Quirky, innovative puzzle-platformers are becoming something of a calling card for Goodbye Galaxy Games, and this latest release fits nicely into that oeuvre. The final panel in a DSiWare triptych that includes the Flipper series and Ace Mathician, Color Commando similarly revolves around manipulating the environment — here via magical paint — to reach your goal. It's puzzle-platforming performance art, and it's fantastically fun.
The premise of Color Commando is very simple: guide your adventuring artist through the single-screen stages to reach a pile of treasure, avoiding dayglo goons along the way. What makes the game stand out is its unique painting mechanic: after picking up individual globs of green, pink, or purple paint, you can use the stylus to splatter a square swath of the screen with each colour, creating a protective patch of pigment that renders monsters of the corresponding hue harmless within its frame. Paint an area purple, for instance, and you can safely share that space with purple enemies. Your paint also has the ability to let like-coloured enemies pass through walls, adding another coat of depth to the experience.
While Color Commando is a puzzle-platformer, it definitely tends towards the left side of that hyphen, with levels that remind us of Layton as much as Mario. Rather than tricky jumps or belligerent baddies standing between you and your objective, here it's all about thoughtful planning and timing. Once you've learned how far your paratrooping Picasso can leap off of ledges and ladders, you can often figure out a solution before you even take your first step, and that's incredibly satisfying.
It's possible to get through most stages on brain-power alone, but reaching the treasure is really only half the goal. There are also three coins placed in every stage, and trying to collect them all is a substantial challenge that asks quite a lot more of your platforming chops. Most of the time coin collecting involves backtracking or extra-risky maneuvers, but occasionally you'll need to think about the puzzle in an entirely new way if you want to nab all three, and that's where the system is at its best. It's not just for bragging rights either; in addition to four regular levels apiece, each of Color Commando's five worlds has a secret stage to unlock by collecting all the coins in that world's previous levels.
Seeing every secret stage will take some serious paint-bucket prowess, and happily the controls are more than up to the task. Color Commando avoids the constant stylus-swapping of many games that use both buttons and the touchscreen by controlling very simply and very well: the D-Pad moves your character, the L and R buttons cycle through your three-colour paint inventory, and tapping the touchscreen will paint where you point. There's no jumping to worry about, and a single shoulder button selects from all three paint colours, so you can keep one hand on the system and the other on the stylus at all times; since a simple tap is the most complicated touchscreen gesture required, southpaw painters should be just fine. Our only complaint is that collision detection can be a bit vague, and there are a few puzzles where that makes slipping in-between enemies at the right moment more difficult than it needs to be.
In keeping with its polychromatic premise, Color Commando's gameplay is wrapped up in a charmingly colourful presentation. The cowlick-sporting, colour-conjuring Caravaggio you control is full of pixelated personality, and splattering the archetypical platformer backgrounds with neon paint is seriously grin-inducing. The only element that falls flat is the design of the flying enemies: they lack the shading of their earthbound counterparts and look out of place - and straight out of MS Paint - as a result. On the audio side, the excellent soundtrack deserves a special mention. Each world has its own music that fits the visual theme perfectly: atmospheric airs of adventure fill the cave and temple levels, while the outdoor stages feature cheerful synth melodies that sound like title screen tracks from imaginary NES games.
As with its predecessor Ace Mathician, our only real disappointment with Color Commando is that it's over so quickly. It's easy enough to paint your way to the end credits in under an hour, though going for the coins on every level could easily double that estimate. The length itself isn't really the issue — for 200 Nintendo Points, a few fun-filled hours seems more than enough to us — but rather that the experience seems to end just as it's getting started. While the painting mechanic feels novel and fun, it stays exactly the same throughout the game, and we'd love to have seen it taken even further. What about new colours? Paint mixing? Different enemy types and movement patterns? It's hard to shake the feeling that these levels seem like the opening chapters to a larger game - World 1-1 through 1-5 of Super Color Commando, perhaps. To be clear, the fact that our biggest issue with the game is that we'd like to play more of it speaks entirely to the quality of what is here, rather than the conspicuous absence of anything that isn't; Color Commando's intuitive simplicity serves it very well.
Color Commando paints quite a picture. It's a fresh, charming puzzle-platformer, very possibly one of the last great DSiWare games, and it costs less than a latte. It won't last for long - you could easily rush through to the end credits before the paint's dried in the tutorial - but it's pure fun from start to finish. If you appreciate creative gameplay and an endearing, after-school aesthetic, get ready to channel your inner puzzle-platforming Pollock: Color Commando makes an excellent addition to any collection.