Saturday, November 10, 2012

Review - Paper Mario: Sticker Star

I was very excited for Paper Mario: Sticker Star. But it seemed with every new detail and every new screenshot that found its way to me, I grew less and less excited. An RPG with no party members? An RPG with no experience points? I maintained faith that the fine folks at Intelligent Systems knew what they were doing, but... what were they doing? I couldn't fathom why they would bother to retain RPG elements at all if they were going to be so willing to discard the genre's most basic elements. It seemed to me that the latest and greatest Paper Mario adventure was shaping up to be quite an unfocused mess. I was worried. I wanted another Thousand-Year Door, not another Super Paper Mario.

Well, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is actually neither of those, but now that I've had my hands on it, I can wipe my brow and breathe a sigh of relief. As it turned out, Intelligent Systems knew exactly what they were doing: taking some of the most interesting and exciting risks I've seen the genre take in years.

Personally, I think they paid off, but there's no denying the risks they took. Much of what the game set out to do flies in the face of logic, at least for typical JRPG fare. The Paper Mario series always had an enjoyable core to its battle system; you can attack by jumping or with a hammer. You can't jump on spiked or fiery enemies, and you can't hammer flying enemies. This was an exceptionally basic mechanic, but one that infused some strategy into even the tiniest skirmishes. Sticker Star plays that much straight, but rather than select your attack options from a menu (you know, like in every traditional RPG you've ever played), this time you must spend stickers to take an action in battle. Use a Jump sticker to jump, a Hammer sticker to hammer. Pretty straight forward, but you'll also use a Mushroom sticker to heal yourself, a Shell sticker to launch a Koopa Shell at any grounded enemies, a Fire Flower to throw fireballs, a Scissors sticker to cut your enemies into ribbons (because they're paper! Get it?), a Lucky Cat sticker to drop a Japanese Beckoning Cat statue onto your opponents and turn them into coins... let's just say you have a lot of options. Most stickers even have "Shiny" and "Flashy" variants that do more damage. But whatever you decide on, literally every option you can take in battle will cost you one sticker from your inventory. For me, this system immediately called to mind the Bros. Items from Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time; super attacks that cost a particular item to use. In that game, Bros. Items were in limited supply; you couldn't buy them, at least not that I can remember, and I found myself afraid to waste them and basically hoarded them all until the end of the game, making every boss fight last an hour. (There was a badge that gave you infinite Bros. Items, but it was the most expensive badge in the game, and I didn't know about it until I looked it up while writing this very review, mostly so nobody would tell me what an idiot I was for being so stingy. But I digress. Bros. Items were dumb and Partners in Time was lame, for more reasons than just that.)

In Sticker Star, though, I find I don't mind spending stickers because the entire game is built around it. It's not just your super attacks that cost stickers, it's your bare-bones basic attacks and commands. It's everything. Everything goes into this one inventory of commands. There's an oddly pleasant inexactness to organizing your notebook of stickers; since they come in different sizes, some of them fit oddly on the "grid," and even when they do fit next to each other, some of them are slightly crooked or overlapping. It's very subtle, but just one of many nice little touches for a game based entirely around stickers. You can even use them outside of battle, turning your stickers into blocks and doors and using them in a variety of clever ways, like to fill in hieroglyphs or mark the correct path in a forest maze. But don't worry, there's no need to be stingy with stickers, as they're not hard to come by. You can buy stickers in shops for dirt-cheap, find them in ? blocks, or peel them off parts of the background. You can also find a ton of rare, three-dimensional objects like the vacuum or lighter. These take up a lot of space in your sticker album, but they're generally very useful in battle, granting you powerful super attacks or other helpful effects, like a sponge that can absorb enemy attacks. Occasionally you'll even win some unique stickers from enemies: Ninjis often drop throwing stars, Boomerang Bros. leave behind what you'd expect, and I can't tell you how satisfying it is to throw a bone back at a Dry Bones after all these years. Stickers are quite literally everywhere, and will even re-spawn if you leave the area and return. Even the rare objects like the Scissors, Shaved Ice, or High Heel (?) will re-spawn if they're not still in your inventory, but you can also buy them from a black market in the back of town if you're too lazy to go back through a stage and find them again. They'll cost you a pretty penny, but coins are so easy to come by in this game that it won't set you back much.

