NS Review – Paper Mario: Color Splash
Arriving late to the Wii U party, Paper Mario: Color Splash is the fifth entry in the Paper Mario series by Intelligent Systems. Paper Mario, Paper Peach, and a Toad travel to Prism Island to investigate a disturbing letter containing another Toad completely drained of its colour. Upon arriving in Port Prisma, they are shocked to find that many of the resident Toads have also been drained of colour and require restoring. Upon learning of the colour fountain and the need to collect the six Big Paint Stars, Paper Mario partners with a talking paint can, Huey, to explore the land and recover them. Along the way, Mario meets a lot of Toads. Peach gets kidnapped by Bowser too.
No defiance of the conventional Mario tale then, but that doesn’t mean Color Splash isn’t a worthy entry in the series. It’s quite refreshing to play a Mario game that’s a little self-aware of its habit to re-tell the same story. This is due to the witty writing, which is commonplace in Paper Mario games but really stands out here. They don’t hesitate to lampshade Peach’s capture (“who would have seen that coming!” cries a Toad) and the light-hearted tone is successfully maintained throughout. Genuinely funny dialogue is difficult to write, and it’s always nice to play a game that pulls it off.
It’s a bit of a shame that Color Splash couldn’t use that kind of creativity in its characters. Huey is the only new character with a hint of originality, and Prism Island seems to be overpopulated with averagely regular Toads. If Paper Mario is introduced to a character by their name before seeing them in person – sparking anticipation to their reveal – it’s quite likely they’ll just be another Toad, sporting exactly the same body type as all the others. The bosses so far encountered have been the dreaded Koopalings, who are presumably followed by their big bad dad for the finale. However, as a player who hasn’t completed the game I won’t discuss what I haven’t seen.
What I have seen is the game’s lovely visuals. Crafted of paper, Prism Island looks gorgeous and uses a wide variety of environments for its levels. Color Splash certainly lives up to its name as a vibrant mix of palettes are used, and Mario’s hammer can restore any lifeless areas or people by slamming them with paint. The quirky soundtrack and audio complements the proceedings well, and there’s a pleasant collection of tunes for the adventure. For whatever it lacks, Color Splash nails the aesthetic.
Mario’s mission is to restore the island’s colour, which has been drained by enemy forces. To do this, he must travel over and collect Paint Stars. An overworld map is used to access a level, and more of the island will be restored and become accessible as Paint Stars are retrieved. Levels will need to be revisited regularly as the plot unfolds and characters move around. While backtracking and repeating levels may seem like a negative point – and the game arguably has some padding – it does make the adventure feel more organic. Previous areas still develop, and this may be why some levels offer more than one Paint Star in the same area.
Color Splash seems to strike a middle-ground between traditional RPGs and the likes of Super Mario Galaxy. Naturally, there are platforming elements, while the combat is turn-based. The level structure leans more towards Mario Galaxy – you can remove the “Paint” from Paint Stars and there you have it – but the world feels more interlinked and consistent. Admittedly, it can feel quite obnoxious when the game kicks you out of a level straight after collecting a Paint Star, even though another is within very easy reach. It’s at its most insulting when the other Paint Star is even within view of the other, and all that’s required is for the player to instantly replay the level to retrieve it.
The elephant in the room here then: the combat. Color Splash goes down a similar route to its predecessor Sticker Star by having Mario select from a range of attack cards every turn. If the cards aren’t coloured, Mario can fill them using paint from his tank to make them more powerful. The combat system isn’t bad, but can be quite slow as Mario has to choose from what is usually a very large deck of cards, then colour them in if necessary before playing them. The quick-time bonuses make a welcome return. It’s highly recommended that players turn on the “advanced controls” options as soon as it becomes available, though it should simply be called “faster controls” as it’s not exactly advanced.
Battles aren’t too difficult aside from the occasional spike, and Color Splash streamlines the playthrough by allowing Mario to immediately defeat weaker enemies in the main level as he gets stronger. Some of the major battles require more thought as enemies will only be affected by certain attacks. This usually comes in the form of “Thing Cards”. These are powerful cards that Mario can use in battle for serious damage. Each Thing Card plays out an amusing cutscene, although it is unskippable and unfortunately gets tiresome after being used so many times.
Despite this, the puzzle elements in Color Splash are strong, and the player is commonly required to think hard for solutions. The puzzles involving Mario’s ‘cutting power’ are rather simplistic, but other problems may have players racking their brain figuring out what to do next. The answer never feels unfair or too obscure, and the only complaint is that backtracking becomes more common while finding the solution. Thing Cards are often used in the puzzle-solving, and any discovered Thing Card can be purchased in the hub level. Again, an unskippable cutscene gives this process more padding than necessary.
The other difficulty spikes come from events that can occur in a level. Normally this involves Mario running from a danger that will kill him in one should it catch up to him. This was the only part of the game that felt unfair, as the unexpected shift in gameplay can catch the player off guard and send them back to their last save point.
Humourous writing, a lovely aesthetic, and a pleasant sense of adventure make Color Splash a worthwhile experience. The most bothersome aspect is what affects most Nintendo games: it plays it safe by re-using common enemies, and the character designs lack imagination. To make the comparison briefly, this is what made The Thousand Year Door so endearing.
The Koopalings in particular seem to have made a comeback this generation and it’s a shame that they are used again, in place of the likes of Hooktail and Magnus Von Grapple. Not that Hooktail and Mr. Grapple should be re-used, but original bosses of a similar imagination would have been welcome.
To say that Color Splash has no originality is doing it a huge disservice; the visuals, writing, music, and puzzles all come together to make a satisfying package. From what has always been a quirky series, Paper Mario could do better by continuing to be inventive. Sometimes that’s a tough task, but Nintendo and its development partners have the talent. Intelligent Systems have proved it here.