I grew up with Paper Mario on the Nintendo 64, and when I got a copy of The Thousand Year Door for Gamecube, I played it for probably 12 hours straight and got to Chapter 5 the same day. I still replay both yearly. Super Paper Mario, I don’t touch very much anymore because individual chapters are beyond tedious, but I still enjoyed the game.
There seems to be this weird unspoken rule that everyone who enjoyed the older games has to viciously hate the newer games though, and I don’t know why that’s the case. Did I particularly like Sticker Star? Not really. It was bland and easy, with a good soundtrack and a few quality levels buried under a pile of mediocrity and a terrible story. But I certainly didn’t think it was the incarnation of Satan himself like most people apparently did. I’d even put it only slightly below Super Paper Mario, although mostly because I don’t like sidescrollers much.
This brings us to Paper Mario: Color Splash, the most recent entry in the franchise. Make no mistake, this is definitely more of a Sticker Star 2 than anything resembling any of the original games. However, it takes more than a few large steps towards bringing the series back to its RPG roots, but a few steps back as well along the way.
Similar to Sticker Star, Color Splash mostly revolves around using limited collectible attacks to use against enemies in turn-based battles. It’s hard to describe, but essentially you can find or buy Cards, each of which functions as a different attack, and each of them has various effects and action commands required to execute them. It works alright, but one of the biggest complaints with Sticker Star was that there was no real reason to fight anything besides the world boss, as every battle would waste stickers and reward you with only coins, as there was no level system or anything resembling character progression outside of health pickups found in the overworld.
Surprisingly, Color Splash fixes this problem entirely. The game has a function called the “Paint Meter”, which is, well, a meter that tells you how much paint you have. Paint is required to traverse the overworld by painting in missing objects, along with painting cards in battle to power them up. But what if you run out of paint? Well, enemies drop it, of course. They also drop Hammer Scraps, which can level up your paint meter capacity if you get enough of them, something that is basically required unless you want later battles or levels to become a pain. It may not be the deeper RPG elements of the original two games, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction and a creative way to make battles actually meaningful this time around.
Sticker Star also caught a lot of criticism for featuring a map screen akin to the New Super Mario Bros. games instead of a near-open world like the prior games, along with having several very bland levels consisting of almost entirely platforming, with a few exceptions, such as a generally well-received ghost house level that functioned more like an adventure game. Color Splash fixes a lot of these issues too. While the game still works off of a map screen, each individually named level has its own self-contained story and adventure, meaning nearly every level is just as quality as Sticker’s Star‘s one standout classic.
Yes, it does vastly improve on Sticker Star in every aspect. The NPCs are much more varied and interesting than Sticker Star’s generally toad-only cast, and even though the enemies are relatively homogeneous and basic (something I’ve written about before regarding recent Nintendo games), they show a lot more individual personality, and I was even caught off-guard by a surprisingly deep and thought-provoking speech given by a Shy Guy on a train. The jokes really are absolutely everywhere in this game, paper-related or not. The new sidekick character, Huey, is also a lot more entertaining and cynical than Kersti from the last game, and a lot of his various interactions with other characters are absolute gold.
But by no means is it a perfect game.
The most overwhelming problem with Color Splash is that the game is absolutely piss easy. The puzzles, while often fun, will struggle to confuse even the youngest of children for more than a few minutes, and your paint-infused cards are powerful enough to generally one-shot any enemy that isn’t a boss or miniboss. Plus, the game hands out the most powerful cards like candy, allowing you to buy one per turn for a small amount of coins, which the game throws at you constantly, especially if you battle a lot and do the side content. I’m not saying every game has to be Bloodborne or Ninja Gaiden, but Color Splash is laughable in its difficulty, and easy to beat in around only a few hours if you know what you’re doing.
Again though, a fairly minor concern when this game seems to be more based around exploration than anything else. The other big issue with the game is the incredibly predictable story. If you’ve ever played a Mario game before, you know exactly what’s going on here. Bowser does his thing as always, and you spend all game cleaning his mess up. It’s not even a spoiler, you know basically from the start of the game. At least he talks this time, though. The writing does generally salvage this, as does the interesting choice of Shy Guys as Bowser’s main force, as they’re vastly more entertaining than the usual cast of Mario enemies, with a lot of personality in every single animation they perform.
Graphically, the game is beautiful. Everything is creatively crafted out of paper, sometimes in ways you likely can’t even begin to imagine, and the bright, colorful visuals do an excellent job at making the game world feel alive. Not everything is cardboard sunshine and paper rainbows though, as some levels take on a noticeably darker color palette and tone, some enemies are downright spooky in how they move and act, and some of the areas completely drained of color (white voids with little other detail) can actually be a little eerie. Regardless, the game looks amazing throughout, and you can tell there’s a lot of care put into it.
Finally, we’ll get to the soundtrack. Most levels in the game actually have an entirely unique theme song, and even some normal enemies get their own little themes. Pretty much every song in the game is good enough, pleasant to listen to, fitting for the levels, and often atmospheric, but ultimately it comes off as forgettable. While I was playing, it was great, but do not expect to put any of this on whatever device you use to play music. Even now I can’t remember a single song from the game, and I just played a bit of it yesterday.
Ultimately, Color Splash isn’t going to scratch your itch for a new classic Paper Mario, but it does its own thing, and it does it well. It’s silly, it’s fun, it has a lot of heart put into it, and considering the quality of 2016’s gaming releases so far, this might be one of the games this year more deserving of your cash.