Screenshot: Paper Mario: Color Splash/Nintendo

Paper Mario: Color Splash is aggressively adorable. The two-dimensional aesthetic offers its designers a plethora of opportunities to exert their whimsy on the world, and having access to the Wii U’s upgraded hardware means the series finally gets to fully embrace its ambitions. Flat, fluffy clouds dangle from obvious strings in a blue sky, and objects are blocky and easy to identify, like something from a Baby’s First Mario play set. Buildings are made out of obvious cardboard, as the view from the side shows the corrugation under the surface. It’s charming to the point of absurdity and then some, which has been the series’ core value from the start: whimsy, and some more whimsy, and hey, have you had enough whimsy yet because shut up we’re not done being whimsical.

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All of it could be insufferable, and for those not on Nintendo’s “preschool for all ages” wavelength, it probably is. But for those who appreciate bad puns told knowingly and can put up with occasionally repetitive hand-holding, there’s a lot to like about Color Splash. The central premise offers a novel spin on familiar mechanics, with just enough variation in character and story to make things feel fresh. In classic sequel terms, nothing here is entirely new, but it’s newish, which (barring the sort of bold stylistic innovation the series hasn’t seen since the dimension-shifting antics of Super Paper Mario) isn’t a bad way to run things. After the fiddly, over-stuffed mess of Paper Mario: Sticker Star, there’s nothing wrong with going back to basics.

About that premise: Someone is draining the color out of Prism Island, and it’s up to Mario to find the culprit (it’s Bowser), whoever he (Bowser) or she (see previous) might be. But before he can do that, he’ll need to track down the missing Paint Stars, magical avatars that are the source of the island’s legendary vibrancy. And before he can do that, he needs to track down a bunch of mini-paint stars with the help of a talking paint can named Huey, all while filling in the world’s blank spots by smashing the color back into them.

Cute, right? Prism Island itself is yet another Toad-infested wonderland, broken up into segments that play suspiciously like levels, including a world map that looks like the overworld of most Mario games—dots representing places of interest, lines connecting the dots, and a modicum of choice to keep the adventure from feeling too linear. The painting plays out like a clever reverse of Mario’s water gun in Super Mario Sunshine, only here you’re making a “mess” instead of cleaning one up. The reversal is satisfying, and the thwack of slamming a paint hammer into a white spot on the landscape never quite loses its appeal.

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Paint is a precious resource on Prism Island, and while just about every tree, flower, and overturned rock will yield some if you smash it, keeping supplies from dwindling can turn into a chore. The problem is that your reserves aren’t only used to put color back into the world. Paint is also a critical element in combat, and it’s here where Color Splash makes its biggest stumble. As with Sticker Star, fights in Color Splash use expendable resources. Where most games of this type give players weapons to choose from, here you’re tasked with purchasing an array of Battle Cards, each an item that can only be used once. Cards come in painted and unpainted forms, with painted cards being more powerful. You can use some of your paint supply to fill in the black-and-white cards before each attack, a process that starts off fun but quickly becomes tedious.

That’s the major flaw of the battle-card system. Each fight requires players to choose multiple cards for attack, swiping through a single line of items that can be sorted but never arranged for easier use. There’s little depth to this, apart from not using a jump attack on characters with spiny heads, and while cards are easy to find in the wild, there’s still something oddly stressful about having multiple finite resources to juggle as you make your way through an otherwise friendly environment. With little encouragement to engage in fights (the only real reward are tokens that increase your paint supply; useful, but the impact on immediate play is minimal and harder to appreciate), courses turn into exercises in dodging, creating an irritating stop-and-go feeling the game is never able to shake.

Combine that with the occasional instant-death challenges, and the result is a game that’s too flawed to be great, but too intermittently entertaining to be a complete write-off. There’s plenty of stuff to do, and the designers are able to offer many diverging paths without ever letting the player feel lost. Like the classic adventure games of old, it’s not uncommon to enter a new level, realize that you need to solve an earlier puzzle to access it, and then spend 20 minutes bopping about before stumbling over the answer. Individual challenges are rarely taxing unless they rely on luck, but the volume of them is initially thrilling, even if that thrill ultimately gets bogged down over time.

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Screenshot: Paper Mario: Color Splash/Nintendo

Maybe the biggest factor working against the game’s success is the lack of a core idea to hold everything together. The paint-draining seems like it should be enough; it drives the plot and offers up some clever ideas, but none of these concepts ever go further than their initial charm. There are flashes of creativity throughout, and the jokes land more often than not. Most of what there is to love in the series’ previous games is still here, but while Color Splash is far from a disaster, it’s hard not to be disappointed with an experience that’s ultimately all surface.

Purchase Paper Mario: Color Splash here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

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