Without question, Paper Mario: Color Splash is the funniest game that you will play this year. This high-definition adventure for the moustachioed paper cut-out arrives as the penultimate first-party release for Wii U, and Intelligent Systems clearly couldn’t let the ill-fated console go out without a handicraft bang.
Color Splash presents a sensational adventure, making it hard to know what to talk about first. Strip away the Mushroom Kingdom cast, the Paint Hammer, Battle Cards, and paper-based puzzles, and what truly makes this Wii U exclusive take a well-deserved turn in the spotlight is the laugh-a-minute writing. Humour is so hard to crack in games, and, while the Paper Mario series has long had me chortling, there aren’t many others out there that leave me gasping for air. That was an area where Paper Mario: Sticker Star had faltered, but that magnificent, razor-sharp wit makes a riotous return.
From self-referential quips to characters that are self-aware about the roles that they play in the Mario universe, you can sink hours into the game simply because you’re eager to see what gags you will chuckle at in the next area. That’s all credit to the writers, from the original Japanese team that penned a script riddled with such humour and mirth, to those that masterfully interpreted it as the game underwent localisation.
Hilarity may be a hallmark of the series to keep to, but Color Splash can be equally startling, sentimental, and poignant, and players can expect to feel similarly invested in the adventure that they will take. That’s largely thanks to Paper Mario’s newfound companion, Huey. Not your ordinary talking can of paint, the relationship between the two characters soon becomes a clear centrepiece to your journey.
Huey easily ranks highly in the game’s successes, securing a place as one of the greatest companion characters that Nintendo has created. At times naive and always curious, his reaction to the situations that Paper Mario wanders into are broadly what makes the adventure so memorable. In that sense, perhaps Color Splash will be remembered as the greatest buddy game of all time.
Prism Island is but a playground for their bromance to play out, which is where Color Splash‘s tale takes place. When Princess Peach receives a drained Toad in the post, she requests Paper Mario’s help to investigate exactly what is going on. Sailing to the island as soon as they can, it isn’t long before they discover that the papery paradise is being drained of its colour. It is down to you to discover who is behind such a dastardly scheme while restoring colour to Prism Island.
With Huey’s assistance, Paper Mario’s otherwise paltry wooden hammer becomes the almighty Paint Hammer. This is necessary to paint the many colourless spots that you will scurry past that reward you with coins, paint supplies, or Battle Cards. The World Map will show how much colour you have restored in a certain area, and it will soon become an addiction to seek out elusive colourless spots to hit 100 percent. There’s a reward for each course you successfully refill, in that it unlocks a music track for you to listen to in the Prisma Museum.
This mechanic isn’t just for fun, either. You will frequently be faced with puzzles on your travels, and, more often than not, these will involve repainting areas in your surroundings. That could be refilling a colourless spot on a door so that Paper Mario can open it, or painting spots on a Warp Pipe to let you safely travel through it. This slowly consumes your paint reserves, but these can easily be refilled by whacking nearby trees, flowers, and plants.
Overcoming obstacles can also see you turn to the Cutout ability. Where possible this lets the player trace a dotted line on the Wii U GamePad screen, after which that area is cut from the world to uncover secrets, place a Thing Card, or create new paths in the world for Paper Mario to leap along. Another puzzle mechanic is the Unfurl ability, that pops up on occasion. This is activated when hitting a “!?” block, after which you must race to slam your hammer on an object with the same symbol to unfurl it back into its true shape to similarly open up new paths.
Aside from that, players will call on the courageous Rescue Toads to resolve certain problems. These differently-coloured Toads have all been scattered from the rest of their respective squads, and you will rally them together as you hunt out Mini and Big Paint Stars on your quest.
That painterly touch is applied to the battle system, which, admittedly, does bear some resemblance to Sticker Star. Battle instances start when you clash with an enemy while exploring, and, in looking to neutralise them, players must use Battle Cards.These one-time use cards are displayed on the Wii U GamePad screen, the player able to hold as many as 99 Battle Cards at a time.
You firstly set your cards, colour them with paint to strengthen their power, and then flick them toward the TV screen where Paper Mario then puts them to use. This can certainly feel like a novelty and it slows down the gameplay – at least until you switch to Advanced Touch Controls in the Settings menu to speed the process up. There has been a design oversight in helping players to look through and manage their deck more quickly, but, on the whole, the concept works well and is in keeping with the game’s style.
Each Battle Card corresponds to an attack, whether that be jumping on your opponent, whacking them with a hammer, or unleashing a fiery barrage with a Fire Flower. Once selected, Action Commands can then let you deal heightened damage if you time button presses correctly, soon turning the tide of a daunting encounter in your favour.
Your deck will expand as your adventure continues with more powerful Battle Cards, soon providing Battle Cards that let you attack multiple times with a single card. Enemy Cards can be collected from defeated foes to see them rally to your side, while Thing Cards – squeezed into existence from real-world objects – play a more pivotal role in the game’s standout boss battles.
Battle Cards are in plentiful supply and can be restocked at the card shop at Port Prisma that opens early on in your quest, and, if you are somehow left empty-handed mid-battle you can spend 10 coins to unlock a new Battle Card by playing Battle Spin. That should hopefully alleviate concerns left after Sticker Star‘s shortcomings.
Battle encounters are entertaining, even with Color Splash treading away from RPG territory and into the action-adventure genre. It still gives less reason to fight unless you have to, the only real reward being otherwise plentiful coins and Hammer Scraps, that will increase the maximum amount of paint you can hold once you gather enough.
Away from the main narrative, players can visit Roshambo Temples to compete for glory in rock, paper, scissor matches, providing a chance for you to earn coins or unlock rarer Battle Cards if victorious. Another distraction comes in the Shy Bandit, who will randomly appear on the world map. The player must chase him down before he reaches the course that he is racing toward, where, if he succeeds, he will slurp paint from colourless spots that you have filled.
Carefully assembled with paper and card, the art direction continually astounds as you explore Prism Island in bringing to life Paper Mario’s world like never before. It’s believably constructed and energised by a live-recorded soundtrack that mesmerises with its jazzy riffs as much as Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario 3D World before it. The small touches in terms of audio really amplify Nintendo’s attention to detail, the easiest observation being when Paper Mario is low on health and the music distorts.
Paper Mario: Color Splash isn’t the Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door successor that many still resolutely hold out for, but that day may never come. But, the adventure that unfolds is a remarkable one, and joyously memorable for all the right reasons.