Paper Mario: Color Splash is the best looking installment in the series, offering the most immersive world to-date. Still, its battle system suffers in a misguided bid to innovate.
One of the best games to ever arrive during the Nintendo 64 era was something that many, at the time, considered to be a rather oddball attempt at keeping Super Mario relevant as an RPG. The original Paper Mario established the platforming plumber as a hard-hitting, turn-based star in the absence of Square Soft's involvement, kickstarting the Nintendo mascot's reign as a major player in the genre. However, recent takes on the franchise have faltered in the eyes of fans, as the gameplay has unnecessarily taken a backseat to misguided attempts at innovation. Tragically, this remains the case for Paper Mario: Color Splash, although it's by far the most visually engaging and well-written entry to-date.
Color Splash starts off with one of the best animated cutscenes that Nintendo has ever produced. Bursting with style – thanks to its unique and paper-based design – fans quickly learn that something is horribly amiss on Prism Island. Upon arriving in an area known as Port Prima, the paper-fied version of Mario encounters a new sidekick in the form of Huey the living paint can, and they set out to gather all of the Paint Stars that have disappeared to resurrect a paint fountain that is more or less the lifeblood of the entire area.
Setting aside the fact that Princess Peach isn't the one being nabbed by Bowser this time around (at least initially), it's a rather cut and paste "hero" narrative for followers of Mario and friends. Despite being simple, though, the dialogue itself is some of the best that Nintendo has ever provided, guaranteeing that fans will be in for a few good laughs along the way. Amongst the memorable pieces of banter scattered about the world are references to the franchise's past, other Nintendo games, and other witty pieces. Although none of it is voiced, the personality of the characters and the world that they inhabit manage to shine through, much to the credit of the Nintendo Treehouse staff that localized the title.
Jumping over to the actual gameplay side of Paper Mario: Color Splash, however, the biggest change to the tried-and-true formula are sets of in-game cards that players will use to execute all of their on-screen attacks. Appropriately titled Battle Cards, these items have a much more significant impact on enemies if they have been painted, and that conveniently occurs on the GamePad screen. Unfortunately, the act of gathering and then using these items bogs down each encounter substantially, to the point that it's not even fun or beneficial for players to fight nearby enemies.
Aside from gathering paraphernalia that allows Mario to store more paint in his hammer, and the odd random card drop, there is no experience point system in place. This simplified mechanic means that there really is no reason to enter combat with Bowser's trademark goons, and that's the biggest issue that fans will have with this experience. While it's nice to spend more time in the stunning vista that Intelligent Systems has created, being pulled out of it to engage in a monotonous battle sucks the life out of Color Splash. Admittedly, new foes add challenges that keep things interesting, but it's a short-lived reprieve when recycled enemies repeatedly pop up – and this holds especially true later in the game.
It's easy to look at Paper Mario: Color Splash and think about what could have been had Nintendo and Intelligent Systems wanted to return the series to its roots. The gameplay itself is so simple that anyone looking for a challenge will be hard-pressed to defend the paper-thin battle system. Those willing to look beyond this, though, will be able to take in the best looking iteration that the Paper Mario franchise has ever seen. Add in the spectacular dialogue, and even the most stubborn gamers will be challenged to deny that the appeal transcends generations.
Those willing to tolerate the battle system will find a game that's filled with heart and a number of in-jokes for longstanding fans, but this certainly won't be for everyone.
Paper Mario: Color Splash is currently available as an exclusive for the Nintendo Wii U.
Nintendo provided Game Rant with a physical copy of Paper Mario: Color Splash on the Nintendo Wii U for review purposes.