Review: Paper Mario: Color Splash for Wii U

Can this entry color a more positive reception?

With Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64 and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door for the GameCube, the fledgling spin-off of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System garnered itself quite a few fans.

Some enjoyed the battle system, while others enjoyed the customization system provided by Badges. Others enjoyed the selection of sidekick characters and their unique special abilities which could aid Mario both on the world map and in battle, and others still enjoyed the witty writing and humor spread across an epic story, while even more enjoyed the fantastic way in which Mario’s world was expanded upon with fascinating new locales and the intriguing, unique characters who filled it. And of course, there were naturally those who were delighted by several of these facets all at once.

Then, in 2012, Paper Mario: Sticker Star came along and literally threw every last bit of it away.

While not a bad game on its own merits, Sticker Star felt like a tremendous downgrade to many, like what the very first attempt to turn Mario into a role playing game would have been like — had there not already been seven others released prior. While Super Paper Mario had managed to shake the formula up in some ways, both for better and for worse, Sticker Star was the figurative “nuking back to the stone age” for the series. Heck, even Bowser — whose humorously boisterous lines were a favorite of fans — remained silent throughout.

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Full disclosure: While I cannot in good conscience call Sticker Star a bad game, the more I played of it, the more it left an ever-increasingly bitter taste in my mouth. I don’t play RPGs much, but Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door was not only my favorite of those I have played, but it remains one of my favorite games of all time. This, from a genre I only very rarely tend to associate with (and even then, usually if Mario himself is involved). Heck, I even had a friend make a backpack of one of the game’s sidekicks, Goombella, for me to use with a Mario cosplay at Otakon. (We also customized a Koopa Troopa plush into another of the game’s sidekicks, Koops, as a gift for my wife.)

I put this before you as a matter of context. When Paper Mario: Color Splash was announced and it was revealed that it would effectively carry on with what Sticker Star began, I (and others) were filled more with dread than anticipation, like when the school bully says he’s got a surprise for you and you just know it’s going to be a punch to the gut.

Just the same, following E3, I was determined to let it stand on its own and not let my distaste for Sticker Star color (no pun intended) my judgment of this game going in. I wanted to try to review the game in a vacuum, without the shadows of either The Thousand Year Door nor Sticker Star looming over it. Yet, the more I played, the more impossible I realized this would be — for me, personally, at least.

This intro has already gone on far longer than I thought it would, but I just want it to be clear how serious (as games go, anyway) that I take this title. Hopefully, what follows helps guide those of you who have harbored the same sense of reluctance that I did going into this game.

Now, let’s-a go.

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For me, personally, the characters and the setting may have been the biggest factor in my loving the first two Paper Mario games as much as I do. With The Thousand Year Door in particular, you had the two-faced city of Rogueport, the peaceful Petalburg, and the gloriously gladiatorial Glitzville, among so many other locations which sprang to life as you visit each one, while Sticker Star seemed to be content to largely reuse set pieces lifted from New Super Mario Bros.

While Color Splash retains the world map method of getting around that Sticker Star employed and fewer towns, the locations themselves nonetheless feel more memorable. The game’s central location, the tourism-based Port Prisma, even reminds me a lot of Rogueport — minus the grimier elements, of course. And while its residents are nowhere near as diverse as the towns seen in earlier entries in the series, the multitude of multi-hued Toads exude lots of personality that betrays their clone army facade. There are a few more distinct Toads around, such as the Super Sentai-inspired Toad Rescue Squad.

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Unfortunately for fans of sidekicks, they do not make their return. Well, not exactly. Super Paper Mario swapped them out for various Pixls (who really acted more like tools than characters) and other playable characters in the form of Peach, Bowser, and Luigi, with only one particular Pixl named Tippi playing an important role alongside Mario throughout the adventure. Sticker Star ran with what Tippi began when it introduced Kersti, and the latest in this line of singular sidekicks is a paint can named Huey. For what it’s worth, Huey is a much more enjoyable presence to have alongside you than the uppity Kersti, so at least that’s an improvement.

On the other side of the coin, villains once again take a turn for the more generic side of Mario’s world: No more shade-sporting Koopa Troopas, Koopatrols, or even Kammy Koopa. On the upside, Bowser speaks once again! And he’s not alone, as the Koopalings make their Paper Mario debut (not counting the regular variety’s appearance in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam), and they’ve got personality to spare. In fact, this may even be the most characterization they’ve gotten in a video game — at least in terms of spoken lines — since their debut! So that’s a major plus.

