With the announcement of a new Paper Mario gadme on the horizon, fans of the series have been analyzing every microsecond of the footage Nintendo has provided to determine exactly what this game is going to bring to the table. And can you blame them? This little spinoff series has captured the hearts of players since the N64 original, and has since taken those hearts on a wild ride with ups like wonderful stories, incredible characters, innovative gameplay, and valleys like Sticker Star. However, the series didn’t end with that fourth game. So as we anticipate (or possibly dread, depending on your level of cynicism) the upcoming Origami King, let’s take a look back to how Intelligent Systems responded to the critiques of Sticker Star with Paper Mario: Color Splash.
Spiritual Content: Kamek the Magikoopa enchants various enemies and battles throughout the game. This generally amounts to enemies shrinking and growing, and your deck of cards being reduced or hidden from view.
Sexual Content: One of the Things used in the game is a plunger with a rather suggestive animation and music as it removes a Toad from a pipe.
Real talk: I love the Paper Mario series. I almost prefer this little spinoff series to the mainline Mario platformers, if only because they’re by-and-large more creative and interesting in world-building, character development, game mechanics, and overall aesthetic. But Paper Mario has been a bit of a fickle mistress. From what I can gather, the first two games are acclaimed by the majority of the fanbase, the third game, Super Paper Mario, is rather divisive, and the fourth, Sticker Star, is pretty unanimously considered to be the low point of the series.
And then there’s Color Splash, the fifth game in the series, and a direct follow-up to Sticker Star. I bought this game when it came out in 2016, played it for about two hours, promptly put it away, and didn’t touch it again. Was it that bad? Or was it simply not what I was expecting from a Paper Mario game?
Paper Mario: Color Splash starts with a cutscene depicting Princess Peach entering Mario’s house. Accompanied by a dramatic crack of thunder, she reveals that she’s been mailed the body of a Toad with all the color drained from it. In response, our heroes set out for Prism Island to investigate the gruesome discovery.
Upon arriving in Port Prisma, the heroes discover that Shy Guys are roaming around the island while draining the color from any Toad, landscape, or other miscellaneous objects they can get their mitts on. After meeting Huey, the guardian of the Prima Fountain, Mario is tasked with collecting the scattered Big Paint Stars across Prism Island to restore color back to the land.
That’s right—Color Splash has basically the exact opposite premise of Super Mario Sunshine. Instead of cleaning up paint that’s polluting an island paradise, you’re painting an island that has had the color drained from its very essence. You do this by whacking various colorless spots with your paint-loaded hammer.
Every area is wonderfully themed, ranging from traditional Mario hill areas to a beautiful beachfront to a spooky old hotel to a misty forest to a pirate island hideout, all rendered in beautiful HD. And you know what? Painting these environments is actually pretty fun. While not mind-blowing, scouring each area for colorless spots gave me an excuse to see the game’s gorgeous visuals, and it’s really satisfying to paint every last spot in an area.
And how about those visuals? The Paper Mario games have always had fantastic art, but Nintendo’s move to HD on the Wii U does wonders for the art of the series. Every character and environment looks crisper and cleaner than ever, and the colors, appropriately enough, are vibrant and exciting on every screen. Walking into a new area is fun simply because you get to discover what new visual joys the game will offer.
I’m also going to give props to the writing staff for the English localization. Dialogue that made me chuckle riddles every single area, and some situations made me laugh out loud at their utter absurdity. This is localization done right. Even the pop culture references, few and far between as they may be, come and go without overstaying their welcome. I went out of my way to talk to everyone I could just because I was almost always rewarded with a fun little tidbit of dialogue.
Another rather surprising bright spot for me is the soundtrack. I’ve always been a sucker for video game music, but I wasn’t expecting much from Color Splash. I was pleasantly surprised. The game features a primarily jazz-inspired soundtrack, but the tunes range from traditional jazz pieces to pirate shanties and everything in between. This is honestly something I would consider streaming on YouTube in the background when I’m writing, which I can’t say about many soundtracks.
But…here’s where my outright praises have to end, because while the exploration, visuals, and dialogue may be top-notch, the core elements of what I love about the series…aren’t. It’s one of the reasons many people write off Color Splash altogether; it simply does not feel like a Paper Mario game. The first two games in the series were known for their story, light RPG elements, and interesting characters and worlds. Color Splash has fantastic dialogue, as I’ve mentioned before, but the characters are bland and featureless, the story is ridiculously lackluster, and the battle system…oh, the battle system.
First off, allow me to discuss the characters. As you explore Prism Island, something will become very apparent to you very quickly: Toads are the dominant species. Something I’ve always loved about the first three Paper Mario games were the wacky characters with their equally wacky designs. Even if the characters were plays on traditional Mario characters like Toads and Shy Guys, they each had a unique design, name, and personality that made them memorable.
