Review: Paper Mario: Sticker Star for Nintendo 3DS

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This review has been a tough one to put together, because I really want to make sure I get the right message across. With that said, I’m just going to lay things out for you up front:

I like Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Quite a bit, actually. On its own, I feel it is quite a good game. However, I also have some issues with the game, and feel that it pales next to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door for the GameCube (which won the 2005 Interactive Achievement Award for “Role Playing Game of the Year”) and even the original Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64 (which is available on the Wii Virtual Console for 1,000 Wii Points– quite a steal).

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The thought, the hope of Paper Mario: Sticker Star was that it might bring the series back to its role playing game roots. Super Paper Mario was a fun experiment (for some, anyway), but many of us were hoping to get back to something more traditional in the eight-year span since The Thousand-Year Door was released. However, while this game does hew a little closer to that than SPM, it still falls well short of the mark overall.

When discussing Sticker Star, the elephant in the room is also right there in the title: The stickers. In most other contexts, even Mario ones, the idea of using stickers for various functions sounds downright silly, but here, it not only works, but it works well.

A major concern of people when the battle system was revealed was that players would have to hoard good stickers, or alternatively, risk running out of stickers due to their use in every facet of the game’s combat. However, that’s really not the case at all. While I have come close, running out has never been a real problem for me. In fact, the game seems extremely well balance in this regard; a lesser developer would have taken a novel concept and probably dropped the ball with it somewhere along the way.

But not developer Intelligent Systems. Here, the stickers are like a free-flowing resource, always being used, always being replenished. In a lot of situations, you’ll probably be getting rid of lesser stickers because you keep finding better ones. When it really gets interesting is when you’re actually forced to get rid of good stickers in one way or another because you find more that are as good or better.

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There is some silliness and irritation involved, but it’s mostly minor stuff. For example, you cannot use a basic stomp or hammer attack without a corresponding sticker. So entwined are these elements that if you attempt to use a hammer sticker without actually having a hammer, you wind up wasting a perfectly good sticker, which can be a little infuriating. The portion of the game where this is relevant is also brief, however, but nonetheless highlights the sheer strangeness of the concept.

More bothersome is the way “Thing” stickers are implemented. Based on real-world objects, Thing stickers are not usually found through normal means and must be purchased. The problem is, they take up a ton of room in your album, making the idea of keeping them on hand utterly impractical. You don’t really know when you need them, which means that when you learn, backtracking is involved, which makes winds up feeling like busywork for the sake of padding the game out a bit.

In fact, the Thing stickers seem symptomatic of a larger perceived problem with vagueness running throughout the game. Finding where to go or what to do next can be flat-out hard. In some instances, it can be a matter of simply needing to have the 3D slider on, revealing a path in a way not unlike how it becomes apparent how you’ll need to collect certain Star Coins in Super Mario 3D Land. In others, it’s a matter of knowing what to do and when, the answers only becoming apparent when they’re already in hand.

Some, including myself, have had issues with too much hand-holding in such recent games as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, but there is none of that here. While I personally find this refreshing at some points, it can go a little overboard, and your lone helper– as usual– gives you “clues” that are anything but useful, often just restating the situation (why they’ll give us characters that play the games for us in some titles but not so much as a useful hint in others is beyond me).

Suffice to say, it’s a very oldschool sensation, and I think I prefer having to ask around to dealing with an overbearing assistant, but finding some sort of middle ground would still be ideal versus either polarizing side.

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The “paper” theme runs a lot more heavily in this game than in previous installments as well. In fact, the denizens you run into are now only all-too aware of their paper-thin stature, practically making this game feel more like an “alternate universe” from other installments or other Mario titles, rather than a mere aesthetic choice. This goes beyond dialogue as well, as items can be used against foes as one would expect them to work on paper. For example, a fan would blow enemies away, while scissors cut them up. They can be crumpled, torn, and even burned with the aid of a Fire Flower.

