Many Nintendo fans were delighted to hear in January that Intelligent Systems, the team behind Paper Mario, was working on a new game in the beloved series for Wii U. But when it was formally revealed under the name Paper Mario: Color Splash, that joy turned to disappointment for some and outrage for others.
The first two games in the series—Paper Mario for Nintendo 64 and GameCube's Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door—are where many of its fans began. They were traditional RPGs with an inventive battle system and interesting story elements, all topped off by a unique kicker: everything in the world was made of paper.
The third game, Super Paper Mario, took the series' gameplay in a different direction, and while it performed well critically and commercially, the popular sentiment among Nintendo fans was that the next game should return to the formula its predecessors had established. Paper Mario: Sticker Star seemed like that exciting return when it was first unveiled, but it too ultimately left fans unsatisfied—the RPG mechanics had been watered down and the story elements Paper Mario fans expected had been stripped away.
Super Paper Mario was an oddity, but Sticker Star is where the issue truly began.
Understanding Sticker Star
What hurt fans is that Sticker Star shared only two things in common with the older games: the paper and the Mario. What were once delightful NPCs with interesting designs and stories became indistinguishable Toads with nothing to say. What was once an entire cast of endearing companion characters (and half the battle system, to boot) became nothing more than a single floating crown with eyeballs following you around, and with little gameplay function beyond its Zelda-like companion role. What was once a rich experience-based progression system became individual power-ups strewn about the world. What were once essential battle commands became resources found in the overworld, somehow simultaneously far too often and not nearly often enough. And the story was suddenly so negligible that everything between the first and last cutscenes is condensed to a single sentence on Wikipedia.
When Sticker Star launched I was just getting my toes in the water writing about games at Zelda Informer, where I shared my thoughts in miniature progress updates, each awarding the game a tentative score at the end. At first I criticized the game for many of these reasons—it felt completely disrespectful of the Paper Mario name that had until then meant something so specific and so dear to me. This was nothing like past Paper Mario games. I was upset.
To my surprise, fellow Paper Mario fans came rushing to tell me how wrong and unfair my article was, and how little it respected Sticker Star as the game it is, as opposed to the game I wished it were.
So I took a step back. I divorced my history with the Paper Mario series from the game that was in my hands, and in so doing I found something delightful.
The gameplay was fresh and unique—not terribly deep, but possibly the most addicting in the series' history nonetheless. The visuals were gorgeous, and the variety of environments all constructed from paper made the stereoscopic 3D more believable than ever. The music was bouncy, happy, crisp, and fun. All of a sudden, I was having a blast.
It wasn't the immersive world and intricate mechanics I came to expect from Paper Mario, but it turned out Sticker Star is one of the best games you can find to deliver twenty hours of stupid, carefree, happy-go-lucky fun.
The Community Tears
Unfortunately it seems few fans were able to forgive Sticker Star so quickly. On my final verdict, readers now expressed anger and disappointment about the game. Unfortunately the original set of comments has long since been lost, but new ones have since trickled in to the same effect. One said, "I hate this game. I regret buying it." They were upset, and they had the right to be.
If Nintendo makes a turn-based RPG that looks like Paper Mario and plays (at least somewhat) like Paper Mario, and then calls it "Paper Mario," they're sending a crystal-clear message: if you like the Paper Mario games, you should buy this one.
Whether Nintendo realized it or not, that message was totally wrong.
The previous Paper Mario games are traditional RPGs with long stories, a deep battle system, and elaborate worlds. Players could immerse themselves in the environment, the lore, the locales, and the battle tactics. These games were cheerful, optimistic, and often silly, but they had a dramatic backbone driving the player forward.
Sticker Star is a goofy romp through several isolated paper dioramas filled with coins, collectible stickers, and silliness for its own sake, topped with a sprinkle of RPG mechanics. Players could enjoy fighting dancing Shy Guys in mariachi outfits, squishing colossal toy goats flat, and a host of other paper zaniness. It's cheerful, optimistic, and silly to the point of a frantic schizophrenia—but that's its whole identity.
Sticker Star took the attitude that once colored Paper Mario in and made it the new author. It's a delightful game in its own right, but for almost none of the same reasons. Fans who loved Paper Mario and trusted Nintendo's message found themselves having paid money for something that was neither what they wanted nor what they thought they were promised. It wasn't just a disappointment. It was a betrayal.
Herein lies Nintendo's saddest mistake: they made a terrific game that nevertheless failed to satisfy its players.
How Nintendo Got Here
Four years later, many of those same fans eagerly await the series' return to its roots, now that Sticker Star can be called a thing of the past. But replace stickers with a combination of paint and playing cards, and you've got the upcoming Paper Mario: Color Splash for Wii U.
