Release date: October 2016
Format: Digital download (eShop) and physical disk
Other platforms: NA
Price: ~$70 AUD
When Paper Mario: Colour Splash was announced for the Wii U earlier this year (yes, I know the AUS/UK version is still spelt ‘Color’ but it feels wrong to type it that way, so I won’t), it got some pretty mixed reactions. Some people thought it looked like a fun and colourful game on its own and were looking forward to playing it. Others were annoyed that it looked similar in many aspects to Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the last game in the series which released on the Nintendo 3DS and was widely criticised for – among other things – its pointless battle system. Still others appeared to be throwing their toys out of the pram simply because it wasn’t The Thousand Year Door, Paper Mario’s second outing which appeared on the GameCube (if you want a laugh, go and look at the abundance of whiny comments on any of Nintendo’s posts about Colour Splash).
I was in the first category. I actually have TTYD and Super Paper Mario but haven’t had time to play TTYD for more than a few hours (though I loved what I did play), and I’m yet to boot up SPM. I never even bought Sticker Star, mainly because a friend who shares a similar taste in games to me played it and returned it the following day because she disliked it so much. Therefore I went into Colour Splash with no real expectations.
The story opens with Mario receiving a strange letter from far off Prism Island; a folded up Toad who has had his colours stolen. Mario, Peach and another Toad set off for the island to find out what happened to Toad, only to discover the island is being attacked by Bowser’s minions, who are draining all the colour from the island. The six Big Paint Stars have been stolen from the fountain in town, so Mario has to team up with Huey, a sentient paint can, to help track them down. Naturally, Peach gets kidnapped by Bowser fairly early into the game (with one of the Toads crying “No one could have predicted this!”), so the story really doesn’t stray far from the typical Mario formula.
What Colour Splash lacks in story originality, it makes up for in humorous dialogue. The characters that inhabit the world make it feel lively and organic, and there are a lot of genuinely funny lines (some of which may go over the heads of younger players). I did occasionally get annoyed by some exchanges that were a bit wordy and wished they’d hurry up so I could get on with the game, but it didn’t happen often, and when it did, it was only brief. The levels all have their own self-contained stories, so in one level you might need to recover missing items for a character, while in another you may need to rescue Toads who are being harassed by Bowser’s goons. The personalities of the different characters meant that this never felt like a chore and each level had its own fun mystery to solve.
Similar to most regular Mario games, this game has Mario move around a world map to access the various levels, though in this case all the ‘worlds’ are in one map rather than having eight or so separate maps. The map starts out being all sepia-toned, but as you recover the Paint Stars from the levels, the map gets filled in with different colours for each region (and roads that look like sticky tape), allowing you to access more areas.
The levels themselves feel like a blend of platformer and RPG and are a joy to look at, with the paper aesthetic forming a big part of the gameplay. The soundtrack has an upbeat jazz feel, and even though many of the tunes are remixes of older Mario music, it still feels fresh and new. There’s a variety of environments, full of corrugated cardboard water wheels, gift-wrapped mountains and papercraft trains, and these all look beautiful in HD. As you travel through these 3D levels, you will find white spots that need to have their colour painted back in, which you can do by whacking them with your hammer. Even if you don’t care about 100% completing the game – each level shows the percentage of white spots you’ve recoloured – it’s worth painting these spots when you find them because coins, cards and sometimes health-restoring hearts pop out. There are some items that won’t function properly unless you repaint their white spots – such as locked gates or closed beach umbrellas – so painting things is sometimes required to progress.
Painting isn’t all that’s required to get through levels; some objects have an ?! icon on them and have to be ‘Unfurled’ by activating the matching block and hitting the object with your hammer. It’s always fun watching a log unfold itself into a bridge complete with handrails or a fancy armchair pop out from a simple block.
Colour Splash also introduces the Cutout technique. Sometimes you’ll come to a point in a level where it seems impossible to progress or reach a far-off platform with a Paint Star. By moving around slightly so the perspective lines up just right, you can hit Y to activate Cutout mode, which will let you trace along a line made by parts of the environment to create steps or a gentle slope. Once you do this, you get transported to the left of this Cutout segment and you are then able to make your way across to the flag on the right and return to the normal mode to get that Paint Star. This was one of my favourite aspects about the game as it provided a fun and different puzzle-solving element; sometimes it was obvious that you had to cut something out, but in a few places I had to think about it for a bit before I found the area I could cut. Even if it doesn’t line up when you press Y the first time, it still shows you the dotted line outlining the shape to be cut out, so it’s easy enough to move around a bit or shift some items to get it to work.
The main mechanic in Paper Mario: Colour Splash is the card system, and you’ll accumulate a lot of cards on your adventure. Some cards, called Thing cards, are rarer and far more powerful than regular cards and are obtained by finding 3D ‘real world’ objects within the levels and shrinking them down into card form for later use. These Thing cards play a significant role in boss battles (more about those later), but they are also necessary to remove certain obstacles within levels; some of the Cutout sections described above will reveal a perfect rectangle for you to play a Thing card. Most regular cards are commonly found within levels or after enemy battles and grant basic attacks like stomping on enemies or hammer attacks to use in battles, though you can get fire and ice flowers and cards that call in other minor enemies to attack and take damage for you, or mushroom cards to restore health.
