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Paper Mario makes a lot of people very angry. You wouldn’t think such adorable, harmless games could be so divisive, but Nintendo’s decision to scale back the RPG elements and original storytelling found in earlier entries in the series has earned them reams of fan ire. The fact that it was Shigeru Miyamoto himself that called for the changes has just added more grist to the armchair developer grumble mill.
This might be a concern to some publishers, but Nintendo, in their trademark blithe way, has decided to release an all-new Paper Mario into this whirlwind. A Paper Mario that cheerily doubles down on everything some fans are upset about. But hey, making unpopular, off-kilter design decisions work through pure perseverance is another Nintendo trademark, so maybe this Paper Mario will prove the doubters wrong. Let’s tear into it…
Paper Mario: Color Splash (Wii U)
Yes, Paper Mario: Color Splash still doggedly follows the formula laid down by 2012’s Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Which is to say, a removal of most stats, numbers, and overt RPG elements, an expendable-item-based battle system, and a cast of characters strictly drawn from the mainline Super Mario Bros. universe. If you’re fervently, unbendingly opposed to these changes, I suppose you can stop reading now.
For those still with us, the good news is that Nintendo and developer Intelligent Systems have taken the Sticker Star template and improved on it in innumerable ways, both big and small. The framing story for Color Splash is as standard as it comes – Mario and Princess Peach are lured to Prism Island, which is in the process of having its colors drained by Bowser and his band of bendy-straw-wielding Shy Guys. Somewhere along the way the Princess gets kidnapped, requiring multicolored “Paint Stars” be collected in order to return the island to its usual vibrant state, and keep Mario, Peach and Bowser’s weird 30-year-long power exchange fantasy running. You know the drill.
The game is split into individual stages Super Mario platformer style (with over 30 in total), each is which is riddled with Shy Guy-inflicted colorless spots. You can repaint these spots by whacking them with your special paint hammer, which will consume some of your paint reserves. Said paint can be refilled by bashing stuff with your regular hammer, with nearly every object shedding at least a little color when pummelled. It’s a satisfying OCD-tweaking feedback loop.
Much like the venerable Dragon Quest series, Color Splash’s overall narrative is boilerplate, but comes to life during the little moments – the stories within the story. From level to level you’ll find yourself brawling in a colosseum, solving mysteries in a creepy hotel, cooking giant steaks, exploring alternate universes, and delving into a retro Super Mario Bros. 3 pastiche. Paper Mario has always been lauded for its diversity of level design, and in that respect, Color Splash crushes any previous entry in the series. Not to besmirch its sacred name, but Color Splash is easily three to four times the game Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door was in terms of variety.
These diverse stages play host to a cast of unique, endearing characters. Yes, most of them simply appear to be off-the-shelf Toads and Shy Guys, but looks can be deceiving. Along the way you’ll meet archaeologists, pirates, tea-craving ghosts, and many others, all brought to life via sharp, often hilarious dialogue. You’ll even forge some surprising connections with a few of Bowser’s minions. It almost feels subversive – it turns out all those identical Toads and baddies from the mainline Mario games have deeper motivations than you might think! Intelligent Systems is probably just trying to make the best of a limited hand, but Paper Mario: Color Splash is vastly more interesting than the genuinely generic Sticker Star.
The vibrant world of Prism Island is bolstered by some truly gorgeous visuals. Everything is made from pleasingly-tactile paper and cardboard, which could be seen as a sly partial wink to the “this is all an elaborate stage play” premise of Super Mario Bros. 3, and most stages have a look and feel all their own. These charming visuals are backed by a fantastic orchestral soundtrack that stands as one of Nintendo’s best musical efforts to date. Dialogue is still strictly text-based, but hey, when you have a soundtrack this good, who needs voices blathering over it?
So, Paper Color: Color Splash presents a pleasing world, but what about the battle system? Collectible cards now replace stickers, but otherwise, the series sticks to its guns – all actions require the use of expendable cards, and you have very little control over enemy targeting. The number of basic attacks has been winnowed down slightly since Sticker Star, but most of the cuts are redundancies you won’t miss. Now nearly every card has its own unique purpose, and picking the right cards in the right order requires a certain amount of strategy. Defeated baddies also drop Enemy Cards now, which almost feel like a limited return of the support characters from earlier Paper Mario titles. Call, say, a Hammer Bro into action, and he’ll not only batter your opponents, but absorb damage for you as well. Unfortunately, he’ll be irrevocably consumed at the end of the battle, just like all other cards.
