As we come to write this, it's a typically dreary day outside - and if you're anything like us, that means you could probably do with a bit of a cheering up too. So let's start things off the right way - with a few terrible paper-related jokes!
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Say what you will about Paper Mario, but he sure likes to cut it a bit fine (boom boom!). While his last outing may have left us a bit flat, our edgy hero (geddit - because he's 2D) has a habit of turning up in the final hours of a console's life. If you trace his history back, from his original role playing adventure on the N64 (which was one of the last Nintendo games to come out on the console) to the fantastic Paper Mario: The Thousand Year door on the GameCube, it seems it takes Paper Mazza a good few years to get up to speed, and finally grace a console with his presence.
In fact, the only console he managed to be around from day one for was the Wii - and you only have to look at the astronomical sales figures to see how well that turned out. Seemingly, Paper Mario = sales. You'd better be-leaf it.
With Paper Mario: Colour Splash, history seems to be repeating itself once more, as the now not-so-portly plumber sets out on a big adventure on the Wii U, in what's likely to be one of, if not the last big Nintendo exclusive on the console, as all eyes turn to Nintendo's next big machine, the still-shrouded-in-secrecy Nintendo NX, due to launch next Spring. And as you'd probably hope, Mario sends the platform out in style.
Paper Mario: Colour Splash (or "color" splash as it's annoyingly spelt, even on the UK box) sits somewhere in between the other Paper Mario games in terms of gameplay. It's not a pure platform game like Super Paper Mario on the Wii, it's not as lifeless and soulless as the 3DS' Paper Mario: Sticker Star, but it's not quite as good as GameCube classic Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Instead, it's a game that straddles the boundary between being a role playing game, and an adventure, packing in lots of dialogue, loads of characters to talk to, puzzles galore to be solved, and turn based battles. Oh, and there's that fantastic Paper Mario sense of humour still present and correct too.
The plot here is typically daft. One day, Mario and Princess Peach (nee: Toadstool) receive what appears to be an ordinary letter - only the truth is much more sinister. Unfolding the carefully creased paper, it turns out they've been posted a Toad, only drained of all its colour! With the only clue they have being a post mark telling you it came from Prism Island, the dynamic duo set off to investigate, only to find an island robbed of its colour. Somewhere along the way, you'll meet a talking paint pot named Huey (sigh), who explains the seven paint stars have been stolen - and it's up to you to track them down. And while it's not initially made clear who's half inched them, there is a group of Shy Guys going around sucking the paint off poor, unsuspecting Toads when they're not looking...
What follows is an adventure that's more segmented than a role playing game, yet with far more puzzle solving than a platformer. Rather than having a large world to explore, you instead get around via the game's world map, which lets you hop from location to location. Each location contains at least one mini-star - and once you've managed to collect that mini-star, it'll show you the way to the next one. The only problem is, getting to the mini-stars isn't all that easy, as you've got a variety of enemies, and puzzle-shaped obstacles to get round first.
Each area has its own puzzle to solve - and many have multiple problems for you to get your head around. Take Daffodil Peak. Rolling up at the bottom of the mountain, a slightly creepy Toad peers out at you from behind a slat in a ramshackle booth, before moaning at you that you'll need a pass before he'll let you climb the mountain. Of course, climbing the mountain is something you'll definitely want to do - not only do you have reason to believe there's going to be a mini-star at the top, but the gate guardian Toad also tells you there's a great sage, full of ineffable wisdom. But if you want to get up the mountain, you'll need to find the pass. And for that, you need to head next door, where you find this rather sullen looking Toad.
Turns out this Toad is the guy in charge of the passes, and while he'd love to help you out... well... he just feels a bit too depressed to do so. The same vandals who've been messing everything else up have hit his house, you see - and, as you can see from the picture above, they've sucked the colour out of it. With nothing quite as it used to be, it's up to you to fix things in the only way you know how - by whacking it with your hammer.
Thanks to your loyal paint can companion Huey, your hammer has been infused with the power of paint - and this plays into almost every part of the game. Exploring each level, you'll come across white, discoloured splodges and patches, whether it's part of a wall, or an entire object that's been drained of its colour. Without their colour, nothing really works properly - so houses that should be open will be locked, lifts will be stationary, and Toads will be all but dead, until you whack 'em with your hammer, and give them a paint-y lease of life.
And as it so happens, that's exactly what you have to do for this poor Toad. Putting his house back together is as easy as whacking anything and everything white with your hammer, which will splodge it with a splat of paint. Brilliantly, this whole "re-colouring" process is actually pretty clever, as it's not enough to just whack an area with your hammer - you have to actually colour it in with paint splodges for it to go back to normal. So, the large patch on the floor in the screenshot above will take three or four blows, at least, before it's back to its colourful self.
His house restored, the Toad soon cheers up, and is more than happy to grant you your pass - but in typical Paper Mario way, even this is done with a flare of style. The toad doesn't just give you a climbing permit - his chair slides backwards, a slot opens in the floor, and up pops a totally flat, paper safe, which then unfolds itself like a letter to present the pass. It's just one of an absolute cacophony of nice touches, which make your time with the game that much more fun.