Sadly, this card-based battle system is the game’s biggest letdown. Though it improves on the sticker-based system from Sticker Star (at least from what I’ve heard), it does still feel pointless at times. While moving around in a level, you can either jump on or hit an enemy (which gives you the first turn) or have them run into you to start a battle. Often multiple enemies will run in and join whichever one you’re fighting, so you may end up pitted against as many as five enemies at once. At this point you select a card (or cards) to play for that turn.
The card selection and deployment system is needlessly drawn-out, though; once you choose your cards from your collection along the bottom of the touch screen, you need to tap ‘Cards Ready’ on the GamePad. This takes you to a screen where you can hold down the card to paint it (if it’s not already coloured), which will make it stronger than if you just used the black and white card. The stronger the card, the more paint it requires, so you do need to be mindful of this if your paint supplies are already low, as some cards can drain half of your supply for a particular paint colour. Then you have to tap ‘Done Painting’ to go to another screen on the GamePad which will let you ‘flick’ the card with your finger to send them into battle and start the round, where well-timed button presses will help you deliver more attacks and/or do more damage with each. Essentially, you have to go through three screens to use a card, when there’s no reason it couldn’t just be done on one screen. It still doesn’t take long and it’s not complicated but it does start to feel very tedious a few hours into the game. Luckily you can generally flee battles quite quickly, though it is worth fighting some enemies as they can drop paint, cards or hammer scraps after they are defeated. As you collect more hammer scraps, you gradually increase the amount of paint you can hold in your hammer, which can make a big difference later in the game. These hammer upgrades on their own aren’t as fulfilling as an experience/level-up mechanic from older Paper Mario games, but at least battling does feel like it has some purpose.
I also came across a bug – or at least a design flaw – in one of the battles. Occasionally during a battle, Kamek (a magic-wielding baddie) will fly in and disrupt your ability to use cards. Sometimes he’ll remove all but six of your cards, while at other times he’ll flip them all over so you can only see their backs, and you won’t know what cards you’re playing until the fight starts. However, sometimes he will change all of your cards to a single attack type, and in one of my battles, he changed them all to a Hammer. Unfortunately I was battling a flying enemy, which cannot be reached with a Hammer attack. Since I was unable to do any damage to the enemy and Kamek also disables the Flee option and the option to pay 10 coins to get another card, it would have been literally impossible for me to win or escape the battle, so I had to exit the game and start it up again. Luckily the game saves any time you leave a level so I didn’t really lose any progress, but it was still annoying.
Boss battles are a little more interesting, but they come with their own set of problems. The aforementioned Thing cards are a key component here, and each boss has a particular Thing they are weak against. Once the battle progresses to the point where the Thing can be used, the boss becomes ridiculously weakened and easy to take down if you play the right card. It’s always fun to watch these Thing card attacks, as they’re over-the-top and often weird. However, if you don’t have the required Thing card, the boss’s attacks will do an insane amount of damage, knocking you out in one or two hits at the most. This means that if you don’t have the appropriate Thing card, it’s impossible to win that battle. Luckily there’s a Toad who lives in a garbage can in Port Prisma (the town you start the game in) and he will tell you what Thing card you will need next (whether it’s for a boss battle or just for some other obstacle within a level), so as long as you talk to him before entering a level with a boss battle, you shouldn’t find yourself in the lurch too often. In general, I rarely found myself stuck at a certain point and not knowing where I needed to go or what I needed to do next.
On the plus side, running out of cards is something you don’t really have to worry about. Most cards can be purchased from the shop in town once you’ve found one in a level somewhere, and they generally don’t cost much. Even if they did, it wouldn’t matter; you basically can’t scratch your own arse in this game without having coins and cards thrown at you, so even if you do use up a lot of cards in a battle, it’s quick and easy to get more without putting much of a dent in what will soon be a sizable stash of coins. There were a few times when I had to actually throw cards away to pick up new ones because I’d reached the limit of my inventory.
I was hoping there would be some challenge to the game, but for the most part, there wasn’t. Even towards the end of the game, there were never any sections where I ran out of cards or couldn’t work out what to do, though I did get low on paint at times. I also had issues with the pacing at times, with some rather annoying detours and mini-games delaying me from getting an item I needed to progress. There were also a few sections that required quick reflexes to get through to flee an oncoming enemy or falling obstacles, and often you could only work out the right path after dying at least once. This wouldn’t have bothered me too much on its own, but when you die in these sections, you get shown a Game Over screen and then get booted out all the way to the title screen. Given it would be just as easy to have you restart at the last save block you hit, it seems unnecessary to make the player have to go through that many steps to get back into their game.
Paper Mario: Colour Splash isn’t going to win any GOTY awards, but it’s still a funny and enjoyable game for the most part. The battle system does feel a bit pointless at times, and there are issues with the pacing in some parts of the game, but these things are far from a deal-breaker. The story is simple but the characters made it charming and interesting enough that I wanted to keep playing to see what happened, and I never get tired of looking at the gorgeous paper environments. Even though Colour Splash may not reach the heights of its earlier predecessors, it’s still worth a look.