Why Paper Mario: Color Splash Doesn’t Completely Suck

If you go look up a trailer for Paper Mario: Color Splash on Youtube, chances are you’ll see something like this:

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The internet’s initial reaction to the game’s announcement was super negative. Even I was pretty down on it.

What we all really wanted was a follow-up to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Since its release in 2004, no Mario RPG has come close to topping it. It had hilarious villains, an intriguing mystery, and an edgy world unlike anything we’d seen before in the Mario series. The game’s hub area, Rogueport, was home to bandits and organized crime lords, and even the more lighthearted NPCs had really unique designs that put a cool spin on the old Mario enemies we’d come to know and love. And that’s to say nothing of the awesome battle system that could be broken in some pretty fun ways if you were inventive enough.

So when Nintendo showed off Paper Mario: Color Splash for the first time, with its lack of NPC variety, simplified battles, and plain-looking world, people were right to be skeptical after Sticker Star left a sour taste in their mouths. It’s a shame that we were, though, because that skepticism lead to a lot of people missing out on one of the best games I played all year.

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Color Splash is not a spiritual sequel to The Thousand-Year Door, and that’s not a bad thing. We’ll always have that old Gamecube game to go back to if we want a slightly darker Mario game, but for new entries in the series, I think it’s better that we get a fresh take on the formula. When people look at Color Splash and say it’s bland, that’s only in comparison to The Thousand-Year Door’s edginess; in reality, Color Splash isn’t bland, it’s traditional.

While this might seem like a big step down, there’s nothing inherently worse about this step away from crazy never-before-seen worlds. Color Splash is all about applying the series’ formula to the Mushroom Kingdom as we’ve seen it in the Mario platformers—there are no Koopas wearing bling here. Even the game’s level structure takes a more “traditional Mario” approach, using a Super Mario Bros. 3-esque world map that you choose individual areas from, as opposed to previous games’ interconnected regions.

While these fragmented levels do somewhat detract from the epic feeling of traversing a giant space, their individualization means that every single one gets to have its own unique concept. And they all do! Every level in the game is full of imagination, with unique environments, stories, puzzles, and gimmicks in each one. Entering a new area in this game is a joy, because you really never know what to expect.

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One of the best things about all of these levels being totally different is that most of them have unique background music. Color Splash’s soundtrack is stellar, subtly remixing songs from past games and using recurring motifs over the course of the story to make for an awesome listening experience. The game’s incredible presentation goes beyond its soundtrack, with gorgeous art and the best camera work the Paper Mario series has seen to boot.

Even the Nintendo Treehouse’s millennial-pandering writing style that’s come under so much criticism in recent years works perfectly. Fire Bros calling each other “fam” feels totally natural in this vision of the Mario universe, and every line of dialogue is worth a chuckle. This might be the most self-aware Nintendo has ever been, with jokes about age ratings, Luigi’s death stare, and this ridiculous mess. There’s even one poignant scene that feels like something straight out of a subversive indie game where we meet a Shy Guy who wishes he’d never joined Bowser’s army. And while it might seem like having a more generic cast of characters would detract from the game’s story, the sheer number of Toads with unique personalities you’ll encounter balances it out, and the bond you’ll build with Huey, the companion in this game, goes far beyond any of the sidekicks in previous titles.

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All of this comes together to create a fully-realized Mario adventure across the Mushroom Kingdom (technically Prism Island, but whatever), rather than a stylized RPG like The Thousand-Year Door. In fact, part of Color Splash’s power comes from the way it revamps RPG tropes, questioning whether or not things like experience points actually contribute to the game as a whole.

The move away from The Thousand-Year Door’s battle system was another controversial decision, but I think a lot of people who denounce it are missing the mark. What most of these people are really missing is the lack of character building. Being able to gain XP from enemies and choose your own equipment gives these players a sense of continuity throughout their whole adventure, and there’s something to be said for that. Just like with its approach to world traversal and story arcs though, Color Splash goes for a more fragmented approach and does away with these sorts of rewards.

This is what critics are getting at when they say that battles “have no point.” When you think about it, this is a pretty unfounded comment; enemies in Color Splash are just like enemies in any other game. They’re the obstacles that make the game worth playing to begin with! If you don’t get intrinsic enjoyment from the act of playing an RPG battle, it’s possible that you’re just addicted to gaining XP and would be as easily satisfied with something like Cookie Clicker. It’s true that avoiding enemies is the optimal strategy for getting through Color Splash, but I actually think this enhances the game. Bad guys are pretty hard to avoid, and trying to get around them adds a bit of an action element to the non-battle sections. Dodging their overworld attacks is hard enough that you’ll fail at it pretty often and will be forced into battles all the time anyway, so not having an incentive to willingly fight enemies is really a non-issue.

XP does play another role in a well-designed RPG, though: it gives short-term decisions long-term consequences, making all of your actions feel like they have a bit more weight. However, while I appreciate why people enjoy this theme of getting stronger over the course of an adventure, I put more stock into a game’s mechanics, and when it comes to the battle system itself, Color Splash’s is way more interesting than The Thousand-Year Door’s.

