For all the grief Nintendo receives for playing it safe with its marquee franchises, it usually attempts some twist or new gameplay element whenever making another entry in a long-running series. Most of the time you get a sense of delightful surprise, or at the very least, an intrepid experiment that is imperfect but intriguing. The rest of the time you get Paper Mario: Color Splash.
Borne out of the weird but lovable Super Mario RPG from the Super NES era, Paper Mario has tended to follow a pretty familiar pattern. Jump and Hammer as basic attacks, timing-based prompts for scoring extra damage or blocking attacks, and a traditional RPG XP system. Paper Mario simplified it by restricting you to Mario himself, sometimes with a single companion, and the diorama aesthetic gave it both a clever writing hook and the ability to toy with the physical space in the game.
Deal With It
At the fifth iteration, Nintendo seems to have decided Color Splash needed a shake-up. Gone are your reliable Jump and Hammer moves, replaced with "Battle Cards." All of your moves have been replaced by this new card system, but the lack of any basic moveset means that if you're out of Jump cards, you simply can't use a Jump, regardless of whether that's the best tool for a given enemy. No particular world-building reason is given for the Battle Card system. "You're in a new area and over here we use Battle Cards," essentially.
What makes the card system so galling is how tedious a single battle can be. For each and every single turn, you're required to look at the Wii U GamePad, scroll through a horizontal listing of cards--duplicates can't be stacked atop each other for some reason--pick your card or cards, press a button prompt to signify that you're done, then press the screen to paint in the cards, then tap that you're done again, then finally flick the cards upward to transfer them to the main screen. Then, and only then, can you start engaging in traditional Paper Mario combat, until the next turn, when you have to do it all over again.
Every battle, major or minor, is a chore. The card system meant I ran out of the basic attack cards fairly constantly, and was forced to use more powerful cards on minor enemies or run back to town to pick up more basic ones. There is no XP or progression system, other than the ability to carry more paint, which makes already-boring battles feel even more unrewarding. That's not even to mention the silly, minor conveniences that were somehow overlooked, like the fact that picking a pre-painted card doesn't skip straight past the card-painting menu.
Text and Texture
The awful battle system is especially frustrating because everything wrapped around it is so lovable. I've always been a fan of the Paper Mario aesthetic, and it's never looked better. It's sharp and bold, with gorgeous animations and a staggering attention to detail. As the first Paper Mario game in HD, I could see the textures of the paper and cardboard that characters and environments were printed on. And loathe as I am to praise anything about the battle system, watching enemies slowly turn black-and-white as they sustain damage is a neat in-world substitute for a traditional HP bar.
Color Splash also continues Nintendo's recent trend of funny, self-referential writing. This time Mario and his friends head to Prism Island, a land known for its vivid colors. However, the Paint Stars that give the island its vibrancy have gone missing, and it falls to Mario to find out why. It occasionally falls into gags that are overly familiar–the princess has been kidnapped again, how shocking!–but on the whole it's cute and clever. I even laughed out loud at an early visual gag showing how the island's denizens lost their color.
The visual flair and self-aware humor might have been enough to counterbalance the lifeless combat, if only it didn't overstay its welcome. But no. Paper Mario: Color Splash is long. Too long. Even if the battle system wasn't so tiresome that it sapped all my enjoyment, the quests themselves are overcomplicated and multifasceted. Too often they lean on pixel-hunting for some tiny object, or scouring various stages looking for members of the Toad Rescue Squad, or backtracking to previous areas. It's exhausting, and what could have been a flawed-but-fine 20-hour romp is orders of magnitude longer. As a result, after about 35 hours, I haven't completed it, and I have no intention to. At this point, the time invested and the frustrations I have with it are not likely to be negated by any late-game changes. Paper Mario simply asks too much of your time and energy for increasingly diminishing returns.
Paper Mario: Color Splash is the kind of simple, lightly enjoyable experience that I might have willingly gotten lost in at one point in my life. It's mostly inoffensive, usually charming, and a visual treat. The battle system is a drag, but it's emblematic of a larger problem that is also reflected in the quests: it simply doesn't respect the player's time. With more aggressive story editing and less desire to reinvent the wheel, this may have been something truly special. Instead it's merely fine.
This review is based on a Wii U code provided by the publisher. Paper Mario: Color Splash is available in retail and digital stores now, for $59.99. The game is rated E.