Of course, Color Splash’s multihued motif also plays into the battle system, as most cards come as basic black outlines, which must be filled with paint in order to be fully effective. Early on paint supplies are limited, necessitating you leave some cards half-painted or completely blank when up against weaker enemies. Thankfully you’ll gradually level-up your paint-carrying capacity (a welcome bit of returning RPG-ness), at which point balance becomes more important than rationing. Most late-game enemies are powerful enough that you’ll want to fully paint all your cards, but different cards consume different colors. A Fire Flower, for instance, mostly uses red paint, while an Ice Flower mostly uses blue. You can’t lean on a specific type of attack too heavily, or your paint reserves will end up unbalanced.
Battle cards are chosen using the GamePad screen, and painting a card is a simple matter of touching it for a moment. Some may find the touch controls cumbersome, but thankfully, there is a (very much recommended) option to switch to button-based controls. Having to paint nearly every card you use may sound irksome, but it really isn’t – battles are brief (usually no more than a couple turns), and selecting and painting your cards requires perhaps four or five button presses. You’ll spend far less time wading through menus than you would in a typical turn-based RPG.
Paper Mario: Color Splash isn’t entirely user-friendly though. This is a game that really loves to blindside you. It’s almost pathological. This is largely the fault of the game’s flawed “Things” system. Every so often, you’ll come across an out-of-place, realistically-rendered object, which you can transform into a card. These Thing Cards can be used as super-powerful instant-win attacks during battle, but more crucially, most of them are required to get past specific puzzles or bosses. Which would be fine, except Color Splash never explicitly warns you when you’re going to need a specific Thing Card, so you may end up playing all the way to the end of a stage, only to hit a brick wall. That might not be so bad if all your accomplishments were saved when you left a stage, but unfortunately, backing out means all the enemies you just beat respawn, making backtracking to grab a specific Thing Card more tiresome than it needs to be. Color Splash does provide a character who will tell you which Thing Card you need, and eventually you’ll start consulting him obsessively, but that makes the whole system feel even more arbitrary. The game outright tells you which Thing to use, unless you forget to ask, in which case it punishes you.
The nasty surprises don’t just come in the form of Thing Cards. Color Splash has a penchant for dropping players into sudden-death action sequences without warning. Pro-tip: If you come across an oddly-placed save box, make sure to hit it up, because you’ll probably be running from an out-of-control train or giant Chain Chomp quite soon. In one stage, I was dropped into an arena with at least 50 enemies and told I needed to defeat them all. After around 45 difficult battles, I finally ran out of cards, and in desperation started searching some nearby boxes, only to find one of them contained a secret Starman that would have allowed me to kill all the enemies in seconds. Later, I found myself solving relatively laid-black old-school adventure game puzzles in a haunted hotel, which was fun, until I was informed I’d exceeded a time limit the game hadn’t told me about, and had to start the stage all over.
It’s perhaps appropriate that I mention old-school adventure games, because Paper Mario: Color Splash often has the feel of a point ‘n’ click PC title from the 90s. Color Splash’s world is beautifully wrought, and it’s obvious a huge amount of heart and care has been sunk into the game, but it also has a certain antagonistic edge. It’s clear the Paper Mario team at Intelligent Systems don’t want their latest cuddly confection to go down too easily. As somebody who’s played though nearly every King’s Quest and LucasArts adventure game, I felt fairly at home in the sometimes slightly hostile world of Color Splash, but your mileage may vary.
Worldbuilding – A beautiful paper craft world, a dazzlingly varied soundtrack, and razor-sharp dialogue largely make up for a stock story and a sea of mostly identical-looking Toads.
Innovation – The Sticker Star blueprint returns, but smartly-implemented new color mechanics and brilliantly diverse level design differentiates Color Splash from its predecessor.
Playability – Simple controls, crafty stages, and a streamlined battle system are undermined somewhat by a proliferation of frustrating surprises and “Gotcha!” moments.
Durability – Weighing in at over 30 hours, Color Splash is the biggest Paper Mario game to date. Like past games in the series, side content and replayability is somewhat limited.
Paper Mario: Color Splash may follow in its forerunner’s footsteps, but, at the risk of sounding trite, it’s simply a better game than Sticker Star. In nearly every way. In terms of presentation, diversity of level design and scope, it’s the biggest, best Paper Mario title ever. It’s probably impossible for a Paper Mario game to have the same impact in 2016 as Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door had in 2004, but the series is as charming and sharply written as it was in its heyday.
Paper Mario: Color Splash isn’t always as friendly its cheery exterior might imply, but Mario’s latest arts ‘n’ crafts adventure is worth a few papercuts.
This review was based on a copy of Paper Mario: Color Splash purchased by the writer.