The problem with Black Paint in Paper Mario: Color Splash

Paper Mario: Color Splash is a game that nobody talks about (except for me on Twitter, and it usually doesn’t end well). And honestly, I can see why. It was released just four years after Paper Mario: Sticker Star, a game that essentially killed the Paper Mario franchise in the eyes of former fans of the series. At first glance, it didn’t fix very many of Sticker Star’s main problems. Mario’s attacks are still disposable, Thing cards are still required for boss battles, and almost every NPC is a Toad. All of these issues added up to one of the worst-selling Mario games in recent history.

If you’ve read my review on Paper Mario: Color Splash, then you know that I really like this game for some reason. But it’s got a ton of problems, and the one I’m going to discuss today is its storyline. It’s better than Sticker Star’s, sure, but it’s still pretty bad on its own. Specifically, I take issue with the concept of black paint that the game introduces about six hours in. There will be full Color Splash spoilers here, so if you’re trying to avoid those – first, what? – and second, steer clear until you’ve beaten the game.

Sunglow Ridge

Color Splash starts out simple enough. Bowser has stolen the six Big Paint Stars of Port Prisma and is draining Prism Island of its color. Right off the bat, the storyline isn’t interesting at all. Bowser as the main villain again? Well, hold on, because it gets worse. About six hours in, Mario and his paint-bucket partner Huey make their way to an area called Sunglow Ridge, where they witness a huge Banzai Bill crash into the cliffs. The two locate the crash site and find that the cliffs have been painted black. Huey becomes upset, and Mario soon figures out that touching black paint hurts him. Because of course it does! The joke here is that if you mix black paint with any other color, that other color is “corrupted” and can’t be restored to its former hue. After exclaiming how toxic and horrible black paint is, Huey asks Mario to “close [his] eyes for a sec”. He does so, and when he opens them, all of the black paint is gone and Huey says never to speak of the incident again.

Towards the end of the game, it’s revealed that Bowser jumped into Prisma Fountain and spun around in the paint because he wanted a rainbow-colored shell. He accidentally mixed the colors, which turned into black paint, and said black paint possessed him. Of course. After the black paint incident at Sunglow Ridge, we don’t see black paint again until the penultimate boss. These two events are about 15 hours apart in terms of gameplay time. So there’s a very clear problem: you only see the “true” main antagonist, black paint, once before you encounter it at the end of the game.

Most of Paper Mario: Color Splash has a cheerful and nonchalant atmosphere. There’s humorous (and as I mentioned in my review, mostly well-written) dialogue sprinkled throughout, so nothing ever feels very serious. That is, until we get to the very end of the game. Quick spoiler: the game’s sole attempt to be serious doesn’t really work.

Black Bowser’s Castle

After it’s revealed that Bowser is being possessed by black paint, Color Splash is strangely insistent on referring to him as Black Bowser instead. I’m not sure why they felt the need to make this distinction. Bowser’s plan here (world domination) is very similar to what he would try to pull off without being possessed. Regardless, after Mario and Huey recover Port Prisma’s Big Paint Stars, the fountain creates a rainbow-colored road (!!!) that leads to Bowser’s floating castle in the sky. With the help of Luigi, Mario enters the castle and instantly falls into a trap door, where he then has to battle Roy (who hadn’t appeared at all in the game before this).

In this iteration, Roy has a large cannon similar to the one he wields in New Super Mario Bros. U. At first, he starts shooting Mario with different colors of paint. When Mario gets hit with red paint, he gets angry and executes attacks twice as fast; when he gets hit with blue paint, he gets sad and can only use blue-colored cards, and so on. Eventually, Roy just mixes up all the paint and fires black paint everywhere, being seemingly unaffected. Mario is unable to progress any further in the battle unless he brought a Washing Machine Thing card, in which case the black paint is removed and the fight continues as usual. Okay. After beating Roy, Mario and Huey find that Bowser’s Castle is more like a factory. In fact, that’s exactly what it is, and it’s producing a large number of Banzai Bills — black paint bombs. Huey tells Mario that Bowser could use this much black paint to destroy the whole world. And this section is the only time Color Splash tries to be serious.