Beyond the use of stickers, timed hits make their return when you use stickers, necessitating properly-timed button presses to make the most of each attack. This goes for blocking attacks as well, but unfortunately, Superguards are no longer available, meaning that unless an enemy happens to miss or you’re able to take them all out on your first turn, you’re definitely taking damage whenever you go into battle.

Fortunately, most battles can be avoided if you can evade the enemy. This has both its pros and its cons; unlike previous games and other RPGs, you don’t level up by gaining experience points here, nor are the Flower Points to worry about, so you lose nothing in that regard by avoiding battles. However, certain rare stickers (including origami shuriken from Ninjis) can only be obtained from fighting certain enemies, while the coins earned in battle prove invaluable in further battles.

In Paper Mario: Sticker Star, you don’t get to choose the order you attack your opponents; it’s strictly in the order they’re lined up. But by spending coins, you can engage a slot machine which can allow you to use multiple stickers, and throw more coins in to improve your chances. By winning, you’ll be able to use more than one sticker in a turn, potentially doing more damage and taking out more enemies than in a regular turn. Along with being careful in how you use stickers, this makes for a very strategic game.

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Whereas the stickers and coin usage add a certain complexity to the game, other aspects are significantly more streamlined than in previous outings. In some ways, the game benefits from this, making it more suitable for portable play.

This is particularly evident in how the game is broken up; rather than the Chapters used to tell the story in previous iterations, Sticker Star features a map screen consisting of different worlds, each comprised of several areas. In this regard, it is much like a cross between Super Mario World and Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins‘ maps, with the multiple exits of the former and the relative non-linearity of the latter.

Though you can only take on a handful at a time, the worlds can be picked apart as you please once you leave the game’s hub town of Decalburg. You can visit World 1, and if that gets boring for you, you can go to World 2 or 3 instead. The initial areas must still be completed in order to progress further into each world, but it’s still a rather remarkable amount of freedom afforded to the player. Plus, in addition to save blocks found along the way, exiting an area also prompts the game to save your file.

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Unfortunately, the streamlining of the game works both for it and against it, stripping away much of what made previous installments as wonderful and memorable as they were. In some regards, the game even feels like a tremendous step backwards from what Intelligent Systems achieved before in The Thousand-Year Door.

Not only did that game win the award for RPG of the Year at the 2005 Interactive Achievement Awards, but on a personal note, it remains one of my favorite games– period. And this is from someone who isn’t even really an RPG gamer. Take away the Mario games, and you can count the number of RPGs I’ve actually played through on one hand. Among the Mario RPGs, The Thousand-Year Door stands head and shoulders above the rest.

While playing, I gradually became aware of how much felt like it was missing from the game. Then I read Nintendo’s “Iwata Asks” for the game prior to finishing it, and it really soured the experience– it didn’t ruin it, but it made me aware that not only was this game not going to approach TTYD, and was instead actively and deliberately moving away from so many of the elements which helped make that game one of my favorites of all time.

That they seemed to revel in what they had done only added an extra sting, but I’m willing to chalk that one up to salesmanship– they want people to buy the game, and are naturally going to talk it up, so I can’t fault them for that. Hopefully sales– and Club Nintendo feedback, which apparently does matter and does affect things such as this– will right things for the next installment.

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The story itself is extremely basic: The town of Decalburg has a Sticker Fest to celebrate the passing of the Sticker Comet. Bowser and the Koopa Troop crash the party, with the Koopa King himself obtaining a super-powerful sticker which allows him to beat Mario, kidnap the Princess, and lay waste to the land. And that’s pretty much it.

There are some sub-plots, such as helping Wiggler reassemble all his pieces, but everything feels extremely– pardon the expression– flat when compared to previous entries. That Miyamoto actually said “It’s fine without a story, so do we really need one?” about a role playing game, whose defining traits are their stories, blows my mind. I don’t know what his problem is with the words “Mario” and “story” in the same sentence, and while I love the man for everything he’s done– God knows I wouldn’t even be doing this were it not for the things he’s created– I wish he would get over it.

