Paper Mario Color Splash; A Decent Game Stuck Between Worlds
As you probably know by this point, I’ve not exactly been the biggest Paper Mario Color Splash fan since it was announced. I’ve tweeted comics about how Miyamoto killed the Paper Mario series. I’ve posted on the Paper Mario subreddit lamenting the franchise’s direction. Heck, I even used to constantly tweet under the hashtag #MakePaperMarioGreatAgain and wonder whether people should be boycotting the game.
But then, I decided to give the game a chance. After all, no point in complaining about games you didn’t play, right?
So after many hours of playing Paper Mario Color Splash, here it is. My review of the game, from the perspective of an old school Paper Mario fan!
Starting on a positive note, the graphics in this game are definitely one of its strongest points. The paper theming shines through in every level, with absolutely everything feeling like it’s physically made out of paper and cardboard. Add such interesting themes as a military base, an old school steakhouse and an archaeological dig site, and you’ve also got environments that are both different from the norm and brought to life brilliantly by the paper art style. Basically, it’s to Sticker Star what Mario 3D World was to 3D Land; a huge graphical step up with more interesting themes and visuals perfectly suited for the Wii U.
The Things look good too. Totally unlike everything else, definitely, but really well animated and (at least initially) really funny to watch as well. It’s like a Family Guy cut out gag or Simpsons title sequence down well.
However, there is one graphical issue here that really hampers the game.
And that’s the character design. Put simply, the general character design is atrocious.
Seriously, how many uniquely designed characters exist in this game? Huey, the Rescue Squads, the Rock Paper Wizard, the pirate Toads and (to a very loose degree) the Chosen Toads and Museum Curator. That’s literally every ‘new’ and ‘uniquely designed’ character outside of the typical Mario cast.
And it really hurts the visual variety here. Indeed, look at the places here, and about 90% could probably have fit well in the original or Thousand Year Door. So you’ve got a visually interesting, varied world to explore that’s worthy of the original titles.
But then it’s let down by the fact no one interesting lives in said world. It’s like a theme park made by a company not called Disney; a fantastic land staffed by employees who don’t actually dress to match the themes of the areas they work in. Except you know, with every employee replaced with a genetically engineered army of clones in slightly different colours.
It’s a good looking game, but one let down by the disappointing lack of unique designs.
Music is where the game truly shines though. Why? Because Paper Mario Color Splash has an amazing soundtrack filled to the brim with great songs to listen to. You’ve got unique songs in every stage (all of which are catchy and fit the setting perfectly). There are songs unique to the Thing animations and cutscenes (the piggybank and battery ones are especially hilarious here) and then there’s the boss themes.
And it’s the latter which are the true highlight of the game. For example, the mini boss theme (named ‘A Fearsome Foe’ by the soundtrack) is amazingly catchy and enjoyable to listen to:
Whereas each of the Koopaling fights have an amazing tune that’s among the best in Paper Mario history. Like Wendy’s one, which is perhaps the best pirate themed song in a video game:
Or Iggy’s somewhat over the top ‘colosseum’ boss battle song:
Or even Ludwig’s somewhat techno sounding battleship song:
It even comes with a nice handy sound test that lets you listen to these songs whenever you want. It’s a little hard to get the songs for (since you have to fill in all the blank spots in the respective level), but it comes with absolutely everything on the soundtrack. The boss themes, the Thing themes, any mini game or cutscene music… heck, even the songs from ‘parallel dimensions’ are included here!
Either way, the soundtrack in this game is incredible, and it’s possibly the best part of the whole title. But as good as the music is, that’s not a reason to buy a game. It’s a reason to look it up on YouTube, but you don’t spend $60 for an interactive music CD. Oh no, what matters is the gameplay, and that’s when Paper Mario Color Splash gets a bit mixed in terms of quality…
Because on the one hand, the overworld gameplay is really good. Exploring levels is fun, with all the secrets to find and objects to paint around every corner, and the puzzles are really well thought out and enjoyable to solve. For example, how many games make you literally pull tape off the floor to unravel a bridge to a new area? Or paste cards into the background to do things like generate a huge tidal wave, activate a NES system or melt a giant block of ice in a steakhouse’s freezer?
