Hammers, paint, and bendy straws! Let’s head back to the Paper Mushroom Kingdom and join Paper Mario in the latest entry of the Paper Mario role-playing series, Paper Mario: Color Splash. Early reviews for Color Splash were mixed when the original announcements were made, with many fans apparently upset that the series wasn’t returning to its roots, but instead taking a page from the last entry, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, which was not as well received as its predecessors. It just so happens that Sticker Star is the only Paper Mario game I have not played, so I am unsure if that is why despite the early negative feedback, I was still psyched about getting this game!
This review is part of a series of reviews compiled as The Backlog Report. In an effort to beat all the games I own while also flexing my writing muscles, I am giving an in-depth review of my experience with these games. Scores range from 1 (terrible) to 5 (outstanding) with 3 being a passing average. While I aim to keep these reviews spoiler free some details may be present to prove my points so read at your own risk.
It was a dark and stormy night…
A royal princess and her loyal fungal vassal brave the harsh weather to deliver news to our Italian hero. Someone has sent a suspiciously blank note from a nearby festive island of color. A Toad-shaped note! Some fiend has drained this poor fellow of his color, and only the postmark from Prism Island is a clue! This is the stage set for our colorful adventure. Once we arrive at our destination we are informed that the six colorful MacGuffins are in need of rescue, and as we do so, we are treated to information on what actually happened, and who our villain is. This is particularly clever because our story is told in reverse order flashbacks, so we discover earlier and earlier events as the game progresses until the entire mystery is solved. And that mystery, let me tell you, is a good one.
I will warn you now, do not, do not, and I mean absolutely DO NOT fight the Red Shy Guy swinging on the trapeze in Mossrock Theater. You will thank me never because you will never know what bullet you just dodged.
The graphical style for Paper Mario has evolved over the various games, in this particular instance, there are very nicely animated paper cutout characters presented on complex papercraft and cardboard sets. From the square trees to the foil painted cardboard coins. It is all a treat to the eyes. There are various points where I found myself just enjoying the scenery and how the art team worked so hard to make it look plausible by paper standards. The animations of the characters are also hysterical, my favorite being the goofiness that is the Shy Guy dance featuring Roy.
The Paper Mario series has some amazing music and Color Splash is no different. Featuring an amazing soundtrack from composers Takeru Kanazaki, Shigemitsu Goto, and Fumihiro Isobe, all newcomers to the Mario franchise. If you ever got to hear Super Mario 3D World‘s big band style, you will feel right at home here. Featuring complex groups of instruments, it takes the big band style to a very light-hearted and adventurous feel. Each of the Koopalings has their own theme with Ludwig von Koopa’s being my favorite. In addition, there are a handful of songs that I truly enjoyed such as the music used in Dark Bloo Inn, Mossrock Theater and of course Green Energy Plant.
There are also a few nods I noticed, for example, the music that plays when you collect a Big Paint Star is very reminiscent of the tune that plays in Super Mario Bros. 3 when you claim a magic wand and the ship begins to vanish. And speaking of Big Paint Stars, the map screens music gets new instruments with every rainbow MacGuffin you collect! I thought that was a neat little aspect.
The controls of Paper Mario have not changed all too much over the years. You can jump and swing your hammer on the field, and in battle, you use those same jumps and hammers to deal damage. However, Color splash has its own unique additions. Let’s start with the field controls. In addition to Jump and Hammer, you have Color Splash, the ability to splash paint onto the surroundings with your hammer, and with the help of Huey, your assistant and voice for this game, Cut Out. Cut Out lets you slice the background up to make use of conveniently aligned platforms to progress. My biggest issue with Cut Out, aside from not needing it half as often as you would think for a core ability, is that the only other use aside from required Cut Outs to progress is randomly cutting out diamond shaped zig-zags for free cards. Some of these are in plain sight, but most are only viewable by standing in specific locations so the shapes line up. Cards? Ah, let us get to that.
In battle, you use cards to deliver attacks which are expended. These cards can be black and white or pre-colored. Adding color from your reserves makes them much stronger. So much so that using unpainted cards is 100% a waste with two exceptions: enemies that are stacked which take 1 damage regardless of the attack, and shelled enemies that you need to knock into their shells before sending into their allies. This to me feels like a pointless mechanic meant to add some depth to a simple battle system. In addition, instead of being given the option of using the control stick, you have to drag and drop cards, leading to random resorting, and after deciding your cards, you flick them upwards to the TV. It is cute, but a little annoying when I get impatient with a fight not going my way. I will also say, the esoteric and arbitrary Flee mechanic for escaping battles is beyond frustrating. Absolutely maddening.
Color Splash is not by any means a truly difficult, the learning curve is gentle and there are plenty of context clues that will help you along the way. The biggest hang-up is the trick boss battles. And these are why the game lost points here. Aside from various Jump and Hammer attacks, there are cards called Things. They are a 3D object that produces massive effects and often hilarious animations. See my favorite, the Piggy Bank, below:
Now each and every Boss Fight has a required Thing needed to beat it. This isn’t optional, it isn’t always intuitive, and there is only 1 character who will tell you what you need, and he will only do so one puzzle at a time. So if you need a Thing to solve a puzzle to get to the Boss Door, you then need to go back and ask again to learn what Thing will be needed in the actual boss fight. It can be time-consuming. If you get into the fight without the Thing in question, you are locked in and will suffer instant death to an avoidable attack. Of course, when you die, Huey will clue you into the puzzle on the Game Over screen, but it shouldn’t take 2 tries for every single boss not based on skill, but rather the odds of having the right card and knowing when to use it.
Once you finish the game that is it. You have nothing left that is added to the game. There is no multi-floor super dungeon or secret boss. You can collect the Super Flags, six achievement based banners in the hub town that can be unlocked by completing the specified requirements. Throughout the course of the game, four will be unlocked as you play, but two will require some extra effort, which is really the only extra there is after the end of the game. The first is the aforementioned Cut Outs. Performing 100% of them gives one of the Super Flags. Luckily once you beat the game, a purple Toad in Port Prisma will offer clues to the missing Cut Outs for a mere 50 coins. It becomes a slightly more tedious errand, but if you noticed a majority of them during the game, you won’t have many left here. The second flag is related to filling in every single colorless patch. this is actually quite fun as it requires an attention to detail, and it is hunting these where you appreciate the subtlety of the backdrops and level designs.
There is also a Card Museum, where you can donate copies of cards you collect on your adventure. This is similar to the Super Flags because you will get every Battle Card and Thing Card during your adventure, and some good memory and resistance to try the shiny new weapons out will lead to filling these two sections out quickly. Enemy Cards will be an issue, but luckily in the post game, the drop rate of enemy Cards rises exponentially, making it so much easier. Regardless, these are arbitrary item hunts, nothing that really provides an extra gameplay, just revisiting the same old places to hunt more Enemy Cards.