Paper Mario Color Splash Review: Happy Little Accidents

Credit: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
Credit: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo /

Paper Mario Color Splash must face up to plenty of fan expectations, both good and bad. Can its colorful adventure deliver?

Developer: Intelligent Systems

Publisher: Nintendo

Platform: Wii U

Release Date: October 7, 2016

It’s just about the end of the road for the Wii U, Breath of the Wild aside. Paper Mario Color Splash represents the last major exclusive of the console’s life cycle, barring any surprises from Nintendo. It also comes with baggage. The Paper Mario series’ RPG roots are beloved by many, but its more recent direction with games like Sticker Star faced a less-than-enthusiastic reception. That doesn’t mean there’s something inherently wrong with taking the action-adventure angle, which is why I went into Paper Mario Color Splash with high hopes.

When a folded up paper Toad with all its colors drained is sent to Peach on a dark and stormy night, she commissions Mario to travel out to Prism Island and discover the source of the color-draining problem. As the sole party member for this adventure, Mario will journey to various locations all across the island, restoring color, saving Toads, and uncovering whatever villain could possibly be responsible for the latest Mario-universe misdeeds.

Credit: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
Credit: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo /

To restore the color to the island and bring peace, Mario must collect six Big Shine Sprites Paint Stars, one for each rainbow hue, and return them to the hub city, Port Prisma. Smaller, Mini Paint Stars are located in each level as an end goal, each unlocking a new location when found.

A game boasting the iconic visual aesthetic of the Paper Mario series (everything is paper) and themed around paint ought to be interesting to look at, and Color Splash certainly delivers here. Cardboard backdrops, splashes of paint, weird 3D “Things,” bushes that crumple satisfyingly when you whack them with your hammer–all add to the game’s high visual appeal. This enjoyable, artistic style pairs well with Color Splash’s orchestrations, which are almost without exception a delight to listen to. You’ll hear refreshing takes on familiar Mario themes, but the majority of your time painting will be to toe-tapping new tunes.

Credit: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
Credit: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo /

Along with certain visual expectations, Paper Mario games are known for their witty, over-the-top writing style, and again Color Splash delivers. Just about every conversation has at least one joke or pun worth a good chuckle, and usually more. Characters frequently break the fourth wall, reference pop culture, or slay the audience with self-referential humor. Then there are the Thing cards, whose use involves the most melodramatic, absurd sequences I’ve seen in a video game. It’s impossible to take this game too seriously when a 3D plunger does a seductive dance on a moonlit boulevard to destroy your enemies. Fortunately, Color Splash’s levity and self-awareness make it clear that you don’t need to take it seriously. Just relax, and have fun.

Which brings me to the gameplay itself, and my primary sticking point with this game. All arguments about whether Color Splash should be an RPG or action-adventure or whatever aside, Color Splash is a game that does not know what it wants to be. It tries to do too many things with its gameplay mechanics and ends up doing none of them particularly well.

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Each new level presents a mix of platforming challenges and puzzles. The platforming is so easy as to be laughable, and the puzzles are either over-tutorized “Yeah, I get it” moments or time-wasting frustrations where you’ll desperately throw out every trick in your arsenal until something sticks. There’s a gameplay gimmick involving finding straight lines in the environment and “cutting” them out with the touch screen to reveal new paths that were so underused and unintuitively executed that I almost forgot to mention it.

This isn’t universal–there are a handful of incredibly creative and memorable levels–most of them in the late game. Unfortunately, these refreshing challenges are not nearly as common as they ought to be.

Credit: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
Credit: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo /

The battles themselves are a weird hybrid of the familiar timed button presses of former Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games, and cards. The former has been watered down so much as to only involve the most basic movements and quickly grows boring as you stomp and hammer the same enemies in the same way for the hundredth or thousandth time. The latter has potential: you fill cards with the same limited paint resource you use to recolor spaces in the world in order to do more damage. While this could easily become a challenging, strategic resource management game, it’s trivialized by an overabundance of paint. Low on blue or yellow? Stand and repeatedly hit a tree for several minutes to fill right up. There’s never any reason not to color a card.

Color Splash doesn’t invoke tedium or frustration as often as it does a wistful sigh over what could have been.

Furthermore, the entire battle system is bogged down in poor menuing. You don’t have deck limitations or any way to compose your cards. They’re just all there, in a pile, ready to be consumed on use. When you have a lot of cards, this results in frustrating touchscreen scrolling to find the one you want, and enemies can steal cards from you if you take too long doing it. Then there are separate inputs to select the card, paint it, indicate you’re ready to fight, and “swipe” the cards to start the fight. Color Splash tries to offer settings to alleviate this, but they do little to mitigate the utter tedium as I select and paint my hammers for the umpteenth time.

Credit: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
Credit: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo /

On the bright-ish side, battles are mostly so easy that you’ll never be stuck in one for very long, and they’re actually largely avoidable. Since there’s no EXP or leveling beyond increasing your paint capacity, you can ignore as many enemies as you want with no penalty when you reach the next boss battle. After awhile, I was treating enemies more as platforming obstacles than anything else.

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All this is not to say Paper Mario Color Splash isn’t fun. The worlds are enjoyable to explore, with plenty of secrets and rewards for repainting all the blank spots in an area or collecting lots of Battle Cards. The excellent writing was a strong motivation to push through each level, even if the story is the usual Mario fluff. Outside of battles, Color Splash doesn’t invoke tedium or frustration as often as it does a wistful sigh over what could have been. That said, there’s a vibrant adventure here worth embarking on if you’re willing to tolerate some dull spots.

Paper Mario: Color Splash’s unimpressive gameplay is wrapped in a beautiful package. Aesthetically pleasing and chock full of laughs, the design and writing will keep you engaged long after the disorganized menuing of the card-based battle system has grown tiresome. The levels can prove a grab bag in terms of difficulty and fun factor, but a handful of areas shine. Though not an enthusiastic final hurrah for the Wii U, Color Splash’s beauty outweighs its flaws in the end.. Intelligent Systems. . Paper Mario: Color Splash. 7

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.