Given the number of times I’ve reviewed games made by Intelligent Systems it should come as no surprise that I’m a fan of the Paper Mario franchise. This series of spin-off RPGs began on the N64 and have become famous for their creativity and charming stationary-themed world of paper-thin characters. This 3DS entry, the first on a handheld, is the fourth game in the series and, like the platforming-orientated Super Paper Mario before it, changes up the formula. The focus this time is on stickers.
When Bowser crashes the Mushroom Kingdom’s annual sticker festival (that place has a hell of a lot of festivals) the magical Sticker Comet explodes, releasing the six Royal Stickers all over the Kingdom. One Royal Sticker lands on Bowser, granting him enormous, something he celebrates by doing what he does best and kidnapping Princess Peach. It’s up to Mario and a Sticker Fairy named Kersti to track down the Royal Stickers, restore the Sticker Comet to normal and save the princess.
Sticker Star dispenses with a number of series tropes in a way that will be difficult for fans to swallow. There are no partner characters (Kersti plays a passive role rather like SPM’s Tippi) and many of the traditional RPG elements, including such basic things as gaining experience points, have been ditched. The turn-based battles are entirely focused on your sticker collection. As you travel you will find innumerable stickers attached to walls and objects waiting for you to peel them off to place in your album. Each sticker represents a single attack in battle. Most involve some sort of jumping or hammer attack but there are various other weapons such as the traditional fire flower and mushrooms for healing. Getting the best out of attacks requires good timing of pressing the A button at strategic moments to increase the effect. The kicker is that each and every sticker is single-use.
As a basis for an RPG battle system, this single-use sticker approach is fairly original but somewhat flawed as you will frequently find yourself in an impossible situation where you won’t have the right stickers to win a battle. This is particularly the case early on when your album is small and you will find yourself backtracking to a shop to buy what you need. Conserving important stickers becomes critical and, since there are no experience points, simply avoiding battle is a more viable option than usual but the whole system comes with a learning curve that’s just a little too steep and the game gets very frustrating when you don’t have the right stickers for the situation at hand.
It extends beyond battles too. At any time during exploration you can hit Y to enter pauperization mode. This mode freezes the action and allows you to peel loose scraps of scenery to place back somewhere else, an idea that makes for a half-decent puzzle element. The problem is that there’s often no indication of where you can do this so you will inevitably find yourself in a situation where you must have a scrap you’ve missed in order to progress, prompting tiresome back-tracking.
Then there are ‘things’. These are solid 3D objects such as scissors or a fridge that can be found throughout the world. By taking them to a specific place you can turn them into stickers for use either in context-sensitive situations or in battle. These thing stickers are particularly indispensable against bosses and there are several boss fights that are basically impossible unless you have a particular thing sticker in your possession. Don’t have it? Prepare for more back-tracking.
It’s a shame that this flaw in the progress design mars the experience because once you find the balance, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a rather enjoyable game. The imagination employed in the presentation of the paper world is better than ever and it naturally all looks and sounds fabulous, packed with that essential Mario charm. As you gain more pages for your album and find more and more powerful stickers the battle system becomes very engaging. You can pay some coins for a shot at using two or three stickers in a row, an option that goes some way to make up for the lack of partner characters and when you are able to make best use of your stickers there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had.
The other problem with the game is only really apparent when comparing it to previous entries. The best thing about the Gamecube’s The Thousand-Year Door, the clear highlight of the series and one of my favourite RPGs, was the creative situations you constantly found yourself in. At one moment you might be fighting in a pro-wrestling league and at another solving an Agatha Christie-style mystery on a train. You could even play as a stark naked Princess Peach at one point. The Wii’s Super Paper Mario, for all its faults, maintained much of that imagination but Sticker Star reverts to a somewhat generic structure.
The world map resembles those found in many of Mario’s platformers, offering a series of levels with a straightforward find-the-goal objective. There is some variation, such as a quest to round up the wayward segments of a wiggler as they race from level to level and a few other concepts that break up the monotony but there’s none of the inspiration of previous games. The worlds themselves are also painfully generic, a forest, a desert, and ice world etc.
But for all these complaints Sticker Star is still a very enjoyable game when it’s not being insufferably frustrating. The degree of quality on show is just as you would expect from Intelligent Systems and players willing to give the game’s new concepts a chance will get a lot out of it. This is one of those occasions where a title that came with high expectations turned out to be a disappointment. It’s still a good game, it just turns out that the most remarkable thing about it is its flaws.
Design – 6
Gameplay – 7
Graphics – 8
Sound – 8
Content – 7
An engaging and original RPG with a robust twenty-hour campaign that ultimately falls short due to some regrettable progress structuring. Fans and new players will still find plenty to enjoy but this is no The Thousand-Year Door.