The Paper Mario series is a strange thing – a spin-off of a hugely successful franchise that attempts to turn a platform game hero into an RPG protagonist. On top of that, it’s a series that is founded on a paper-thin principle – literally (you’re a 2D character in a 3D world). The paper theme seems like one that would be done to death by now, 16 years after the release of the first Paper Mario, and yet the studio behind the games, Intelligent Systems, seem to keep coming up with more ideas.
This is best demonstrated by my favorite game of all time – 2004’s Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door for Nintendo’s Gamecube, in which you gain the ability to turn sideways to get through gaps (because you’re two-dimensional, you see), roll up into a tube to get under things, and fold yourself into a plane or a boat. It’s a beautifully simple take on “Metroidvania” mechanics – get a new ability to reach new places on the map.
The most recent games in the series, Sticker Star on 3DS and Color Splash on Wii U, are now far more focused on combat, and their designs have been altered to fit. In Sticker Star, you collect stickers, with each one representing an attack you can perform in battle. That’s basically it – there’s not much out-of-combat stuff to do with the stickers, except being occasionally able to alter terrain with a big fan sticker or a vacuum cleaner sticker to open up new areas of a level.
It’s the same in Color Splash, a game in which your main objective is to restore color to an island that’s been drained by Mario’s arch-enemy, Bowser. You collect cards, you use cards in battle. Rinse and repeat.
I’m ambivalent about both these games, which is a long way to come from The Thousand-Year Door being my favorite game of all time. What went wrong? Why don’t I care any more?
Imagine an incredibly detailed, filigree-engraved sword, but it’s covered in rust. It’s a beautiful object, but it’s for looking at, not stabbing things. This is the original Paper Mario games: beautiful, detailed, but not quite as up-to-date as they could be. Now imagine someone came along and polished that sword until it shone, but in doing so they lost all that filigree detailing. The sword is sharp, it’s shiny, it’s ready to stab things – but it’s not an object to be looked at and admired; it’s an object to be used. It’s functional – a tool. This is how I feel about Color Splash. It’s a perfectly fine and functional game, and there’s even some of the trademark goofy humour in there but it’s just not special any more – it just feels like another standard issue RPG. It does the job, it ticks the boxes, but it doesn’t thrill me in the way the older games did, because it doesn’t surprise me and delight me.
It’s true that most GameCube games have not aged well, and constantly looking backwards and reminiscing about how great games used to be is pointless. We now live in an era where games can take risks and be weird, where you can spend two hours walking around a Scottish island and call it a game, where pixel art is suddenly cool and text adventures exist not because of graphical limits, but because they’re the right way to tell certain stories. Freak flags can fly.
Okay, but that’s the independent games. So-called “Triple-A” games – the ones that retail for $60 and take years and hundreds of people to build – are going the opposite way, especially where Nintendo is concerned. More eyes, more money, more expectations means fewer risks. You have to make that filigree sword work; you can’t afford to take a chance on something rusty but beautiful. Look at the Zelda franchise – every year it gets grander, larger, more polished, and the details are lost because people want size. They want the new Zelda to be the super-sized Skyrim, and so it is.
The original Zelda had just 128 screens in the overworld – next year’s Breath Of The Wild is estimated to be 140 square miles of open landscape. There used to be only 151 Pokémon, and now there are well over 700 (and soon to be even more with Sun & Moon). I understand that games need to get bigger to feed their audience’s growing appetite, but I fear that we’re losing something in the process, and Paper Mario feels like proof. It’s a safe game, a game that tickles the edges of what it used to be but never steps outside its comfort zone to give us something new.
One of the big things Color Splash gets wrong is something 2011’s The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword did, too – trying to hold your hand for too long. There’s not really a tutorial as such, just a several-hours-long feeling that the game doesn’t trust you to figure things out. Games used to tell you nothing. Sometimes you had to read the manual to even figure out what the objective was, or how you were supposed to use the controller. Paper manuals don’t really exist any more, so instead tutorials and sign-posting are now designed into the game, but Color Splash goes way beyond what’s necessary. It’s more like having a strategy guide follow you around.
A strategy guide that thinks you’re stupid.
I don’t think anyone wants games like this, really. It’s lovely to have games that can feel like entire worlds, but they take approximately ten billion times longer and require many more people to work their fingers to the bone, and then when they come out people say they aimed too high, stretched themselves too thin. I hope that, in the years to come, we get to see games that scale themselves back to focus on the filigree.