So as far as exploration goes, it’s great. Perhaps even better than Thousand Year Door or Super Paper Mario.
And the humour is worth pointing out too, because damn, this game made me laugh quite a bit. You’ve got the Rescue Squads acting like idiots and saving people in the most unorthodox ways possible. You’ve got jokes about everything from Watergate to the Exorcist.
Heck you’ve even just plain amusing randomness like Mario fighting a steak to cook it:
Because of this, many parts of Color Splash really are fun to play (or in the case of humour, read).
What’s not so great however is the battle system.
Now okay, it’s technically a step up from Sticker Star in a lot of respects. You can attack multiple times with one card in a lot of cases. Cards don’t run out anywhere near as often as stickers, since you can have 99 at once (and they all use the same amount of space in the ‘deck’). And battles do give you actual rewards this time around (like hammer scraps to give you more ink to use in battle), which act like a pseudo exp system.
But it also has serious problems too.
For example, it’s really slow to use. Just to do one attack, you need to:
- Search the entire list of cards (in one endless row) til you find the one you need
- Move it to the card slots above
- Press on the card for a few seconds to paint it
- Then finally flick the card to the top screen to actually use it.
That’s four steps before you’re even using any action commands. And that’s on ‘advanced’ settings.
Not using advanced? Well, then the process becomes:
- Search the card list
- Move cards to slots above
- Select ready
- Paint cards on a separate screen
- Select done
- Then flick them up to the top screen to play them.
That’s ridiculous. What’s more, that’s just for one basic attack. Want to use multiple attacks? Then you need to select each card from the deck separately, then paint them all separately on top of all this. So a fight that should take about 30 seconds now takes about 2 or 3 minutes because of the time spent selecting and using attacks.
It’s also got the same ‘Thing puzzle’ bosses from Sticker Star too, which makes it a bit worse. Okay, they’re improved now (most of the battle involves using normal attacks, with the Thing card only being needed for a single specific step), and you do usually now come prepared (the necessary Thing is usually found in the same level as the boss), but it’s still frustrating for anyone who doesn’t know the ‘strategy’ needed in advance. I mean, why should I need the Bone to break Iggy’s chariot? Pretty much every ‘Thing’ hits everyone on the field, so surely they should all work fine here, right? But no. Apparently he manages to dodge an electric fan the size of a planet or a giant fire extinguisher, but not a rolling Chain Chomp going after a giant bone. Makes sense!
Adding onto this are the arbitrary ‘Replica’ requirements. You see, you don’t just get normal Things in this game, you also get replica ones too. These are less powerful, but have pretty much the same effects as the normal ones in terms of animations and effects. So what happens if you use one to win a ‘puzzle’ boss battle?
The boss shoots it down. In other words, nothing. The same attack that should work against the boss suddenly doesn’t for no apparent reason.
Why? Who knows. Apparently the idea of using replica cards to solve boss puzzles is ‘cheating’. Despite said cards working fine during every other part of the same boss battle.
And then there’s Kamek. Or more precisely, his ‘gimmick’ where he restricts what cards you can use.
This is where the game can get really frustrating. Why? Cause Kamek has two tricks up his sleeve; one to turn over your cards, and one to limit them.
Now the first of these is pretty annoying. But it’s mostly manageable. After all, most of your cards are used for attacks anyway, so choosing a hammer instead of a jump or vice versa is only annoying against certain types of enemies. And even if you do mess up, you can just choose differently in the next turn.
But limiting the number of cards? This is where the battle system gets really flawed. Because for whatever reason, the developers never considered the possibility you’d get stuck with useless cards. Like say, only hammers against flying enemies (who can’t be hit with them), or jump stickers against spiky ones (who obviously can’t be jumped on). Or if you’re really unlucky, only healing items period, giving you no way to attack anything.
