Paper Mario: Color Splash – A Fresh Coat of Pain

Paper Mario: The Origami King was recently released for Nintendo Switch. If you’ve read my somewhat-recent review,really liked The Origami King and felt that it made many improvements on the formula established way back when Paper Mario: Sticker Star came out.

So, Paper Mario on Nintendo 64. That happened. The Thousand Year Door and Super Paper Mario happened too. But out of all the Paper Mario games that happened, the one that “happened the least” is Paper Mario: Color Splash. In other words, I don’t see anybody talking about this game anymore. It was released in 2016 and was almost immediately swept under the rug. In fact, it’s one of the worst selling Super Mario games to date; if the statistic I viewed was correct, it’s only sold about 800,000 units total. That’s rough by Mario series standards.

Is Color Splash better than Origami King? Well, no. it’s certainly better than Sticker Star, but that’s not exactly a benchmark to strive for. Especially considering the fact that I’ve (accidentally) eaten stale food that wound up being better than Sticker Star. My point is, though, Color Splash never really got the attention that deserved! And I hope my occasionally-coherent writings on this game will give it just a bit of extra attention. Do note that we’ll be discussing a bit of spoilers here.

Introduction

Paper Mario: Color Splash starts off a bit different than your average Mario game. Princess Peach and Toad show up at Mario’s house on a dark, stormy night. Without further ado, Peach hands Mario a letter that just so happens to be a Toad drained of all of its color. Which is kind of morbid, if you think about it. Regardless, Mario concludes that the Toad was sent from Prism Island, and then does what any reasonable person would do: sail to an unknown island during a hurricane! We’ll talk more about the story later.

Unfortunately, Color Splash iterates on a lot of the “features” introduced in Sticker Star. No longer do you have to battle using disposable stickers… now you have to battle using disposable cards! And you’ve got a paint meter that you use to paint those cards. So now you have two disposable elements that can potentially run out during a battle. There’s also a world map, which is just… great. Not really.

Honestly, Color Splash is a strange game, because it doesn’t sound that great on paper. Yet… it’s actually pretty fun in execution! Yes, there are a lot of really annoying little issues, but I believe the game is saved by an excellent presentation and even better dialogue. These two elements are the game’s strong suit. The Origami King is the better game, but Color Splash is nicer to look at, listen to, and… read.

Story & Presentation

As I mentioned last section, Mario, Peach, and Toad head off to Prism Island to investigate the mystery of the colorless Toad. Once the three arrive at Port Prisma, Mario meets Huey, a floating paint can with eyes and a handle. By the end of the game, this little fellow wound up being my favorite partner in the Paper Mario series. Regardless of that fact, though, let’s continue with the story. Peach gets kidnapped, and it turns out that Bowser is the one behind the colorless Toad. And he’s draining the entirety of Prism Island of its color via an army of Shy Guys with straws. AND he’s stolen six of Prism Island’s cherished Big Paint Stars, which Mario and Huey have to recover. Oh, and there’s Mini Paint Stars too. But wait, there’s more! Bowser isn’t doing this of his own accord — he’s actually possessed by black paint, the true antagonist of Color Splash. It apparently has a mind of its own. A “force of nature” type deal.

OK, so you can see that story isn’t Color Splash’s strong suit. But let’s talk about something that is: its presentation! Somebody needs to give Nintendo’s localization team a raise, because the game’s writing is actually superb. Color Splash can be beaten in about 20 to 30 hours, and literally every five minutes I found myself chuckling at a silly quip from either Huey or another NPC. Unfortunately, most of those NPCs are just Toads or Bowser’s minions, but the developers kind of became self-aware in Color Splash. One running gag I liked is how many random Toads – who have never talked to Mario prior – talk about “how sad [their] life is”. There are lots of running gags, actually. Early on, one of Port Prisma’s bridges breaks, thus beginning a gag where a Toad mentions being an expert on bridge experts. And then the actual bridge expert appears later on… and then appears again much later in the game. And then appears another time in The Origami King. That’s dedication. And a lot of Color Splash’s jokes are long-running; sometimes hours and hours apart. I often found it funny because the game is completely aware of every line of dialogue in it.

