It's good, but it failed the Troughton test. Can you replace the irreplaceable? PreCure's heroines had always been Nagisa and Honoka, every week for two years. Season 3, though, rebooted to have new heroines, new villains and a new continuity... but it's obviously a cut-and-paste remake. It's so blatant, in fact, that at one point the Italian dub producers were planning to pretend that it was a sequel anyway, renaming the leads to be Nagisa and Honoka despite their different siblings, different parents, different interests and different homes in a different town.
1. Saki and Mai are just Nagisa and Honoka with different haircuts. (They got character development later, but that's how they seem at first.) Give them chemotherapy and even their mothers couldn't tell them apart, while the similarities extend to their characterisation. Nagisa and Saki are both energetic redheads who squabble with their fairy mascot, have a crush on an older boy, eat lots of food, are bad at schoolwork and are in a school sports club (lacrosse for Nagisa vs. softball for Saki). They also both overreact and pull comedy faces. (Particularly good examples are in ep.11 and ep.40.) Meanwhile both Mai and Honoka are the calm, intellectual one, with Mai doing art while Honoka did science.
2. The show's formula is identical. Both are about a pair of fourteen-year-old girls who'll transform into magical girl warriors and collect magical McGuffins, with the help of fairy mascots who transform into mobile phones. Every week they'll be fighting wacky villains who've been sent by a Big Bad from his dark dimension of evil.
It's self-plagiarism. The parent company (Toei) did this because they were scared of alienating the fans. Result: unhappy fans. Ever since 2006, Saki and Mai have always been among the lowest-ranked in PreCure polls. (Toei also made the fight scenes less violent, after parental complaints. Fans complained about that too.) This hurt the audience figures, with this being one of only three PreCure seasons that, comparatively speaking, bombed. Saki and Mai are the only team in PreCure's first five years who got only one season.
(Incidentally, the other two failures were Doki Doki and Happiness Charge, back-to-back in 2013 and 2014. They almost killed the franchise.)
Watching Splash Star today, though, it's pretty good. Nothing wrong with it. The similarities with Honoka and Nagisa don't matter, especially since PreCure heroines tend to be variations on a theme anyway. The characters work, the villains are fun and there's a strong story arc about two Dark Magical Girls. I don't even mind the parent-friendly hand-to-hand combat. (To be honest, I sometimes felt that Honoka and Nagisa did too much punching and kicking. It's more dynamic for the audience, yes, but why do they bother exhausting themselves if they almost always end up resorting to a magical attack anyway?)
I have a concept of "clickable" for PreCure. Splash Star is very clickable. People will have their favourite PreCure seasons and be emotionally attached to them, even though I don't personally think the seasons are all that different from each other. I think it's personal and subjective. Some seasons just click with you. You'll connect with a character, or a relationship, or even the setting. (For me, I think I clicked best with Go! Princess, although I'm fond of almost all of them.)
Anyway, there's a small but significant minority of fans who've clicked with Splash Star, often to the point of calling it the best PreCure season. That happened later, not at the time. Fans who came late to the franchise (e.g. me) went back to catch up on earlier seasons and liked Splash Star a lot. What's more, I can understand that. It has all the usual charm, but it's also darker than usual. Akudaikaan-sama wants to exterminate all life because all living things will eventually die, all civilisations will fall and all worlds will be destroyed. Cheery. Fortunately the show's still fun because he's the Immobile Big Boss who usually uses comedy sidekicks, but sometimes he'll send the likes of Michiru and Kaoru. They see him as their father. He sees them as insects.
Michiru and Kaoru are the heart of this season, despite not being in most of it. They're not exactly evil, but they're servants of evil and on introduction they're dead-eyed, flat-voiced zombies who come across as autistic. Start a conversation with them and they'll walk away halfway through. (They also look even more like Honoka and Nagisa than our heroines do, but that's easily missed because they're so cold and unsmiling.)
Saki and Mai befriend them.
It takes a while, admittedly. You'll have a deeply weird situation where Saki and Mai are bouncing all over these two fish-people, either not noticing or not caring that Michiru and Kaoru would obviously think nothing of stabbing them in the neck. (Saki's little sister takes this to even greater heights. It's more wonderful than you'd think to see this bubbly small girl treating two emotionless villains as her best friends.) You won't be surprised to hear that Michiru and Kaoru end up reluctantly becoming the PreCures' allies... but what's interesting is that they never lose their deference and indebtedness towards Akudaikaan-sama. Their motivations are never straightforward, especially when they learn that as artificial people created by Akudaikaan-sama's Energy of Destruction, they themselves will die if he's killed. (Yes, killed. This season isn't messing around. By the time we reach the finale, it's kill or be killed.)
