Paper Mario: Color Splash was one of the most stylish games on show at E3, quietly tucked away behind closed doors in a corner of Nintendo’s booth that few saw. Away from the clamour of Zelda downstairs, I found Color Splash to be charming and very comfortable in its blend of humour and light puzzle solving.
But, away from the buzz of E3, many Nintendo fans responded differently. Paper Mario did not go down well among devotees of the series watching its demo shown on Nintendo’s E3 Treehouse livestream. For many, Color Splash was a return to the lighter role-playing of the Paper Mario series’ last entry, 3DS outing Sticker Star. Once again, players use a card-based system to draw upon support and launch attacks rather than allowing for multiple party members.
It’s not as great a disconnect between Nintendo and fans as this year’s Metroid Prime: Federation Force, a game so widely disliked that it has barely been seen since its E3 appearance last year. And it shouldn’t be. Federation Force removes the Metroid series’ beloved main character, mechanics and throws its established art style in the bin. Color Splash is still very much a Paper Mario game, although one with a changed focus from the series’ origins.
Fans will recognise the Paper Mario series’ usual intricate diorama areas, with papercraft elements to interact with. The twist this time around is restoring colour to objects which have had it drained out of them. Restore it via a flick of your hammer, inexplicably, and the item will spring back to life.
“For this game we wanted to make it an action-adventure,” producer Risa Tabata confirmed to me. “You’re probably already aware of the Mario & Luigi RPG series of games, and our efforts with this game [Color Splash] have been to provide something different to that.”
It’s likely not something which fans will want to hear – a confirmation of Nintendo’s change in approach to the Paper Mario series that began with Sticker Star. But for fans of the series who disliked that game in particular, Tabata said Nintendo had learned some lessons.
“Some of the things we’ve focused on in the past are the humour and a well-put-together story,” she said when asked what long-time fans of the series will find familiar. “That’s something we’ve really focused on for this title.”
A common criticism of Sticker Star was its lack of overall narrative, something which Nintendo has reinstated this time around. That’s not to say you should expect a BioWare RPG – just that Nintendo has focused on story a little harder for Color Splash.
Helping dole out the story this time around is Huey, a magical paint bucket, who holds a similar role to Kersti in Sticker Star. Huey is the only companion Mario will have, although Nintendo has said this is to allow him to form a close bond with players. By the time the story ends, Tabata said, “you’ll probably cry”.
In the section I played Huey was full of things to say, and the script was as sharp as any game in the series before it. Color Splash also relies on a cast of familiar characters and Mushroom Kingdom races, rather than inventing its own. Expect “normal Mario universe” characters as the game’s main focus then, such as Peach, Toad and “a familiar green guy” – while the Koopalings are the game’s antagonists.
Combat involves using the battle cards you’ve collected by swiping them up from the GamePad’s screen onto the TV. Then there’s the usual timing mechanic to factor in, where hitting buttons at the right time powers up your attacks. Mario and enemies still have a HP bar, but it seems like a hangover from his earlier fully RPG adventures.
Your enjoyment of Color Splash is likely to hinge upon whether you can enjoy this latest Paper Mario game as an action-adventure, rather than damning it outright for not being an RPG. The YouTube embed above has an eye-opening like to dislike ratio, and I understand where that level of upset comes from; my favourite Paper Mario game remains Thousand Year Door back on GameCube. But there’s a fun, funny game underneath this debate – something I’ve never particularly felt about Metroid Prime: Federation Force – and I think it deserves a chance.