Paper Mario: Colour Splash for Wii U
Paper Mario: Colour Splash is a game so infuriating that if made by any company other than Nintendo it would be unplayable. The core combat mechanics are utterly miserable, but this game is just so damn charming.
Colour Splash opens with Princess Peach coming to Mario’s home with a strange letter; a letter made from the body of a Toad which has been drained of its colour telling her and Mario to head to Prism Island, a land obsessed with colour. Mario and Princess Peach set out to the island, to find the main city of Port Prisma drained of colour. Mario awakens an anthropomorphic talking paint bucket named Huey who tells him that the Six Paint Stars which…I dunno, do something good for the island, have been scattered by an evil force and he and Mario must set forth to gather them and save the island.
The story in Colour Splash is a major improvement over Sticker Star, but it’s still very straightforward. Nintendo’s sad purging of their more subversive plot elements is in full force here; the goofy Bowser of the early Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games is back to being a generic villain and Princess Peach is back in full on damsel mode. I say this in every Mario RPG review, but I really miss the much improved characterisation for these characters from A Thousand Year Door. Miyamoto’s bizarre insistence on new Mario RPGs not adding new characters or elements is certainly a creative straightjacket, but this is not an excuse for the unplumbed areas of Mario history ignored in this game. Pretty much every supporting character is a Toad, but with so many weird characters in their back catalogue I can’t help but wonder why. Where are Paper Wario and Waluigi? Even Luigi, the best character in the Mario series, barely gets a look in. If the Paper Mario series must be pure nostalgia bait then so be it, but with such a deep pool of Mario history to draw from Colour Splash seems content to splash around in the shallows.
The thing is, as frustrating as this all is, the writing/localisation is actually really really good. Colour Splash is genuinely really funny. I don’t know whether more praise should be given to the original writers of the localisation team, but either way this is a consistently hilarious game. The Toads may be generic in design, but there are some amazing little characters which pop up along the way. My favourite was a very minor trainspotting Toad who follows you for a series of train based levels who slowly breaks down about how pathetic his life is. The writing also avoids becoming too laden with memes and internet references, which some Mario RPGs have been guilty of in the past. The inherent silliness of the Toads is explored to full comic potential. It can be oddly heartfelt at times too; I rolled my eyes when I first saw Huey, assuming that he’d be another in a long line of forgettable Mario RPG sidekicks, but I actually really liked him. Still, very solid writing can only get you so far when the core story frame it’s strapped over is so lacklustre. It seems silly to complain about story in a Mario game if they hadn’t done so much better in the past. What changed? Why won’t Nintendo tell an original story in the Mario universe anymore? I genuinely don’t understand and it makes me sad.
Colour Splash is mechanically very similar to Sticker Star, the worst Paper Mario game. You will be exploring a series of discreet, linear levels on a beautiful world map to pick up stars at the end. Outside of battles, Colour Splash is genuinely joyful to play. The mechanics aren’t complex or anything, but the world is beautiful and fun that it’s not at all a problem. The only real new mechanic is the ability to fill in spaces drained of colour with your hammer, but this is mostly optional thankfully. There is a wonderful variety in the levels; almost every single one brings in a new idea, with that wonderful refusal to sit on its laurels which is Nintendo’s trademark. In terms of puzzling the only main element is the acquiring of Things, objects from our real 3D world which Mario can use in his 2D paper world. For example, a fan can blow a damaged ship back to land or a hairdryer can melt a block of ice. These are pretty simple for the most part, but fun whenever they come about. Towards the end, Colour Splash becomes very obscure in how they expect the player to progress, which can be frustrating and puts a lot of arbitrary blocks in your path. Stuff that I expected to be boring side missions I could ignore latterly become vital to the main game, often hours and hours later leading to a maddening sense of trying to work out what you missed. There’s too much busywork and padding in this game, although the most egregious offender I have yet to even mention.
The combat in Colour Splash is boring, pointless and easy. Sticker Star’s stickers have become cards, but the principle is the same. Rather than a set of moves to choose from, Mario instead plays a card which activates a move, such as a jump or a hammer attack. At first you can only use one at a time although by the end you can use four. The combat itself isn’t fun; there’s no strategy beyond ‘don’t jump on the spiky thing’ and simply feels like a war of attrition. Experience points are still gone; there is no levelling up or tangible sense of progression. Turns out that the removal of the satisfaction of levelling up makes turn based battling pretty much unbearable. Even worse is that when the cards are used they’re gone, meaning that it in the player’s interest to avoid battles at all cost and that when you do end up battling it’s frustrating and annoying. This is the second game Nintendo have released with this system and it just doesn’t work. I actually get Nintendo’s reasoning behind stripping out the RPG elements from Paper Mario; with Mario & Luigi now their main RPG series it makes sense to send Paper Mario in a different direction. The thing is though, they already did that successfully in the underrated Super Paper Mario on the Wii. That game stripped out a lot of RPG elements and it was still great because it didn’t hamstring itself with random battles which clashed with everything else the game was about. If Super Paper Mario was the future of the series rather than The Thousand Year Door, I could live with that, but the fact that Sticker Star seems to be the path the series has set itself upon really sucks. This game would have been much better if it contained no battles, even if it was half the length.
Despite the negative tone of the last bit, Colour Splash is a better game than Sticker Star. As bad as the battles are, pretty much everything else is lovely. Colour Splash is one of the most beautiful games ever made, which sounds like hyperbole, but it really is. The Paper Mario series has always been lovely, but the Wii U is the most powerful console the series has ever appeared on and it shows. The vibrancy of the colour and level of detail is a series best as is the variety of environments. The music is very good too, although the battle theme got pretty old by the end. There’s so much love and attention to detail in the visuals, the sound and the writing that it’s really sad that the same level of thought wasn’t given to the battles.
I don’t really know if Paper Mario has a future after Sticker Star; I hope it does, but Nintendo really don’t seem to know what to do with it. Paper Mario needs to decide whether it wants to be an RPG or not, because the RPG-lite approach just isn’t working.