Following up a disappointing game in the final days of the Wii U was a tough job but somebody had to do it.
Paper Mario: The Origami King is on its way to Nintendo Switch soon, and with all the news swirling around about Mario and his pop-up adventures, I’ve reflected on my own experiences with the 20-year-old franchise. I actually started collecting these thoughts before Origami King was announced, as I’ve spent part of my COVID-19-related time noodling my way through some older games I wanted to replay or actually earnestly start. The Paper Mario games, mostly thanks to the rumors throughout the early parts of 2020, have been a series on my mind. Paper Mario hasn’t been Nintendo’s best-selling or most critically acclaimed games, but they’ve been consistent, as NWR’s Xander Morningstar pointed out earlier this year when he said Paper Mario games historically come out once every four years. Paper Mario is like the American Presidential elections, and with where the series discourse has been lately, that comparison might be incredibly apt.
It just so happened that the most contentious Paper Mario came out almost quite literally on Election Day in 2012. It's been almost eight years, but I can still remember the moment when I threw down Paper Mario Sticker Star and stopped playing out of sheer frustration. It was in the back half of the adventure. By this point, I played the game with a guide up because of the specificity of the thing stickers; the plodding repetition if you didn't have the right one was maddening. It hit me with a wave that I think I hated this Paper Mario game. The pointlessness of the battles. The wasted resources. The loss of the unending creativity and wit that seemed to make the previous three Paper Marios a joy. Sticker Star, aside from snazzy graphics and music, was devoid of joy.
That was a bummer of a feeling. To that point, I counted the Paper Mario series as one of my favorites. I'm a huge Super Mario RPG fan and happily gravitated towards Paper Mario on Nintendo 64, following it in Nintendo Power and the like back when it was dubbed Super Mario RPG 2. Looking back, it’s nuts that Paper Mario first surfaced about a year after Super Mario RPG launched. It would take quite a while for Paper Mario to launch on Nintendo 64, but I have extremely fond memories of sitting down with the game in early 2001, making my way through the papery world and enjoying the ride, even if the pace was very gentle and the RPG-ness of it all was very entry level. The way I’ve always looked at Mario RPGs is that they likely don’t need to be complex to be successful. Just give me a fun adventure with good writing, pleasing whimsy, and creativity. I can jive with some of the all-ages concepts if those three elements are strong.
Soon after Paper Mario hit Nintendo 64, news of a sequel started to surface. When I caught wind of The Thousand-Year Door, I was stoked. Improved graphics, a new world, and more of a focus on the paper elements. The march to its launch was a delight. While I have some choice words to say about that frustrating final boss, I love Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. It's a gorgeous game that won our Mario Spin-off Tournament for a reason. It built on the foundation of the N64 predecessor and added more wonder and peculiarities. My only complaint at this point is that it’s a late-gen GameCube game that’s somewhat harder to find, so it’d be cool if Nintendo re-released it somewhere. Remember the GameCube, Nintendo? I know it wasn’t your best-selling system, but can we see some of those games again?
One of those GameCube games was almost going to be the next Paper Mario game - Super Paper Mario. The third entry in the series was announced at E3 2006, aiming for an October release date that year. Likely because the GameCube was a lost cause in 2006 and the Wii was looking very promising, Nintendo pushed Super Paper Mario to the Wii, delaying the game until spring 2007.
Super Paper Mario went in a weird platformer direction that, while maybe ultimately a step down, was still really good. The localization team at Nintendo of America stayed winning with clever humor. Maybe this is where the flaws started showing, but it was deliriously silly to play in this mixture of classic Mario platforming with flashes of the RPG elements in the series. In retrospect, maybe Super Paper Mario was a sign of things to come as it started to get farther away from the RPG tropes of the earlier adventures. Still, the writing was great, the world was fun, and the gameplay worked.
Paper Mario then stayed dormant for the longest time in series history as the next we heard was at the 3DS reveal. In 2010, an untitled Paper Mario game was shown in video form on 3DS. The artwork, especially in stereoscopic 3D, was spectacular. I had memories initially of hearing that the Paper Mario 3DS game was going to be a remake of Paper Mario 64, but I think that was just because I was in what I’ll call “the event bubble” - where I attended E3 2010 and since I was out and about on the show floor somewhat disconnected from the internet, the weirdest game of telephone gets played. Anyway, things remained quiet about this Paper Mario project until E3 2012, where the full name - Paper Mario: Sticker Star - was announced and the gameplay was first shown. Things were promising. The sticker battle system was cool and while level-based adventuring didn’t seem that appealing, after three solid entries, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems had my trust. Boy was I wrong to have faith.
Reception around Paper Mario: Sticker Star’s launch wasn’t that negative. The MetaCritic score is at a 75, and there are a number of glowing reviews. A part of Nintendo World Report’s own review, from former staffer Scott Thompson, makes me nod in agreement. He kicks off his conclusion with “I want to love Sticker Star.” It’s an apt way to sum up how I personally feel about the game. Clearly some people like this game though and honestly, Nintendo’s calculus for the changes they made weren’t far off. They axed the emphasis on story based on consumer feedback. According to series producer Kensuke Tanabe: “With regard to the story, we did a survey over the Super Paper Mario game in Club Nintendo, and not even 1% said the story was interesting.”
