I hope you’ll forgive me when I wax poetic today. I know it’s a lame cliche to talk about how influential some games were on your childhood, but in the case of this review, I just can’t help myself: to say the Paper Mario series was a beloved part of mine is a huge understatement. I loved the 1999 original, but it was 2004’s The Thousand Year Door that opened my eyes to just how many storytelling possibilities there really were in the Mushroom Kingdom.
Sure, it might have still come down to the same old “guy saves princess and world from baddie” trope, but the joy was in the details — and what details! To this day, I’ll defend the colorful, adorable characters and worlds of that GameCube classic as on par with any Disney or Pixar movie — only with a much longer adventure, and one I took an active role in.
Mario’s group of partners felt to me like the friends my dorky, lame 13-year-old self could never have in real life, and I think Koops may have been my first real crush (I’ll leave it to you to make the jokes about that). The game even influenced me to get started on my dream of writing fiction for a living, and I penned a few chapters of an absolutely awful fan fiction sequel that still lurks somewhere on the dark corners of the Internet today. No, I’m not going to link you to it.
A few years later, Super Paper Mario’s action-RPG gameplay enraged a lot of people, but not me. Though TTYD will always hold the number one spot for me, I think the franchise’s Wii installment significantly upped its game in the creativity department, with a blend of surreal environments and lovable villains that few RPGs even come close to. No, like a lot of people, I personally see the downturn of the series happening with the 3DS sequel.
I know it was you, Sticker Star. You broke my heart. I bought Nintendo’s new portable for the sole purpose of playing that game, and its bland environments (Grass world! Fire world! Ice world!), loss of RPG elements and complete lack of narrative creativity crushed me. It wasn’t bad on its own merits, but it seemed to spit in the face of all the stuff that had made the series great in the first place.
I know I’m not alone, which is why I’m directing this review specifically at the people who may have felt burned by Sticker Star’s betrayal. Let’s get this out of the way: Paper Mario: Color Splash is not a return to the golden days of TTYD and SPM, and it actually doubles down on the loss of RPG elements from its predecessors. While that may be a bummer, though, I can’t deny that it’s brought back at least some of the magic that made the old games so fun, and I also love its gameplay focus on the “paper” element that seemed to go mostly ignored in the first few entries. This is a super fun, eminently charming experience on its own terms, and those feeling upset by the series’ new direction might do well to let it go and embrace this new title for what it is.
Color Splash will look familiar in structure to anyone who played the 3DS iteration of Paper Mario. There’s a central town area where five glittery MacGuffins — in this case, the lamely-named Big Paint Stars — have gone missing, and it’s up to Mario and a themed partner (this time a paint bucket named “Huey,” get it?) to go find them by exploring a Super Mario World-esque map full of different levels. While that initially made me cringe, I was soon awash in the universe’s charm; Port Prisma and its surrounding locations are nowhere near as limp as Sticker Star’s paint-by-numbers interpretation of the Mushroom Kingdom.
If that game began to emphasize the paper elements, this one goes hog-wild with it. I’d always found it a little strange that the extent of Mario’s paper-ness seemed to be the art style and a few moves (e.g. the paper plane/boat transformations of TTYD), so it’s quite endearing to see the theme finally played out to its full potential. The theme of the title, Color Splash, refers to the paint that goes on the paper characters of the story — and like any good Nintendo gimmick, it’s exploited to the hilt in levels full of memorable set pieces and secrets.
Since the color’s been sucked out of the world, it’s up to Mario to use his new paint-imbued hammer to restore it. That means using it to paint blank spots on the environments, which might have gotten mundane after a while, but then it’s so much more than that — restoring color to the citizens who’ve had their paint sucked out by Shy Guys with straws, identifying a cheater during a rigged minigame, and plenty more. I love just how many funny tasks you’re given, one right after the other.
These are right in line with the absurdist fun of the franchise’s best titles: in the first chapter alone, you’ll find yourself picking up a naked Toad’s lost clothes, assembling a trio of superpowered Toads with keys sticking out of their heads and using a plunger to unstick a troubled Toad from a pipe.