With the pass in hand, you can now climb the mountain - but were it so easy. There are plenty of enemies in your way, and you'll have to either fight your way past - or skilfully slink by. Almost every area you explore will be populated by baddies - and should you manage to catch their eye, they'll charge at you. If you collide, you'll end up in a battle - although you can get an advantage by whacking them with your hammer, or jumping on them before they spot you.
The battles here are turn based, and if you've ever played a Paper Mario game, or one of the Mario and Luigi games, you'll soon feel at home, even if there are a few twists. Turn based though they may be, the battles here are a bit interactive, and there's more to it than simply choosing a move and watching as the damage gets done. Choose to jump, and you can press A when Mario lands on the enemy's bonce to bounce up to five times, dishing out more damage. Go to hit something with your hammer, and you'll need to press A at the right time to whack it with all your force - leave it too late, and you'll actually botch up your attack; but get it right, and you'll clear out all the enemies in one.
Unfortunately, though, the battles in Paper Mario: Colour Splash aren't quite as good as the rest of the game - and in fact, they're pretty much the only thing that lets it down. For starters, there isn't just a simple "choose a move" system here - instead, you have to collect cards, which you can "play" in order to move. Luckily, unlike on the 3DS' Sticker Star, you can store an infinite amount of cards - but finding them isn't as easy as you might think. While ? blocks in the environment may give you a free card, defeated enemies only rarely give you anything back, and so you'll find yourself using a lot more cards in each level than you receive.
Some cards you find are coloured in and ready to use, but others are black and white. While you can use the black and white cards if you want to, it's probably not all that wise, as they'll do hardly any damage - for max damage dealing potential, you'll want to colour them in first. Luckily, this is as simple as touching and holding the card on the GamePad's screen - but doing so will use up your paint reserves (shown in the top left of the screen). As paint plays such a key part in Paper Mario, though, a top up is never far away - almost anything you hit that's coloured in in the world will drop splodges of paint, which you can collect to fill up your reserves.
What further complicates things is that certain enemies can only be defeated by certain types of cards. A jump attack is useless against a spiky enemy, fireballs do nothing to flying enemies, and a hammer is useless against a buzzy beetle's tough shell. If you don't have the required cards, your only option is to "spin for a card" at the start of each turn, at a cost of ten coins - and while you'll never find yourself running low on coins (we have 4000+ at the time of writing, and we've been spinning a lot), it quickly becomes a drag.
To make matters worse, it isn't immediately obvious which cards/moves can and can't damage certain enemies. Instead, it's a matter of trial and error, as you try and memorise which card works against which enemy.
And then there's the real killer blow - despite having role playing game style battles, there's actually no real point to the battles in Colour Splash. You can beat as many enemies as you want, but doing so won't make Mario any stronger, as there's no experience points system, or any way of strengthening Mario through the battles. You don't earn pins, like in some of the earlier games, which let you customise Mario's moves and strengths; you don't earn new cards; and you can't even increase your health through fighting enemies.
Instead, all battles really do is serve as a "spoil" - they slow you down as you go about your quest, without really giving you anything back in return - and in doing so, they rob the game of its sense of progression.
If you actually got stronger for beating enemies, you'd find yourself actively trying to get into fights as much as humanly possible - trying to make sure you're ready for the next boss, or the next tricky dungeon. In fact, that's how it seems to go in pretty much every other role playing game known to mankind - the battles are fun, because you know they make you stronger. Yet in Colour Splash, you find yourself almost invariably actively trying to avoid battles as much as you can, because you know you're going to get nothing out of it - but you will lose plenty of cards. Cards you might need when you eventually get to a boss fight.
And it's such a shame about the lack of progression in the battles, as everything else here is so incredibly good. There aren't that many games with a sense of humour, but Paper Mario has it in spades, and you'll regularly find yourself laughing out loud at the dialogue. From Peach's introduction of Mario "and this is my... friend, Mario. He jumps on things and hits them with a hammer when necessary.", to Huey's suggestion you "go and paint the town red. And hopefully other colours too", and a Toad's exasperated cry "Mario, Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser! No one could have predicted this!", you'll find yourself wanting to talk to each and every character you come across, because they'll likely have something funny to say. Even a Toad gazing at a waterwheel managed to make us laugh as he gushed: "This waterwheel is the best. It's easily in my top 500 favourite waterwheels". High praise indeed.
While the lack of progression may let the game's battles down, Paper Mario: Colour Splash gets almost everything else exactly right. The whole paint idea seems to work fantastically with the game's papercraft world, and there's something immensely satisfying in wandering round the colourful worlds, filling in the blank holes and watching things come back to life (the game tracks your percentage colouring-in completion on each level, too) - Nintendo would be crazy to not incorporate this into future Paper Mario games, as it's such a perfect fit.
With a killer sense of humour, dozens of levels to explore, and plenty to get down, if Paper Mario: Colour Splash does turn out to be the Wii U's last exclusive, it'll at least have gone out in style.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U