There are few names that are synonymous with gaming as Mario. Just about everyone on this planet has played some form of a Mario game, it’s a rite of passage, a common frame of reference and a standard for gaming. And for anyone who has played any Mario game, or really any Nintendo game in the past 30 years, Paper Mario: Color Splash will feel instantly recognizable and almost nostalgic in its approach to the content.
You start the game in Port Prisma, a town that is known for its paint fountain. But all the paint is missing and it’s up to Mario to recover the missing paint stars and find out what happened. Of course Bowser plays a part in the mayhem and even captures Princess Peach in a totally unforeseeable plot twist. There are the usual enemies from Shy Guys, Koopas and Hammer Bros, coupled with an overworld design that made me incredibly wistful for the old Super Mario Bros 3. There are haunted houses complete with ghosts and Luigi references, size-changing levels and the typical fortress environments. It feels just so familiar, and yet the game doesn’t rest on its laurels, creating some seriously well designed levels.
Platforming and puzzle solving is still the core experience in Color Splash, but this time the 3D vs paper element isn’t as integral. Unlike other Paper Mario games where it’s all about shifting your perspective, this one simply embraces that almost everything is made out of paper (except for some special “Things”). Some levels can only be solved by cutting away bits of the background paper, but the constant perspective flipping isn’t really a thing except in one pure nostalgic level that had me smiling from start to finish.
Combat this time around is a combination of card-based fighting and rhythm game. You can find or buy cards throughout the different areas with different attacks. From jumps to hammers to fire flowers, these can be used with deadly force. However, they all work on a rhythm attack system whereby you have to hit the A button at the right time to get a full-powered attack. Some of the usual Mario rules apply though, with spike enemies causing damage instead of taking it if you try to stomp on them. As you progress, you can play more cards in succession per turn but unused cards are destroyed, creating an interesting tactical balance between using your turns efficiently and also ensuring you don’t waste cards.
While it can be fun to get the perfect balance of cards or find new cards that make it even easier to kill off your enemies, I often found it frustrating that I had to keep acquiring cards instead of building some kind of super deck once off. It ends up feeling more like an action game than an RPG, and fans should be aware that this is a shift that’s apparent throughout the game, but more on that later.
The paint aspect of the game was particularly intriguing, as the paint had been sucked out of people and the environment across the levels. You must repaint the world to unlock items, events and make platforms work again. It’s a lot of fun to make the world right again, as well as strongly soothing for my obsessive tendencies – much like my playthrough of games like Okapi, I found myself determined to get 100% colouring in on all levels.
Paint isn’t just used on levels though. Your red, blue and yellow paint is also used to colour in some cards you receive that are in black and white, making them full color to achieve full power. 1-up mushrooms restore your paint rather than your health/life, and you’ll often find yourself hammering away at all the items in your environment to refill your paint gauges. Plus in levels where things move around randomly, painting them can make keeping track of their movements a whole lot easier.
While Paper Mario: Color Splash has fun gameplay and tight level design, my favorite part was actually the soundtrack and cheesy references. First up, the references – there are hints and jokes that will make franchise newcomers laugh while veterans will positively guffaw. Jokes going back to Mario 3 or elements of Zelda and Mario Kart all keep the game feeling so very familiar with gamers part of all the inside jokes.
But the music, oh the music – to hear Bowser’s theme on a sitar or reimagining of the original theme music, or 8-bit riffs in a retro world… it’s the music that stays with us through all the years and is so strongly attached to the emotions of playing games. Hearing those melodies in creative new ways feels like a touchstone, even in strange and complicated new levels. As soon as I heard the one tune, I knew I was in for a dungeon level while another song signaled some ship-based combat. It simply makes Paper Mario Color Splash a joy to experience.
Old fans of the Paper Mario approach might miss some of the perspective building and the tearing away of the background does start to lose its charm after a while – even your companion says when prompted for a hint on a certain level simply “how have we solved things like this before?” At a certain point, I ended up just pressing Y in any situation to see if I could cut away at the background for a quick and easy solution to a puzzle.
Additionally, the RPG elements are extremely wanting. As you collect big paint stars your health improves, and you also gain the capacity to hold more cards as you progress through the game but it does start to feel a bit lacking and empty regarding progression – there is no real customization and Mario simply seems to get stronger alongside stronger enemies as you move through the game.
There are side activities in the form of Roshambo temples around the map, but they simply reward you with money and more attack cards. I found I only used them in those rare moments when I was low on coins, and otherwise didn’t see the value seeing as I couldn’t change my character or do anything special as a result of completing these temples.
Without the drive to engage in combat, or complete side missions, I found myself purely driven by the natural progression. I enjoyed seeing new levels and unique references. I loved the way the music was tied into the experience, and I felt so strangely satisfied by colouring in all the missing spots in levels. With hours of gameplay and no two levels the same, I certainly enjoyed myself with Paper Mario: Color Splash. Just don’t expect it to play as a Mario RPG or along classical Paper Mario lines.
Last Updated: October 5, 2016