But you know… with all the invention in the level design, I could have done without the game’s total lack thereof in the character department — you’ll notice a little bit of repetition in my description of the level objectives there. What is it with these last two games and shoving the environments full of color-coded Toads? Previous games showcased Goombas, Koopas, Boos and the like as normal, everyday citizens and partner characters — not just those doing Bowser’s bidding — and now the vast majority of friendly or neutral NPCs in Sticker Star and Color Splash are those vest-wearing twits with the mushroom heads.
There’s really no reason for it, either; with so many of these individual Toads standing out — for example, the aforementioned chosen few with superpowers — there’s no reason they couldn’t have been given different identities, names or at least interesting designs. As it stands, they’re the flattest part of this Paper Mario adventure, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.
I also have to say this, although I suppose some people might consider it a “spoiler” (you’ve been warned): it bums me out more than I can say that the last four Mario RPGs — between this franchise and Mario & Luigi — have resorted to using the same antagonist. I’ve got nothing against the character, personally, but I can remember a time when Nintendo was willing to experiment a little bit, and I’m beyond annoyed that we’ve traded in truly zany weirdos like Cackletta, Fawful, Lord Crump, the Shadow Sirens, Count Bleck, Dimentio and even the bloody Shroobs for boring ol’ you-know-who again.
There’s playing it safe, and there’s just remaining stubbornly averse to change; it’s been suggested that Mario creator and universally-beloved game designer Shigeru Miyamoto is behind the RPGs’ switch to more traditional tales and environments, and that breaks my heart, because both franchises have suffered as a result.
The battle system is essentially a repeat of Sticker Star, except stickers have been replaced by “Battle Cards,” and there are even less traditional RPG elements at play here. It was a bit strange to get into a battle, damage an enemy and not see damage numbers pop up in stars per series tradition. This time, foes’ health meters are cleverly demonstrated by the number of paint left on them; bop them, and colors come splashing off. I’m still not thrilled by having battle actions controlled by collectible items, and I still think the game fails to give players an adequate incentive to enter combat situations regularly (since you’re not leveling up, the only real reason to battle is to collect coins and hammer upgrades that increase your paint capacity).
Despite this, I had fun with the plethora of attacks that were available, and timing your strikes to maximize combos is as satisfying as ever. I also love that you can pay tribute to the partner-accompanied battle systems of the past by playing the new array of enemy cards, which put Shy Guys and Swoops by your side temporarily. I’m sure some people won’t be thrilled by the GamePad-centric touch-only controls at first — they’re a dumb, shoehorned-in gimmick — but you can change them enough to make them more traditional, which was good enough for me.
Paper Mario has a long tradition of outstanding soundtracks, and Color Splash is absolutely no different in that regard. Like many other titles in the Wii U era, Nintendo has seen fit to get live instrumentation for many of the tracks here, and the result is absolutely stunning. The bouncing, joyous whimsy of the levels is perfectly captured in each composition. It’s more traditionally Mario than the truly bizarre OSTs in TTYD and SPM, and while I still prefer those, I can’t deny that this is among the strongest music ever to make its way to any of the plumber’s adventures.
The same goes for the visuals, too; I may have addressed just how creative the levels are in the way they implement the paper mechanics, but I also can’t say enough about the way they look, period. I’d go as far as to suggest this is Mario’s most gorgeous outing in HD, and that’s among stiff competition from the likes of Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario 3D World. The difference here is really the paper aesthetic, which is pleasing enough on its own, but now boasts crisp 60 FPS animation and striking clarity in all the details.
Folks who loathed Sticker Star for its betrayal of the series’ past glories might despise Paper Mario: Color Splash for the same reasons, but they really should give it a fair shake before deciding that. As someone who’s in the same group, I couldn’t help but let myself get carried away by the beauty, charm and fun of an entry that has gone all-in on the papery wonder of its predecessor, even if it means doubling down on the lack of narrative and traditional RPG elements. Creative and colorful level design like this is something to be savored, and so my advice to fellow SS haters is this: please, let yourself move on. You’ll be more willing to forgive what’s missing when you have as good a time as I did with Paper Mario’s latest adventure.
This review is based on the Wii U exclusive, which we were provided with.
Paper Mario: Color Splash is a vibrant, humorous and fun experience. Continuing on the path of Sticker Star, its lack of more traditional RPG elements will leave some players cold, but it still carves a satisfying path all its own.