Paper Mario: Color Splash Review
For a games reviewer, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as a near-hit. When something flirts with greatness but ultimately falls far shorter than expectation, it’s often worse than an all-out turkey. It’s even more aggravating when the reasons for its failure are so fundamental and yet so apparent to even the most casual player that you have to wonder why it was designed that way. Take a bow, Paper Mario: Color Splash.
It starts brightly enough, with its NES-style Hammond organ intro giving way to the driving violin base we’re more familiar with in later generations. And it lives up to its title in many respects, as Color Splash is a beautiful game to look at. Vibrant, crisp colours permeate, levels are unique, interesting and often unexpected, and the paper theme provides many opportunities for manipulation of the background, foreground, and sometimes both together.
The Paper Mario series is the equivalent of the Mario & Luigi franchise on Nintendo handhelds, namely an RPG set in the Mushroom Kingdom which is big on humour, if light on actual RPG elements. The story is somewhat lacking here: Mario and Peach are mailed a paper Toad who has been completely drained of colour. They immediately set sail for Prism Island and find out that someone has been ordering Shy Guys to suck the colour from the world and its inhabitants, leaving them entirely white. With the help of a paint tin named Huey, Mario has to recover six big Paint Stars in order to restore colour to all parts of the island. The antagonist’s identity should come as no surprise to anyone, but at least Peach hasn’t been kidnapped which could be considered progress. That is, until she gets kidnapped later on, and the universe realigns itself from a potentially disastrous course of innovation.
Using a colour hammer, Mario can splash paint over white areas of each course he visits, rendering them whole again and offering up coins and other goodies. Fully painting houses, doors and lifts is the only way to gain access to some areas, whilst other white spots are simply dotted around to allow you to get a 100% completion bonus for each course - look carefully, as some of the blank blotches are very difficult to spot. It’s immensely satisfying to literally paint the town red, green, blue, or whatever colour happens to be required (the game picks it for you - no mixing required), and your paint pot can be replenished by smashing your hammer into trees or flowers to gain paint of the corresponding colour to refill your colour meters. Collecting paint of mixed colours will fill multiple meters which is a neat touch, so if you’re short on yellow and blue look out for some green trees to get a top-up in both. Fun and educational!
In addition, since Paper Mario is an RPG you’ll chat to NPCs. Well, we say NPCs, but they are exclusively Toads which is a huge disappointment given the rich tapestry of Mario’s world. The Toads come in all sorts of colours, but they’re basically the same sprite with a couple of slight alterations chucked in. In many instances you have to paint them in order to bring them back to life, and you’ll want to do so because the dialogue is genuinely funny - laugh-out-loud hilarious, in some cases. Each of the Mario RPG series has always been well-written and that is no different here, with meta-references to previous games. Some remarks on social commentary tend to fall flat, but on the whole the conversations you’ll have are one of the highlights. The first town acts as the game’s hub, where you can heal, get vague directions on where to go next, practice combat in a dojo, or purchase from shops. After an hour or so exploring the town, you’ll work out that your basic aim is to collect one or more mini Paint Stars in order to progress to the next course in search of the big Paint Star and - of course - end of level boss. Straightforward enough, until you get to the battle system.
At this point, Color Splash implodes.
Combat is turn-based, and uses a Battle Card system. By collecting cards from painted areas and defeated foes, or by purchasing them from shops, you can choose different attacks in combat. Some cards may have hammers on, representing AoE attacks. Some may contain boots for stomp attacks. There are spiked helmets, fire and ice flowers, and even summon cards for bringing Shy Guys and other Mario critters to your aid. Additionally, by hitting a button at the right moment, you can increase the damage caused by your attacks or block enemy assaults to reduce damage. They’re all slickly animated and look lovely. The major caveat is that Battle Cards are an absolute pain in the arse to use. Firstly, you have to select the card you want from a rolling deck on the Gamepad - you can choose just one at first, but are granted more later in the game. Then you have to move onto the next screen to decide if you want to augment each card you’ve selected with paint to make it more powerful. Then you’ve got to move on to the final screen before “flicking” it onto the TV to use it. This happens in every single round of combat. Initially we were quite enamoured with the process and the incorporation of the underutilised Gamepad; five fights in, we hated it. You can deactivate the separate augment screen through advanced settings which we highly recommend, but you’re stuck with the rest of the tedious process.
