Paper Mario: Color Splash puts a new spin on the "Mario Paint" idea. Reminiscent of the adhesive gimmickry of Paper Mario: Sticker Star, Color Splash’s main appeal hinges on the joys of painting blank spaces with reckless abandon. This dependence on game mechanics that aren’t traditionally associated with Paper Mario appears to be indicative of a series that does not want to rely on its 2D charms alone. With that in mind, it's all the more surprising that painting isn't Color Splash's standout feature.
The game begins with a troubling mystery, one involving a missing Toad, a blank letter in the shape of Toad, and a postmark from a seaside resort, Port Prisma. It's immensely refreshing to kick off the first hour of a Mario game without a Princess Peach kidnapping, but--spoiler!--she does get abducted eventually. There's more to this story than just a Toad rescue, though. Port Prisma and its surrounding vacation spots have been invaded by a sadistic contingent of Shy Guys. Their lungs are especially large, using straws to suck the color and life out of the environment--and worse, Port Prisma's locals, who are mostly unfortunate Toads. As usual, Mario's up to the task of saving the day, but not without a special color-splashing hammer and the guidance of a floating, talking paint bucket named Huey.
As gorgeous as the series had looked on the 3DS--first with Sticker Star and then the Paper Jam crossover--seeing Paper Mario return to a console is an opportunity to see the series' stationery aesthetic in all its textured, subtly shadowed glory. Like Yoshi's Woolly World and Kirby's Epic Yarn, Color Splash's best visual moments are when you have the urge to reach out to your TV screen for a tactile sensation that isn't there. Some backgrounds even look like the thick paper stock used in high-priced greeting cards. The creative ways different paper products are used can provoke chuckles, whether it's toilet paper that operates a water wheel or blocky background objects decorated in well-folded gift wrapping. A modest grouping of two dozen strips of green paper can effectively and cleverly convey the visual of a small field of tall grass--and corrugated cardboard has never looked more gorgeous in a video game.
Exploring the 39 other areas beyond the starting hub of Port Prisma reveals the usual gamut of Mario environments, from icy locales to humid tropics. This sense of familiarity doesn't hinder the enjoyment of traveling through these environments, however, since there's more than enough detail and imagination to keep your playthrough from feeling stale.
The biggest challenge you'll face in the initial hour is in having enough paint to thoroughly color the first few regions. Your hammer can only hold so much paint and select areas will use up one of your three main colors, which are red, blue, or yellow. The best short term solution is to smash colored objects for a few droplets of their respective color. This issue is remedied as you progressively enhance your paint hammer to hold more paint. Hammer experience points, in the form of hammer icons, can be picked up as part of a post-battle loot drop. By the time you've cleared 20 or so stages, running out of paint won't be a concern. You'll also have access to other hammers, like a type that lacks paint capabilities you so can whack enemies without losing paint as well as a hammer that unrolls paper bridges.
Seeing Paper Mario return to a console is an opportunity to see the series' stationery aesthetic in all its textured, subtly shadowed glory.
Your primary tools for fighting, though, are combat cards--each one represents an attack or defensive action. Provided you're competent at managing your cards, it's easy to have a capable combat deck without having to buy additional cards at a shop. And unlike the last few Mario & Luigi RPGs (Paper Mario's sibling series), timing high damage attacks is much less challenging. This is due in part to Color Splash's training dojo, which allows you to learn how to time strikes without sacrificing cards. Even with more than 150 cards, you can count on variants of an attack type to all function the same way--just with different degrees of potency. Jumping on a Goomba with an iron boot is as easy as jumping on it with a beat-up boot.
Aside from timing attacks and blocks, the other stimulating aspect of battling comes from picking the right card attack for the right opponent. For example, it would be inadvisable to use a beat-up boot to jump on a foe with a spiked helmet. It's pleasingly apt that you can employ tactics that go as far back as the original Super Mario Bros., such as using a Koopa shell to clear out a row of enemies. Echoing an over-the-top assault from a Final Fantasy summons, some attacks are hilariously excessive--like an electric fan that's as large as the planet. It's easy to feel guilty when using it to blow away a trio of Shy Guys.
Navigating in and around 2D structures in a 3D plane has always been one of Paper Mario's main draws, thanks to the obstacles that a given area presents. Color Splash doesn't task you with as much spatial manipulation as Super Paper Mario did almost a decade ago on the Wii, but you will make leaps in and out of the foreground and far background planes. Craftiness is needed for many of the puzzles--and that includes not limiting your viewpoint to the default, side-scrolling camera. For instance, some monochromatic 3D objects aren't completely repainted unless you go behind them. Shy Guys will also surprise you from time to time by manipulating your surroundings to their advantage, such as rolling up a path in the foreground in order to trap you.
The way Color Splash keeps track of all the monochromatic areas you've colorized, plus the myriad environmental puzzles, creates considerable eplay value. It's impossible to earn a 100 percent colorization credit in any of the game's early sections on your initial visits, given that you haven't unlocked the abilities or cards to access each stage's hard-to-reach areas.
At its most imaginative, Color Splash's visual gags and thoughtful manipulation of 2D objects rival any "wow" moment from Sony's Tearaway games.
Where Paper Splash stumbles is with many of Mario and Huey's exercises in backdrop cutouts. By literally cutting sections of the background, Mario can surmount roadblocks and bypass large gaps. The trick lies in figuring out where these detours are. Some of these removable backgrounds are revealed through visual hints, but many are difficult to spot. It's mildly annoying having to spam the Cutout ability in the hopes that a dotted line--the traditional guiding line for scissors--will appear. Constantly pressing a button with no sense of direction hardly feels rewarding, even if the result is forward progress.
Color Splash's seemingly limitless gang of Toads offer a wide spectrum of personalities. Most are enthusiastic about assisting Mario, while others are precious as they plead to him for help. One standout citizen is a glasses-wearing Toad whose card-collecting zest perfectly portrays him as a lovable (albeit stereotypical) nerd. Unsurprisingly, however, Toads don't have a monopoly on charm in the game. The Shy Guys--the dominant enemy type in Color Splash--occasionally have their heartwarming moments, too. They're precious when they fall over themselves in battle and are amusing conversationalists while they wait in line at a trendy Toad-run coffee shop.
In all, conversing with these endearing characters, mushroom-headed or otherwise, is a joy, especially since many of these chats are often snappy. It's as if Nintendo has been mindful of the criticisms directed at prior Mario RPGs for their verbose, drawn-out conversations. Jokes don't solely rely on referential humor or puns; sometimes an amusing, G-rated expletive like "What the scrap?!" is all it takes to make a particular Toad memorable.
At its most imaginative, Color Splash's visual gags and thoughtful manipulation of 2D objects rival any "wow" moment from Sony's Tearaway games. What Color Splash lacks in moment-to-moment paper tricks, it more than makes up for in persistent visual appeal and a wholly adorable cast, including antagonists from all pay grades. Its only frustrating feature is its Cutout interface, which can leave one stumped, disrupting the game's pacing and enjoyment of levels considerably. The novelty of the paint splashing doesn't grow tiresome, but it does take a backseat to the visual allure for which the series is known. Color Splash makes a solid case for a Paper Mario sequel that doesn’t need to rely on shtick like stickers or paint, though I won't be surprised if Nintendo’s considering using crayons in the future.