Sombrero Guys are the new best Mario baddie.
In fact, coins are your main reward for fighting random battles in Sticker Star, since there aren't any experience points to be had. As I mentioned, I wasn't too jazzed to learn that levelling up wouldn't be a thing in this game, but I think Sticker Star actually uses this to its advantage. While the lack of experience points can make revisiting certain areas kind of a slog, it does mean that grinding is never necessary, and you'll also never care when an enemy runs away. In Paper Mario 1 and 2, letting that Amazee Dayzee slip through your fingers when you desperately needed to level up was simply maddening. But here, you still earn coins when a Sombrero Guy bails on you, so it's really a non-issue. The fact that coins take the place of experience also makes the battles play out a little differently; to its strength, Sticker Star seems designed just as much around coins as it is around the eponymous stickers. You're rewarded with coins (as well as increased damage output) for performing the Timed Hits that make all the Mario RPGs so energized and fun, and you also earn bonus coins for dispatching all your opponents on the first turn. In my experience, it's not normally not a good sign when you want to plow through generic enemies as quickly as possible, because it usually means you're not enjoying the core battle system and are just in a hurry to complete the game. But here, the battle system is actually crafted to encourage you to be strategic and efficient in taking out your enemies, and I think it pays off (no pun intended) in a big way. You're awarded even more coins if you've killed a lot of enemies when you reach the end of the stage; breeze through without fighting anyone and you'll only score a few. In addition to buying stickers and objects, you'll also need coins to activate a slot machine for a chance at getting 2 or 3 consecutive turns. During boss battles especially, this can be a must. And since each subsequent use of the slot machine in the same battle costs more coins, it pays to stock up. The battle system is a complete departure not just from previous Paper Mario games, but from RPGs in general, and I'm honestly surprised how well it works.

The odd departures don't stop there, actually. The game is broken up into worlds and levels, 1-1's and 1-2's and so on, much like Super Paper Mario. That game was a platformer, though, so it was appropriate. It made more sense to me, at least, than splitting up a turn-based RPG up that way. But, again, I think this works to Sticker Star's advantage; it's certainly appropriate to play a handheld adventure in bite-size chunks, and it makes it very easy to return to specific areas in search of respawning stickers and items. Some of the levels do run a bit long for a handheld game, but many of them have save points throughout and the vast majority of them allow you to activate some sort of shortcut through them as you make your way to the end, like a warp pipe you can unclog or a staircase you can unfold. Each level also has the outline of a door somewhere in it (some are surprisingly well-hidden, while others are in plain sight) that you can fill once you have access to a Door sticker, creating an optional room with rare items and stickers inside. Completing World 3 dries up its many poisonous lakes, allowing you to reach new areas within its levels, and many stages also have alternate exits a la Super Mario World, so there's definitely a lot of replay value to be had here.

And Kamek is in it!
I do love that Bowser is in the villain seat again, but this game sorely missed the previous games' little villain interludes at the end of each chapter. For much of the game Bowser is simply working in the shadows and we never get to see what he's up to, which is rather disappointing. While his reveal at the end of the game is definitely awesome, and treated with the gravitas it deserves, I still would have liked to have seen more of him throughout the adventure. Sticker Star is definitely lighter on story than any of its Paper predecessors, and while that's not an inherent flaw of the game, it's not to my personal tastes. Still, it hasn't lost any of that witty charm or brilliant localization that makes the series so near and dear to my heart. It's certainly more in love with its paper aesthetic than even Thousand-Year Door, a game which literally saw Mario turn into a paper airplane. Toads in the beginning of the game are stacked in cabinets and crumpled in trash cans, and Koopa Troopas no longer retreat into their shells, they fold and crumple into shell shapes. Goombas have no need to wear spiked hats anymore now that they can simply curl into pointy cones. Mario and his enemies can succumb to status ailments like "crumpled" and "soggy" as he fights his way through folded Goombas and papercraft Boos. Every area in the game is made of either paper or cardboard, and the ways in which they craft some of these environments and the characters interact with them are just too silly and fun not to warrant a bewildered smile.

The graphics and presentation are just great overall, as I've come to expect from a new Paper Mario excursion, though I do have to question the fact that this is a 3D game where everything is made out of paper. To Intelligent Systems' credit, they do some clever things with the 3D feature and many of the special battle effects and such make for some nice eye candy. The music is also wonderful; it's a bit more jazzy than previous Paper Marios, which I find oddly appropriate. I've caught myself humming many of the songs from the game, especially the world map theme and the song of the hub town, Decalburg. World 1 has a very smooth take on the classic Mario overworld theme, and at the end of every chapter there's an especially nice swingin' version of the majestic song that plays as you fall from an airship with a magic wand in Super Mario Bros. 3.