On an unrelated note, have you seen my Mario Kart 8 Deluxe review? Well, its tagline is “Bad Ideas, Great Execution”, and that tagline applies perfectly to Color Splash’s ending. If you’ve ever heard the Black Bowser’s Castle theme, it’s one of the most serious tracks in the game. It makes it sound like the stakes are high, and that Mario really is fighting to try and save the entire world. The presentation of this area is really good until you think about the idea of “black paint bombs” and then laugh out loud because it’s such a ridiculous idea. Seriously, making black paint the main antagonist is a really silly idea. I’m almost surprised that made it into a Paper Mario game… but after the release of Sticker Star, I suppose anything goes now!

Fighting Bowser

Eventually, Mario and Huey explode a ton of Bob-ombs and cause Bowser’s Castle to start collapsing. They escape the lower levels and then make their way to the throne room and recover Peach (whose color had been drained). As you can imagine, the final battle against Bowser soon ensues, and this is the last appearance of black paint in the series as of The Origami King’s release. Thank goodness.

For this section, the player has to use Huey to block Bowser’s attacks and absorb the black paint. After doing this a few times successfully, about half of the black paint on Bowser’s body is cleared. He suddenly becomes unpossessed and wonders what is happening, but the black paint then re-possesses him. Of course.

Mario and Huey are able to absorb all of the black paint and defeat Bowser. After the battle, Bowser makes it clear that he wasn’t behind any of the game’s events (as he wonders what Mario is even doing in his castle). The fortress collapses, Huey absorbs all of the black paint inside, and then leaves forever to take the black paint “far, far away, where it can never hurt anybody again”. Ugh. There’s a lot of italics in this essay, I know. But for good reason: I just don’t think black paint is a very good idea. Let’s take a quick moment to reflect on the events of Paper Mario: Sticker Star. I apologize in advance.

In that game, Bowser touches the Sticker Star and becomes possessed by a Royal Sticker. Mario and Kersti team up to defeat him. In Color Splash, Bowser swims in a rainbow pool and gets possessed by evil paint. Mario and Huey team up to defeat him. Here’s my issue: as far as Paper Mario games go, I feel like I enjoy Bowser more as an anti-hero or ally character than the final boss. If we wanted to fight Bowser as the final boss, we’d play any main series Super Mario game. But neither Sticker Star nor Color Splash know what they want to do with him. He’s the main villain in both, but both of these games write it off as “he was just possessed”. If Bowser’s going to be the final boss anyway, stick to it and make it be of his own accord. Why even come up with “black paint lore” to justify it?

It was a breath of fresh air to see that Bowser wasn’t the main antagonist (or a boss at all) in The Origami King, and I hope that future Paper Mario games keep it this way. It’s clear that Paper Mario games don’t know how to properly portray Bowser as a villain. He has no dialogue in Sticker Star and almost none in Color Splash. If he’s going to be a villain, I think he should have a lot of dialogue.

Overall, I do think that Paper Mario: Color Splash is a good game, but good grief, the story is not its strong suit at all. I’m not sure I really need to explain why the idea of sentient black paint isn’t a very good one. Despite the ideas behind Color Splash’s ending being rather poor, they are executed pretty well. The final area has a neat vibe, it just falls apart when you remember that the developers went for the easiest antagonist idea ever (possessive black paint). If Color Splash’s final battle could be changed, but had to keep black paint, I’d make a few changes. I’d introduce a sentient, goopy form of black paint that can stand on its own without having to possess Bowser. Maybe it could be in the shape of a bat or something? I’m not a character designer, but that’s already a more interesting idea than what we ended up getting.

One last note to hopefully wrap this all together. In The Origami King, Mario visits a rainbow pool much like the one Bowser spun around in to create black paint. One of Mario’s allies dives into the rainbow pool and spins around… and this doesn’t create black paint. I’m glad that’s the case, but you’d think people would stop leaving a bunch of paint colors together after what happened in Color Splash. All I can say is that I hope Paper Mario’s storyline continues to improve in the future. Sticker Star’s was really bad, Color Splash’s was just bad, and The Origami King’s is solid. Let’s keep up that trend, please!

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