Nintendo’s flagship character has always enjoyed a tighter focus when it comes to his many, many spin-offs. You can always be sure that a Mario game (or any related title) will be held to a particularly high standard by the business, Nintendo and its developers being very careful to control the quality for their primary bread winner.
Sure, there have been some sub-standard Mario games in the past, but for the most part the series has been one of the most reliable video game brand in history – second to only Zelda – especially since the winning platform formula was broken into different paths. Now we have solid, established strains like Paper Mario and the vastly superior Mario & Luigi series, both based more on RPGs rather than straight platformers, bringing different perspectives to a universe which doesn’t seem to have any kind of expiration date.
Paper Mario has always been the more experimental of the strains, developers Intelligent Systems (Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, Wario Ware) playing fast and loose with the Mario universe to deliver some of the most memorable Nintendo games of this century (The Thousand Year Door is still one of the best in the business), combining charming design, endearingly goofy humour, and intriguing, though mostly simple – this is a Mario game after all – gameplay. However, the developers ran into a bit of a wall in 2012 with Paper Mario: Sticker Star, a 3DS title that wasn’t very well received because of the adhesive shtick and card-based battle mechanics that were at times limiting and frustrating, feeling like a great idea that was only half-realised.
With Paper Mario: Colour Splash, Intelligent Systems move those love of battle-cards and glue to the Wii U, building upon the concept with the vibrancy and fun of paint and those jaw-dropping paper aesthetics which once again make for some of the best design seen on the system, next to games like Yoshi’s Wooly World and Kirby’s Epic Yarn. There’s a real genuine sense of humour here, even if much of the dialogue is one-note, with most of the laughs credited to the slapstick animation that both lovingly mocks Mario lore and approaches it with reverence, knowing full well that predictable – though sometimes cute – puns have nothing on wondrously drawn environments with many moving parts like cardboard buildings and fluffy streams of water made of paper.
Level design is always a key element in Mario games, and there’s no exception with Colour Splash. Each stage reveals another layer of the basic formula crafted by paint and battle cards, showing off the concept with impressively fun angles (though I just wish they used characters other than different shades of toad as those most frequently found throughout the game). The length of each stage is also longer than usual for a Mario game, and you’ll often find that you have to keep revisiting certain areas after discovering items and speaking to NPCs in later stages. Although the world map template is torn straight from your typical platform game, each stage feels connected rather than segmented, and most importantly these environments – all typical to the Mario universe – are thoroughly enjoyable to explore because of the tongue-in-cheek creativity that draws on many different paper products to create highly textured, magnetically bright visuals. Corrugated cardboard is unstuck from a surface by a mischievous colour-sucking shy guy and threatens Mario as if it was a natural disaster, for example. Even toilet paper is used in the first area, amusingly filling in for a water wheel. I repeat: the humour in the animation makes up for the boring, self-referential one liners in the text.
The game’s setting is the quirky seaside resort of Prism Island, to which Paper Mario is invited by a mystery that needs solving. As with most Mario spin-offs, missing toads who are desperate and helpless take centre stage rather than a kidnapped Princess Peach, which takes a lot of the cliche out of the equation and allows for more dynamic story development. Shortly after Mario’s arrival he, Peach, and his main Toad buddy find a special hammer that is later revealed to double as a paint brush of sorts, filled by game-guide Huey: the living and talking paint can and the only new character introduced by this installment.
As it turns out, Prism Island has been plagued with shy guys who hilariously suck the colour out of Toads, structures, and random spots around each stage through a straw. Of course, it’s on Paper Mario and his newfound hammer to restore colour and life, leading to a very engaging mechanic whereby the player becomes obsessed with painting hidden white spots around each level to earn as high a percentage as possible. The only problem is there isn’t much of a reward in it for restoring colour, rather than seeing a flashy 100% on the status bar, and not really providing a proper incentive for one of the game’s most distinctive mechanics seems like a bad idea on behalf of the developers.
Taking a lack of incentive even further is the battle system, which is turn-based and seems to be blend classic card strategy games with your traditional JRPG. You collect stickers (usually broken jump shoes and hammers) and play them during battle, using the gamepad screen to restore colour to black-and-white ones hence giving them more power. You then swipe these stickers towards the screen so they can serve as your action commands, stomping or hammering away at enemies, with move power then dependent on repetitive in-action button presses. You defeat the enemies, but then not much else happens – there’s no leveling up system, which drains a lot of the colour from the game itself. In fact, engaging in a battle forces you to play stickers which are sometimes hard to come across, making it the more attractive option to avoid most battles all together – the only real incentive being to increase your hammer’s paint capacity, which is never much of a worry in the first place since mostly every object you see can be exploited for paint.
This battle formula is of course deepened by a variety of stickers (including ‘Things’) collected further on in the game, many of which represent fun commands; particularly the ‘Things’ which can be used in and out of battle to summon gigantic objects, cuing some really inventive animations and puzzles like a giant Chinese lucky cat which lead to enormous damage in battle, or a fan used to blow a ship through the water. Though this often isn’t quite enough to save the battle system from turning stale in the face of no real character progression, needing an injection of EXP (like the Mario & Luigi games) to give any real sense of complexity. Rather, the best parts are found in the adventure elements of Colour Splash.
Puzzles are surprisingly clever for a game that insists on being approachable and simplistic, and they are almost always endearing with the way they rely on the cross between 2D and 3D visuals. Because of this Colour Splash is never short on fantastic art direction, and watching these parts unfold (sometimes literally) is as awe-inspiring and joyful as Playstation’s closest comparison, Tearaway Unfolded. The only real frustrating side of non-battle adventure is the strange cutout mechanic, which involves the player looking for a scene that could benefit from a quick snip – say, to get from one end of a bridge to another. Cutout relies on you actually noticing very small details in the environment, which indicate that you should use the ‘cutout button’ to begin scissoring away, the problem being that sometimes these details are so small that one would have to keep pressing the ‘cutout button’ at random times just to check and make sure they have everything covered – it can get tedious.
When taken as a whole, Colour Splash has far more good than bad and this is largely due to the art direction. How can you be mad at something like cutout when the results are dazzling? How can you get tired of repainting-to-revive toads and engaging with their goofy one-liners when animations are just so damn charming that it’s impossible not to fall in love with each and every scene? Colour Splash may have a gameplay system that could still use some refinement, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the most gorgeous games to arrive on the Wii U in years.
Review Score: 7.5 out of 10
Highlights: Fantastic art direction; hilarious animations; paint mechanic; ‘Thing’ stickers; imaginative puzzles.
Lowlights: Lack of incentive for battle; no character progression; predictable dialogue; boring plot twists
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Release Date: Out Now
Platforms: Wii U