The Paper Mario franchise has stuck with me ever since I was a child. I’ll never forget the day I saw the wacky commercial for the first game; I don’t know if it was Mario’s adorable design, or the RPG format, but I was hooked. Over the years, Mario’s papery adventures have taken different forms, and each one has been incredible. The latest entry, Paper Mario: Color Splash, is no exception. It’s fun, inventive and charming in a way only Paper Mario can be.
Paper Mario: Color Splash begins when Princess Peach brings Mario a strange blank sheet of paper, which used to be a living Toad. When they see it was sent from the exotic Prisma Island, they set out to find the source of the Toad’s missing colour. When they get there, they find devious Shy-Guys sucking all the colour out of the world. This awakens a rambunctious paint bucket named Huey, who gives Mario the power to restore colour to the land.
Paper Mario: Color Splash is hard to describe on it's own because it plays very similarly to Paper Mario: Sticker Star. It has a similar level structure, overworld map, battle system and greater focus on puzzle-solving. However, unlike Sticker Star which many complained didn’t feel like a “real” Paper Mario, Color Splash feels like a healthy balance of elements from the original game, and the new direction the series is heading in. There’s a much greater emphasis on the story and its colorful characters, and even though most NPC’s are your basic Toad, and enemies are pretty standard Mario stock, they all have great dialogue. The entire game is tied together by a great sense of humor.
Gameplay is similar to that of Sticker Star, levels are separated by an overworld map, but take a 3D, exploratory structure, peppered with enemies to fight in turn-based battles. The main gameplay element is the Paint Hammer, which allows Mario to smack the ground with different colours of paint. Paint is broken into the three primary colours (red, blue and yellow) and depending on the colour you're filling, will drain one, two, or all three of these colors.
Like Sticker Star, Mario has the ability to interact with the world in different ways, altering it for his needs. The “cut” ability allows Mario to cut along straight lines, removing the cutout piece so he can walk along the edges. The “flip” ability from Super Paper Mario also makes a return, allowing Mario to change from a 2D perspective to a 3D.
The most notable change comes from the battle system. While reminiscent of Sticker Star, battling in Color Splash has been tweaked in small ways that make it a bit more functional, and a bit more rewarding. I had always felt like Sticker Star was similar to a card-based RPG, given that you attack with a consumable resource. It seems Nintendo thought so too since Mario’s attacks now come in the form of actual battle cards which he can play for an attack. Blank cards need to be filled with colour before they can be played, and players can choose how much to colour them in; more color means more damage, but also drains more paint. Battles still try to focus on a fast pace, with Sticker Star’s “Perfect Bonus” still intact, rewarding players with coins for finishing a fight in one move.
Since attacks are a consumable item, getting more reliable means purchasing them from the store, and even this has an element of strategy as blank cards cost less than painted cards, but pre-painted cards can save you in a fight if you’re low on paint. Much like Sticker Star, this means coins still act as a form of EXP (giving you the means to continue fighting), however traditionalists will be happy to know Color Splash does have a “real” form of EXP. After fights, you are awarded “Hammer Scraps,” which will increase your max paint limit when enough are collected. As you “level up,” it’ll take more to fill the bar, so this technically counts as a leveling system.
However, I do have a few gripes with the combat. For one, the pace is significantly slower; I can see where this might be for a younger audience new to Paper Mario, but one thing I loved about Sticker Star was its emphasis on fast-paced turn-based battles. My other problem is the “Battle Spinner,” which returns from Sticker Star. In Paper Mario: Color Splash, if you happen to run out of cards, you can use the Battle Spinner to gain a card, however this is unlikely since at the games start you can hold 50, and it isn’t long before you get that upgraded to 99.
Visually, the game is absolutely gorgeous. The colourful environments are creative and enchanting, and are made even more beautiful in crisp 1080p. Much like past games, Paper Mario: Color Splash really runs with the idea that the entire world is made of paper. Almost every landscape and structure resembles cardboard or paper in some way. Interesting design elements like the white border around characters help them stand out amongst the world and add neat blur effects to Mario when he jumps or swings his hammer. Like Splatoon, the paint effects are beautiful and visceral, with colorful splats as paint hits the ground, or bursting from enemies on attacks. Sound design is equally as inspired; Color Splash has some of the best music in the series and possibly the entire Mario franchise to date. One of my favorite things about recent Nintendo games has been their use of live scores and no better place does it stand out than here.
I had concerns about Color Splash from when I first saw it revealed in March, and not like almost everyone who were disappointed it looked a lot like Paper Mario: Sticker Star, since Sticker Star is actually my favourite game in the franchise. My concerns came from wondering how Color Splash would work, since many of the reasons I like Sticker Star stem from how well it works as a handheld Paper Mario. To a certain degree, those concerns were correct; Color Splash is definitely a game that would’ve worked better on 3DS. However, if rumours about the NX are true, then Paper Mario’s new direction will work like gangbusters. As it stands, Paper Mario: Color Splash is an absolute delight, and there has yet to be a point where I’ve played it without a smile on my face.