Business-wise, this game gets no defending from me. On YouTube alone its trailers have been met with overwhelming "dislike" ratios and long rants of anger, sadness, and defeat from commenters and video creators alike. Sticker Star's backlash was predictable, at least in hindsight if nothing else. But they've had four years of hindsight to help them with Color Splash—this game simply shouldn't have happened this way.
It's one of the last exclusive titles on a platform only the most die-hard Nintendo fans own; the past year on Wii U has already been littered with bad spinoffs at worst and headlined by rushed B-listers at best, and now the console's only other Nintendo-made game is being positioned as more of a herald for their next system than a swan song for their current one.
The message Wii U owners need to hear right now is Nintendo's "thanks for bearing with us—we appreciate you," but Color Splash instead embodies both Nintendo's disregard for the way they upset their fans in the past, and fans' total uncertainty that Nintendo will learn from that mistake and do right by Paper Mario in the future.
We're right to feel uncertain, as the series has strayed so far away from its origin and Nintendo has demonstrated a failure to understand Paper Mario fans in a streak that's now three games running.
During Sticker Star's development they surveyed fans about the story in Super Paper Mario through their Club Nintendo rewards program to determine story's importance in Sticker Star. Ultimately, less than 1% of respondents said they enjoyed Super Paper Mario's story, and so the decision was made that Paper Mario can do without a narrative.
But this sample is flawed. By gathering responses this way, they not only limited their sample to a very small number of fans who made a habit of checking Club Nintendo for surveys, but there's no way to tell which respondents took the time to answer thoughtfully and which respondents haphazardly checked boxes as fast as possible in order to collect rewards points. And Super Paper Mario, being what Nintendo calls an "action adventure game," doesn't represent the story structure of an RPG like the original Paper Mario games, or even Sticker Star, in the first place.
In the face of this faulty data, the series' roots in dramatic storytelling should really speak for themselves. The original game wasn't even called "Paper Mario" in Japan, but rather "Mario Story." It and its sequel both wore their dramatic streak (irreverent as it may be) on their sleeves by setting their battle sequences on an actual performance stage. It's near impossible to reason, then, that a whopping 99% of Paper Mario players enjoyed the games in spite of the story elements, and not, at least in part, because of them.
But as Color Splash makes evident, Nintendo hasn't thought twice about Paper Mario's pivot away from its more traditional RPG roots, at least not in time to make a difference on Wii U. In fact, the game's Director seemed astounded by the very idea that someone would enjoy the first two Paper Mario games enough to buy HD-remastered versions of them when it was mentioned to her in an interview just two weeks ago. Just minutes earlier she explained that the team views Nintendo's handheld Mario & Luigi series as the traditional Mario RPG and Paper Mario as an open book for experimental gameplay—this, too, is confounding, considering Paper Mario quite literally began its life as "Super Mario RPG 2," and the Mario & Luigi series is getting just as messy, if not more so, as the Paper Mario series.
Is Hope Left? Is Hope Right?
So if Nintendo really still hasn't gotten the hint, what now?
Would it help to simply ignore Color Splash? Maybe. But it's possible Nintendo might see that instead as a natural symptom of Wii U's decline and think nothing of it—after all, they only expect to sell 800,000 units all year. Or worse, they may see it as a sign that Paper Mario itself is a lost cause, as they warned with Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash.
Would it help to positively push for an HD remake of either of the first two games? It certainly couldn't hurt. Both games would be utterly gorgeous remade with Color Splash's sense of aesthetic style, and if they go on to sell well it would certainly send a more positive message to Nintendo.
But now's a better time than ever to remember that when you divorce yourself from your history with the Paper Mario series, Sticker Star, despite all its directional follies, is a terrific game; and Color Splash, despite folly-turned-lunacy, looks like it's shaping up to be an incredible improvement thereof.
No amount of ranting or tweeting or YouTube-disliking will turn the game in our hands into the game we wish it were—at least not after what's already been displayed. We can make it loud and clear that we want a back-to-roots Paper Mario game next, but that's positive energy to channel at Nintendo, not negative energy to sling at Color Splash.
Right now is the time to recognize that Nintendo is creating a Paper Mario title with a radically different vision than the one fans have. It's one of the first lessons I learned in my career. A floating paint can with eyes isn't supposed to be the next Goombella. Shy Guys drinking color out of living creatures through a straw isn't supposed to be the next Shadow Queen.
What it's supposed to be is zany. It's silliness for its own sake. It's stupid, carefree, happy-go-lucky fun. And on those terms, Color Splash actually looks pretty incredible.
Take it from me. I gave Sticker Star 4/5 Reggies.