When I play RPGs to completion, I pretty much always face down the final boss with 99 potions in tow. Or however many they let me collect before stopping me from picking up any more. I’m always saving consumables for some undefined later that never quite comes, and I know for a fact that I’m not the only hoarder. No, we’re legion. We walk among you.
Two entries ago, the Paper Mario series—which has generally become infuriatingly small-c conservative, to the point that in place of original characters we mostly just get an endless procession of Toads—decided to address this structural inefficiency of JRPGs head-on: What if we forced consumables to be relevant by using consumables for every action, from attacking to healing to acting on objects in the overworld?
The general consensus about Sticker Star is that its approach failed because the sticker economy was off. You had to mill junk stickers as you faced down minor foes, while hoarding the good stuff for boss battles. Rather than eliminating the anxious acquisitiveness that attends consumables, this approach compounded it.
But the recently released Paper Mario: Color Splash doubles down on the same idea, and in doing so it inadvertently points out a more fundamental issue. Trying to solve the problem of consumables in this way inevitably exacerbates the other big problem in RPG design—namely, grind proliferation.
Let’s be clear. Grinding in RPGs is fun, and even the fussy Rococo grinding in Color Splash can be fun, if you’re solving for a spectacularly compulsive form of fun. In addition to finding cards (the equivalent of stickers) and coins to buy more cards, you’ve now also got to manage your supply of paint. Paint powers up some cards in battle, and also allows you to fill in colorless spots in the world with your pigment-dipped hammer (and this rewards you with more coins and more cards). You get more paint after battle, and also by whacking every rock and tree and flower in sight.
In theory, and occasionally in practice, this menagerie of resources is interesting. Which cards do you use in battle, and how much do you paint the ones that can be painted? Which cards do you buy more of? You want to be efficient, because you don’t want to waste cards (or by extension, coins). And you need to fight, because victory is the only way to increase your capacity for paint (the closest thing to leveling up), and you need more paint for the real fights to come, as well as to keep painting the world for more coins, more cards, more, more, more.
When you splurge and use your wackier cards, it’s fun—and again, being compulsively thorough about cards and paint and money feels good at first. But for me, the whole thing quickly became joyless. A successful grind makes you feel constantly incentivized, World of Warcraft-style, with different rewards helping you to fight or craft or explore. But in Color Splash all the grinding is really just so that you can bop a monster on the head. And to add insult to injury, you’ve often already bopped that exact same monster on the head with a simple jump, in order to initiate the fight.
This is where a cheap dopamine fix becomes a textbook example of grind proliferation. You’re juggling all your inexhaustible hungers for multifarious resources, but once you acquire them they all do sort of the same thing, or more to the point, they all allow you to do sort of the same thing. So you don’t feel like you’re presented with a sumptuous feast of carrots on a vast array of meaningfully different sticks. You feel more like you’re trying to hike ten miles without ever walking straight. You’re running in tight, tiny circles, slow for slowness’ sake.
Grinding, like difficulty, can be the secret ingredient of a compelling game design. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with creating a loop for the player to get caught in. But grinding, again like difficulty, is easy to abuse and doesn’t usually work when it becomes an end unto itself. And man, does it ever not work in Color Splash.
Which is a damn shame, because what an aesthetic and what a soundtrack.
[UPDATE: I had a good chat with Richard Terrell on Twitter, and as he pointed out, there’s little or no actual grinding in Color Splash. You can waltz past the enemies if you want to, and OK, you’re whacking flora over and over, but it’s new and different flora in lovely new levels, so you’re still exploring, kind of. And my insistence on leveling might say more about my obsessive tendencies than it does about the game’s balance. (So instead of grind proliferation, call it grind paranoia, maybe?)
Yet for me, the game still feels grindy, and that’s not a result of difficulty spikes, or too-frequent random battles, or expensive mandatory items, or anything else that we usually associate with grindy RPGs. No, it’s more just that you’re constantly filling these really tiny tanks with really boring fuel. (So call it bad resource loops, maybe?)
What I was trying to get at is that the Paper Mario games have long been unburdening themselves of the design baggage that other JRPG descendants unthinkingly take on—and in doing so, they’ve ended up with their own set of baggage, equally arbitrary and equally limiting. That’s a bummer, but also a useful case study.]