The developer was cheerful. The game she had me play was fun. But the title that Nintendo producer Risa Tabata was demonstrating last month at E3, Paper Mario: Color Splash, has turned out to be the third major video game sequel set for release later this year that has already been walloped with pre-release backlash. September will bring us the multiplayer 3DS team shooter Metroid Prime: Federation Force, which has been icily received by fans of that traditionally slow-paced, solitary series.
November will bring Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, an outer space take on Activision's annual franchise that has had its debut trailer downvoted on YouTube three million times by many fans furious about another foray into the future.
Sandwiched between them will be October 7's newest Paper Mario, which has an uncommonly negative (for a Nintendo video) YouTube like-dislike ratio that, as of this writing, looks like this:
YouTube comments about that video include things like:
- "Where were you when Paper Mario died?"
- "You removed everything what people loved about Paper Mario, and you replaced it with NOTHING!!!"
- "WHY??? No one asked for this!!! bring back the partners, the badges, the levelling! sticker star was horrible did you not learn anything nintendo!? ."
You can watch Nintendo's demonstration of their game here and judge for yourself:
The fact is that the Paper Mario series is in the midst of an identity crisis.
It's not a neglected franchise like Metroid that Nintendo is bringing back in a way that many people, myself included, find bizarre. Nor is it an annual franchise like CoD that seems to be drifting steadily from its original path.
It's a series that faces redundancy, as it is one of two ongoing series published regularly by Nintendo that could be classified as Mario-as-a-role-playing-game. The bad news for Paper Mario fans is that Nintendo seems to want to only have one series that fits that bill. That series is not Paper Mario.
When I asked Tabata back at E3 whether we should think of the new Paper Mario as an RPG, she said: "This game is an action-adventure." She then explained what many Paper Mario fans have already deduced. "I'm sure you're aware that, at Nintendo, we also have another series called the Mario & Luigi RPG series," she said. "And so since we already have that established Mario & Luigi RPG series, in order to differentiate these two series that we have running concurrently, we've tried to focus more on the non-RPG elements for the Paper Mario games."
There it is.
"In terms of what we focus on for the Paper Mario series," Tabata continued. "We focus on puzzle-solving [and] humour."
Tabata's answer will be baffling for anyone aware that the Mario & Luigi games are themselves full of puzzle-solving and humour, even as they're also full of the style of stat-based gaming that classifies it as an RPG. That stat-based style also used to be a part of Paper Mario games such as the 2001 Nintendo 64 original and the 2004 GameCube follow-up Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door.
The more recent and more harshly regarded 2012 3DS game Paper Mario: Sticker Star replaced the series' use of stats and ability upgrades with collectable stickers that players could collect and use as attacks. It could barely be classified as a role-playing game, given the usual trappings of that genre.
This new Paper Mario is also light on stats and is structured similarly to Sticker Star, which its development team previously worked on. Color Splash is set up, like the 3DS game, as a series of courses accessible from an overworld. Players make Mario run and jump through the courses, chatting with friendly characters, working through obstacles and fighting enemies along the way. Some courses have one exit. Others have two. As Mario goes through them, he collects cards that the player can use in turn-based battles.
The game's main gimmick is its paint system, which Tabata said is the result of one of the development team's kids getting into painting. In the game Mario adventures through a world called Prism Island, where many objects and characters have been sapped of colour. He uses his hammer to hit things, which, using video game logic, can either pull colours from coloured-in objects or restore colour to those without it. In the brief demo of the game that I played, there was a challenge, set to the main theme of Super Mario Bros II, that involved having to hammer-colour as many invisible objects into a scene as possible.
When battles begin, the cards Mario has collected appear on the Wii U controller's screen. Players can shuffle them around and choose which ones to play. The cards are initially absent of colour, but players can press on them to fill them partially or fully with colour. The extent to which they colour them will affect how powerful they are. They then attack, adding more damage if they time their button presses well, a signature of combat in the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series. When enemies take damage, they lose some of their colour.
The colour stuff feels novel and was enjoyable in the demo. The demo's writing was charming, too, as enemy and ally characters fretted and joked about the silliness of their world. Devoid of any historical context, this is the kind of game that would go over well at first look, but it's understandable that fans who think of the Paper Mario series as the proper descendant of the Square-made Super Mario RPG would have expected something different.
At least, though, there is some solace and there are some signs that Sticker Star may at least be the series' nadir. That game was frustratingly obtuse, requiring players to use specific stickers to get through certain puzzle sections but not allowing them to carry enough stickers or travel quickly enough to a sticker vendor to get the right sticker when needed.
This game, Tabata said, will let you carry 99 stickers, "a bit more than Sticker Star". Further, she said, aware of the criticism of the prior game, "to make it a lot easier this time, we've put a lot of hints in the game." She stressed that the hints are optional and that players will only be able to get them by asking Mario's partner character, the paint can Huey, for helpful advice.
The game may also have more story than Sticker Star, a game that was seemingly stripped of its narrative by generally beloved Nintendo design guru Shigeru Miyamoto, who other Nintendo developers said had suggested that game be as story-light as possible. Reminded of that comment, Tabata said, "This time we have — I don't know if I want to say a proper story — but we have a story." She laughed when she said that and continued: "It starts from kind of mysterious opening.. You're not sure what is going on, and as you go through the story, you'll realise, oh this is what happens. And there's a lot of interesting stuff that happens with you and Huey."
Some fans may find Tabata's words encouraging, but it's pretty clear that the closest Paper Mario is going to get to being in a proper RPG these days is to co-star in a Mario & Luigi game.
In his own series, he's got other priorities.