You might ignore the minor gripes, such as a lack of on-screen prompts telling you how much damage your augmented attacks are doing, or what benefit certain attacks have over others. You might even grit your teeth and ignore the major gripes such as the inability to speed up the card system. But even the most patient person cannot overlook the fundamental issue that there is simply no incentive to fight. There are no experience points to earn. There is no levelling up, other than the occasional HP increase which combat has no bearing on. The amount of paint you can hold in your hammer is increased by collecting hammer fragments, but again, these are also available when you colour in areas of the environment. Your reward for defeating enemies is either paint, cards or coins, which are used … to buy cards. Since your cards are depleted during combat you can end up with a practically useless deck, such as when you only have boot cards to fight against an enemy with a spiked hat, meaning your attacks only hurt you. Or when you only have mushroom cards to heal, but no weapons to attack with. You can try and flee, but more often than not you’ll fall over doing so, meaning that enemies drag you back into the fight and you have to try again on your next turn. There is a wheel of fortune option mid-combat where you can pay ten coins and pick a face-down card, or pay thirty coins and pick a face-up card, or pay fifty coins and slow the wheel down so you can select exactly what card you need....but there is no reason to do so. Intelligent Systems has crafted a combat system that is literally pointless.
It wouldn’t be so bad if fights weren’t so numerous. In every course you’ll see enemies roaming around and when you get close enough they’ll make a bee-line for you. This isn’t Deus Ex; when you are actively trying to avoid fighting in a Mario game, something is seriously amiss with the mechanics. Even the introduction of Thing cards - 3D objects which you “paperfy” in order to use them in battle - fail to liven up proceedings and actually cause more problems. Want to fight a boss but haven’t found the right Thing card to do so? Enjoy the instakill, suckers - back to the last save point with you! Did you win a replica Thing card in the wheel of fortune? Tough luck, it’s useless against bosses - only the real deal works here! It’s OK though, you just need to retrace your steps to wherever the hell you found the Thing, and squeeze the paint out of it again. If your memory isn’t that robust, you can take the easy route and buy one from a guy in the main hub. Again though, it begs the question: why make things so unreasonably protracted?
And so it goes. For every interesting new feature, there’s a head-scratching moment. Take the Cutout ability, for instance. By pressing Y in certain areas, you can use the Gamepad to take a pair of scissors to areas of the background and allow Mario to reach previously inaccessible spots. A wonderful combination of the gameplay mechanics, the paper theme and the peripheral. Compare that to the Paint Star system, which ejects you to the world map as soon as you have collected a star on a course, even if you have discovered a couple of them and want to collect them both. Tough - you have to replay the level to go and get the second one. Other than to pad out the game unnecessarily (thirty hours is plenty, thank you), there seems to be no good reason for this. Similarly, the completionist will love hitting 100% paint coverage on every course and unlocking audio bonuses, until they find out that a Shy Bandit comes along randomly to suck out paint from levels you’ve covered unless you catch him first. At that point, any motivation you may have had to try and fully complete the game will go out of the window.
What makes this even more disheartening is that there are the makings of a truly good game here. The humour, the colour and the puzzle elements are all superb, the music is fabulous and anyone with even a passing interest in Mario will be caught up in its accessibility. The levels can be tackled reasonably freely, and there are plenty of mini-games to be found and Roshambo temples to be conquered. Nintendo admitted that the previous Paper Mario game Sticker Star was tweaked with to basically remove the story. It feels like Color Splash’s combat system has been given a similar kicking. If the game wasn’t 75% encounters, we’d be raving about it. But with turn-based battles as needlessly frustrating to play as they are here, they drag the game down to the equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting - garishly comforting, but ultimately a hollow, commercialised mess.