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The story is something I have some reservations about, but have mostly come to accept in a resigned fashion. In the first three Paper Mario games, the whole “paper” thing was more a design choice than anything — the original was called “Mario Story” in Japan, and also known as “Super Mario RPG 2” earlier in development, tying it to the original “main” world of Mario games (a point reinforced heavily by the Japanese commercial). The Thousand Year Door and Super Paper Mario did toy with that a little bit, allowing Mario to fold into a paper airplane or turn sideways, but the setting of the games never seemed to be dictated by their paper-like nature.

Sticker Star changed this before Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam did away with any pretense and doubled down not only on this being a paper world, but being a parallel world to the regular Mario titles as well. So while I loved the way the earlier games in the series expanded a world I’ve always wanted to see more of, I’ve accepted that it’s a whole other entity now. And you really have to do that, as Color Splash seems to lean particularly heavily on it with the premise that a group of Shy Guys with straws have begun sucking the paint out of everything around, leaving Mario to use his new Paint Hammer to restore color to the world.

That said, the game feels almost unshackled as a result, playing with the concept to the utmost, with one example being when some Shy Guys roll up the paper road Mario is traveling on into a big loop to trap him. In terms of visuals, the game looks the best that a Paper Mario has ever looked — not a terribly high hurdle, as the graphics of previous titles from The Thousand Year Door hold up exceedingly well, given their visual design, but worth noting just the same. You’ll believe this is a real world comprised of paper and paint.

The sound is great as well. There’s not really any voice acting to speak of, but the music features some catchy new melodies alongside some delightful remixes of tunes from past Mario titles. One of my favorites from early on is a remix of Super Mario Bros. 3‘s Toad House theme, which takes on a fancier sound befitting the Toad’s lodge it plays in.

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While the setting and characters have taken a huge leap forward from the last entry in the series, some people are probably not going to feel the same way about the gameplay mechanics. That isn’t to say they aren’t better than before, but that’s just it: they’re better than Sticker Star, but still largely based on that game’s mechanics, rather than those of previous entries in the series. So no Badges, no XP, and you’re still dealing with a very similar battle system.

Rather than employing attacks and items from stickers in a sticker book, you’re now given a deck of up to 99 cards to use. Unlike the stickers, these are all the same size, so you don’t have to worry about that giant fan you need for a specific situation edging out a dozen others that would be more useful in the immediate situation. To that same point, those cards — known as “Things” — are less of a hassle to deal with, as you’re given some pretty significant clues about when to use them (for instance, “we need something that can extinguish fires” for the fire extinguisher), and getting extras to use in battle as needed is handy, too.

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Besides Things, items, and attacks, cards generally come in two basic types: Colored and uncolored. Colored cards allow you to utilize the full power of the card at no cost to you; just be ready to press the A button as necessary for timed attacks. Uncolored cards are weaker versions which you can power up accordingly by adding paint from your meter to give them more of a punch. An enemy’s strength is depicted by how much color they have left, so if a foe has only about a quarter of their life left, you might want to just dab a bit of paint on there to make sure they’re finished off, rather than go overboard with a fully-painted card or coming up short with an unpainted card.

It’s a pretty fun system to use, though I do wish it were relegated more to special attacks and the like, as having to constantly flip through and search for your basic attacks can get tiresome rather quickly, especially as all the cards are laid out in a long row. So if you have 99 cards and want a basic stomp, you’ve got to scroll all the way to the left side of the lot each time. At least there’s an option to turn off the touch controls, though this only works in battle — if you pick up a new card on the overworld screen and need to get rid of an old one to make space for it, you have to keep swiping at the touchscreen (which annoyingly sets off the garbage can for cards you want to dispose of, constantly making you wonder if you threw something away by accident).

As noted, you don’t gain experience for fights, but at least a bit more purpose was given to fighting the enemies than in Sticker Star, as fallen foes will often drop “Hammer Scraps.” Collect enough of these, and you’ll be able to increase your paint capacity — a bonus you’ll come to appreciate very early on.

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Paper Mario: Color Splash is a rather substantial adventure, made even more so by the whole “return the color” aspect. I’m far from a “collect them all” player, but as I’ve played this game, I’ve frequently been compelled to return to locations I’ve completed in order to find every last drained spot and return the area to a full 100 percent colored status.

In relation to its predecessors, I feel like Sticker Star was a tremendous step back, but Color Splash is an enormous leap back forward. It’s not quite on the level of The Thousand Year Door in my mind, but it’s definitely knocking on Door‘s… er, door. Lessons were clearly learned from the Nintendo 3DS going into this Wii U installment of the series, and my only hope now is that they continue to climb with the next game in the series. We’re so close to getting a game that captures the best of both worlds, and if the next one can nail that, I think we could be blown away.

papermariocolorsplashboxPaper Mario: Color Splash was released for the Wii U on Friday, October 7th, 2016 at a price of $74.99.

A review code was provided by Nintendo of Canada.

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.

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David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.