Paper Mario has been somewhat of a niche phenomenon since its inception. I say niche only because the game is small next to the mainline Mario titles. This franchise has a hungry following, and they often cite the fantastic Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door as the pinnacle.
Paper Mario: Color Splash isn’t The Thousand Year Door. Let’s derail that comparison train right here and now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I’m all for Nintendo pressing a franchise out in unique directions as long as they stay close to the original intention.
On that note, Paper Mario: Color Splash isn’t Sticker Star, either. That game found its fans (I enjoyed my time with it, for what it’s worth), but it’s often derided as the low point of the series. A point I agree with is made frequently: it’s tedious in its puzzles and gameplay.
I don’t mean that Sticker Star tedious in the way a great RPG can be, I mean it felt like a monotonous grind at times.
Paper Mario: Color Splash is better than that. It’s a pretty solid game, and it’s one Wii U owners should pick up as the last major exclusive ride. That’s right, as far as big Wii U exclusives go, Paper Mario: Color Splash is the swansong.
Color Splash is a beautiful game that leans on the classic paper aesthetic to deliver a funny, charming and virtually tactile experience. Yes, the game will give you a few chuckles.
An RPG about timing and paint.
If you’re unfamiliar with how Mario RPGs play, it’s a simple system with a key unique angle. You’ll engage in turn-based combat, but landing hits and blocking damage requires that you time your strikes and blocks perfectly. The inability to do so will make the game much, much harder.
Color Splash tweaks this formula by creating an entire set of mechanics built around paint. Yes, there’s that whole cliche return color to the world thing throughout, but it’s never the focal point like it was in classics like Okami. Mario has Red, Blue and Yellow paint stored in a slowly upgraded meter, and he needs that paint to color his battle cards. Battle cards are the attacks and items Mario can use in battle.
Jump to the 1:55 mark of this video from Nintendo to see exactly how battle works. Watch that, and then continue on.
This system is fine, though the process of sorting and selecting cards can be grating as the adventure wears on. You’ll often have a lot of cards in your possession, so that means you’ll be sifting through them constantly in battle. Pressing “Sort” simply orders them in a single way. There’s no system in place to let you only see single attacks or double attacks, only items, only health replenishment, only hammers… you get the point. It’s far too simple for the length of this campaign, and I found that annoying.
Beyond that, combat is largely fun. Paper Mario: Color Splash once again makes use of Things. Those are real world objects in the paper and paint world. You’ll use them to solve puzzles in areas, and you’ll also need to use them as powerful attacks in battle. These attacks are often funny, to boot.
Hey, you’ll laugh.
Speaking of funny, this new campaign features Huey, a bucket of paint that flies about, guides Mario on his journey and provides, ahem, color commentary.
Huey and most of the jokes made around Mario, in general, are humorous. Delivering wit in games is a tough challenge, and it can often come off as campy or, even worse, kitschy. There’s some camp here, sure, but the comedy works and Nintendo’s localization efforts did wonders with this thing.
That’s good, too, because this is a long game with a lot to see and do. It’ll be four or five hours before you actually start to move into the rhythm of the meat of the story, and you’ll be traversing the world, battling enemies and splatting things with paint and solving puzzles for a long time after that point. The writing moves the story along smoothly and keeps things engaging.
Paper Mario: Color Splash doesn’t arrive entirely without annoying progression stalls, though. The game is a mix of open and linear. The world isn’t open, it’s a collection of areas spread on a world map that you slowly unlock. As long as you’ve unlocked the area, you can travel there.
Stop, puzzle time!
However, the openness comes to an abrupt halt at points throughout the game. It’s never as bad as I experienced in Paper Mario: Sticker Star, where the game regularly threw puzzles that were far too obtuse at players at a constant clip. Here, you’ll head to an open area, walk up to a gate or a character and find yourself impeded, told to head elsewhere in order to, say, get a permit to proceed.
A road block pops up, you’ll divert course, revisit an old area for the third or fourth time, grab your fetch quest requirement and move on. The good news is that it’s rarely so monumental that you’ll feel like giving up, as often happened with Sticker Star. You’ll know what to do here, and the game’s writing is sharp enough that you’ll be clued in without directed down a precise path.
Only once did I actually find myself upset about these silly impediments, and I think I have myself to blame. Before tackling the first boss, I whizzed through some text that said I should visit someone who knows things in the Harbor District (this will make sense if you play the game). That person would have told me which object I needed in order to win a boss fight. I went to the boss fight without it and wasted about 30 minutes battling before I wound up circling back to town and asking around. Again, my fault, but the game is designed specifically to get you to backtrack. That’s annoying for some, not so for others.
All told, Paper Mario: Color Splash is a strong entry in the series. It’s a return to form after Sticker Star, and fans will likely enjoy it for its humor, gameplay design, music, art and fun.
If you have younger gamers, they’ll be just fine here. I’d argue, though, that this is a great one to play with them at the same time. That’s how I worked through a bunch of this game, with my son by my side as we cruised through the world.
If you own a Wii U, this one’s a sure buy.
Disclaimer: We received a physical copy of Paper Mario: Color Splash from Nintendo.