With Paper Mario: The Origami King on the horizon I’ve been playing through the last Paper Mario release. Arriving late in the Wii U’s already brief lifetime it’s a game I think many people let pass by. The Paper Mario series has a contentious history – it’s as likely to upset its fan base as please it. Waaay back on the N64 the series started with a tour-de-force. Considered a spiritual sequel to the SNES’ Super Mario RPG the game, Paper Mario, had a fun script and accessible RPG mechanics. Added into the mix was it’s distinct ‘paper cut-out’ graphical style. Too late in the console cycle it didn’t exactly prove to be a huge hit, more of a cult-classic. Seriously, take a look how much it sells for! This was followed up by the better-selling Thousand Year Door on the Gamecube. Mario was building RPG spin-offs to be proud of.

Thousand Year Door was the last entry to keep the same style. Since then we’ve had a Wii platforming game, Sticker Star on the 3DS and Colour Splash. While I’d usually be quite quick to defend a game for trying something different, sometimes experiments just need the plug pulling. Turn-based RPGs have been shaken up a lot lately. Usually this works for the best. So, mechanically, what’s missing from newer Paper Marios? For the most part, experience and character progression. Recruiting other party members is also absent. None of these things are necessarily vital in themselves, but something needs to be added in to take their place. And that is where Colour Splash falls on its face.

The Battles

I started the game optimistically. I’ll talk a little about the game’s good points later but the gist is: the world looks astounding. Then I started a battle. The card system isn’t awful, and it takes a while to get truly irritating. It’s just unnecessary. You have a deck of cards to attack with. Fine, lots of RPGs have used this before. But unlike most of those games, or trading card games, cards here are one use. You attack with it and poof, gone. So you don’t really have a deck of cards, you have a pile of one-use items you need to attack. Initially this also seems fine. You get given them frequently.

There’s a little strategy to keeping your best cards for when you need them. But by the end of the game relying on weaker cards takes ages. Keeping stocked up with cards is a chore. You can buy most cards easily in town, but they can get expensive. Don’t worry though, money is very easy to get. You can rack up a few thousand coins in minutes by going to a rock-paper-scissors temple on the over-world. That probably sounds like a good thing, and it is. But it raises the question: what’s the point? I can get money easily, I can get cards easily. There’s no challenge, no reward. Just time consuming. It’s a system that’s wholly unsatisfying.

Paper Mario: The Origami King looks like it’s addressed this to a degree. There’s a new battle system, this time asking you to rotate and slide enemies into formations. It looks just as time consuming as Colour Splash‘s cards, and seems like it’ll rely on one-use items. With this looking an altogether bigger release hopefully this system is a little more enjoyable.

The Progression

I don’t even recall playing a game of Colour Splash‘s standard so willing to blatantly waste my time. It begins understandably enough. Mario heads to an area on the world map, collects a ‘mini paint star’, usually unlocking the next level. Some area’s have multiple paint stars. Some of these are hidden or require you to revisit later. Others are just sat a few feet away from each other, requiring you to replay the same level again without any changes. Its symptomatic of a progression system that needed some work.

The game uses an over-world, like a classic Mario 3 over-world. Access to new areas is typically gated in one of two ways. ‘Big Paint Stars’, obtained after a chapter close, re-paint a huge object on the map. Usually this will open up a new path somewhere you’ve already been. Then there’s ‘Things’; real world objects either impeding your progress, or required for it. By squeezing them you can turn them into cards and then call them forth again later, or in battle. For example, there’s a random huge battery in the bowels of a ship. You’ll find you need it later on to power something up. The slight kink here is you can use them in battle, or submit them to an in-game museum. Used it? You can either buy a new one in town or walk back to where you got the first one. It’s not terrible, but its another system that adds nothing and could’ve been addressed.

The biggest news for the Origami King is that it’s going to be open world. This is something that Colour Splash badly needed, and feels like it was working towards. Between the effect of big paint stars and gear-gating Things a more Metroidvania approach would’ve made exploration feel much more part of the game. And hey, if there was a little more back-tracking maybe they wouldn’t have needed to pad the game in other ways.

What Colour Splash Got Right

Everything else. Almost literally. It’s why playing through the game is so frustrating; its on the cusp of greatness. The game’s art style is just a joy to look at. The Wii U did an admirable job compensating for a lack of graphical power with some phenomenal art styles. This is up there with Yoshi’s Woolly World and Kirby and the Rainbow Paintbrush. The script is just as funny as older games. It’s self-aware, silly and at times quite witty. Character interactions are charming – especially enemies. There’s also some wonderful references to older games that are also hugely enjoyable moments in themselves.

The other thing that needs singling out is the level variety. It’s not a game that churns out levels; almost every one has something unique. You’ll ride a concussed Dragon, repair a historic train and even run errands in a haunted hotel (Luigi was unavailable). There’s an entire chapter that takes place on a sea voyage looking for a treasure island. They’re not all winners (I could’ve done without the timing-based pizza cooking level, or the card-recognising quiz) but the game certainly doesn’t rest on its laurels. It’s what made it worth persevering through some of the game’s uninteresting battles and mini-games. Here’s hoping when Paper Mario: The Origami King drops on July 17th it retains all this charm, and manages to fix the rest.