Paper Mario: Color Splash Review
One of the last great Super Nintendo games to be released was Super Mario RPG, a joint effort between Square and Nintendo. After Square jumped ship to PlayStation, Nintendo needed at least one first-party RPG to fill the void on the Nintendo 64. That game was Paper Mario and it, too, arrived near the end of the system’s life. Developed by Intelligent Systems (of Fire Emblem and Advance Wars fame), Paper Mario combined a unique style of graphics with humorous storytelling to create a very memorable turn-based RPG. It added in action elements to the combat system so it was more engaging and for the first time ever allowed players to really engage with new characters and explore parts of the Mario universe. Its sequel, The Thousand Year Door, was more of the same, but with better graphics and an even more grandiose story. Around the same time, Alpha Dream developed a new RPG series, Mario & Luigi, for the Game Boy Advance. In many ways it aped the Paper Mario formula with humorous plots and a similar battle system.
Perhaps that’s why Nintendo thought it best that the Paper Mario series change course and focus on the adventure side of games instead. Super Paper Mario on the Wii took the franchise firmly in that direction, dropping the turn-based combat altogether. While I personally had a blast with the game, many were upset that it wasn’t a proper sequel to the games they loved. With Paper Mario: Sticker Star on the 3DS, Nintendo sort of straddled the RPG and adventure genres. It brought back turn-based combat mechanics, but absent were the traditional trappings of an RPG, such as experience points and leveling up. For some, this was fine, but for others, this was a horrible decision. Now that it’s been over ten years since the last traditional Paper Mario was released, I think it’s obvious that Nintendo wanted to differentiate the two series to perhaps appeal to a wider audience. For those wanting a more classic RPG, the Mario & Luigi series appears to be the solution, because Paper Mario: Color Splash, while retaining some RPG elements, is still firmly rooted in the adventure genre.
There always seems to be a zany plot in these games, and Color Splash is no different. The game begins on a dark and stormy night with Mario relaxing by a fireplace when suddenly there is a knock at his door! Outside is Princess Peach and Toad shivering in the rain. Mario quickly ushers them inside where Peach shows Mario a letter she has received. Unfortunately this is no ordinary piece of mail! When Mario unfolds the paper, it turns out to be a Toad that’s been drained of all of his color. The only clue is the stamp on his head, which is postmarked from Prism Island. The three of them decide to hop on a boat and check things out for themselves.
Upon arriving at this distant land, it quickly becomes obvious that something awful has happened. It turns out that Shy Guys with straws (Slurp Guys) have been draining the color of everything in sight, including the poor inhabitants of Prism Island. Mario soon finds a trusty paint can, appropriately named Huey, who clues him in on how to restore color to the world via a special paint hammer. All Mario has to do is find an object or a spot that’s been drained of its color and slam down his paint hammer to restore it to its former glory. Of course there is a paint gauge that shows how much red, blue, and yellow paint is in reserve. Simply hitting normal colored objects with his regular hammer will often cause some paint globs to fall off, which Mario can pick up to refill his meters. Hitting a tree, for example, will often yield green paint, which will restore a little bit of yellow and some blue since those colors combine to make green.
Paper Mario: Color Splash is level-based and even has a world map reminiscent of Super Mario Word. Your objective is to find the Paint Stars hidden in each course, which will in turn open up new levels to play. Once you’ve found enough of these, you’ll be able to access a boss area that, when defeated, will yield a Big Paint Star. The main story has you chasing after a total of six of these in hopes of restoring a magical paint fountain.
Each level will be littered with different puzzles to solve and enemies to defeat. The battle mechanics will be similar to those who have played prior Paper Mario games. They are primarily turn-based, however this time around you use cards to select your type of attack. If you want to jump and stomp on an enemy, you’ll need to select one of Mario’s shoe cards, if you want to use his hammer, select a hammer card. The cards vary in power depending on their condition and whether they’re colored in or not. Tattered items are the weakest, and as you progress you will obtain cards that have multiple jumps or attacks on them, which helps speed up battles against multiple enemies.
Using the touchscreen, you will select the card you want to play and then decide if you want to use paint to color it in for a stronger attack. Early in the game you will get a second slot so you can play multiple cards on the same turn. You’ll need to be careful though, because if you defeat the enemies by just using your first card, the second one is torn up and can’t be saved. Strategies will need to be devised as you encounter different enemy types. For example, you wouldn’t want to jump on a Spiny as that would hurt Mario, so a hammer attack or perhaps a fireball card would make more sense.
You can hold up to 100 cards at any given time, but of course the more enemies you decide to fight, the more cards you’ll need to utilize. This can lead to instances where you run low on a specific variety of card, like maybe hammers, and all of a sudden you come up against a foe where stomping them won’t do any good. You could try and flee the battle or you could spend some coins for a Battle Spin, which can get you some new cards. New cards can also be purchased at the card shop in town or found by coloring in blank spots in the levels and bonking question mark blocks. In my play time I often had too many cards and usually ended up throwing some away. As long as you’re thoughtful and carry a decent variety of cards with you at all times, I don’t think any issues will crop up.
Once you’ve picked your plan of attack, the actual battle will begin. Like prior games in the series, if you time your button presses just right you can gain extra attack points. When using a jump attack you will want to try and press A right before Mario lands on the enemy. Successful presses will allow him to land multiple hits on the enemy. Some attacks, like the hammer and fireballs, can inflict damage on multiple enemies when perfectly timed. When under attack, pressing A right before the enemy deals his blow will reduce the damage that Mario takes as well. One cool visual aspect that I really enjoy is that instead of showing damage points on the enemies or giving them health bars, the enemies will lose their color as they take damage. Once they’re fully black and white they will be defeated. Successfully landing perfect attacks and knocking out your opponents without taking any damage yourself will net you some bonus coins.