Dialogue counts as presentation in my book, but let’s take a look at the rest of the game’s presentation now. Color Splash makes heavy use of lighting. Moreso than The Origami King, and I think it actually looks really good. The worlds look like they’re actual dioramas! For example, background clouds are hung with a string. The characters have a lot of personality, too: I like that Mario doesn’t talk at all in this game, but that might be an unpopular opinion among fans. Huey’s got a bunch of different emotions to show — for example, he turns blue when he’s sad, and he turns red when angry (and makes a sound kind of like a boiling kettle for some reason)! In terms of the game’s actual areas, then, there’s quite a lot of them, but the themes aren’t as varied as Origami King’s. Color Splash includes forests, underground areas, an ocean, a bunch of islands, a mansion, a park, a volcano, a train, and a desert, among many others. I do like the variety in the areas, though, so I don’t have any complaints here.

Paper Mario: Color Splash makes heavy use of leitmotifs, too. One such example is the game’s title screen, the leitmotif of which carrys over to the battle, museum, and world map themes. Bowser’s got a theme, black paint has a theme, and almost all of the “story arcs” have a theme. Wrapping back around to the story, let’s talk about those “arcs” for a moment. The game has six of them, and they’re kind of like chapters from previous Paper Mario games. The first “chapter” revolves around the Red Big Paint Star, which is in Morton’s possession. Mario and Huey have to gather three Toads with keyhole-heads to open up the Crimson Tower. There, they can fight Morton and recover the Big Paint Star. That’s just one of six arcs, though! All seven Koopalings make appearances as the game’s bosses, and – surprisingly – they’re more bearable than usual here.

Overall, though, Color Splash has an excellent presentation. Between the beautiful graphics, catchy music, and silly dialogue, Color Splash is a blast to play until you get into the battles. And you discover the things. And… well, you get the point. There’s some glaring flaws we haven’t addressed yet, so let’s get that started.

Gameplay

Here we go. Let’s begin with the overworld. I’m happy to report that Color Splash is indeed a Paper Mario game, and as you might expect, it controls like one, too! You can run around and jump and smack things with hammers. You can actually paint things with your hammer, too. This is used to fill colorless spots scattered throughout the world, as well as to solve puzzles. The options you have on hand are simple, but sometimes the solution to overworld puzzles isn’t so obvious. Like Paper Mario: Sticker Star, areas are divided into levels that you reach via a world map. And I really am not a big fan of the world map in Paper Mario. It looks pretty, sure, but you have to manually walk to each level. By the end of the game, you’ll be making twists and turns to get to the level you’re looking for. There’s no level select list, either, which would be really helpful. Especially since there’s a good bit of backtracking required.

For whatever reason, Huey is capable of lifting Mario into another dimension and using a pair of scissors to “cut out” part of the scenery. This tactic can be used to cross seemingly-impassable barriers. It’s never explored too deeply, so it’s more of an afterthought than a recurring “feature”. You do have to stand in a really specific spot to activate Cutouts, though, and sometimes these weren’t obvious to me at first. Then I realized I can just spam the Y button to see if there are any Cutouts nearby.

Eventually, though, you’ll have to battle. And you can only take a turn if you’ve got a Battle Card. There are Jump cards, Hammer cards, Fire Flower cards, and the like. But sometimes you’ll get a colorless Battle Card that you’ll need to paint. You can still attack with colorless cards, but they won’t deal as much damage. At first, this battle system works fine. Cards are abundant and you can only pick one per turn. As time goes on, though, Mario gains the ability to use two and eventually three cards per turn. Sometimes card selection requires some time to think. Which means that a lot of battle time will be spent figuring out which card to use. And it also means that there’s a lot of looking back and forth between the TV, where the action is, and the Wii U GamePad, where the card interface is. Another issue with battles: once you stick up a card to use, it’s gone, no matter what. For example, let’s say I’m facing a Goomba. And I stick up a Jump card and a Hammer card. I kill the Goomba with just the Jump card, which ends the battle. Even though I never attacked with the Hammer card, it is completely removed from my inventory. Cards aren’t rare, but this is still kind of baffling. I never used the card. Why is it gone?!

Cards can only be painted, moved, and stuck up with the touch screen on the Wii U GamePad. So you have to use the touch screen and then use the buttons to actually perform the attack inputs. It’s not that big of a deal, but it’s a tiny bit frustrating to go back and forth between both of these.