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Nintendo’s design philosophy is all about challenging the player to apply simple inputs to a wide variety of scenarios that can arise from those core mechanics. In Super Mario Bros. games, you can run and jump, and every level design stems from that. Or take Pokémon, for instance: in battle, you can only select from four different moves, and the rest of the game’s complexity is a result of that one design decision. This is my style of game (strategy games like Fire Emblem where you have a hundred different options at any given moment go way over my head), and I think that’s what Paper Mario games go for too. Their goal is to allow the player to use a small number of inputs to “solve” the battles.

The problem here is that in Paper Mario, you only have two basic attacks: jump and hammer. For The Thousand-Year Door, this means that every enemy has to be susceptible to one of these, which in turn means that every possible character build will have a chance of success. There isn’t nearly as much strategy here as there is in Pokémon where you need to worry about type advantages; in The Thousand-Year Door, once you pick a badge loadout that you like, you can use it for the entire game without much thought (though the partners do add a nice bit of variation that Color Splash doesn’t have).

Color Splash fixes this by turning its attacks into one-time-use cards that you collect in the overworld. This allows for way more experimentation in battles and lets the player have fun using every attack in the game, while also adding in a bit of resource management; the player is required to care about exploring the levels to gain cards in the first place. The game can then control what cards it gives you and what enemies it puts you up against, creating a ton of interesting situations where you have to think on your feet to win the battle.

This is a perfect example of Color Splash’s main strength: it turns The Thousand-Year Door’s “unique Mario world, traditional RPG mechanics” blend on its head, instead opting for a unique battle system in a traditional Mario world.

And man, I wish I could end the piece there. But Color Splash suffers from a pretty big weakness too.

…it kinda feels like it was designed by someone with multiple personality disorder.

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While the core game is really solid, there are a few little side activities that detract a lot more than they add. The most obvious example here would be the museum sidequest, where you’re tasked with donating one of every type of card to unlock behind-the-scenes art. This incentivizes not using all the fun new cards you get so that you can donate them instead, which runs contrary to the game’s theme of experimentation in battle. This isn’t the hugest deal in the world until you combine it with the broken economy.

Throughout the game, you’ll come across eight Roshambo Temples—“Roshambo” being Japanese for “rock-paper-scissors” (probably). In them, you face a series of three opponents in rock-paper-scissors and earn a huge coin prize for each one you beat. The first two opponents will always use the same symbol, and you can replay the minigame as many times as you like.

In other words, you can very, very easily cheese Roshambo for infinite coins in a super short period of time. Without even doing any grinding, my coin counter was maxed out at 9999 for most of the game (and I missed out on a clever gag involving a giant coin because of it). Cards are cheap to buy at the Port Prisma card shop, so before every level, you can just stock up on as many of your favorite card as you want—for me it was the Big Hammer—and go nuts on those poor enemies.

To be clear, this strategy pretty much invalidates everything I mentioned up above about the battle system theoretically forcing you into interesting situations. In reality, fighting enemies in Color Splash is more like playing Halo with an unlimited rocket launcher.

Making matters worse, there’s also the Battle Spin mechanic, where once per turn during battle you can pay 10 coins to choose a random card from a roulette. You can pay an additional 50 coins to slow the roulette to a crawl, enabling you to choose any card you want, and since every time you do this you can obtain a Thing card—a super-powerful attack that usually destroys every enemy—the battle system is a complete joke. Thing cards do become less effective in later levels against stronger enemies, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the vast majority of the game, there isn’t a single enemy encounter you can’t win by spending 60 easily-obtainable coins.

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“But you can ignore all those things to make the game harder!”

This may be true, but there’s a lot to be said for games that have cohesive systems and ask you to engage with all of them. Just look through history—our civilization’s most beloved games are the ones that don’t have an easy way out. Chess hasn’t been solved, basketball evolved into a different sport entirely once players invented dribbling, and legendary Pokémon are banned from tournaments. If the optimal strategy for winning a game saps the fun from it, all you’re doing is asking the player to go easy on you for their own enjoyment. Playing tic-tac-toe against a four year old is fun for five minutes, not thirty hours.

There’s no cool narrative reason to ignore Roshambo either. Games like Metal Gear Solid and Undertale use their stories to give you an incentive to try the harder path, but Color Splash doesn’t do anything like this. In fact, with Toads telling you to “Defeat all eight Roshambo Temples to unlock a banner and make our town look pretty!”, the game seems to want you to take the easy way out.

Often while playing Color Splash, it felt to me like the designers were aware of these issues with their design but chose to build new systems on top of them rather than fix the core problem. The worst offender is a level where you need to spend thousands of coins to cook a steak; whoever came up with this concept was obviously aware that you have an infinite supply of coins from Roshambo Temples and exploited that fact for a fun idea at the rest of the game’s expense. There are other poor design decisions too, like certain levels asking you to replay them beat-for-beat for no apparent reason, bosses all requiring specific Thing cards to be defeated, and the cut-out mechanic (which is admittedly kinda neat) not really adding a whole lot. Part of me wonders if the game was rushed.

None of these problems ruin Color Splash. As it currently exists, it’s a really fun, goofy Mario adventure with fantastic presentation values—but it could have been so much more if the developers had focused on making their already-awesome battle system even more refined instead of creating mini-games and sidequests that betray the core experience.

Despite its problems, I’d strongly recommend playing Paper Mario: Color Splash, and because of everything it totally nails, I’d even go so far as to put it up there with The Thousand-Year Door. And who knows? If you have the willpower to ignore all the extra junk weighing the game down, you might even enjoy it more than I did.

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