Enemies often drop lots of stuff, like paint, cards, coins, and even Hammer Scraps. Although the game doesn’t have experience points and Mario doesn’t “level up” the way he would in a normal RPG, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t gain additional powers. These Hammer Scraps will slowly strengthen his paint hammer. Once the handle is fully covered in scraps, it will gain the power to hold more paint. This will be essential as the game progresses and the enemies become more difficult and allows for players to paint more cards in battle to deliver stronger attacks. Grabbing more Hammer Scraps is one of the main reasons to fight enemies in the game, as it will eventually allow you to become a beast in combat. Occasionally an enemy will drop special monster cards that will let you summon them in battle to join by your side for a special attack. These are often pretty useful and can really help out, especially when there are multiple baddies to dispatch at once.
One unique feature of the game is its use of the GamePad. Like most Wii U games, you can play the entire game in off-TV mode if you so choose. The primary function of the second screen while playing on the TV is preparing for combat when you initiate a battle. All of your cards will be spread across the tablet screen and you can scroll through them pretty fast with your finger. Touching the card and dragging it to its battle spot will select it for battle. At this point you can choose to fill the card with paint, or just flick it up off the screen to play it. This interaction is pretty cool at first, but I found myself becoming a little tired of having to scroll through all of my cards to find the ones I wanted to use. For those that absolutely hate touchscreen controls of any sort, there is an option to use buttons to select everything on the bottom screen as well.
From the very beginning of the game, the first thing you’ll notice is the game’s amazing visual presentation. Paper Mario: Color Splash looks stunning. I don’t know what it is with Nintendo, but whenever they design a game around a specific aesthetic they always knock it out of the ballpark. Obviously the paper idea has been used before, but with the power of the Wii U this iteration is just beautiful. Whereas most of the characters are made out of paper, much of the environments feature cardboard cutouts and the attention to detail is bar none. Little animation flourishes like the way water flows and when Mario throws fireballs almost look like stop-motion techniques. When enemies and characters are tired or low on health the tops of their heads slightly bend over like they’re about to collapse. I love the interior of the cardboard buildings and how they show the corrugated edges of the unpainted cardboard, almost as if the wall was removed to allow the camera inside with Mario.
The game makes creative use of the materials throughout the adventure and it’s obvious the developers really racked their brains to come up with all of the varying scenarios. One thing that I love about the game is that if you stop and think about it, what would be one of the most terrifying things if you were made of paper? Falling into water, right? Water is hardly paper’s best friend – and the game does a good job of conveying this when something gets wet and its color begins to fade away. This game is visually striking with an amazingly bright and colorful palette, even by Nintendo’s standards. The game world is well thought out with hundreds of small touches that create an experience to be remembered.
Graphics are only half of a game’s presentation. Equally important is its soundtrack. Typically the Paper Mario games have had a fun and upbeat musical score, but much like how Mario Kart 8 floored me, so too has Paper Mario: Color Splash. The game makes clever use of familiar musical cues and then warps them to create fantastic new songs. As much as I love the reimagining of the traditional Super Mario Bros. athletic and underground tracks (and they both really are great), it’s the completely new songs that began sticking in my head, causing me to hum them long after the Wii U was shut off. Not since Super Mario Galaxy have I so thoroughly enjoyed a Mario soundtrack, and that’s high praise.
Of course, you can have the best graphics and sound in the world in an adventure game, but without a compelling story the game could end up in Boringsville. Luckily, that’s not the case here. In fact, this is by far and away my favorite Paper Mario localization ever. It’s easily the funniest game I’ve played all year with tons of humorous antics happening almost all the time. While the game might get some flack for its lack of diversity in the character lineup (you’re going to talk to a lot of different Toads), it more than makes up for that by infusing each character with entertaining banter. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much playing a video game, and there are so many references in the game that life-long Nintendo fans will especially get a kick out of. I’m going to use the two “C” words again here – charming and clever writing really makes this game shine and raises it up from the typical substandard Mario storytelling.
There is a surprising amount of stuff to do in Paper Mario: Color Splash. So much so, that I’ve left out some core gameplay mechanics, like Thing Cards, and Cutouts. Suffice to say, they’re cool and fun and I’ll let you discover them for yourself once you buy this game. Because buy this you must! Really the only nitpick I have, and what’s keeping it from earning a perfect score, is that I feel the card battle mechanic could be streamlined a bit to make it faster and easier to select attacks. It’s a minor annoyance, but one that could grind some people the wrong way after extended play. This might not be the Paper Mario sequel you were hoping for, but it’s still a must-have, especially if you enjoy adventure games!
Paper Mario: Color Splash Review
- Graphics - 10/1010/10
- Sound - 10/1010/10
- Gameplay - 9/109/10
- Lasting Appeal - 9/109/10
Final Thoughts: EXCELLENT
Just when you think the Paper Mario formula has run dry, Color Splash comes along and delivers one of the best experiences on the Wii U to date. This adventure game is loaded with funny dialog, amazingly detailed graphics, charming characters, and fun gameplay mechanics. Oh, that’s right. It has a stellar soundtrack to boot! A definite must-have!
Craig has been covering the video game industry since 1995. His work has been published across a wide spectrum of media sites. He’s currently the Editor-In-Chief of Nintendo Times and contributes to Gaming Age.