Paper Fire Mario is pretty cool to see.
If that were all I had to say about the game, I'd give it a top rating of "Cool" easily, but unfortunately, there are a few good old-fashioned "screw you" moments lifted straight from Super Paper Mario that I can't ignore. One boss requires that you use the baseball bat at a very specific moment, with no warning that using it too early will essentially make the fight unwinnable, or at least exceedingly difficult (in fact, the hint that suggests using the bat comes at a point when it would be too early, at least it did for me). It goes without saying that the battle is also impossible if the Bat sticker isn't in your inventory at the moment, and this is likely to happen since you can only carry one at a time. While the bat isn't exactly easy to miss, it is possible to reach the boss without even finding it, and while this wasn't the case with me, just knowing that such a scenario is possible makes me groan and roll my eyes. There are several bosses that require the use of specific stickers, in fact, and many of them come when you aren't expecting a boss and are thus unlikely to have that particular sticker waiting in the wings. While you are allowed to flee the battles and prepare yourself with the appropriate weapon, most of the time I found myself exhausting most of my supply of stickers before I even realized there was a trick to this particular boss. Oh, and don't sell or throw away the first Poison Mushroom you find unless you want to do some backtracking later. Make sure you hold onto it and let it take up a slot in your inventory until you reach the door that won't open without one.

If that were all I had to say about the game, I'd still give it a top rating of "Cool" in spite of some gripes I had with it. But those gripes were child's play compared to what awaits in chapter 5-1. Nestled within 5-1 is some of the most tedious, obnoxious, player-screwing padding I've seen in any game. In Shy Guy Jungle, which sounds like it should be my favorite stage, you come to a point where 3 Spear Guys run off with pieces of a bridge you need to cross. Whichever one of them you decide to pursue, you'll find yourself caught in a mean-spirited trap.

The first one hides in a field of tall grass where you must chase him into a corner. Remember trying to catch Mips the rabbit in Super Mario 64? Remember how not fun that was? Imagine doing it in a field of grass taller than your character. Now imagine that your movement speed is impeded by the tall grass, but his isn't. In total it took me about 20 minutes to catch this Spear Guy, in between my many failed attemps at catching the other two.

The second one runs into a large garbage dump, nowhere to be seen. If you wade through the garbage and stand in very specific, pixel-perfect spots, you can press A to "check," and you'll be rewarded with A: A note with absolutely nothing helpful written on it, B: A fight with a Spear Guy who doesn't have the bridge piece, C: A fight with a Snifit who doesn't have the bridge piece, D: A note with absolutely nothing helpful written on it, or E: A fight with a Piranha Plant who doesn't have the bridge piece. I literally waded through garbage for 30 minutes before I realized, no, I'm an idiot, you just need a certain sticker.

You will grow to hate these Spear Guys as I have.
The third one jumps across a gap; to give chase, you have to whack a giant flower with your hammer, then hustle over to the ramp that leads to the jump and use the flower as a platform before it wakes up and eats you. These flowers were introduced earlier in the stage, so I knew what I was expected to do, but since this one was farther away from the ramp than the previous flowers, I found it impossible to make it across in time. And each time you fail, you take damage from being chewed up and spit out, meaning you only get so many tries before you have to hoof it back to the heart block earlier in the stage. I tried to make this one jump dozens of times, and I honestly think it's impossible; I only successfully crossed the gap by making use of what looked like a glitch where Mario was standing on thin air. Anybody, please, prove me wrong, tell me how you're actually intended to cross this gap, because I'm dying to know what on earth I missed.
It really soured the game for me, which is remarkable since I was already so far into it. The last game I played that I thought was this fantastic and yet had something this horrible in it was Dead Rising 2. There, it was the whole third act that soured me. Here, it's only a few stages, but I still haven't made up my mind if that excuses the crap you have to slog through to get to the great stuff.

Still, while I there's no denying the amount of fun I had with this game. The battle system is fun, the world is a joy to take in, the bosses are spectacular (when they're not puzzles in disguise), and the return of so many lovable Mario baddies from years past puts a giant smile on this nerd's face. I even found myself tearing up a bit at the ending.

Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a curious anomaly of game design. It is both a platformer with little platforming and an RPG that does almost everything wrong; and yet, almost nothing about it doesn't work. In some way I interpret it as an artistic statement, a Picasso-esque declaration that straying from convention isn't necessarily "wrong." But no, I'm reading too much into it, I'm sure. The real reason this game has so few of the traditional core elements of an RPG is because it doesn't need such things, and Intelligent Systems were smart enough not to weigh the game down with irrelevant concepts for the sake of tradition. I wouldn't call it better than Thousand-Year Door, but the more I played Sticker Star and immersed myself in its bizarre design, the more I realized that it doesn't need to be better. It's entirely its own beast, and while I would recommend it, I do think there are many out there who won't be able to overlook its faults.

Ricky thought this game was...

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