I once ran for the position of Video Games Editor at my university newspaper. I was young, with little experience of editing, but with plenty of experience in video games and writing already under my belt. When it came to the election speech though, I choked. They asked us to tell them our favourite games, and because I was last, and I hadn’t ever really considered it. “Oh no, everyone else said Zelda, uh uh uh all games are great????” I said, which is demonstrably not true. I mean, I don’t think any of you could defend Stalin vs. Martians. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the position, because I royally embarrassed myself on stage and no one wants an embarrassment running a newspaper.
So I sat down and thought long and hard about it, and then I realised: the game that has brought me most joy and pleasure through playing it was, and always will be, Paper Mario & The Thousand Year Door. I also have a secret and near-inexplainable love for Dante’s Inferno, but that one isn’t quite as on-brand and I don’t want people thinking I’m a strange lady who enjoys tearing people in half. Until they meet me, at least.
Thousand Year Door was a gem in the already gem-studded crown of the GameCube. It combined humour, creativity and excellent game design to make the most Nintendo game that ever Nintendo’ed – and it was brilliant.
Twisting existing gaming tropes into new and exciting surprises – one level had you solve a mystery while ascending the ranks as a wrestler called The Great Gonzales – made TTYD the kind of game that you couldn’t easily forget. Nintendo has always loved its gimmicks, but TTYD never felt overburdened or irritating in the way you might feel after a couple of hours of Skyward Sword’s motion swordplay or Super Mario Sunshine’s goop-cleaning.
Gimmicks are fine, but not at the expense of the game’s heart
But, as I’ve said, Nintendo loves gimmicks, and the next Paper Mario game on the Wii suffered for it. Despite a great story, stellar writing and a continued excellent design, Super Paper Mario focused heavily on a 2D/3D platforming mechanic, making it more of a traditional Mario game than its quirky A4 cousin. This was, in my opinion, the last great Paper Mario game.
After Sticker Star, the biggest misstep in the series, us Paper fans are wary. We gather round the fires, telling stories of great gameplay from the past, wistful and disappointed. Gimmicks are fine, but not at the expense of the game’s heart. I almost wonder if that’s Nintendo’s thing these days, in the same way a bad clown relies on his wacky clothing to entertain rather than his tricks.
So when Paper Mario: Color Splash popped up in the latest Nintendo Direct, I didn’t react with the excitement I might have had two or three years ago. The gimmick this time is that Mario’s hammer can bestow colour on objects. Okay, so far, so good. But will the game be as wholly underwhelming, confusing and gimmick-heavy as Sticker Star? Will it tread the line, like Super Paper Mario? Or will it fall squarely in the “Goddamn Excellent” pile along with Thousand Year Door?
I almost want to pause this moment, so we can forever live in the quantum state of having it every way – Color Splash, my Schrödinger’s cat – because that way I can still be naive and hopeful. But taking a closer look at that trailer, it’s difficult to be optimistic.
It’s important to establish the good and the bad elements of Paper Mario. Sticker Star had an irritating mechanic where battles were almost always held hostage by the sticker book – each combat move you wished to make had to be “played” as a sticker. If you ran out of that type of sticker, you had no more of that move (at least, until you picked more up in the level, as they were hidden all over the place).
Even worse, boss battles were infuriatingly difficult, until it became apparent that each had a weakness – a gigantic Goomba would have to be taken out by a Scissors sticker or a Big Fan, which gave you a nice animation, but also made you wonder what the point in being good at the game was if you could just use a Big Thing to make the problems go away.
The older Paper Mario games – and TTYD in particular – relied on a turn-based, skill-based combat system, which needed strategies both simple and complex. You could win with brute force, or you could combine special Star Moves, secret Badge Powers, clever swapping of support characters and manipulation of the combat “audience” to swing the battles over to your side. They were tense, thrilling and rarely, if ever, went down that RPG route of “ugh, another battle”, because each one was different.
That’s what I want from Color Splash – a little touch of the older, game-design-perfection Paper Marios that didn’t try too hard to have a “gimmick” but always delighted players with chirpy dialogue and layers upon layers of secrets to discover. Right now, I’m seeing worrying similarities to Sticker Star, like the first signs of a chronic illness – except instead of having to take medication to dull the pain, I just have to accept that my beloved series has moved on into something different.
The combat of Color Splash relies on collectible cards, similar to the sticker mechanic. And the gimmick – restoring colour to objects – seems as shoehorned in as the gimmicks in Super Paper Mario, which felt like a good game, unnecessarily complicated by a quirky idea.
I’m going to try to reserve judgement until we see more of the game, but so far I’m not won over. The combination of the overly-bright colours, the similarities to Paper Mario missteps of the past, and the fact that the gameplay seems focused on collectibles and completing levels rather than story, leaves me feeling underwhelmed and disappointed.
The best outcome is that I’m proved wrong. I’d love to be proved wrong! But when we’ve all watched as the Paper Mario series slowly drains of all colour and life in favour of simpler, collectible-focused gameplay, it’s hard to remain hopeful.
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