It’s tempting to say the Paper Mario series can be best-described through its title, that the crux of the whole thing is Mario as he might emerge fresh from your printer. The games themselves sure seem to believe it, as each one plays up the artificial veneer more than the next – Mario folds up into an airplane, flips between the second and third dimensions, pulls stickers. Even the newest one, Color Splash, revolves around painting.
Me, though? I look to the original game, where the aesthetic was just fuel for a couple of jokes. Observe: Mario steps out over a deep ravine to his certain death, the classic “you died, try again” theme sure to follow, only to float to the ground unharmed. He just flutters back and forth the way paper does in midair. No abilities, no stickers, just a quick gag before moving on to the thing that has, for me, always defined the series: the sense of place within its papercraft world. Paper Mario is a kind of storybook where the characters look freshly-cut from the page, and those characters inhabit a kingdom that’s built from cardboard and held together by tape and string. The greatest joke of the series is that, in spite of the way it looks, the kingdom never feels artificial. Beneath the pleasing exterior, Paper Mario is as detailed and as sharply written as any role-playing game.
Color Splash maintains the detail, the weird specificity and commitment to evoking a real sense of place, for its own world, a remote vacation spot called Prism Island. It captures the essence of the series in that world and in the characters who inhabit it, and that’s why it’s so frustrating that it doesn’t succeed at much of anything else.
The occasion for Mario and Princess Peach’s arrival on the island is the pretty gnarly fate that’s befallen a Toad: he’s been drained of color until he’s just the lifeless white outline of a little mushroom person, folded up into an envelope, and mailed to the princess with a postmark from Prism Island, sort of like one of those movies where they lop off a finger and stick it in an envelope to show they mean business. The rest isn’t really important. It’s Bowser. He’s drained some color from the island, stolen some stuff. Mario and his new partner, a flying, sentient paint can called Huey, are unamused.
The story is barebones, as an extension of how successfully Color Splash hones in on the strengths of the series. The stories have never been bad, but they are rarely much more than an excuse to string together visits to new places and meetings with new characters – recognizing this, Color Splash sets you on your way with impressive speed, leaving the thin story as a vehicle for jokes, sarcastic observations, bad puns, and character interactions in general to lend the world texture. The characters themselves are even made largely identical to (perhaps unnecessarily) remove any distraction from the text; a Shy Guy in the midst of an existential crisis has no distinguishing features whatsoever, and a Toad who conceals his nudity in the bushes while calling himself the superhero Justice Toad looks more-or-less like everyone else on an island chiefly inhabited by Toads (public indecency aside).
Despite the speed with which it begins, the game never seems rushed or impatient. As I hurried between characters and locations, I got the impression that it wasn’t for lack of things to see so much as the sheer volume of sights to take in – Color Splash simply wants to squeeze as much as possible into its island tour. The train repair depot at the eastern edge of the island suggests life through its own emptiness, so devoid of work that the crewmen just twiddle thumbs as the crusty old foreman lounges, scowling and muttering about his approaching retirement, in his chair at the center of the place like he hasn’t even moved since the last job. A power plant is little more than a tiny shack in the woods with cables that wind all the way up to the lightning rod planted atop a small tower. Other places: a fossil dig site, a naval base, a beach festival, various tourist traps. By offering many small locations, Color Splash gives us more looks around Prism Island, more opportunities to get to know the place. It is as well-drawn as any game in the series.
A shame, then, that exploring the place is so often broken up by an ill-conceived battle system. The fights in Color Splash are turn-based, taking many of their cues from the previous game, Sticker Star, where attacks are disposable commodities. Mario fights every bad guy with a deck of cards that is so slow to use that it kills the game’s rhythm. Every jump on an enemy’s head, every whack with a hammer, every invocation of the fire flower is determined by a single-use card that Mario finds in the field or wins from a battle or buys in a shop. Upon bumping into an enemy, Color Splash drags you to the battle screen, where you’re supposed to thumb through an increasingly large deck of cards on the Wii U gamepad that a well-intentioned (but mostly useless) auto-sort button cannot salvage. The act of playing, say, a jump card involves not only finding the card in question, but dragging the card to the top of the screen, holding down on the card to fill it up with paint, hitting the “Cards Ready” button, swiping upwards on the touchscreen to play the cards, and then pressing the buttons in sync when Mario finally, finally makes his move.
There are a good number of pre-colored cards as well as an option to remove the “Cards Ready” step (which is never mentioned in the game and feels a little like someone offering to carry a single one of your 12 grocery bags while still leaving you to unlock and open the door to your apartment), but neither successfully relieve the system’s tedium. Somehow worse is the lack of reward – you lose cards every time you fight, and winning mostly just replaces what you lose by awarding more cards (which could be fewer cards than what you just played or inferior cards or both) and coins with which to buy more cards. The cornerstone of any RPG is the experience you gain in battle to level up your character(s), and Color Splash’s (rather poor) substitutes are the incremental upgrades to Mario’s paint reserve. Because the interface is heavily simplified to rely on numbers as little as possible, you get only this vague spatial idea of how much it takes to fill in a card. Your paint reserves, however, are represented by an actual number, which makes the upgrades a fundamentally useless statistic; it’s impossible to gauge the difference between 350 paint and 300 paint and thus impossible to impart the necessary sense of tangible progress.
If it’s not apparent by now, I lost any real incentive to fight anything after just a few hours. I started to avoid every enemy I saw, walking in zigzags and circles as I waited for just the right moment to slip by. The same frustrating lack of reward for victory meant I suffered no real consequences for ducking the bad guys, but it also meant that every fight I couldn’t avoid felt like punishment. Even if I stubbornly mashed the “Flee” button each turn rather than play (and subsequently lose) my cards, the game’s chance-based escape conditions sometimes meant I lost a chunk of health for my trouble. And even if I made it out unscathed, the whole process took just enough time to really get on my nerves. Long before the halfway point, playing Color Splash became some obnoxious game of tag where everyone else was always It.
The best parts of Color Splash feel like they sand the series down to a particularly efficient joke delivery machine, spitting out witty lines and creative situations in the way a good adventure game does. And maybe the game would have been better off that way, after beefing up a few of its rudimentary puzzles, because the battle system is such a massive obstruction to the strengths of the series that they hardly seem to matter. How good is the world of Prism Island, really, if I’m dragged into battle so often that I don’t have much patience left to enjoy it? What do I care about these characters and what they have to say if it’s such a chore getting to them? The battle system is a bizarre, horrible miscalculation that’s simplistic one moment and convoluted the next. The times that Color Splash seems to really understand Paper Mario, when it really gets what this series is, become footnotes to a greater whole that still can’t remember.