Paper Mario: Color Splash review

Game Info
Platform Wii U
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Nintendo
Release Date Oct 7, 2016

Paper Mario: Color Splash is built on paper and paint, but it places its biggest bet on cards.

With the RPG inclinations of the original Paper Mario and its beloved follow-up Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Nintendo fans had found a longer-form, character-driven Mario series. But the mostly bland, platform-focused Super Paper Mario and the sticker collect-a-thon of Paper Mario: Sticker Star sapped fan enthusiasm.

Color Splash seems poised to put the series back on track. It takes the paper aesthetic of previous games and drives it even farther. It's genuinely funny. Clever levels change up its basic formula in surprising ways. By all these points, Color Splash should be a great game. And if it didn’t have such an arbitrary, boring battle system, it probably would be.

Paper Mario: Color Splash should be a great game, but its battle system is boring

Paper Mario: Color Splash plops Paper Mario, his main Paper Toad pal and Paper Peach onto Prism Island after receiving an invitation. But, as it turns out, Prism Island is being drained of its color, and its once omnipresent Paint Stars have gone missing. This is bad news, but with a Paper Peach kidnapping and a newly acquired paint bucket companion later, Paper Mario and Huey (the aforementioned bucket) embark on a brand new journey to save Prism Island, Paper Peach and all its Toad citizens. Oh yeah, and Paper Mario’s nifty hammer splashes color from it, restoring any white spot or color-drained Toad to life.

The Toads you set out to rescue in Color Splash are the game's glue, holding the whole thing together. Toads come in many colors (but not really in any other shapes and sizes), and always have a goofy quip. Actually, everyone in Color Splash has their own hyper-referential lines to spit at you, though Huey ends up having the most to say.


But for every line that made me chuckle, like a Toad saying he tried to call up Luigi for help within a haunted hotel (an obvious call-back to his Luigi’s Mansion days), I’d groan at another. At one point, a coffee-drinking Snifit bemoaned "all this clear water, ugh… gentrification at its finest" after I had cleared up a nearby pond of poison — oddly attributing to the idea that gentrification "cleans up" communities. Color Splash isn’t well-equipped to make biting commentary on actual gentrification. Instead, it merely makes light of a very real problem, and makes fun of those who "complain" about it. The game has a handful more instances of caustic humor, like the quote above, that goes a step beyond comfort, and comes off as more offensive than, well, funny. Also, there’s a Matrix joke in the year 2016. Twenty-sixteen.

As I’d enter a new batch of levels, I could always expect to eventually run into an adorable cafe-bound Barista Toad, who post up locales about as often as a Starbucks magically appears in any major city. That’s about two per every block for a place like San Francisco, or in Color Splash’s world, one pop-up shop per a fragment of levels or Roshambo tournament locations. And yes, rock paper scissors, a.k.a. roshambo, tournaments are a thing in Color Splash — but that’s about it in the minigame realm. They’re fine. Not abhorrently bad, but not exciting either. Just a quick way to farm coins when in need.

Battles are spiced up with delightfully weird "Thing" cards

Color Splash has more in common with Sticker Star than any other Paper Mario game, which may feel troublesome. In essence, cards work in a similar way as stickers did in Sticker Star. You roam around collecting them, or buying them with hard-earned coins from the local Toad-helmed card shop, and use them in turn-based battles. But if only those battles were enjoyable.

The battles in Color Splash feel like the result of misguided helplessness regarding how to utilize the Wii U’s Gamepad. You can get cards the easy route by saving up coins and buying them from the card shop, or go the hard way, by backtracking through already cleared levels to re-hit item boxes. Battles can pass by semi-quickly, or trudge along at a slow pace — it all depends on your current stock of cards. Your deck is usually host to a variety of attacks: boots for stomping, hammers for… hammering, fire flowers, fire hammers, and enemies that you can summon to your beck and call to die on your behalf.


