2016 seemed to be the year of Nintendo releasing games that their fans either never wanted, or didn’t end up wanting, with Star Fox Zero struggling due to fans hating the core controls, Metroid Prime Federation Force doing a supposed disservice to the Metroid Prime franchise, and now Paper Mario Color Splash. While years ago many looked forward to seeing a new Paper Mario game the previous game in the franchise Sticker Star left fans disappointed, and a quick look at the trailer for Color Splash made people see this game as Sticker Star two. Yet, Color Splash is actually a game that deserves players attention, it may lack the certain charms of the franchises early installments and struggle with a core system, but offers an enjoyable experience either way making up for its shortcomings with a great adventure.
Color Splash sees Mario receiving a visit from Princess Peach and a Toad on a dark and stormy night, they show him a letter they received which was a Toad drained of its color and a post mark that draws them to Prism Island. Upon arrival they discover that much of the world has been drained, various spots are now grey and almost all Toads are now lifeless, this then introduces us to Huey a paint can and Mario’s sidekick in this adventure who grants Mario many paint based abilities including the ability to return life to colorless Toads. Making matters worse Port Prisma pride and joy the big paint stars have been stolen by Bowser and Mario and Huey must go all over to get them back.
Paper Mario Color Splash’s tale is not all that appealing, through in rare moments new story elements that are shared further highlight the moment the paint stars were stolen, and detail a corrupted Bowser. However, it is not the story that will drive the core experience of the game, despite the lead goal always surrounding the story, it is pretty forgettable and offers little inspiration to progression ultimately letting down the series history as a role playing game with masterful storytelling.
But at its core this is fine Paper Mario Color Splash shines as an adventure game, it is in these moments where Paper Mario Color Splash manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Forgetting the bland overarching narrative we are instead invited into several mini adventures spanning across multiple levels, these see random characters introduced who we simply follow for the level or a greater expanse of time and each are a joy to meet. The mini narratives that form from these developments are where Paper Mario manages to show its heartbreaking or heartfelt moments such as losing a pet, finding your destiny, or actually becoming a hero in some form.
These moments help to benefit the core level design which was the greatest part of playing Color Splash, while many of these still follow traditional Mario principals for environments, the levels beg to be explored. Whether searching to find every spot that has lost color, seeking out a mini paint star, or just generally finding out what lies behind the next corner, this game embraces the natural sense of curiosity and encourages exploration. This allowed the game to offer multiple paths that become quickly accessible while never making the game feel as linear as it truly is as you suddenly came across a dead end that was inaccessible at that time.
Furthermore, this benefited the problem solving, if something could not be done you were encouraged to find another path sometimes requiring you to access a different level to find a way to continue forward with everything panning out nicely. Problem solving was also an absolute joy in this game, most points work on the benefit of paths being subtle or simply dropping hints that you needed to follow. The game never outright tells you anything and encourages you to explore every option or read every piece of dialogue to uncover the exact point the game was leading you to. One moment in the game comes from battling one of the bosses, when talking to a Toad a few moments earlier you receive a collection of tail cards, this actually acted as a hint to help beat the boss without every directly telling you. It does this frequently as it implies what you need to do without ever ruining the sense of satisfaction from figuring something out.
Level’s themselves are particularly enjoyable and feature a wide variety of interesting ideas and concepts, from a level where you need to help a Toad find his clothes that have blown away, to one where you are gigantic and enemies travel in huge packs there is no shortage of fun ideas. From one level to the next it was impossible to predict where the game would send you next making every level a thrill. One second you are in a Super Mario Brothers 3 inspired land of giants, the next you are preparing food at a restaurant. The amount of variety keeps the adventure refreshing and made it easy to want to keep going just to see what would happen next.
The humor also helped in this matter, Paper Mario Color Splash is genuinely funny, part of this comes from our sidekick Huey who often spouts obvious points, or self-referential jokes that harken back to the original games. A sudden Birdo moment was full of jokes referencing Super Mario Brothers 2 and was a good laugh, and this made sure that you were always amused as every joke no matter how cheesy can get a smile out of players.
However it is during a major portion of Color Splash where things fail to be quite as satisfying, the combat. Many of the games critical moments are resolved through a fight sequence, and these are handled in a similar fashion to Sticker Star, this time using cards. Every battle falls to a system of using a collection of cards which you paint add power and then to beat enemies, these offer varying forms of jump moves, hammer smacks, or typical Mario power ups to allow you to mix up various strategies in order to beat an assortment of classic Mario enemies.
On the whole this system isn’t terrible, the cards are plentiful throughout your adventure so you rarely run out, and the sheer variety can open up interesting ways to beat enemies while also allowing you to experiment. Even in action this system can be quite enjoyable, working out the best card for a battle is satisfying and suddenly learning that some enemies cannot be smacked with the hammer or be jumped on really throws you around. There is even a certain satisfaction from boss battles which are pretty typical fare until you are forced to work out the real world item that will stop their special, sometimes you even have to work out a key strategy to even get anywhere.
The problem however comes from a lack of progression, enemy encounters occur far too often and this makes the somewhat simple card system become tedious, and the need to avoid encounters where possible becomes a major trend. In addition, a lack of evolution for Mario also hinders the experience, from battles you only get an advancement to the amount of paint you can carry which is handy in both battles and the overworld, but there is no expansion to Mario and his strength from battles which often made them pointless to fight and feel like you are wasting time whenever they occur.
Despite this point and a weak narrative, Paper Mario Color Splash is a fine game and a definitive point on why you should not judge a game before you play it. Color Splash lacks the fun story that benefited the early releases, but the game itself is truly worth playing, a solid adventure is offered to players that delivers a level of humor and fun that was certainly not on display during Sticker Star.