When Paper Mario: Sticker Star was released in 2012, I was the only person I knew who liked it. Yes, it was very different than Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, but I felt that if you accepted that as given, it was a good game on its own merits. Of course, whether you agreed with me on that game, the real question is, “How similar is Color Splash to Sticker Star?” The bad news for those who didn’t like Sticker Star is that it’s pretty similar. The bad news for those who did like Sticker Star is that the changes are mainly for the worse.
Let’s start by discussing Mario’s reason for traipsing through Prism Island, the setting for Color Splash. As the game begins, he receives a “postcard” that turns out to be a Toad whose color has been drained. It’s postmarked as coming from Prism Island, so Mario and Princess Peach head there to find out what happened. It turns out that Bowser’s minions have removed the paint from the surfaces and Toads around the island, as well as the Paint Stars that fuel the island’s famed fountain. It’s not clear why they’ve done so, but it is clear that Mario is the only one who can restore the paint to the blank spots and the Paint Stars to the fountain. As he does so, he learns about the events that led to that fateful Toadcard in the mail. It’s an unusual setup in that it’s mostly backstory with very little current story, and though it’s not extremely deep, it is fun. It involves some Mario clichés, but it also throws in a curveball or two, which I appreciate.
As befits a game about paint, it is well presented with great graphics and excellent music. Whether you’re playing on your TV or the Wii U gamepad, the visuals are crisp and clear, with some nice details like Mario’s paper hammer squishing when it hits the ground. When you’ve filled in all the paintless spots on a level, you unlock that level’s music in a town’s jukebox, and I that admittedly drove me to finish off a few levels where I was close. We RPG fans tend to be completionists anyway, so it’s nice to get a reward for following our instincts.
The trouble with Color Splash starts when we move the discussion toward gameplay. In Sticker Star, you had to constantly collect stickers, because each attack spent one. You had a sticker book, and as you progressed through the game, you were granted additional pages in the book so you could hold more stickers.
In Color Splash, the stickers are replaced by battle cards, which are still spent when you use them to attack, but aren’t sitting around everywhere in the environment like stickers were. There are some in question mark blocks, but not as many. You tend to get a lot of money instead, which you use back in town to buy more cards. If you somehow run out of cards, you can use 10 coins per turn to buy a random card, which might be a bargain or a ripoff, depending on what you get.
Additionally, the cards aren’t laid out as well as Sticker Star’s album was — they’re displayed in a straight line of cards that you must use the stylus to scroll through. If you dig into the settings menu, you can enable a control scheme that allows you to use the analog sticks to scroll one by one, but there’s no “page left” and “page right,” and if you accidentally tilt the analog stick up, the cursor jumps out of the stack up to the cards you’ve already selected for that term. When you have built up a store of 70 cards or so, neither set of controls provides an optimal gameplay experience.
The cards are frustrating, but they aren’t the only resource you need to constantly collect — you also need paint. Each level has areas from which the paint has been removed, and cards must be painted in before they can be used. It’s not difficult to stay stocked up on paint, except when you get into an extended set of battles or a long boss fight, but it’s one more thing you have to keep spending small amounts of time to collect. Between cards and paint, I avoided combat when possible so I could save my resources for when I couldn’t avoid a fight.
Even with my frustrations, I didn’t actually hate playing Color Splash, partly due to the other things it does help out in areas that are often frustrating in games. For example, there is one time when you need to hunt down a team of Toads, and there is a convenient place in town where you’re told the level(s) where you’ll find them. The game doesn’t tell you exactly where to find them, just the level you need to search, which I like — it doesn’t eliminate the challenge, it merely cuts down on wasted time.
Paper Mario: Color Splash is a strange beast. It’s deeply flawed and a clear step in the wrong direction for the series — we need a game that moves closer to the Thousand Year Door formula, not further away from it. In more recent related games, I had some complaints about Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, but that game’s use of Paper Mario in battle was one of its highlights. However, in Color Splash, the developers seem to have forgotten the creative things we did in that game like stacking Paper Marios as a sort of shield and choosing each turn between a weaker attack on multiple enemies and a stronger attack on just one.
Still, despite those problems, Color Splash is not a horrible game. It’s just a good one whose failure to be great is all the more disappointing because of the successes we’ve seen in its older relatives. If you didn’t like Sticker Star, you won’t like Color Splash. Unfortunately, that may still be true even if you did like Sticker Star. If you want to give it a shot, I’d recommend a rental before you buy.