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.|
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!|
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 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.|
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.