Video Game Thoughts: Paper Mario: Color Splash

Paper Mario: Color Splash was a 2016 action-adventure game by Intelligent Systems and Nintendo. The Paper Mario series has been around since 2000, but this was the first game in the series that I played. The game didn’t get the best review score, and Nintendo fans didn’t seem to like it much either. As a result, I went in with low expectations, but Color Splash easily surpassed them. It was much better than I expected. I don’t know why others didn’t like it. Maybe the previous games were just amazing and this game was only ”good”, but it was quality entertainment to me.

In the story, Mario and Princess Peach received a mysterious letter. When opened, the letter turned out to be a Toad character that had somehow lost his color. Mario recognized the postmark on the back of the Toad as coming from the Prisma Island vacation spot. Mario and the Princess, along with her handlers, decided to sail to the island and investigate. Like usual, it was just a lure by Bowser to kidnap Princess Peach. In addition, Bowser was having his minions steal the colored paint all over Prisma Island for some unknown reason. Mario and the Princess arrived to find the Port Prisma and the rest of the island filled with missing patches of color. It was up to Mario to return the color, save the Princess, and defeat Bowser.

I liked how dark the story started out, with storm clouds and pouring rain. It was unusual for a Mario game to be this dark, but things returned to normal once they got on Prisma Island. The overall story was mostly the same as other Mario games, with Bowser stealing the Princess and Mario having to save the world, but they did a great job with the details of the story. The characters all had interesting personalities, and the writing was full of humor. I was laughing throughout the game. Despite the dark opening to the game, it was a very uplifting game. The writers made fun of many things in the Mario world, referencing countless conventions in the series and even internet memes occasionally. As the Wii U was winding down in 2016, it felt like a good sendoff. Nintendo was remembering its history while deciding what experiments to try next for their future games.

Paper Mario: Color Splash was very much a hybrid game. It took elements mostly from the Mario platformer games but also a few things from collectible card games, role-playing games and action games. Like the platformer games there was jumping between platforms to do. There were also Item boxes Mario could hit to get coins or items. Like collectible card games, Mario could acquire cards to use in battle. Like role-playing games, there were many characters Mario came across to talk to, complete quests for, and earn rewards from. Like action games, proper timing of button presses was required to do maximum damage.

Color Splash took elements from so many different game genres, they could have easily made a bad game. Many games like this try to do too much and end up all over the place with no cohesiveness to the gameplay, but they did a pretty good job here. This game didn’t have the depth of a game like Hearthstone (a collectible card game) or Final Fantasy (a role-playing game), but the things it did have interacted with each other in new ways. I found it pretty refreshing overall just because I had never played another game like this. I recognized those similar game mechanics, but none of my other games had all these in one game. I had a blast whenever a new interaction was revealed or unlocked. They spaced them out well enough that every few hours I was learning something new, and keeping the gameplay interesting is what keeps me entertained by a video game.

The goal of each level was to collect the Paint Star, which would color in another area of the map, revealing new pathways and unlocking new levels. Many levels had more than one Paint Star, but they couldn’t always all be obtained right away. Several times a new ability had to be found or the story progressed to a certain point in order to collect the last Paint Star in a level. This added a lot of replayability to the levels. I was constantly going back to old levels with my new abilities and knowledge to find more stars. Some of the levels even had fun secrets to discover. The major milestones in the story were collecting the Big Paint Stars. The bulk of the game was finding all 6 of these big stars, the only way to find Bowser. Each Big Paint Star was guarded by a powerful boss. These were the best battles in the game with many unique strategies required to win.

The battle system was mostly turn-based but had action elements. Mario attacked, then the enemies attacked, and so on until one side won. However, there was a lot more to it by the end of the game. Whenever Mario attacked, the player could press the A button at specific points to do extra damage. Even on the enemies’ turn, action elements were available, this time to block attacks and reduce damage taken. It took a lot of practice to get good with attacking and blocking, but I enjoyed having something to master. It really helped that there were nice flashy graphics when I pulled off a good set of button presses. It continually motivated me to play well even when I was defeating weak enemies for which the extra damage was not necessary.

While exploring the world, Mario could find battle cards. Each card corresponded with an attack or defensive maneuver in battle. The basic ones were Jump cards for jumping on enemies heads’, Hammer cards for hitting enemies with a wooden hammer, and Fire Flowers for throwing fireballs at enemies. As the player progressed, many variations became available such as Iron Jump cards that allowed Mario to jump on enemies with spikes. Even though most of the cards were just variations of the same attack, I was always excited to try out a new card. Many support cards were available too, including Mushroom cards to heal Mario’s health and the Frog Suit to avoid enemy attacks.

