As with much of the entertainment adults make for children, the seemingly harmless “Paper Mario: Color Splash” is rife with winkingly hostile moments like these, which are made imaginable by the proposition that people are paper. The game opens following this traumatic ink-letting. Princess Peach is justifiably frightened after having received the postal worker’s drained corpse in the mail and decides this is a problem only a plumbing-class hero like Mario can solve. Using the postmark as a convenient reference, they trace the letter back to Port Prima, which, they discover upon arrival, has become a ghost town strewn with the blank white scraps of paper that used to be life. Fortunately, death is always reversible in cartoons, and soon enough Mario is launched on a familiar quest to hunt down Bowser — the series’ unkillable master villain who’s vexed Mario and kidnapped Peach (and Daisy) since Nintendo lore began in 1985 — and his spiky-shelled lieutenants to bring back six stars to the town’s life-giving fountain, and in so doing bring the dead back from the pulpy beyond.
The “Paper Mario” series, the first of which was released in 2000 for the Nintendo 64, has always been a caricature of “Super Mario Bros.,” a kind of interactive roast where the target determines which of its qualities are safe to tease. Whereas traditional “Mario” games were built on instinct and reflexive jumps, the “Paper Mario” games are fixated on menus and sarcasm, both of which depend on a familiarity with previous “Mario” games. How else could a player infer whether a winged turtle would be better injured by jumping on its back or hitting it with a large hammer? In truth, both actions will suffice, but you’d be forgiven for being confused by the question.
In “Color Splash,” actions spring from menu choices more than button presses, and they’re acted out as mini-theater, like a series of Vaudeville skits. The menu is composed of playing cards that Mario collects around the world. Up to 100 of these cards are housed on the Wii U gamepad’s screen. Players swipe their finger across the screen to scroll through the cards, select one, and then fill it with a tactically limited supply of paint to give it power, achieved by pressing on the individual card with one’s finger until it is fully colorized. The card is then sent back up to the big screen with an upward flick of the finger. The process feels both imprecise and laborious, but never lasts more than a few seconds. The pre-scripted animations for each card’s attack can be lengthened if the player presses the “A” button in time with the jumps or hammer strokes, which feels like being invited to clap along with a song at a cabaret.
In “No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,” author Trav S.D. describes the vaudeville ethos as a kind of modernist hallucination, in which a series of incompatible forms are conjoined through pastiche into something meant to delight through surprise. “One minute it is a concert,” Trav S.D. writes, “the next a freak show, the next a one-act play; the next a gymnastics display. Because of this, variety is much more like a parade, or a walk through a museum—or … a shooting gallery.”
“Color Splash” preserves this spirit with the strangely unhelpful complications of the touchscreen control, and its world design in which every point on the map unfolds like its own separate stage play. In one area, Mario wanders through a haunted house trying to fulfill the wishes of hidden ghosts, in another he’s a contestant in an underwater game show, and in a third he sneaks through the stands of a gladiator coliseum in search of a special item used in combat against the chariot-driving heavy who oversees the place. The game’s sense of humor is built on hollow sarcasm and reference to other masscult behemoths. Princess Peach, who is inevitably kidnapped by Bowser soon after the game starts, sends spy messages back to Mario in the form of blue-tinted hologram recordings like R2-D2 in the original “Star Wars.” In another level, Birdo, the doe-eyed gender-ambiguous dinosaur from “Super Mario Bros. 2,” is lowered from the rafters on a paper moon, singing a series of clumsy “Mario” in-jokes: “Two hearts in Doki Doki Panic/ You make my heart flutter jump.”
“Doki Doki Panic” was the Japanese title of an original game that would later become “Super Mario Bros. 2” in North America, while the flutter jump is the move used to distinguish Luigi from Mario in that game. These references, and many others, are both insular and archaic but they show how “Color Splash” uses childish frivolity as a mask for adult nostalgia that wants to find a new generational host to burrow into. It’s not the experience of pleasure — a flutter jump through the night sky that original “Mario” games so innocently gave its players — but the sentimental recollection of it.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, the New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.