Review: Paper Mario Color Splash (Wii U)

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It’s no secret that I, like many other gamers out there, am a huge fan of the Paper Mario series. Well, most of the Paper Mario series, anyway. The N64 original was an absolute classic, mixing Mario’s traditional world with brilliant RPG mechanics. Its Gamecube sequel, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, refined the formula even further and stands tall as one of my favourite games of all time. And then, after two phenomenal outings, the series took a turn for the experimental. Super Paper Mario on Wii was a solid if less remarkable platformer with RPG elements, but the franchise hit rock bottom a few years ago in Paper Mario: Sticker Star for 3DS. While not completely devoid of enjoyment, the game stripped away what made Paper Mario so different and so beloved: soul. Gone was the fleshed-out story, the quirky characters, and the intuitive battle system. It all but ran the reputation into the ground and since then, the most we’ve seen of Paper Mario has been a playable-yet-supporting role in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam.

When Paper Mario: Color Splash was revealed for Wii U earlier this year, it was meant with instant disapproval (and yes, it completely irks me that they didn’t bother to spell “Colour” right for Europe). From its initial trailer alone, it was clear that this was a game very much built on the same foundations as Sticker Star – but did Nintendo manage to iron out the problems and prove that their bold new direction for the Paper Mario series is worth a second chance?

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The answer, thankfully, is yes. While Color Splash is most definitely “Sticker Star 2” at face value, it has a lot of subtle – and not so subtle – improvements that make for a much more engaging experience. For starters, setting the game somewhere that isn’t the Mushroom Kingdom has allowed for a lot more originality to ooze into the world and storytelling. Instead, our narrative takes place on Prism Island, a whole new set of locales centred around coloured themes. That’s not to say that a lot of things aren’t still by-the-numbers: Peach gets kidnapped, Bowser is the bad guy, and all the NPCs are stock Mario characters. But everything’s done with a nice little twist – the story actually has some much needed depth to it (even if it isn’t on TTYD levels) and everyone you encounter is so full of charm and life.

In fact, that’s really what makes the difference between Color Splash and Sticker Star. While the latter felt like a soulless, hollow husk of what the series once was, this new entry brings back the vigour that makes Paper Mario… well, Paper Mario. There’s not a moment in this game that doesn’t bring a smile to your face – the visuals are positively astounding, with absolutely everything carefully crafted out of paper (or similar materials). The music is excellent, providing a number of toe-tapping ear worms across the soundtrack. The script is also pure dynamite, and arguably the finest wit that’s ever been seen in a Mario game. There’s laugh-out-loud hilarity at every turn, even in the smallest interactions – you’ll actively want to go out of your way to talk to everyone, just to see what crazy chatter they have to say. Sure, basically everyone’s a Toad with the same copy-and-paste design, but they all feel different. It’s as if Color Splash is building on what Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam did well, and for all intents and purposes is Sticker Star done right.

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In terms of game progression, the game feels like a compromise between The Thousand-Year Door and Sticker Star. Gone are the overarching chapters from the original games, replaced instead by more self-contained adventures within each level. Some are a bit simple and forgettable, but others are sheer genius – highlights include a haunted hotel and an island with a parallel world, which feels very very Earthbound. At times there is some loose connection between levels though, for example one “chapter” sees you helping a train on its journey from departure to destination throughout consecutive stages. It’s nice to see this continuity even if not all the levels string together quite as seamlessly as you might have come to expect from the earlier games in the series.

So far so good, but where Color Splash falters is in its actual gameplay. There’s two key culprits here – the battle system and certain puzzles involving “Thing” stickers. Inherently, there’s nothing really wrong with either of them, but their execution can leave a lot to be desired. Color Splash’s card based battles are a step up from Sticker Star’s, well, stickers, but the disposable nature of attacks (even basic moves like Jump and Hammer) makes fights seem like an unnecessary chore – although admittedly there is some reward, slowly increasing your total paint meter by collecting hammer scraps that defeated enemies drop. It’s just simply not as fun as the old Paper Mario battle mechanics, and having to continually scroll through on the Wii U GamePad to find the exact cards you want can become cumbersome. As for the Thing stickers, these are real-life objects that return from Sticker Star and are required to progress at specific points in the field or in fights. While they’re a novel addition and come with some comically over-the-top animations, it’s not always crystal clear which ones you need to use and when. A prime example is the Ice Pick Thing, which isn’t actually used to break any ice – you need a Hairdryer for that instead (the Ice Pick, meanwhile, is used as a sharp object to pop something). Credit where credit is due though, the system is a huge improvement over the Things in Sticker Star and there’s a lot more signposting for when the solution isn’t especially natural.

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All things considered then, Paper Mario: Color Splash is a solid game with a couple of flaws that slightly blemish the experience. The graphics represent the definitive look for the franchise, the writing is on top form from start to finish, and it’s just generally a lot of fun to play. To sum it up, it’s a game full of hugely memorable individual moments, but it lacks the overall cohesion and flow that pushes the older Paper Mario titles onto an even higher pedestal. However, with that said, it’s easily the best Paper Mario game since The Thousand-Year Door – although, when entries like Sticker Star exist, that’s sadly not as big a compliment as it’s intended to be.

Excluding The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (also coming to the Nintendo Switch), if Color Splash is to be the Wii U’s swansong, then it’s another great addition to the system’s already fantastic back catalogue. If you’re desperate for another traditional Paper Mario game, you may walk away disappointed – but if you’re willing to give Nintendo’s new approach for the series another shot, there’s a world of joy to be unravelled in this latest RPG adventure.

Mario may be two-dimensional, but this is one game that’s far from paper thin.

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