In recent years a lot of Nintendo’s games have caused some kind of stir-up in the community. From Metroid Prime: Federation Force to Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash, there are various titles from Nintendo’s popular franchises that some fans feel have moved too far away from their original idea. One of the titles that started off this recent trend was 2012’s Paper Mario: Sticker Star for the Nintendo 3DS. Rather than go back to the traditional RPG roots of the first two games, this title instead decided to continue on the path of its immediate predecessor, Super Paper Mario, and become an action-adventure title instead. Despite positive reviews this drastic change to the series enraged fans for many years; so when Paper Mario made his first HD debut on the Nintendo Wii U many were heart-broken to find a game resembling Sticker Star instead of the classic RPG titles. Many fans called out in disgust but Nintendo kept assuring people that this was the best way to go for the series. So, does Paper Mario: Color Splash paint a bright future for our 2-dimensional plumber or is it more like a paper cut on the tip of your finger? Let’s find out.
A big part of the Paper Mario series is the story. This is understandable as it started off as an RPG series where narrative plays a key role. While the story of Color Splash never reaches the complexities of the GameCube’s Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door it easily stands on par with that of the first Paper Mario game on the Nintendo 64. In fact, both are very similar in their premise. One night Princess Peach appears to Mario with a mysterious letter. That letter turns out to be a paper Toad that has been drained of all its Color. Our hero sets off to Prism Island to find out what is going on only to discover all of the towns residents, and the land itself, has been drained of its color. Befriending a talking paint-can called Huey, Mario sets off on a journey to find the missing six paint-stars and restore color to the land. It is no different from Mario seeking out the seven Star Spirits in order to beat Bowser in the first Paper Mario and has just as many twists and turns along the way.
What makes Color Splash stand-out is the games dialogue. The Paper Mario series has always been a quirky game with good dialogue and strange, but interesting, events happening to our hero on his journey and in this game I feel the writing is the best it has ever been. Every line of dialogue made me smile, laugh and sometimes even shocked me (in a good way). The places Mario visits on his journey are all very interesting and full of variation. What helps this is Huey who may very well be the best partner Mario has ever had. He does not fight like the partners of old but if you think he is as 2-dimensional as Kersti was (heck he starts off as a 3D can!) then you would be poorly mistaken. Huey is likable, funny, a perfect foil for Mario and is the focus of one of the games most interesting mysteries. You care for Huey and want to help him which helps to motivate you through this game’s otherwise standard, but fairly well-written, plot. If I could just rate the game on its story it would get near-perfect marks but I do need to talk about the gameplay and that is where our first issues crop up.
I am not going to beat around the bush with this as I feel it is something every reviewer so far has had issues with but the combat in Paper Mario: Color Splash is a problem. On a basic level it works fine and many of the errors found in Sticker Star have been fixed however the combat portion of gameplay commits one of gaming’s worst sins: it is boring. At first the combat starts off fairly interesting and motivating with a nice variety of cards ranging from standard jumping and hammer attacks to massive AOE attacks known as ‘Things’ and summoning enemy characters to fight on your side like a pseudo-partner. However there is nothing to the combat outside of this, you don’t even get to choose which enemy Mario attacks, and after two hours of play-time I found myself actively trying to avoid combat where I could because it just seemed like a waste of time. This had the adverse effect of making collecting cards feel pointless (except to fill out the games museum, a must-do area for you completionists out there). There is some motivation to fight in this game as it is only through combat that you can earn a special item that increases your paint-meter. However after I hit 300 I never found myself in a situation where I was low on paint outside of a small amount of bosses; even then you can fight without the paint, you are just not as strong so it takes much longer. Overall the combat just seemed like an obstacle and not something I enjoyed doing, unlike the levels themselves.
There is a ton of variation in the numerous levels found in this game from a Roman Coliseum to a level that feels like a big parody of Metal Gear Solid. I was always looking forward to the next stage and what strange and interesting challenge it would throw at me; rarely was I disappointed. This does not mean they lack issues though and this game can suffer from another sin of gaming: back-tracking. Sometimes back-tracking works in games (like the Metroid series) but not this time. The reason for this is that the back-tracking rarely brings anything new to the level and the best example of this is in the game’s third level: Cherry Lake. Cherry Lake has two mini Paint-Stars in it so at minimum it must be completed twice. Both of these stars are at the very end of the level and can be acquired in any order however when you get a mini Paint-Star Mario is kicked back to the world map and you must start that level from the very beginning just to get back to that same spot and grab the next one. On top of this Cherry Lake contains a key item that is needed for a later level and most players will not realize this when they first play through and so will have to go all the way back to the final screen once more just to collect this item, as it cannot be got on your first time through. So, here we have the player being forced to do the same stage three times for no reason other than padding. This could be solved if the game had an open world like past titles but instead it sticks to Sticker Star’s world map which made sense in that game but feels out-of-place here. To be fair to the game, later on the amount of back-tracking does drop considerably but early on I found it to be a souring experience.
