From the moment of its announcement, it was pretty obvious Paper Mario: Color Splash walked on a tightrope between dark disastrous stormy clouds and bright rainbows of success, with high chances of being struck by lightning. Coming on the heels of the dreadful Sticker Star, which in one swift stroke was able to strip the Paper Mario franchise off all elements that made it great, early signs indicated Color Splash was heavily leaning towards being a sequel to that game. The cards that turned all of Mario’s attacks into disposable one-time-use items were back, and so were the stage-selection map that transformed what was a fully connected world in the previous installments into an assortment of levels harking back to Mario platformers and the lack of experience points that turned battles into pointless encounters that were there to merely waste players’ time.
If it were taken to court and placed on the defendant’s seat, Color Splash would not be able to summon a single alibi to escape the accusation of carrying those features: the verdict would be quick, and the game would be sent to the prison where all offenders of good game design rot for all eternity. However, differently from Sticker Star, an endless lifeless slog in the form of a game, Color Splash is actually fun. Undoubtedly, it does have its share of annoying vices – for example, specific Thing Cards are still a must to make boss battles manageable and to help Mario clear certain obstacles. Nonetheless, in the fixing, or in the minimal shifts in implementation, of many of Sticker Star’s dull mechanics, it finds a way to be successful and entertaining.
Shockingly, after being the target of a downpour of criticism, battles remain rather empty: Mario does not gain any experience or levels through them. In other words, the mindless cycle of battling to acquire cards, or coins which will then be spent to purchase more cards, in order to use them in combats that offer no extra reward but more cards and coins still exists. Fortunately, though, thanks to the smart placement of a bunch foes, some battles become meaningful, as going through them becomes imperative for Mario to advance through the levels; a sensible alteration that does the game some good by giving more relevance to its turn-based moments.
Additionally, the game’s division into small stages accessed through a map inspired by that of Super Mario World, another fair point of disappointment among fans and journalists, is a valuable asset rather than a frustrating hindrance this time around. Color Splash is a surprisingly open-ended game; at any time, as portions of the overworld are unlocked, players can choose to explore more than one level. Many of them have over one exit, each revealing a new path to either a previously visited location or a new place; moreover, Mario will discover that exits will sometimes be blocked by obstacles, either physical or plot-related, that will require that he travel to either another unexplored stage or to one that has already been cleared.
Such structure is beneficial in a number of ways and is perhaps the main reason the game is successful. It makes the map useful and necessary, for quickly traveling between faraway points becomes a must; it unites the whole overworld under a mighty web of puzzles and quests that feels like it belongs to a Metroid game; and it powers the creation of a thick plot that ends up giving Color Splash important elements that Sticker Star did not have: writing, character, charm, humor, and a heart. Items that are in full display in the dozens of crazy situations Mario is thrown into, as most levels feature their own mini storylines, and that materialize in the many lovable and usually charmingly quirky characters he meets. Paper Mario: Color Splash, then, uses the building blocks from Sticker Star to produce an adventure that is truthfully engaging and that is actually worthy of the Paper Mario name, even if some blatant issues still stand.