Nintendo Hopes to Keep Paper Mario: Color Splash Interesting Despite Its Limits

Nintendo Hopes to Keep Paper Mario: Color Splash Interesting Despite Its Limits

The next Mario RPG sticks to the same restrictions as predecessor Sticker Star, but maybe that's not a bad thing.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

The Paper Mario series went from absolute fan-favorite to a series many fans regard with wariness after the one-two duo of Super Paper Mario and Paper Mario: Sticker Star. The former took the series to strange new places, while the latter dialed way back on the narrative weirdness and focused more heavily on its unique sticker system for combat.

Nintendo's next Paper Mario entry doesn't seem likely to turn back the tide of uncertainty. Color Splash for Wii U appears to be a direct successor to the systems and concepts that defined Sticker Star (and made Sticker Star so divisive). It doesn't simply retain that game's resource-based combat system, where even Mario's basic combat actions are metered by expendable resources, it practically doubles down on that concept: Not only does Mario need to use cards in order to perform an action, those abilities' power can be modified by upgrading the cards with paint, a completely separate expendable resource that factors heavily into the game's color-centric design premise.

Perhaps more controversially, assistant producer Risa Tabata acknowledges that Color Splash upholds Sticker Star's decision to cut back heavily on the odd non-player characters of the early Paper Mario games in favor of a world populated by familiar Mario characters: Toads for NPCs, Shy Guys for enemies. "It's all Toads," she confirms.

The decision to scale back to the classic Mario cast was a direct request by Shigeru Miyamoto, who according to a 2012 Iwata Asks roundtable insisted developer Intelligent Systems "complete [the game] with only characters from the Super Mario world." It's proven to be one of the legendary designer's more controversial managerial choices, and many fans were disappointed to see it would be carried forward into the latest Paper Mario. I asked Tabata about sticking with this creative choice in Color Splash, given its unpopularity in the previous game.

"I wasn't really involved with the previous title," she said, "so I can only talk about this one.

"Since this is taking place within the greater Mario world, we wanted to focus as much as possible on the familiar Mario characters. As you mentioned before, when you're limited, that tends to bring out greater creativity." I had commented earlier in the interview that the original Paper Mario seemed to be designed to put a creative spin on the Nintendo 64's constrained technology, and Tabata said those constraints are still important even on far more capable systems. "We had to think a lot about, 'Alright, if it's all Toads, how do we make them distinctive? How do we give them personality?'

"One we thing we decided was that the basic Toad is red, and then if they have something different about them, we'll change the color. And a lot of the personality comes out in the text. You can also use the fact that they all look alike as the basis for jokes. We're really trying to focus on using all these Toads, and other familiar characters, and still creating great variety and keeping things interesting."

I don't know if Color Splash will be able to win back fans who were soured by Sticker Star; personally, I found that game's restrictions and its greater emphasis on player agency interesting. As a fan of Sticker Star, then, I think Color Splash looks fantastic — and Tabata promises that anyone who plays it through will find themselves affected by the story it tells.

"We've done some play tests, and there were quite a few people who cried at the end," she told me. On hopes those will be tears of empathy for the characters, familiar as they may be, rather than tears of bitter fan betrayal.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

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