It is a good thing for this game then that actually walking around the levels and using the paint and cut-out mechanics feels very natural and polished. Mario can color in the white spots and characters of every level in order to bring color back to the world (and unlock some music in the process) and doing this is as simple as swinging a hammer, literally. Players have the option to swing the hammer normally or use paint to swing a paint hammer and solve puzzles. It is as intuitive as jumping which is perfect for any Super Mario title. Along with this is the cut-out ability which utilizes the gamepad to remove certain areas of the land and allow Mario to get past certain obstacles. These types of puzzles are utilized fairly often and it is quite rewarding when you realize how to correctly align the environment up with the dotted line in order to advance.
We almost ended on a good note for the gameplay section however I would feel this review was incomplete if I did not talk about Roshambo. For those unaware, Roshambo is an alternative name for Rock, Paper Scissors and makes up the main side-quest for players in Color Splash. It is an entirely optional and ultimately harmless side-quest where Mario enters eight different Roshambo Temples in order to win their tournaments and get a rare card, along with some quick cash. My issue with this mini-game is its implementation as it can be very aggravating. The game gives you hints of which hand to throw in order to beat each temples first two challengers however the third challenger is always left up to RNG. The issue with this is that failing at the last, entirely random, challenger forces you to go through the first two again instead of just starting where you left off. Add to the fact that you have to at least beat every temple twice – first against the regular foes and once more against the Rock, Paper, Wizard – and it starts to become more tedious than fun. It is optional unless you want to 100% the game but I did, so I had to keep trying until the RNG landed on me. And it took a while.
Thankfully I get to end this review on a high note because the presentation of this game is astoundingly good. Intelligent Systems really went all out for Paper Mario’s first HD appearance and it succeeds. Everything looks like it is made of paper and cardboard. The environments are beautiful and the game fully embraces the aesthetic of its world to its fullest effect. Having color be the focus of their first HD game was a genius idea as it never looks bad and improves the game in many ways. It is easily the best part of the combat as the amount of variation on the combat arenas is staggering. You no longer feel like you have been transported to some random pocket-dimension to do battle but instead are fighting exactly where you are in the overworld and it makes you feel more immersed in the games world and setting because of that.
What does lack variation is unfortunately the character design with an over-reliance on Toad’s and Shy Guys to make up the games intractable cast. For the most part I fully understand why this was done, making a AAA game in today’s environment is very costly and so you have to cut-corners somewhere. With how varied the world itself is it becomes obvious that this was their focus and as long as the dialogue for each character was interesting then the design does not matter. To an extent I completely agree, it is not like Paper Mario is the only series to have a bunch of identical NPC characters in it, yet I really feel that at the very least major NPC’s should have somewhat unique designs. The Professor of ‘Old Things’ who lives on Chateau Chanterelle is a perfect example of this. You would expect this character to, at the very least, be some kind of old Toad in a lab-coat or something but instead he is just a generic yellow Toad like all the other yellow Toads out there. It is a bit weak in my opinion and a little bit more effort in this department would have been appreciated.
The music in Color Splash is phenomenal with both original and remixed tunes in there. Nothing is as pumping than the music when you encounter a member of the Toad Rescue Squad or when you take up arms against one of the seven Koopalings. Every level has its own unique tune and the game’s soundtrack is dynamic, changing based on the situation in-and-out of battle.
Lastly, there are the ‘Thing’ cards. Originating in Sticker Star as stickers, these ‘Things’ are absolutely amazing. They look spectacular, probably some of the most realistic lemons and turnips I have ever seen in a video game. Every time one is used Mario and his opponents are warped into an unusually realistic looking setting where something absolutely absurd happens like a Piggy-Bank than needs to ‘break-it’ with his sick dance skills or a Fan that is strong enough to cause the entire world to spin multiple times on it’s axis. They are over-the-top, I loved every single one of them and I hope they come back in Paper Mario’s next adventure.
There is no doubt that Paper Mario: Color Splash is the Wii U’s swan song. With no other known, major, first-party release to come out on the system (other than Zelda: Breath of the Wild which is also coming to the Nintendo NX) this title had a lot to live up to. It is also a title fighting against its own fan-base that wishes it was something different. Despite everything it need to live up to I truly believe Paper Mario: Color Splash is a must-have for the Wii U. It is not perfect and it is not even the best Paper Mario title but I had a ton of fun with the game and I always had a stupid grin across my face while playing it. If I could just mark it on the presentation and story then it would be a near-perfect title but some lack-luster gameplay mechanics pull it down. For me though, this paints a very good sign for the future of the series because if they could just find a combat system that works then we could be seeing the best Paper Mario game ever in the future, and it wouldn’t have to be an RPG like many claim it should be. Paper Mario: Color Splash is unlikely to pull in a large profit considering the system it has been released on and the fan-base’s outside view on the title but I implore any Wii U owner to purchase this title. Despite what you think, you will not be disappointed.