Like this poor sod:
To add to the pressure, Kamek also disables the run button (until you run out of cards altogether), the Battle Spin (to stop you getting new cards) and then takes the rest of your cards away for good if you lose. So once you’re out of useless cards and running for the hills, you now get to watch your entire deck go straight down the plughole for good measure.
So you’re now presumably in the middle of a dangerous area, which you might not be easily able to escape from, limited to getting one new card per turn and with few ways to heal to boot (for the most part, you can’t heal outside of battle).
Still, the battle system isn’t all bad. It’s mostly usable on basic enemies and mini bosses, the attacks are easy to pull off as far as action commands go and Kamek will usually only show up in story focused levels (like ones with bosses in them). It’s certainly limited in usefulness (you’ll be skipping most battles altogether by about the halfway mark), but it does it’s job in certain situations.
But there are other issues. Like design problems in certain levels.
Cause you see, like every other Mario RPG, Color Splash has a few sections where gameplay changes to something different. Like a mini game with a new control scheme.
Unfortunately (also like every other Mario RPG), Color Splash does not do these ‘special’ levels very well.
Which is a huge problem in the Violet Passage. Why here? Because the whole level involves sailing a pirate ship through a series of mini game rounds to cross the ‘Lost Sea’. It’s a clever idea, and it could theoretically make for an enjoyable experience.
Instead, a bunch of poor design decisions make this part more infuriating than fun.
Like the camera angle. Instead of making the ship sail horizontally or vertically, it goes diagonally north west instead. So actually lining up your shots is about ten times more difficult than it should be.
Then, if you did line them up, you have to contend with a time delay of about three seconds between you pulling the trigger and the cannon firing. So you’ve got to somehow judge the ship’s path and figure out when it’s three seconds before a target. That’s annoying.
And then the final part has you trying to collect coins by shooting them with the cannon. Yes, single lines of coins which have a hitbox roughly the same size as the cannonball. It’s infuriating, and it’s necessary to get a (pretty decent) 25 coins in this section to advance in the game too.
It’s only one level, and there is a fallback that makes it easier if you fail too many times (it greatly increases the number of targets and coins in the level), but it’s still a glaring example of bad design in a game which already a few earlier issues with it in general.
Like the electric fences in Fort Cobalt. You have to choose a random fence of three, and choosing wrong electrocutes you for a large amount of damage. Guess what? Even with the ‘right’ solution (using paint to mark wrong fences), you can still be forced to take unavoidable damage through bad luck.
Oh, and these fences respawn every time you re enter the level. Even after beating the boss. And are different every time. You can avoid them with a secret side entrance, but that’s still questionable design right there. Imagine if Zelda or Pokemon did that. Leave Victory Road? You have to push all those boulders again when you walk back in. Not fun.
Or how about the Basin? Because that’s actually involved in a trap that takes off half your health bar when you fall for it.
However, here’s the thing; you need that Basin. You can’t complete Redpepper Volcano without it.
So you need to fall for a trap and lose half your health bar in the process. And then fall for it again if you want another free Basin.
It’s poor game design. Especially when the same traps return every time you re-enter the level and have to be set off every time as well. Forced damage should never be a thing in a video game.
Either way, there are quite a few questionable design decisions like this throughout Color Splash. Places where the path isn’t clear, where the mechanics are badly implemented or trial and error is required to an absurd degree. And while it’s only in about 10% of levels, it’s still obnoxious enough to remove marks for.
So in terms of gameplay and design, Paper Mario Color Splash is a game of two halves. Most level and puzzle design is done well, but some levels and the battle system are implemented extremely poorly.
Replay Value and Difficulty
Onto the replay value and general game length/difficulty stuff now. How well does Paper Mario Color Splash hold up here?
Well, decently actually. It’s neither a particularly long nor short game, with the main story taking about 20 hours if you’re not going out to search for extras. But it does have things to extend the gameplay time a bit more.
These include ‘Roshambo’ Temples (it’s basically a Rock, Paper, Scissors mini game under a fancy name), the odd optional Mini Paint Star and a museum which can be filled with cards to unlock things like concept art for the game. These can add a bit more meat to the experience, and increase the gameplay time a fair amount.