Seventy percent of the time playing Color Splash, you’ll be interacting with generic, nameless, featureless Toads. You could easily swap any of these Toads for any of the others and the game would not be affected in the slightest. If it’s not Toads, you’ll talk to some Shy Guys, Hammer Bros, maybe a Goomba or two, but each of them are exactly the same as any other you’ll come across. The cast of characters is so homogenized that any sort of life or interest in the cast of characters fades after the first three levels.
But even bland characters can work if the story is well written. Unfortunately, again, Color Splash fails hard here. The story synopsis I’ve given above is basically all you need to know. Of course, the villain turns out to be Bowser (spoiler warning, I suppose?), and, of course, the bosses are all the Koopalings. While the dialogue that leads you along the main story path may be interesting, the actual story itself is really anything but. In The Thousand-Year Door, you’re fighting to prevent an apocalyptic cataclysm caused by a literal demon trapped in an ancient palace. In Super Paper Mario, you’re fighting against a complex villain driven by grief and revenge to destroy all known universes by an arcane power lost to time. In Color Splash, Bowser does some bad things and wants to paint the whole island black. After playing the first three games, it’s such a letdown to be handed such a basic story with such a basic premise.
RPG elements are also nearly completely missing here. The only remnant of the old experience point system is a small hammer pickup that you get after every battle. Collect enough of them, and your hammer can hold more paint as you continue to color Prism Island. You get a health upgrade after collecting each Big Paint Star, and that’s it. There’s no other form of customization or stat building in the slightest.
And then there’s the battle system. Odds are if you know anything about this game, you know about the battle system. The first two Paper Mario games had a reasonable system: you have a battle menu with a few basic commands, like jump, hammer, and tactics. Under each of these menus were various options related to what you selected, some basic options and some more advanced options that required Flower Points, the game’s form of mana. Run out of FP, and you were stuck with your basic jump and hammer attacks.
Super Paper Mario went a different direction with a real-time battle system that really divided the fanbase. Sticker Star ATTEMPTED a return to form, but somehow made a system that’s worse that Super’s ever was, making every attack a consumable item: the titular stickers. Every jump, hammer, or item you used was a one-use sticker, vanishing whether or not the attack was successful. This meant that you could, quite literally, run out of options in the middle of battle. Color Splash, rather than fix this broken system, instead “innovates” on it, trading stickers for cards that you paint to make more powerful.
I don’t understand this choice for Sticker Star. I understand the reason for reusing it in Color Splash even less. Instead of getting good at battling, you are now forced to hope that you have enough cards to make it past the enemies in an area, and heaven forbid you’re left with the wrong type of card, (say, a bunch of jump cards when you’ve got a spiked boss). Every level is a crapshoot as to whether or not you’ll have what you need to make it, and scrolling through your entire deck for every attack makes battles drag on far too long. And again, since there’s no real experience system, battles feel less like progression and more like throwing away valuable cards that you’ll need later. I found myself going out of my way to avoid battles most of the time, rather than engaging enemies head-on. The battles, rather than add to the experience, kept taking me away from what I actually wanted to be doing, which was exploring this beautiful world.
I know it sounds like I’ve got mostly complaints, but honestly, I actually did have a good time with Color Splash. Yes, the battle system is frustrating, and as the story progresses.nd yes, I got really tired of seeing a bunch of generic Toads. But at the end of the day, I did enjoy exploring Prism Island. I enjoyed finding the little colored spots to fill in. I enjoyed seeing what stupid situations the Toads would get themselves into next. I enjoyed the music, and the fun lines, and the ridiculous battle cutscenes (any game that pits you in battle against a steak to cook it gets an A in my book). Despite its flaws, Color Splash is a fun experience. I don’t know that I’ll go back and replay it, but for what it’s worth, I actually had a fun time for the most part.
I think the worst thing you could do for yourself going into Paper Mario: Color Splash is expect another entry like previous titles in the series. It’s not Paper Mario on the N64, and Intelligent Systems have done themselves a disservice by labeling it under the same name. Changing the gameplay doesn’t necessarily make it bad; Super Paper Mario changed almost everything about the formula and I adore it. There are some choices that I feel are objectively bad, yes, but overall, it’s a fun adventure game, rather than the RPG experience we’ve come to expect.
I do wish we’d gotten another entry like The Thousand-Year Door, and I still hope we’ll get one in the future. But from what I’ve seen of Origami King, that’s not likely. There’s a part of me that just wishes they’d spin this gameplay style off into its own series and continue with the Paper Mario games from days of yore, because it’s not that I don’t want games like Color Splash. It’s a fun, lighthearted romp through an absolutely gorgeous world, and Origami King looks to be the same thing. I just miss my dimensional rifts and strategic battle systems. But at the end of the day, it’s not Color Splash’s fault that it’s not what I want. And for what it is, it’s worth a look.
The Bottom Line
Paper Mario: Color Splash continues a trend away from the series' roots, and while that may not be what fans want, the end product is still engaging and, most importantly, fun.