeal to me as much as the rest of TTYD. But Color Splash executed exceptionally well on Fortune Island, adding a creative gimmick and the best music in the game (the music there was so good, they kept it in Origami King—yeah, what a bar to set).
Point is, it was refreshing to see so much beauty prevail in Origami King.
Well… ugh, let's talk about the battle system.
The Battle System
Nagaya insists that each new Paper Mario installment has a unique battle system. Of course, just because you are unique, doesn't mean you are useful. Or, well, enjoyable. The last two games were, as I've already belabored, a catastrophe in that regard. We see some corrections in Color Splash and far more in Origami King:1. The "puzzle" aspect of battles has been improved twice over.
What was actually just "guess what the dev was thinking" in Sticker Star went through two revisions.
2. Items no longer expire immediately.
- In Color Splash, you could ask a particular character in Toad Town (Prisma whatever) what the developer was thinking, and he'd give you the magic sticker to use.
- In Origami King, it's actually just an honest-to-God puzzle. The geometric kind with two categories of transformation, rotate and shift. If there's a secret formula (which there only is about half the time), it can be obtained in-battle by asking Kirsty 3.0 or collecting a hint envelope.
The good games had two categories of leveling up:
- Your HP (health), FP (mana), and BP (accessory slots), which would increase progressively as you leveled up after battles. You picked which one increased. This allowed grinding, but the games were balanced such that it was never required (though sometimes helpful for young players).
- Your weapons, accessories, and party (+their abilities), which you obtain as part of the story.
Sticker star shat on all of that supremely and instead made everything a sticker. Sticker availability changes with game progress, but all stickers are single-use.
Color Splash allowed Mario some basic actions with no sticker (he could now wipe his own ass, free of charge). Origami King made stickers reusable up to N times (varies by sticker). I still call them stickers because the mechanics have not fucking changed apart from the strictly necessary. The names and functions remain the same between these three installments.
That's what bugs me. In the name of novelty, Nagaya destroyed my beautiful (→ super → mega → ultra) upgrade tiers in exchange for (→ shiny → flashy → legendary). This fit the paper/sticker theme better, but you can't make changes to be novel, give me something I hate, and then never change them again. You're just triggering my Mossrock Theater PTSD.
Anyway, mechanically and objectively speaking… The higher upgrade tiers do not require additional BP to use or equip, and they all use the same amount of inventory space, so they function more like the hammer/boot progressions in the original games (unless you are sloppy in your item usage and refuse to collect or spend coins). I don't really have a complaint about them.
Items… I have a complaint about. The game has a strict limit of two POW blocks in your inventory, which makes very little sense until you consider that one of the game-breaking glitches happens when you break the battle sequence by nuking everyone with POW blocks.
I mentioned earlier that this time around, only half of the battles are scripted start to finish. They still exist, and they're still frustrating, and this time, you can literally softlock the game by escaping them. I don't know how to convince game development firms that YOUR BATTLE CHOREOGRAPHY IS NOT THE ULTIMATE EXPRESSION OF CREATIVITY. Life is unfair, sometimes. Tragic, even. A skilled player will sometimes not fall into your trap. Creativity means rewarding those players with a new sequence or excerpt. It shows that you really play-tested the shit out of your game and thought about what players might do. Metroid is the quintessential example of this. Before Other M, Metroid was a beautiful gift to this planet. People have written entire books about the game design in Super Metroid. Metroid Fusion has a beautifully brilliant easter egg
for skilled players who break sequence (it was the first Metroid title to really force you into a linear progression, as I understand). Sticker Star rewards you by dealing zero damage indefinitely, and Origami King rewards you by soft locking.
(aeron and friends, let me take a second to point out that this new site is pretty beautifully-executed as well. I just hit "Back" quite accidentally and lost nothing; thank you. That is not something you can take for granted in 2020 for some reason.)
So there's this weird disconnect in Origami King where real puzzle (solving the polar grid) meets Sticker-Star pseudo-puzzle (use hammer first, then jump, then thousand-fold arms, then hammer again, then finish off with thousand-fold arms; this parenthetical is unfortunately not a hyperbole). How do you reconcile this sort of deterministic, scripted battle with a natural puzzle?
The answer is that all the puzzles are predetermined… 😕
Entering the same battle twice, you'll notice that the puzzles for each are the same each time. Each enemy has a slightly different puzzle, which become progressively more difficult during gameplay. I am convinced (based on the hint) that two of them are actually impossible and meant to force you to use an item.
This isn't bad, in and of itself. But it sows the seed for badness. In particular, I examined the battle that can be softlocked by beating it early. It's actually impossible to solve the board ideally to be able to implement a good strategy—you have
to use an item to deal enough damage to the ideal enemy in the first turn.
I'll have to get into some detail, here, in order to explain what I mean. That means spoilers, so skip this paragraph if you haven't played. The fight I'm referring to is the Sumo Bros fight. The puzzle board contains an "ON" tile that activates the battle-ending "Fire Vellumental" (Phoenix-shaped origami fire elemental) tile. You must step across the ON tile and then later step on the Vellumental tile in order to get Kirsty 3.0 to transform into a phoenix, ending the battle in fire immediately. During the opening sequence, one of the four mini-sumos takes the "ON" tile and ties it to his back. This is actually a really clever element that I applaud, and I'll grant possibly-unintentional humor points for making it then spell "NO" while he carries it off. This asshole then positions himself out of range of any of the attack tiles, and you don't have enough puzzle board moves to bring the battle tile in range to use your hammer while also ensuring you arrive at the tile. You have to use an item of some kind (I choose fire flower) to pull it off. This allows you to wrap up the battle in two turns.
