Developer - Nintendo
Publisher - Nintendo
Platform - Wii U
Price - £Variable
Genre - Adventure
So, the Wii U. Whether you regard it as a misunderstood tragic hero or the biggest butt monkey in a farce, you can't deny it's on the way out. The two biggest clues to that shocking twist are the announcement of its successor, the Nintendo Switch, and the fact that most of the games released for it this year are a bit experimental. Take Star Fox Zero - the controls, which the narrative around the game demands are described as "divisive", land it in that territory. Pokken Tournament is slightly less out there, but there are few one-on-one fighters in the Nintendo stable. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE has a hashtag in its title, for Pete's sake. Next up, Paper Mario: Color Splash, from a game series that has switched genres over the years.
And not without controversy. The GameCube Paper Mario title, The Thousand-Year Door, is held up by many as one of the console's finest games - and it has a lot of competition. The narrative; the large, seamless world; the cast of bright, colourful characters... I loved the audience, who could provide support or mess with your attacks depending on how well you were playing. But the Wii's Super Paper Mario started to take the series down an 'adventure' route instead of an 'RPG' one. The 3DS's much-maligned Paper Mario: Sticker Star did away with all the RPG elements and the companion characters concept, a hallmark of the series up to that point. When Color Splash was announced and seemed like a direct sequel to Sticker Star, there was uproar on the streets, panic at the disco, and jam at the ice rink.
Fortunately, it's actually quite good.
Don't get me wrong - it's definitely a sequel to Sticker Star and not The Thousand-Year Door. You essentially have a single companion instead of a slowly-assembled team, and attack your foes by selecting cards for actions. Sadly, combat is a bit of a bind all game: you select a card on the GamePad touch screen and then slide it off the top of said screen to 'play' it. That kickstarts the usual Paper Mario combat (and Mario & Luigi combat, to be honest), with the classic timed hits dealing extra damage. Though the card selection element can be streamlined a bit, you must slide cards off the touch screen in every turn of every fight and it gets dull. Fortunately things get fairly strategic later on: the more foes line up, the more you're forced to think about what cards to play.
Anyway, to the plot. One dark and stormy night (that brings to mind the opening of A Link To The Past), two hooded figures approach Mario's house. They are none other than Toad (or a Toad - the game is literally littered with them) and Princess Peach. They carry a letter from Port Prisma, which turns out to be a Toad with all its colour drained. Before you can say "It's-a-me, Mario", the crew set off to the port to discover more. You then pick up a hammer and a Zelda-style exposition fairy, a sentient paint can called Huey. He gives you the power to splash paint with said hammer, and thus the game begins.
The paint hammer enables you to fill in colour-free spots around levels. Filling them all in becomes a compulsive desire: I sometimes went through courses four or five times to find that one elusive spot to wallop into colourful life. Thumping paint everywhere and making a mess is fun on its own, though definitely not as much fun as in Splatoon, to which the game clearly owes a debt. The 'Color' in the title is well-earned - never has the Paper Mario world felt quite this vibrant, or paper-y. Everything looks like it's made from paper or cardboard, and even combat attacks splash with shiny paper crowns. Thought has gone into it, for sure.
Remember that 'experimental game' stuff in the first paragraph? The structure of Paper Mario: Color Splash is very odd. You begin to get antsy if you don't got another Paint Star (read 'plot coupon') in a 15-minute stretch, so eager is the game to reward you. Short levels jostle with longer, more involved ones, and you're often stopped from progressing until some plot element takes place (usually beating a boss). There are also some bizarre moments*, like any time a Thing Card is used. These return from Sticker Star, to the groaning of many who faced bosses in that game and were frequently on GameFAQs finding out what to do. This time, however, there's a Toad who'll tell you what Thing Card you need next (though not when, where or how to use it). Anyway, suffice to say that the game is pretty off-the-wall - almost as if the dev team were let off the leash a little more than usual.
*As most of the truly special bizarre moments are late in the game, we don't want to spoil anything. Let's just use the words "concert", "retro", "meat" and "road", and those of you who've beaten the game will know what I mean.
A big dollop of Nintendo magic has been poured into the game. Although there aren't many secret areas, there's still a lot to discover. Sidequests expand the running time in a worthwhile way, including revealing some of the game's concept art, which is stunning. Each set of levels is roughly grouped together to follow a largely self-contained narrative, though elements of these separate stories can be picked up and dropped whenever the game feels like it. This, coupled with the backtracking necessary to progress and a few random elements that spice things up, works in the game's favour, helping create the feel of a vibrant, inter-connected world (yes, I am a commaphile).
The game's biggest flaw is that it is slow to start. The jury was still out after the first five hours or so but as various game mechanics slide into place and it's made you smile or laugh a few times, you're won over. There is a lot of text to get through, but that's par for the course in a Paper Mario game. Apart from the previously mentioned combat, that's it for bad points. The music is really something, combining remixes of old themes - and some rarely reheard ones, too - with some brilliant new pieces to great effect. My nostalgia gland was thumping hard at a couple of points. There's always help for you if you get stuck - it's as if the game wants to take you by the hand and lead you to the next wonderful moment that has been crafted just for you.
Final Verdict: Paper Mario: Color Splash is to Paper Mario: Sticker Star as Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is to the original Paper Mario. It's a massive improvement on its predecessor that takes it to a place of real quality. Sadly, as Sticker Star was a low point for the series, Color Splash is not a truly exceptional game that hits the heights of Nintendo's galactic greats. It's often really, really good, though.