Author: Rory Young
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Monday, November 12th, 2012
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Reviews/paper_mario_sticker_star/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.
The world of the Mushroom Kingdom has never been as wonderfully realized as in the Paper Mario franchise. Beautifully crafted environments and unique cast of characters, all of it painstakingly designed to appear as if cut from paper, create a world of ironic depth. Each game's release is a journey in Mario's footsteps, the likes of which his 3D platformer titles can only aspire to. At its heart, however, Paper Mario has been perhaps most successful due to its RPG nature, inherited from the classic Super Mario RPG title generations ago. It's these two sides of a gold coin that create the magic of the series, and keep fans' eyes ahead for what's to come.
What then should a fan think when Nintendo proudly announces Paper Mario: Sticker Star, a game with radical changes to virtually all aspects of the series? Firstly, the sequel will become a 3DS handheld title to make use of the depth of field. Secondly, the party-based RPG combat was to be replaced with a new "sticker" system, focused on the acquisition of consumable sticker items yet retaining its turn-based nature. Thirdly (and this I didn't realize until I was hours into the game), much of the quirkiness, oddity and humor that typically pervades the series is, for the most part, absent.
Why, a fan should be excited about the possibilities. While Paper Mario: Sticker Star may not be akin to A Thousand Year Door or even Super Paper Mario, it has a uniqueness and charm of its own that's not to be underestimated. In that regard, Stick Star is no less of a great game because of its fresh identity. There's more to Paper Mario: Sticker Star than its differences with previous games in the series, though those differences are certainly significant. Execution is another matter entirely, and in the end it's the quality of the redesign itself that proves the game's greatest difference and mistake.
Painfully obvious as it is to mention, Princess Toadstool has been kidnapped once again by that surly tyrant Bowser. This time he has interrupted the town of Decalburg's Sticker Fest, where a tussle occurs that eventually leads to the mysterious Sticker Star exploding. The introduction isn't important beyond setting up the premise, which is that there are stickers everywhere. Mario’s duty is to rescue the Princess, and to do so he must collect the Royal Stickers, powerful fragments of the Sticker Star.
To say Paper Mario: Sticker Star is plot thin would be apt, though it's likely comparable to a majority of Mario titles. What’s there is charming and pleasant, such as helping various citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom with various chores, or gathering Wiggler's various lost segments. Individual levels can sometimes tell short, subtle stories themselves, but never anything that leaves a lasting impression. Okay, to be fair, on an Egyptian-themed level there were humanoid-shaped drawings with mushroom heads that left me with lasting questions about this history of the Mushroom Kingdom, but that's rather irrelevant in the scheme of things.
Whatever Nintendo's intention may have been, the end result is that Paper Mario: Sticker Star's plot takes a supporting role to the game's puzzles and combat. The interactions the player has with NPCs are often to introduce various aspects of gameplay or to help solve portions of the game's endless puzzles. In this, Nintendo is successful, as they're able to avoid overt and invasive tutorial messages and hints, creating a subtly immersive experience. Still, it proves a shallow immersion, as the sacrifice in plot and character serves to create a rather shallow world. The tradeoffs are apparent, but ultimately the Mushroom Kingdom's charm and the grace of the experience win out.
With plot taking a backseat, Sticker Star's gameplay takes the starring role. Broken down into pieces, the majority of the game can be seen as three systems that each tie into each other to create a grand variety of experiences. World traversal, combat, and the stickers that hold it all together; the basic nature of the systems is inspired, but in motion the complexities can prove quite surprising. Still, the reach of their interaction ultimately proves to be their greatest flaw. It may be preemptive to make that claim yet, however, so let's go into a bit more detail.
Retro Nintendo fans will immediately feel nostalgic once the overworld map in Paper Mario: Sticker Star unlocks. It's reminiscent of Super Mario 3 and Super Mario World in my eyes, with branching and/or secret paths throughout each "zone." Each individual level's completion will lead to the next, and some have multiple ways to be completed, which opens different paths to explore. Unlike the typical Mario game, however, completion isn't reliant on simply traveling from one side of the map to the next. There are often any number of puzzles in-between the start and finish. The resulting gameplay feels both challenging and rewarding then, as exploration – not combat – becomes the focus of each map.
Combat isn't lacking as a result, however. Enemies will roam freely throughout maps, yours to avoid or initiate, transitioning into a turn-based combat system Paper Mario fans will be familiar with. Rather than a menu system to perform attacks, actions are performed with consumable stickers that Mario collects in his book. They're scattered everywhere in the world, drop as rewards from battle, or purchasable at stores. With over ninety stickers, there's any number of ways to act out combat, and despite being consumable, no player will run short of effective stickers. That ol' reactive combat system of timing buttons with jumps or hammer swings to do more damage has returned, and still feels great. It's not outstanding, but yet again, it's enjoyable and rewarding when you do well.
Difficult as it has been, I've gotten this far without mentioning "Thing" stickers. Standard stickers include various types of boots, hammers and shells, and all you might expect from Mario's typical arsenal. Thing stickers, however, are 3D objects haphazardly strewn about the Mushroom Kingdom in order to add an extra layer of unnecessary complexity. Thing stickers are required to complete the biggest of puzzles and boss fights Paper Mario: Sticker Star, often without rhyme or reason, and the worst part is that a Thing you may need in one area will be located in a secret area across the world. This might be fine if all Things could be stored in Mario's sticker book, but they can't, and once used they need to be repurchased for extravagant prices. There were times in the game when I wondered if the game was broken, or if I was just missing the appropriate Thing sticker than I can count on two hands. Without a reliable hint system, the simple cohesiveness of Sticker Star's gameplay is shattered. But, hey, maybe I can fix it with these high heeled shoes I found in Wiggler's house! Or not.
It's not often that anyone can legitimately say there's a mechanic in a Mario game that ruins the experience, but that is the case with Paper Mario: Sticker Star. At first I dismissed the Thing system as an interesting return to classic Mario titles where handholding didn’t exist. Searching for whistles in Super Mario 3 had to have been mind-numbing at first, but it never prevented progression. The Thing system here does, as certain zones can't be completed without very specific items that will have players scouring completed areas on the off chance something had been missed. It feels frustrating and, at times, broken.
Even with the Things as they are, the system still shows immense potential. When Mario has exactly the Thing needed to perform a specific action at a specific time, it feels great. I felt smart using a baseball bat to knock away segments of a Pokey boss, or a fishing hook to prevent a Cheep Cheep boss from healing. Those actions were both intuitive and rewarding, but I still paused before using each to wonder if it was the correct action, or if I'd just be punishing myself by using those items here. It's not fun to feel like you're stupid, or being punished, especially when there's nothing driving a player to progress beyond additional puzzles.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star is, for the most part, a joy. While it certainly feels like the scope of the game has been narrowed due to its handheld nature, a majority of the game comes together very well to create something unique. Combat is quirky and gratifying to be successful at, and world traversal and exploration will have fans tripping back to the golden days of Mario; it's just impossible to dislike a game that has adorable little paper figurines jumping around. Unfortunately, the Things system can feel broken, making Sticker Star difficult to keep playing. And when it is working, it can be the best part of Sticker Star. I hope other players don't have as many problems as I did, though I suspect they will.
What I'm trying to say is that Paper Mario: Sticker Star could have been the best game on the Nintendo 3DS, but because of one poorly executed, pervasive feature, I can't say it's anything other than a missed opportunity. There's certainly fun to be had, and a unique and charming world to behold, but there are plenty of great ideas left to explore in the Paper Mario universe without resorting to one that just doesn't stick.
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