Color Splash shows Nintendo working at the peak of its creative powers, and at the lowest depths of its unshakable stubborn nature
Paper Mario: Sticker Star was, as far as all existing evidence suggests, a game made by people who were utterly oblivious to the components that were essential to the saga on which they were working. The Paper Mario games had, since the franchise’s inception on the Nintendo 64, been built around clever storytelling drenched in unusual wacky humor, as our brave hero was placed in situations that were in equal measures odd and entertaining; and light RPG elements that were implemented in accessible ways. Sticker Star tried to move towards new places, but – displaying a level of forgetfulness that would have been comical if it had not been tragic – simply left behind everything that had made its predecessors so special.
Where Sticker Star was the downfall, Color Splash is the fair shot at redemption: a game that tries to reconnect itself with what its prequel lost. However, it is visible its heart is not quite fully dedicated to that honorable quest. While it does, to an astounding degree, recover the spectacular funny writing over which the glory of Mario’s role-playing outings has been constructed, it holds onto failed ideas that were introduced by Sticker Star and that ended up receiving the universal panning they deserved. Therefore, Color Splash is frustratingly ambivalent, as it shows Nintendo working at the peak of its creative powers, and at the lowest depths of its unshakable stubborn nature.
On a rainy night, Mario and Luigi are hanging out at their cozy cottage when two hooded figures knock on their door: Peach and Toad. They are carrying a piece of paper that is curious and creepy: shaped like a Toad that has been drained off all its color, it carries no message save for the address from which it has been sent. Port Prism, located on Prism Island, is that place, and when Mario and the princess arrive they find that a town that was famous for its warmth and hospitality is now deserted. As they discover, Prisma Fountain, which served as the source of the island’s colors, had been destroyed; and the six Big Paint Stars that powered it had been taken away by an army of Shy Guys that vandalized the town and much of the island, sucking the color from its inhabitants and locations. Mario, then, alongside Huey, a talking bucket that gives him the power of paint, journey after the stars and the truth behind what transpired.
Like Sticker Star, Color Splash completely ditches the neat division into chapters that guided the first three Paper Mario games, opting – instead – to bet on a series of short levels scattered around an overworld taken straight out of a Mario sidescroller. Unlike Sticker Star, though, Color Splash drowns each of its thirty-two stages in storytelling. Some of them are encompassed by one grand tale that needs to be figured out, while others place their focus on exploration and battling and choose to develop punctual encounters with minor characters as ornaments to the core gameplay. Nevertheless, all of them are united by the fact they feature dialogues that are undeniably charming and characters that are packed with personality even though their design is plain: in other words, they are all Toads with no distinguishing visual traits.
The smart writing, in fact, is one of the factors that plays a role in making the game’s segmentation into smaller morsels one of its strongest features; a reality that is light-years away from that of Sticker Star, in which that structure was one of its biggest flaws. The huge assortment of stages allows Intelligent Systems and Nintendo to go all out in the exploration of various crazy gameplay scenarios and settings, and the game soars because of that. Walking into a new level is an act that becomes similar to starting a new chapter from a great book: there is an unbridled curiosity as to what comes next. Players will constantly wonder where the action will take place and what will happen, and developers will invariably deliver.
As a pleasantly unexpected turn, the overworld setup turns Color Splash into a delightfully open-ended game. All levels culminate with the finding of either a Big Paint Star, which will cause some major alteration in a specific level thanks to its painting powers; or a Mini Paint Star, which will open a path leading to a new stage. Players will, at all times, have more than one choice regarding which place to go next; however, like a Metroid game dressed in Paper Mario attire, some stages will lead to dead-ends that can only be surpassed once certain items have been found or specific actions have been executed somewhere else. That intricate knitting joins many of the stages together under one cohesive puzzle (and sometimes under one tight storyline), forcing players to think about what their next destination should be and causing some light backtracking, which is done by simply moving Mario around the map and choosing a stage, as it is often necessary to revisit old locations to find precious items or unlock new places.
Exploring the stages themselves is fun. Color Splash’s conjunction of gorgeous graphics (with its paper sprites and vivid colors being visual perfection), a spectacular soundtrack, and charming characters is the perfect recipe to lure players into an engaging journey, and the top-notch level design does not disappoint. Due to that, dealing with its action-platforming challenges, finding ways to solve its puzzles, and locating the white spots or blank characters from which color has been drained and restoring them to their former beauty by giving them a good whack with the hammer is almost therapeutic, as peace and happiness are slowly brought back to locations that are in disarray.