This should give you a good illustration of how deeply scripted some fights are. A key distinction between Origami King and Sticker Star is that you can still win these fights—not as easily, but in a reasonable time frame—without playing by those rules. What's irksome is that your "strategy" is split three ways:
- What skills/tools from my toolbelt should I use?
- What do I have to do to this puzzle board to enable me to use those tools?
- Did the developer think of this and decide it was the way to end the battle?
Paper Mario and its sequel The Thousand Year Door were all entirely based on (1).
Sticker Star was entirely based on (3) and may as well have had no tools in your belt.
Color Splash was (3) with a little bit of (1) mixed back in for taste.
Origami King is all three, but mostly (1) and (2). For an example of (3), see this battle (spoilers, obviously): https://youtu.be/cZsLTi7ypNE?t=86
But I'm happy to say, mostly, mostly (1) and (2). I am hoping sincerely that in the future we rebalance back to (1). I am very sick of Nagaya's idea of "innovation" being "thinking up with ways to stop you from strategizing" instead of "thinking up ways to encourage real thinking."
Okay. The battle system was the big one. Let's get back to the good elements.
What is this? Nonlinearity? Well, kind of!
I love dynamic elements of games. I loved in PM64 and TTYD how the sewers didn't have a genuine structure to them, but you just had to remember which pipe led where as you navigated this huge world. Origami King has a decent-sized world, too. I… would venture it's not as big as TTYD's, and that's kind of sad, but it was not without beauty and a good smattering of ways to move around. In addition to pipes leading to most places, there was a tram, a "fax" system (very clever), a gondola trip with a reasonably-fun mini game, and a magical sun beam lift similar to the one in Shooting Star Summit from PM64. It's got charm, there.
What's really nice is that these modes are staggered in such a way that using two of them in series can get you anywhere you're trying to be, pretty quickly. I like having to take advantage of multiple devices I've learned in order to move around expediently.
What's less charming and more boring is that all the main pipes are co-located and numbered. It's convenient, it's just not super interesting. Other players might appreciate that aspect. It's respectful of my time. Just a little dull, and reinforces the linearity of it all.
Which brings us to our next point…
There flatly isn't any. There's beauty in this game, and maybe one day I'll have forgotten it and will want to play again. But as I said, the puzzles are deterministic, the battles deterministic. The items are always the same, so the strategy is
solving the puzzle. The only combo in the whole game is pow block + jump to avoid spikes, and it never really comes up.
Normally, extra replay value comes from lingering thoughts of what you could have done differently, but Kersti 3.0 doesn't let you so much as leave the room if there's a plot element left to be interacted with in it. (And once again, doing so in a place the devs didn't think about will break the game. Here's a Nintendo Life article
mentioning two such bugs).
This bug-laden linearity requirement is endemic to the franchise, now… It's gotten so bad that, now, even your dialogue is of no consequence. There's no point in the game where you can respond to dialogue to take a different path, and in many cases, your responses aren't even factored into the response you get from the NPC. ☹
Eh, she's a'ight. A bit dumb, but the lovable kind of dumb, I guess. I still spent several parts of the game wishing I could simply be rid of her, but unlike Kersti 1.0, she has a lovable demeanor to her that you can't fault the devs for.
The real issue is that your party member serves as your moral compass, and worse, as your "the devs didn't want to think about this" compass. Any clever ideas you might get about how to really explore the game will be quickly shut down by Olivia or another NPC who may be tagging along with you at the time. And as I've mentioned, when this fails to happen, you can easily break the game, because the developers' defense was not robust sequence programming, but instead simply disallowing any kind of dissent from the one-track linear story they painted.
The most emotional arc in this game revolves around a secondary party member. I can't talk about it without giving spoilers, but I can say it's part of what makes the game really worth playing. And I can say there are multiple points in this game where you are accompanied by exactly two party members rather than one. Generally, the second party member just stays behind when you leave an area that they're fenced into. It adds a little variety, but not as much as when a party of 8-12 followed you everywhere. The party member will help minorly in battle, but you have only one, so no choice in who's out, and no upgrades.
Thinking back, Kersti 1.0 was just an extremely poor replacement for Tippi, the alternative to a deeply-thought-out party in Super Paper Mario. The key difference is that I never saw Tippi as an overbearing force of course-correction. She was like Goombario/Goombella, except constantly out. I guess at some point the developers just realized the game was so much easier to write if they only had to write dialogue for one party member instead of eight. And when they removed all other party members (and Pixls), it became noticeable…
I think what really made it unnoticeable in Super Paper Mario was that Tippi only ever helped you get somewhere; she never forced you to stay on track for something (the forcing functions were well-hidden in that game, as they were ability-based). And I didn't miss the character and backstories of the party members, because Tippi had an enormously-elaborate backstory herself. Origami King still barely scrapes the tip of that iceberg.
Okay, I've rambled enough. A lot of my feelings on this game are muddy and free of passion because this game was an odd marriage of many things I loved and many things I hated. Overall, though, it's easy to say it was worth the experience. I am hesitant to call it a proper sequel to the series, but it's a game, it's a good game, and it's everything Sticker Star was trying to be.
Thanks for reading. Hope you all like walls of text.