Go and talk to some of the people who bounced off of those earlier Paper Mario games. A lot of the complaints are of how wordy the games can be. It’s a fair point. One person’s clever writing is another person’s slog. But the fact of the matter is, I really really really don’t like Paper Mario: Sticker Star. My disappointment with it is up there with the likes of the ending of Game of Thrones. That game makes me sad.
So when Paper Mario: Color Splash - Sticker Star’s direct follow-up - was announced at E3 2016, I wasn’t ready to be hurt again. Visually, it looked wonderful. Paper Mario’s first HD adventure wasn’t going to be a disappointment in that regard. That wasn’t Sticker Star’s issue either. I saw the limited-use card system, the return of “thing” cards, and the emphasis on only Toads and set my mind on letting Color Splash pass me by. I mean, it was coming out in the death throes of the Wii U, months before the Nintendo Switch was due out.
When Color Splash came out at the end of 2016, I did wind up spending some time with it. Surprise surprise - I didn’t like it. The world was a joy to explore, but the battles still seemed pointless and the card mechanics were slow and laborious. I dismissed it and moved on. Odds are if I didn’t wind up staying at home for the past few months due to COVID-19, that would have been the end of this.
However, I’m now here in 2020 after picking up Paper Mario: Color Splash again. Let me tell you: it’s a hell of a video game. This game might also be a way in which my perspective has changed in four years. In 2016, I was at the end of my 20s and in 2020, I crossed into my 30s and now have a child. My worldview is altered. The impetus for even checking out Color Splash was born out of my son’s enjoyment watching me play Super Mario 64 and Paper Mario 64. At the behest of a few friends who swore that my boy would enjoy himself some paint-splattering Mario fun, I went back to Color Splash. Both of us have been relishing the adventure.
I’m not ready to call it the best entry in the series, but in some ways, Color Splash trounces its predecessors. Sure, the overreliance on Toads is a little discouraging, but the writing for those Toads is fantastic. The jokes-per-minute pace here is fast and furious, making cute meta digs at the game itself and referencing other Mario games with dexterity. Partners are sorely missing once again, but your paint can friend Huey is wonderful and the restriction on just having Mario in battle emphasizes expediency and efficiency in battles.
It really isn’t that far off from Sticker Star, but Color Splash just refines and improves everything. Battles, which were low-key meaningless for most of Sticker Star, have a benefit of refilling your paint meter, increasing the meter’s size, and giving you new cards. I’d still say that a lot of the battles you come across are a tiny bit superfluous, but the good thing is that it’s simple to power your way through battles in a single turn once you learn the nuances. The battle controls are still clumsy, but an advanced control option helps to expedite the laboriousness of the basic, child-oriented controls. That fact takes me back to my initial thoughts on the early Paper Mario games. I can accept a degree of all-ages simplicity if other parts of the game are very strong. Color Splash very much gives me a fun adventure with good writing, pleasing whimsy, and creativity. It’s far more adventure game than RPG, and that’s okay with me.
Color Splash is playful in some of the best ways, letting you poke around visually impressive worlds looking for unpainted crevices. Bouncing between areas to look for alternate routes. Figuring out how to uncover the secrets of this world to snag all the Paint Stars and save the day. And it definitely helps that I have a partner while playing it who claps like a big ol’ goofball whenever we win a battle.
There exists a version of this article that came out a few weeks ago and talks about how I wonder what the next Paper Mario will be. More RPG? Color Splash 2? Luckily, I didn’t finish this before the announcement of Paper Mario: The Origami King and my wistful hopes for the next Paper Mario game might be coming true. I’m fine with The Origami King building off of Color Splash’s foundation. The predecessor might not be perfect, but it’s strengths can be bolstered quite easily with a bigger scope and other flourishes. Partners, at least in some capacity, are coming back in Origami King. In two minutes, we saw a greater variety of NPCs than might have been in all of Color Splash, with Bob-ombs, Magikoopas, Bowser Jr., and more. The battle system looks like it’s adding complexity and strategy - hopefully with good results - while also placing additional emphasis on the performance aspects of the series battle systems.
We’re two months away from the next Paper Mario game and from the reveal trailer, I’m heartened and optimistic it will check those important boxes for the series. It looks like a fun adventure with good writing. The whimsy seems plentiful and pleasant. The creativity appears to be abundant. The Origami King gives off the appearance of checking those boxes, much like Paper Mario 64 did, much like The Thousand-Year Door did, much like Super Paper Mario did, and much like Color Splash did. The place and time Paper Mario: Color Splash was launched into was not ideal, but I hope that when the dust settles over the next few years, more people give that game a first or second chance, like I did, and see that the excellency of Paper Mario is not dead. It just transformed into a paper airplane or a paint hammer or 1000-Fold Arms.