Ask any Paper Mario fan which entry is the best in the series and most will say the GameCube classic Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Paper Mario: Color Splash is not as good as The Thousand-Year Door, but it is still an incredibly endearing game and worth your time and gold coins.
The first thing players notice is how gosh darn pretty it is. Across this generation, Nintendo’s development houses have proven they are master artisans. Between Kirby’s foray into claymation, Yoshi’s Woolly World and now Color Splash, Nintendo has shown that the WiiU is more than capable of creating incredibly lifelike graphics, just not in the ways that might instantly spring to mind.
The handmade papercraft aesthetics of Color Splash are the most realistic representations of the series’ primary conceit to date. The bright, beautiful character models of Color Splash look as though they have been cut out of foolscap; living in a world constructed of chunky cardboard dioramas, peppered with papercraft trees, green pipes and bridges held together with ribbon,
With Nintendo not content to simply make a lovely world for you to play in, as in Splatoon, the main conceit is to use a great hammer to bring colour into a world that has had it drained by a bunch of shy guys brandishing straws. I would not think about it for too long though or the game’s cheery façade becomes sinister, considering that paint in this world is a proxy for blood. So basically, Color Splash is about vampiric Shy Guys draining the life from scared toad people, and a struck-off Dr. Mario turning up to perform a series of very unorthodox blood transfusions with the heavy end of a mallet.
During play, Mario uses his magical mallet to splash paint onto toads or certain parts of the scenery until they are fixed. This is accompanied by the occasional item puzzle in which real world items are used to adjust the landscape. There are also prescribed moments in which players use a pair of magic scissors to cut out a part of the environment to form platforms and bridges to allow Mario to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Thus, the core gameplay is relatively simple, yet strangely compelling.
Sadly, Color Splash retains the most irksome part of Paper Mario: Sticker Star, that being its combat. Although players use cards here instead of stickers, they are functionally identical. During the game’s turn-based battles, Mario plays a single-use card from a deck to make a move. For example, a Boot card allows him to jump on an enemy, a mallet card lets him whack them, and a Goomba card summons a temporary shroo-man shield. Eventually, players gain the ability to use more cards per turn, allowing the chaining of multiple attacks, or the ability to heal the character while remaining on the offensive. Players can also power up cards with paint by touching them on the WiiU Gamepad before flicking them towards the TV screen, with a fully coloured in card doing the most damage. In theory, this mechanic should add a nice risk-reward element, but paint is so easy to come by that it always pays to fully power up your cards before you use them. It also undercuts strategic thinking because, since players must use a card to make any move at all, they will eventually run low and be forced to use a powerful card on a random encounter, or find themselves with no attacking cards at all and be forced to flee (which does not always work).
What is more, the process of fighting even the lowliest henchmen requires a monumental amount of faffing around. First, players must wade through a potentially massive deck to select the desired card, fill it with paint, and then flick the cards from the Gamepad to the TV. Mario then performs the move associated with the card through the help of timed button presses. The process feels overwrought, makes battles seem like a slog, and robs combat of any sense of progression or reward. Color Splash’s combat system is a convoluted step back from that found in The Thousand-Year Door, which, by contrast, was simple, effective, and incredibly satisfying. In comparison, Colour Splash’s battles swiftly begin to feel like a chore, and are constructed in such a manner that it is in players’ best interests to avoid them to conserve cards.
The ‘Thing’ cards, which see Mario use the power of random household objects to defeat his papery foes, are a high point of the combat system. Seeing minions attacked with lemon wedges, fans, and plungers in ludicrous ways is always fun, sometimes weird, and surprisingly satisfying. Unfortunately, certain cards are required to beat particular bosses, and if a player doesn’t have it in their deck then they have to march back to the Thing card shop in the docks where they first began the game to buy a new one. This process never quite reaches the level of buggering about found in Sticker Star, but it is still irritating.
Frustrating card battles aside, however, the overall experience of Color Splash is an absolute joy. The game’s writing, setting, and narrative are all downright endearing. The Paper Mario games have always been well-scripted and funny, and Color Splash is no exception. the game has plenty of great gags and fun asides that are bound to raise a smile. The quality of the presentation is bolstered by the presence of subtle details, such as the way that Toads crumple with an irritated yelp when struck before flattening themselves out once more, or the flowering of the map into a colourful chart criss-crossed with sticky-tape trails leading from one area to the next.
Color Splash is one of those games that is very difficult to dislike. Though the combat mechanics are irksome, the beautiful, madcap world and marvellous script keep players engaged and chuckling along. The game may not be The Thousand-Year Door beater we have all been hoping for, but it is one of the most endearing titles to release this year.
Paper Mario Color Splash was reviewed on WiiU with a copy provided by the publisher
Publisher: Nintendo | Developer: Intelligent Systems | Genre: Adventure | Platforms: Wii U | PEGI/ESRB: 3+, E | Release Date: October 7, 2016 | Controls: WiiU Gamepad