So far I haven’t mentioned anything bad about Paper Mario: Color Splash, because the game was very good in my eyes. There were some bad things though. Unlike the typical Mario game where levels are completed in a pretty linear progression, Color Splash required a lot of backtracking. Sometimes I had to travel through several levels in a short amount of time to find some necessary item or complete a quest. I enjoyed revisiting old levels…except for the loading times.

In the beginning they didn’t bother me much, but by the end of the game I had grown pretty tired of all the loading. The loading times weren’t all that long, maybe 5-10 seconds each time, but the game was segmented quite a bit into small areas separated by loading screens. During the times I was skipping around levels as needed to find things or complete quests, it wasn’t uncommon to see 20 or more loading screens. Those few seconds of loading really added up whenever I kept having to watch that screen. This was a pretty minor thing though. Reducing or eliminating the load screens would have made the gameplay a little better, but it was good enough as is.

One thing I always hate in games is when developers don’t respect the player’s time. That happened a few times in Paper Mario: Color Splash. This was mainly due to sparse save points and not using autosaves. Unlike the Mario platformers, a level could take 20-30 minutes to complete. During that whole time, there was usually only one save point. Several times I needed to stop playing, but had to keep going an extra 10-20 minutes to find the save point. Sometimes I just had to quit and repeat the same content over again the next time I played. Either way, the game wasted my time.

The worst times were the boss battles though. Usually, there was a save point in the room before the major battles. This was useful in case I lost the battle, wanted to take a break from the game, and turned off the game console. When I wanted to keep playing though, it was very annoying not to start back at the beginning of the battle. Sometimes there was just one little mistake I made, but I had to wade through all the boss’s initial story and dialog just to get back to the battle to correct my mistakes. There is no sense in forcing the player to sit through the same stuff they already saw, just put them right back at the beginning of the battle.

Speaking of boss battles, most of them required one or more special cards called Things to actually win. Usually, the player could get to a certain point, and then the boss would use some killer attack to instantly win. The player could only counter that attack if they had the right card. This was very annoying because the game many times gave no hint through normal play that a certain card was required to win. When this happened, I had to leave the level, go back to town to get the right card, and then fight my way through the boss dungeon to fight the boss again. Now, there was a character in the town that said which Thing card the player needed for the next boss, but the game didn’t emphasize how important it was to regularly talk to this character. I remember a few times the game warned about needing certain abilities to defeat a boss, but other times they didn’t.

Once I knew what was going on, I just got into the habit of always talking to the character after a level to see what I needed next, but the developers shouldn’t have allowed players to be in an unwinnable situation. I think a better approach would have been to make the Thing cards be a good bonus in the battle but not strictly required. They would make the boss battles much easier, but a player with enough cards stocked up could just brute force their way to victory if they needed to. This would make it feel like the player had some control over the outcome rather than the player being doomed from the start of the battle because they lacked the one card they had to have to win.

The last problem I saw was very small. In the main town, there was an optional collection sidequest to fill the Port Prisma Museum. This was mostly done by collecting battle cards and turning them into the curators at the museum. The cards then became part of a gallery that the player could view whenever they liked. I had fun putting new cards in the museum, except for the Enemy cards. Each time a battle was won, there was a chance an Enemy card would drop corresponding with the enemies that were in the battle. It was cool to get a bonus card here and there for combat but a nightmare when it came to finishing the Enemy card collection at the museum.

The drop rates for some of these cards were so low, I could spend hours fighting the same enemies and not get the card I wanted. Later, I found that after beating the game once, a hidden bonus was given that greatly boosted the drop rates, but still, they shouldn’t have been so low in the first place. The museum was unlocked very early in the game, and yet, I had only collected around half the Enemy cards before beating the game. Meanwhile, I had already fully completed everything else in the museum. The drop rates were too low.

I have written a lot about the problems in Paper Mario: Color Splash, but none of them were bad enough for me to consider it to be a bad game. There were a few things the developers could have improved or done better, but most of the game was great. They didn’t hurt the game too much. I was having a blast for the majority of the game. I think the low review scores were a shame compared to how much fun I had with this game. I think there are so many good games these days that people are really spoiled. A game that scores a 7 out of 10 like Color Splash would have been a 9 out of 10 in years past. It’s a consequence of the increasing competition in the video game industry. For players, it means there are more good games than ever before, and many critically panned games are actually pretty good.


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