However, it’s also a game which doesn’t have the amount of replay value you might first expect. For example, do you see this overworld map? Or how big and open it appears to be?
Well, that’s really an illusion. There’s definitely a map, and some levels do have secret exits, but there’s actually close to no player choice whatsoever. For example, at one point, you may have the choice between visiting the Crimson Tower, Bloo Bay Beach and Daffodil Peak. So okay you may think, they’ll all lead to three different paths and let me choose to fight Morton, Wendy and Ludwig respectively.
But this isn’t the case. Instead, the Crimson Tower is locked with three keys. And guess what? One’s at Bloo Bay Beach, one’s at Daffodil Peak and one’s back at Cherry Lake. So in essence, you’re just on one path that curves around a bit and gives you the illusion of player choice.
And this is true of the whole game. Every time you unlock a level you don’t need to visit immediately, it’s either directly tied into the current ‘chapter’ or you’re unable to do anything of importance there. Every time you find a secret path, it’s completely useless and just goes back to an earlier level or a Roshambo Temple. It’s a faux open world game that gives you the illusion of choice without actually offering you it in any meaningful way.
You can also try and fill in all the blank spots in every level. This unlocks the soundtrack for that level, and gives you a nice flag on the map screen. It’s moderately fun, and can give you a reason to backtrack if you otherwise don’t need one, but it’s unlikely most players will bother with it.
So while Color Splash does have replay value, it’s just not as much as you might think.
But let’s say someone didn’t bother with this optional stuff. How tough is the actual game to complete?
Well, not very. For starters, you begin the game with a massive 50 HP (in a series where weak enemies do between 2 and 5 damage per hit). And said enemies also die in maybe one or two hits if you do the action commands moderately well.
As a result of this, there is pretty much no chance you’ll ever die in combat in this game, unless you’re either super unlucky with Kamek or got one shotted by a Koopaling whose weakness you didn’t bring in the first place.
Running out of ink, cards or money is virtually impossible too, unless you’re an absolutely terrible player who hasn’t a clue how the game mechanics work. After all, the most you’ll spend is 1000 coins for a set of cards needed in a quiz game. And a player scraping by on the skin of their teeth will have about 5 times that amount by that point.
But the game does have one trick up its sleeve. Namely, instant kill overworld obstacles.
Cause you see, every now and then, something drastic will happen in a level that seriously endangers your health. Not lava or spikes (though those are more painful than most actual enemy attacks), but stuff like a giant dragon or out of control train chasing you down.
In these cases, getting hit by the obstacle is a one hit kill that gives you a game over and sends you back to the title screen, no exceptions.
The result? More people will probably die from being run over by a Chain Chomp or eaten by a Draggadon than they will being killed by an enemy or boss. And that’s a pretty sad indictment of how easy everything else. Yeah, Mario RPGs were never really that hard (especially the first two Paper Mario titles), but this is second only to Super Paper Mario on the ‘you will never lose’ difficulty scale.
It’s a damning indictment of the Sticker Star style battle system, and how even making it better completely kills the game’s difficulty. By removing the unfair thing that made Sticker Star too hard, the developers have ended up removing whatever’s left of the game’s difficulty in the process.
So in conclusion, Paper Mario Color Splash is a middle of the road game. It’s certainly got its positive aspects, with the aesthetics and puzzle design being among them. But at the same time, it has a poorly thought out battle system, some very questionable level design and a distinct lack of character variety holding it back as well. Is it better than Sticker Star? Yes, for sure.
But it’s still deeply flawed in a lot of ways. It’s a step in the right decoration, just not one that goes far enough.
Because of this, it’s not really worth buying Color Splash new. Used or as part of a selects range? Yeah, that’s a good price to pay. But unless you’re a die hard fan of Sticker Star or absolutely need a new Paper Mario game, this isn’t worth spending $60 on.
So what did you think? Do you agree with my review of Paper Mario Color Splash? Or do you think it was worth any penny?