If you’re out of cards, you can spin a roulette once per turn to receive a mystery card — but it costs 10 coins a spin. Some cards require painting before flinging them into battle, further slowing the process. Boss battles often get even worse. In some cases I’d get to the end, only to learn that I had missed a special card somewhere along the way, sending me back into the cold, dark world of Prism Island to find it, and then return to take the boss on all over again.

There’s a rare, small positive instilled in Color Splash’s battles: the delightfully weird "Thing" cards, which often instill spice into battles’ slog-like pace. Thing cards are discoverable 3D objects (which typically stand out, with the world being flat paper and all), squeezed dry of paint and turned into cards for Paper Mario’s disposable. There are specific story scenarios that call for them, but they’re usable in battles as well. They enlighten something that’s been delightful about past Paper Mario games — the fact that they’re completely unafraid to get eccentric. From a giant fire extinguisher rising from the flames of a burning city to the original Godzilla theme, to a Japanese lucky cat squashing an opponent to death… those Things get weird. But their personality is not enough to entirely save the painfully sluggish battles.

Unfortunately, just those slow battles are inanely frequent in Color Splash. Too frequent.

Like, every five minutes frequent.

Paper Mario Color Splash review screens
At some point after Color Splash's first five hours, battles felt like punishment

In a 30-something hour game, this felt like a lifetime spent in card-painting, lackadaisical strategizing, "crap, I’m out of boots" hell. At some point after Color Splash's first five hours, battles felt like punishment. Eventually I self-employed stealth within a game not built for it to try and avoid combat. As you can guess, Paper Mario is not Solid Snake. Stealth doesn’t work. Running away does. Well, sometimes. Other times, confrontation and potential death is unavoidable.

Given that there is no leveling up outside of increasing the amount of paint you can hold within your hammer, entering combat also often feels like a net loss. Combat resources in Color Splash are finite. You’re using cards that you could be saving, costing you in the long run before eventual bosses. Sure, you get rewards out of it, like coins and little leveling-up hammers, but they never felt like enough.

As the game progresses, the difficulty scales upward and the cards you can hunt down get stronger, which comes as no surprise, being an RPG-lite game and all. Yet, the game hardly gives you the tools to really prepare. So while there were times I had a fully balanced my stock of cards, there would be other instances where I found myself outta luck. Such as a number of run-ins with spiky shelled menaces in a row, ending up with only plain ol’ boots at my disposal. Using those cards in battle only injures myself, not the opponent. So I suffered through the longest battle of my life, praying my once-a-turn, 10-coin-costing roulette card would result in a hammer or other useful weapon.

Maybe Nintendo felt like tossing in paint would help rejuvenate the Paper Mario franchise. And in some ways, it kinda did. The most fun I had in the game was navigating its gorgeous levels — the series’ first (and likely only) installment on the Wii U really shines here — and smacking Mario’s hammer down to restore color to objects and bring Toads back to life. On that subject, I’d be willing to place it among one of the best-looking games on the Wii U. Though not being of the atypical standards of other more graphically-capable games on other consoles, Color Splash’s unique, hand-crafted appearing charms make it a sight to behold.

Wrap Up:

Paper Mario: Color Splash is clever and funny but a chore to play

Color Splash had moments of greatness — clever levels that changed up its formula, mostly sharp humor that actually made me laugh (a rarity in games, to be honest), handcraft-reminiscent visuals that made me want to spontaneously adopt arts and crafts as a hobby. It’s a shame that despite all these positives, in the end I found the game to be a chore; my pleasure often undercut by frustration and annoyance. Where I was once delighted by its humor, I’d later find myself annoyed by it. Where painting was once pleasant in the space of a level, I abhorred it in the wake of battle. Every blemish — no matter how fleeting or small — became amplified over my Toad-enabled journey. And after the game's 30 hours, I never wanted to look at a card again.

Paper Mario: Color Splash was reviewed using a retail copy provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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6.5 Wii U