In face of all those qualities, it is painfully sad Color Splash is almost burned down to a cinder due to design choices that are baffling and amateurish. Sticker Star was bashed because of its lousy meaningless combats; in Color Splash, instead of listening to the valuable feedback that was given, Nintendo decided to ignore all complaints and, as a serious aggravation, build a battle system that manages to be even worse.
Firstly, there is the fact that Mario’s attacks are still limited to the battle cards he carries. Given each one of them is only usable once, players are forced to constantly replenish their set. Truthfully, cards are plentiful: they are sold in shops for reasonable prizes, are given as a reward to players after battles, can be found inside blocks, and pop out of white spots that are painted. Still, the possibility of running out of a certain ability at key moments always looms large and is simply unnecessary.
Secondly, battles are still mostly pointless, as Mario gains no experience points upon defeating his foes. He only receives more cards, some coins (which are used to buy even more cards), and upgrades to his paint tanks, the latter of which are indeed useful but not significant enough. Nintendo does try to alleviate that issue by placing some enemies around the levels in a way that makes battling them necessary to proceed – hence giving actual meaning to the turn-based affairs; however, they remain a very empty and problematic aspect of the game.
As if throwing players into combats that will yield minimal rewards were not enough, the battle system is so slow and convoluted it should actually be called a battle process. Players need to navigate through a deck of up to 99 cards to select the ones they will use on that turn, employ paint – if necessary – to increase their power, and – only then – flick them to trigger Mario’s attacks. Although there is some good strategic component in choosing the order of the cards that are deployed and managing Mario’s level of available paint, not only does the system drag in its rhythm, it is also poorly balanced. Throughout most of the game, one or two turns will be all that it takes to defeat most parties of regular enemies; an easiness that, in the end, might come in handy, as most players will be looking to get out of the torture chamber that is the battle system as fast as possible.
Another annoying feature that Color Splash astoundingly inherits from its predecessor is the Thing Cards, which come in the form of real-world objects that can be summoned in and out of battle. In the levels themselves, characters and other clues make it pretty obvious which Thing Card needs to be used and where the object that is necessary to produce that card is located (usually in other levels). However, with two exceptions, all of the game’s boss battles are literally impossible if players do not have the exact Thing Card that each one requires, meaning that if gamers do not know where to seek the information that lets them know the card they need to have in their deck, they will meet bosses only to find out they cannot beat them. Moreover, given they tend to hinge on Mario having a specific Thing Card, the boss encounters are far from being cleverly designed.
Color Splash’s examples of bad game design are, unfortunately, not limited to its battles. Most of the levels are pretty scarce as far as save points go; Mario cannot use mushrooms outside battles, which is an absurd omission considering the game has plenty of action sequences that deal heavy damage if players make mistakes; and some inventive gameplay scenarios are poorly implemented, resulting in some frustrating backtracking, ridiculous instant deaths, enemies whose weak point is not clear, punctual pacing issues, and other shortcomings.
Two instances in particular highlight how the game sometimes cannot tell smart ideas from frustrating ones. Kamek – on rare occasions – makes an appearance when minor battles begin, proceeding to curse Mario’s deck, either flipping it completely so that players cannot see what they choose or leaving them with only a handful of cards. Shy Bandit, meanwhile, occasionally pops up on the overworld and rushes to a level that has been completed; if players are not fast enough to catch and defeat him, he will make all painted spots go back to their colorless original form, essentially completely erasing players’ progress in that stage. Those features are neither entertaining nor smart, but like many of Color Splash’s problems, their blatantly poor design did not stop them from making it into the final version of the game, as if nobody was brave enough to shout against ideas that were clearly bad.
Given all of those problems, it is a miracle Paper Mario: Color Splash can be qualified as a good game. The fact such a myriad of issues is unable to destroy its charm speaks volumes about the level of creativity that was employed in the construction of its levels, gameplay scenarios, and – especially – in its writing, which only stumbles in a core storyline that is somewhat shallow despite the unique way in which it is presented. In twenty hours, or more if gamers are willing to try to paint all of Prism Island’s colorless sports, the game summarizes what is best and worst about Nintendo. In the end, though, its incredible charm, level design, and the smartness of its intricate overworld walk out as the ultimate victors. Color Splash will certainly not please everyone, but it brings the Paper Mario franchise closer to actually getting back on track.