As the last big Wii U game for 2016, Paper Mario might seem like a rather flimsy choice to see out the year with. It’s no Zelda: Breath of the Wild, that’s for sure, which has now been delayed until sometime next year.
And yet, despite a spate of recent dud appearances in the likes of Super Paper Mario on the Wii and Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros on the 3DS, Paper Mario: Color Splash (yes, the lack of a ‘u’ pains me, too) is an utter delight from start to finish, making it one of the most charming games I’ve played all year.
It looks gorgeous, for starters, and its busy cardboard dioramas all look as though they’ve all been folded and glued into place by same pair of hands that stitched together Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Yoshi’s Woolly World. From the lapping, sequin waves to the cute, standee bushes, it’s a world that makes you smile at every turn – or it would, if that pesky Bowser and his straw-sucking Shy Guys hadn’t drained it of all its colour.
You see, here’s where the titular ‘Color Splash’ comes in, as it’s up to Paper Mario and his sentient paint tin pal Huey to splat their way round Prism Island and restore this sad, monochrome horror show back to its former glory – a kind of reverse Super Mario Sunshine, if you will. First, though, they need to track down six missing Big Paint Stars, which have left a trail of mini Paint Stars all across the island, leading you blot by blot to your next objective.
It’s clear the Splatoon team’s had a hand in crafting Mario’s trusty hammer, as the bright, glutinous paint it spits out looks nigh-on identical to the inky goop we’ve all been slinging at each other this past year. That’s no bad thing, of course, particularly when Splatoon’s paint physics are best in class. However, it can’t help look a little bit incongruous when everything else – all liquid included – is made out of overlapping layers of cardboard. Still, it’s a small complaint in the grand scheme of things, particularly when the witty script and excellent accompanying soundtrack will have you chortling and tapping your feet in equal measure.
Nintendo’s certainly made the most of its papercraft theme, too. Bits of scenery can fall away to reveal new paths and treasure troves, and you can, quite literally, bend and fold the world to your will to create new paths. It’s not always obvious when you need to do this, admittedly, but provided you’re standing in the right place, a quick tap of X will let you employ Huey’s magical scissors on the GamePad’s touchscreen.
These can cut into the environment to create a kind of 2D bridge between one part of the environment and another, allowing you to cross cavernous drops and bypass huge gales by manipulating the lines and shapes of the world around you. It’s very subtle at times, occasionally prompted a flurry of button presses as you struggle to line-up the scenery, but there’s no denying it’s an extremely sly bit of level design. It’s just a shame the actual bridging of these two worlds doesn’t involve anything more challenging than walking from one side of it to the other, as an extra bit of platforming, for instance, would have gone a long way to make these moments more rewarding.
More problematic is Color Splash’s battle system. On the face of it, it’s perfectly sound. Building on the battle cards from Paper Jam Bros, each fight is conducted as one elaborate card game. Your deck of one-time attacks is all laid out on the Wii U GamePad and you can pick one or more to play per turn. Colour them in and they’ll grow in power, but this will also deplete your paint reserves, so you’ll need to manage these two mechanics accordingly to make sure you don’t run out. Combine that with Paper Mario’s classic timing-based attack system, which rewards accurate button presses with even more powerful attacks, and it all melds together to create a highly-engaging combat system that couldn’t be a better fit for the Wii U’s controller.
The problem is that there’s no real point to it in the end, as your only rewards are more blobs of paint (which you wouldn’t need if you hadn’t fought in the first place) and little paper hammer boosters that gradually expand the amount of paint you can carry. The latter are, admittedly, useful and make filling in the gaps in the environment less of a chore. However, when there are no EXP points and no stat upgrades to worry about – heck, there isn’t even a numerical value attached to your attacks – battles begin to lack a sense of purpose.
Color Splash also has a bad habit of throwing you into boss battles without the requisite ‘thing’ to defeat them, forcing you to either beat a hasty retreat or suffer a humiliating restart if you get caught out. ‘Things’ are 3D objects that you’ll need to ‘ring out’ into card form so you to deploy them in battle as super powerful summon attacks, but tracking them down is easier said than done.
The first boss, Morton, for instance, requires a fire extinguisher to douse his deadly flaming mallet, otherwise you get an instant game over if he hits you first. Yes, you can go and visit the resident Toad who specialises in ‘things’ in Port Prisma before each battle, but when you’re neither prompted to do so or already have a fair stack of ‘things’ to your name, it’s not always obvious you’re missing something.
The same can be said of level progression in general, which ends up becoming quite piecemeal in the game’s later stages. Just when you think the map’s opening up, it turns out that most of the next levels have huge roadblocks in them you can’t pass, forcing you to retrace your steps or funnel your investigation down a much narrower route than you first thought. This would be fine if you had a little guidance, but often you’re left floundering on where you should head next.
Ultimately, though, Paper Mario: Color Splash paints a warm farewell for the Wii U, and its charming and endearing cast certainly go a long way to make up for some of its more muddled moments. For all its faults, it’s the perfect RPG to cosy up with as we settle in this long, empty period in Nintendo’s calendar, and at least its excellent touchscreen controls give the GamePad one last hurrah before the NX, Nintendo’s next console, arrives next year. It may not be Zelda, but Paper Mario: Color Splash is definitely the next best thing for brightening up your Wii U collection.
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