Developer: Intelligent Systems
Say what you will about Sticker Star — no, really, we should get that out of the way. If anything could be said about the last time we saw Paper Mario in full form, it's that audiences were divided on the outcome. The series took a hard left from its Thousand Year Door roots of story-driven RPG bliss and took a joyous romp through card-based combat. Loads of combat, to be exact, and to a fault, according to players.
But hey, you're in a review from one of the few publications that really liked what Sticker Star was doing. So sue us. Wait, is that possible? Don't sue us; love us. Love us like we love Paper Mario; unequivocally, unabashedly, and yes at this point it's easy to tell whether we're head-over-heels for Paper Mario Color Splash.
Between the now and then of Sticker Star, Nintendo's done some soul-searching. Last year's E3 demo found fans apprehensive that they'd be getting Sticker Star with a new coat of paint, but hopefully there's no need to resort to further puns in getting across how well-rounded Color Splash truly is. We'll get into that later on, but there's something to get out of the way just now.
Admittedly, I'm a sucker for a pretty face, but Color Splash is a wonderful-looking game with an even better sounding soundtrack. One that prompts me to use words like divine to describe the instrumentation and composition of each area's themes. I was immediately reminded of grousing at how Nintendo was proud of Mario Kart 8's live soundtrack when fans thought they should focus more on gameplay and other Wii U software. They were right to be proud back then, and they should be just as lauded for their work on Color Splash's musical score. It's jazzy, snappy, and delightful in variations on old and new themes. If you're wondering when this paragraph about the soundtrack is going to end, try to understand that I've likely accumulated at least a few hours of playtime listening to unlocked music in the game's Museum.
Where were we? Aesthetics, right. If Nintendo's first-party output will be remembered of anything on Wii U, it's going to be the commitment to realizing an arts & crafts in games like Yoshi's Woolly World, Kirby's return to clay, and Color Splash's continuation of cardboard and paper assets. Color Splash isn't just a sharp-looking game, but the art team displays a total comprehension of Paper Mario's style — capitalizing on the world-building at any opportunity. Objects are folded, crumpled, filleted into sheets when destroyed, and all with a great sense of texture and lighting to enhance an already interesting look.
Anyone familiar with Paper Mario will probably be just as taken with how well-represented the series is in full HD.
Let's talk about the game itself. Mario's on vacation this time, arriving at an island where color has been drained from locals and the surrounding area. Once paired with an energetic paint bucket and color-powered hammer, players are off on their journey to return color to the world, apprehend the culprit, and generally restore peace to the land. Sounds good? Great, on to details.
Color Splash is broken into two parts for mechanics, being the turn-based battles, and the hammer which splatters paint onto surfaces in the game world. Players familiar with Sticker Star will be familiar with the return of card-based combat, in which they hold a deck to choose attacks from — flicking to the top screen, into battle. Color Splash employs a few extra steps, mainly the conceit of filling the cards in with color to power them, and while this allows for a more versatile economy (colorless cards are a fraction of normal price in shops), it becomes tedious in the long run. UI elements appear above or below cards when selecting, painting, and finally flicking them upwards to activate, and this flow never became second nature. The last thing you want in a turn-based game is to give players any more reason to be impatient about the combat, but here we are with Color Splash, prolonging the fights.
This is more of a side effect Mario's hammer having a paint meter at all. In the overworld, the meter runs down slowly as players color in levels, solving puzzles and being completionists, but becomes a frivolous mechanics if that's all we're given to do. Nintendo is famously reluctant to add entries to a game series without feeling they've innovated somehow, which leads to hit-or-miss concepts. While I wouldn't call the color meters a miss, they're definitely not a hit either. Rather, they're simply fine, with the small annoyance of dragging out battles a bit. It's really not as bad as I may be indicating, but it's one of the very few objections I have to Color Splash. I wouldn't know what to replace the meters with, but the idea seems shy of something truly creative.
As for the story, Nintendo's brought in the A-team on writing. Characters are affable, the pace is great, and the level of quality outclasses a lot of what other self-aware games hope to achieve. Great writing isn't just throwing a load of puns at players — it's also great design, and knowing how to play with elements of a game itself. Early on, our heroes are snuck up on between conversation bubbles, when an enemy suddenly appears after the final bit of dialog. This is the difference between Color Splash and other games, even Sticker Star, who at times struggle to give players more than the time of day and a new goal. Color Splash has a great sense of self, humor, and most importantly, timing.
Other bits to love are filling in the overworld map, or the fact that there's an overworld map in the first place. Players are given opportunities to freely explore previous levels, discover collectibles, and play at their own pace. Because of this, finding free battle cards is an easy process, and on an odd note, I was almost always maxed out for coins. It's possible that I didn't take full advantage of the game's resources (or maybe the opposite), but Color Splash's difficulty seems to take a backseat more often than not. If anything, it's a leisurely RPG that presents enough of a challenge to keep players' attention, but unlikely to demand it for any combat. Puzzles, however, are around, and in line with the writing, cute and clever.
So what can we bemoan about Color Splash? There's not much to slight, aside from how you feel about the color meter's affect on battles. We could lambast its platform, resenting its release on Wii U rather than proliferating a gem on the upcoming Switch — but that has nothing to do with Color Splash itself. True to Paper Mario's great sense of humor, art, and constant series revision, it should be no surprise to longtime fans that they're in for a treat one way or another. Maybe they'd like a return to form, but for now, to anyone who skipped Sticker Star, Color Splash is worth the price of admission just to luxuriate in what has clearly been a labor of love for the Paper Mario series.