This takes us to memorable places. The finale is emotional, with the last ten minutes of ep.49 in particular being absolutely perfect.
The show's not heavy-going, though. Saki and Mai are fun, while the villains are a laugh too. Karehan is a fairly straight baddie, but he's still fun because he looks and fights like a handsome Swamp Thing. Moerumba loves himself, being camp and dancing the rumba. Dorodoron looks like Deathstroke the Terminator, except blobby, fat, pathetic and with a goofy voice that made me laugh aloud. Michiru and Kaoru I've already discussed. Ms Shitataare has one of the messier fashion victim villain designs I've seen, but her ego and trash-talking are amusing (as does Saki's inability to say her name correctly). I'd love to see someone cosplaying as her.
However the most interesting (after Michiru and Kaoru) is Kintoresky. He's not as comedic as his fellow villains, but he's also a surprisingly deep character. He's a nice guy. He acts as a mentor to supporting characters, is repeatedly supportive to Saki and Mai and wouldn't dream of fighting them when they're not happy, fit and in tip-top form. If anything's wrong, he'll call a halt and let them recover. He's dedicated to the purity of fighting, you see, and believes that both he and his opponents should be as strong as possible. When he's finally-ish defeated in ep.40, Saki's birthday present to Mai (a picture) is only any good because Kintoresky helped her draw it.
At the same time, though, this nice guy you respect is also a vehicle for supremacist, disturbing opinions. He believes that victory is everything, for instance. He sneers at the idea that there's any worth in doing your best and coming second. If you play sports, to lose is to be a failure.
1. I loved this season's monsters-of-the-week being called Uzainaa (translation: "you're annoying") and constantly saying it at the girls. If you're a parent, you'll empathise. Disappointingly, though, they never said it as if they meant it.
2. The theme song ("Leave It To Us Splash Star") is one of the greats, but I have a feeling that it's just "DANZEN" with different lyrics. (It's hard to be sure because they've dropped the climbing PreCure chant that's such a huge part of "DANZEN".) That said, though, I don't mind. This season also adds musical things that PreCure had never had before, i.e. a standout closing theme and a jazz/blues number that occasionally pops up as incidental music.
3. I slightly preferred Nagisa and Honoka's costumes, which had cleaner silhouettes and bolder colours. Mai's and Honoka's are almost identical, except that Mai's is hoopier and more beribboned in a way that's a little messier. There's little in it. You'd have to hold them side by side to spot any difference, especially with the colours (white vs. creams and pastels). Saki, though, has Nagisa's outline (except with no midriff-baring) but with inferior colour schemes. Colour scheme #1: pink with yellow/red/white trimmings. Colour scheme #2: an insipid yellow with green trimmings, in a combination that makes her look slightly ill. Nagisa, on the other hand, was mostly black. She was Cure Black. It's a look that stands out, even in All Stars team-up movies.
4. The moral of ep.6 is that children should shut up and accept it if their fathers are always too busy working to do anything with them.
Ep.8 - about the feelings of little sisters. Saki and Mai discuss the important things in mid-fight (against a spectacularly mental monster).
Eps.14-24 - Michiru and Kaoru. Ep.23 in particular is a HOLY SHIT episode, being a mid-season finale with Akudaikaan-sama. Natsuki was watching it with me and afterwards immediately said, "I want to watch the next episode."
Ep.28 - I wouldn't actually call it a standout, but it has a little bit more than usual. "I never doubted that you'd show up." It's even a bit sinister, with Ms Shitataare taking girls on an evil train.
Ep.35 - Saki's softball match, the pain of failure (especially when it's your fault) and how people respond to that. (Kintoresky contributes to the debate too.)
Eps.40-49 - the entire final run. It's got three huge surprises, meatier storytelling and a fairly intense finale. The tension drops a little for the Big Boss fights, but you've got to accept those as part of genre formula.
It's a pretty good PreCure season. I don't think there's any need to be defensive about it, despite its reception at the time. It stands up for itself just fine. You could of course identify similarities between, say, Kiriya's story arc (in Futari wa PreCure) and Michiru and Kaoru (here). However the differences are just as important as the similarities and it's just as easy to identify Dark Magical Girls in later seasons who owe a huge debt to this show. (The Kiriya-Honoka relationship was nearly romantic, for instance. Splash Star is backpedalling away from anything like that, although it does allow Saki an increasingly de-emphasised crush on Kazuya.)
The only thing I regret about this show is that they gave Mai/Saki the same faces as Nagisa/Honoka. I'm sure there wouldn't have been half as many complaints without that. More importantly (for me), though, it made it hard to tell them apart in All Stars movies!