One last note involving standard battles, then: there actually is a small incentive for fighting, unlike The Origami King (which is only Coins). Each enemy you defeat drops little hammer-cardboard thingies. When you collect enough of them, your maximum paint increases. I didn’t notice the effects of these increases too much, but at least there’s some incentive to battles, right?

Then we have Things. Real-world objects, like fire extinguishers and fans, that are required both in the overworld and in battles. Not gonna lie here: I like the concept but I hate the execution. Here’s an example of how you use a Thing in the overworld. There’s a segment in the game where you have to help a ship set sail, and you have to use the Cutout ability to stick a fan card in the background. The idea is that the fan creates wind that the ship then uses to sail. But if you don’t talk to everybody before you stick up the fan card, it’s useless and won’t do anything. And a lot of the puzzles are like this: the timing is very specific even if you know what you need to do. In terms of battles, Thing cards deal a lot of damage to normal enemies, but are required against bosses. When Morton busts out a fiery hammer, the only option you have is to use the fire extinguisher card. And then you beat him badly. That’s simple enough, right? By the end of the game, you have to use two to three Thing cards in a row on the same turn. If you don’t use them in the right order, or if you use them on different turns, you’ve messed up. Things are required to beat all seven Koopalings, and if you take too long to use the Thing card (or don’t have it at all), they literally one-hit KO you with a 999-damage attack. It’s kinda ridiculous. Some of the Things you need – both in the overworld and in battle – are hidden away in levels you’ve beaten ages ago. For all you know, you might need that basin in Ludwig’s castle to be able to stop a raging dragon 20 levels later. The game is made much easier with a guide, but… were they making things kind of cryptic to sell those guides? Because I wouldn’t be too surprised. I’d like to add that Things aren’t key items – they’re disposable – and you have to purchase them with Coins if you waste them. Luckily, there are really easy ways to farm Coins (via Roshambo Temples, minor locations where you just play rock-paper-scissors to get money), so that part isn’t too troublesome. Stranger still, though, there are Thing “Replicas” that still deal damage, but can’t be used in the overworld or for boss battles that require them. If you use a Bone Replica against Iggy instead of the real thing, he’ll say “a pretend bone? Cool! Then I’ll pretend to lose” and then kill you. Why include replicas at all then?!

Huge run-on paragraphs aside, let’s sum up what we just discussed. The overworld is cool. Battles are not that cool. Boss battles are not cool at all. Their presentation and soundtrack is, though. The Origami King wins out in the battle department in by opinion, and it completely blows Color Splash out of the water in the boss battle department.

The Verdict

Despite being a predecessor to The Origami King, Color Splash actually does a few things better! With a slightly stronger visual presentation and much funnier dialogue, Color Splash still fulfills a niche of its own. Though I suppose Paper Mario is kind of a niche, so Color Splash would fill a niche within a niche. I think Color Splash is a fine game that flew under the radar that should really be on more people’s radars. If you’ve still got a Wii U and still play it – admittedly, that’s probably a small percentage of people – you should really give Color Splash a shot. It’s got some frustrating parts to it, including a somewhat annoying battle gimmick, thousands of Toad NPCs, and the occasional lack of direction… but at its core, it’s a witty adventure and a good time all around.

Once again, if you’ve read my review of The Origami King, you might remember this line: “still, though, I’ve got to hand it to Nintendo. They could have rather easily ported Paper Mario: Color Splash to Switch”. I take it back. I actually don’t know how this game would work on Switch, because you kind of have to look at the top and bottom screens at the same time. Never say never, but I feel like Color Splash is going to be confined to the Wii U for the rest of its days. That’s a shame.

Even so, I was happy with Color Splash! I… wasn’t very happy with its ending, but that’s more of an issue with the modern Paper Mario series than with Color Splash specifically. It’s sad to think that this game will eventually fade into irrelevancy, so allow me to repeat myself once more: I hope this post brings just a little bit of additional attention to the game! I really enjoyed it, in spite of its flaws. The fact that it had a great credits theme helped too. My apologies here, by the way: the screenshots on this post were lifted from the official Nintendo website. My capture card’s seen better days, to say the least. In any case, thanks so much for reading!

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