Paper Mario: Color Splash
Platforms: Wii U
Release Date: 7 October
Within 30 minutes of its Nintendo Direct debut, Paper Mario: Color Splash and its paint-fuelled take on the idiosyncratic Super Mario spin-off had riled a select few fans enough to warrant a petition calling for its immediate cancellation.
Citing similarities to the last Paper Mario release - Sticker Star for Nintendo 3DS - the 'campaign' asked the Japanese publisher to bin the newly-announced game and instead "give fans what they've actually been waiting for."
Nintendo has enjoyed several similarly knee-jerk, futile petitions over the past few years (hello Metroid Prime: Federation Force), but in hindsight, this particular call-to-arms somehow cut right to the core of Color Splash's gameplay issues whilst simultaneously missing the point of the series entirely.
Ever since the halcyon days of the Nintendo 64, the Paper Mario franchise has toyed with the tropes and accepted norms of gaming's most iconic figurehead.
Building on the off-the-wall, dimension-hopping antics of 1996's Super Mario RPG; on each console it has graced, Paper Mario has repeatedly thrown out its own rulebook. A loosely written rulebook that utilises traditional Super Mario assets to have a long, hard laugh at the lofty reputation of a world principally constructed from mushrooms, magic and otherwise.
Paper Mario is not about giving the fans what they want. It is about Nintendo letting loose and turning the deification of Mario and co. into a enjoyably ludicrous, self-referential farce. In this way, Color Splash's light-hearted, innuendo-filled, fourth-wall-breaking humour is exactly the kind of Paper Mario game fans should love.
Color Splash sees wafer-thin cutouts of Mario and Princess Peach whisked off to Prisma Island. In a playful inverse of Super Mario Sunshine, this particular sun-drenched resort also has a paint problem - only this time it's a lack of the stuff.
Ostensibly, Color Splash is all about collecting Paint Stars to restore the island to its technicolour glory, besting Bowser and stomping Goombas along the way. Really though, the location is just a superb blank canvas for chucklesome in-jokes and a showcase for one particular race of characters: the Toads. While a stealthy Dark Souls reference, an Exorcist-like spider-walking Shy Guy and a Jets vs. Sharks dance-off between Koopas all expertly tickle your giggle-glands, it is the uniformly designed, but easily distinguishable cast of Toads that coax the biggest laughs.
In Color Splash you'll find the miniature, mushroom-domed denizens running a surreptitiously corrupt beach side fun fair, bungling themselves into a tiny house on mass ("It got weird"), haunting a hotel after death and refusing to pass on until you provide them with cups of tea, transforming into telekinetic superheroes that have door keys growing out of their heads, debating the logistics of bridge construction... and so on.
Color Splash revels in these offbeat moments, and is at its best when entire levels are built around a central, often obscure conceit. While the world map resembles traditional Mario fare, there are plenty of nodes littered throughout Prisma Island that transform the 2.5D side-scrolling environments into high-concept playgrounds. The aforementioned haunted hotel is a particular highlight.
For every deadly, underwater quiz show, Ben Hur-aping coliseum or Super Mario Bros 3 nostalgia trip however, there is an equal amount of cookie-cutter, left-to-right slogs that rely heavily on the game's weakest aspect: the combat.
It is here where those early concerns take root. Color Splash's battle mechanics lean almost entirely on the mediocre card-based system first introduced in Sticker Star. While the time-sensitive button taps for increased damage adds a somewhat-engaging active element to the turn-based battles, almost every encounter boils down to minor variations on whacking an enemy with a hammer, or stomping on them.
Selecting and flicking a battle card from the Wii U's Gamepad to the screen becomes tiresome, leaving players with an innate urge to give roaming Shy Guys and Koopas a wide berth and avoid combat entirely.
The paint theme plays a slight strategic role in encounters (imbuing your cards with more power if fully colourised), but is mainly used to fill in blank spots around each area via a swift, paint-spewing hammer strike. The majority of environmental puzzles are solved using this crude method, with the rest requiring use of Color Splash's 'Cutout' mechanic where shapes and lines are severed from the paper backdrops by tracing shapes on the Gamepad.
Most Cutouts allow Mario to hop over impassable obstacles, while others leave rectangular holes, ready made for 'squeezed' object-cards such as a desk fan or a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, these single-use cards disappear if you happen to fall foul of the game's 90s point-and-click, Sam and Max-esque bizarro-logic. Replacements are available from a shady, barrel-dwelling Toad in the game's hub-town Port Prisma, but the trek to-and-from feels like an arbitrary, time wasting punishment.
Paper Mario has historically given Nintendo free reign to bring something new to the table, all while poking fun at the titular character's notable legacy. In this light, Color Splash is a riotously funny, joyfully eccentric, but disappointingly safe reimagining of its premiere mascot. For every instance of dull combat, though, there's a humorous home run that makes Port Prisma a worthy vacation spot.