For reference, does anyone remember Rosalina’s Storybook from Super Mario Galaxy? That was apparently put in without his knowledge, and he took serious issue with it. It was out of the way, completely optional, and people loved it– I’m not sure I’ve seen a bad word said about it, with indifference perhaps being the height of any negative feelings about it– and he makes a point to make sure there is nothing of the sort in the sequel.

Meanwhile, we look at The Legend of Zelda, a series which began with about as much story as Super Mario Bros. did, and it’s practically taken over the entire thing to the point where the series doesn’t even resemble itself any more. I’ve spoken at length about my love for the original game on the NES and the freedom it granted, while in the one part of the game that the latest, Skyward Sword, allows you to do things in the order you wish– you risk destroying your entire file. Don’t get me wrong, I still like the newer Zelda games, but to me, that says there is something seriously wrong with the developers’ priorities.

I’m not saying that Mario needs to be a story driven series, but they can and have have done better things with it in the past without interfering with the gameplay. There is a good middle ground, as we’ve seen before, and I do wish they would strive for it again.

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But, I digress. The problem apparently stems from negative reception to Super Paper Mario‘s story, for which less than one percent of Club Nintendo members found interesting. And while SPM‘s was not the greatest story ever told, it always seems to be more in how the story was told than the story itself I’ve seen problems with. Regardless, this is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This may not be the best example, but everything I’ve seen about Final Fantasy XIII says the story is pretty much senseless tripe. That said, I very much doubt that Square Enix is just going to abandon all but the barest-laid plots for the next one– that will undoubtedly only make the problem worse. Just because players don’t like a story doesn’t mean that they don’t like any story.

However, while the story may be one thing that Paper Mario: Sticker Star is lacking in, it is not the only thing. In fact, it’s only a piece of a bigger puzzle, one which seems to be oversimplifying/dumbing-down the experience.

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Not everyone is into the stories of the Paper Mario games, and I get that. But something I liked even more than the stories was the characters involved. “As much as possible, complete it with only characters from the Super Mario world,” said Miyamoto. Unfortunately, what Intelligent Systems did here– whether it was what Miyamoto meant or not– was pure overkill.

Whereas the first Mario RPG, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars introduced many of its own creatures, characters, and concepts, Paper Mario (and The Thousand-Year Door) did one better, in my opinion. They not only added a few new creatures as the story saw fit, but more than that, they expanded on the world of Mario by actually defining the creatures who lived within it. Towns of Koopa Troopas, Bob-ombs, and Goombas yielded distinct, individual new characters who looked like they belonged in the Mario world, yet different from the typical cannon fodder you stomp and forget.

Even the Toads got some good representation before, whereas in Sticker Star, they’re all largely indistinct, nameless, and generic. The most distinguishing features you’re likely to see among them are a different color palette, or one with a fold on his head. Not even Toadette made the cut. That isn’t to say they don’t get some good lines here and there, but the overall lack of in-game culture and character is just disappointing after visiting the many towns and cities of other Paper Mario titles. In fact, there is only one town, populated entirely by these indistinct Toads.

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This lack of characters results in having no new sidekicks for the adventure, save for one: Kersti, a crown-shaped sticker who allows you to perform certain tricks and helps you in particular situations, but as noted before, offers no genuine advice when you manage to get stuck. And while I’ve got no problems with her otherwise, she did make her debut at #8 on Official Nintendo Magazine‘s list of “The Most Annoying Games Characters of All Time,” so take that for what it’s worth.

That said, a lot of people show affection for Super Mario RPG‘s original party members, Geno and Mallow, wishing they would make their return. That’s how I feel about characters such as Goombella (I even have a backpack version of her a friend made for me to use at conventions), Koops, Parakarry, Ms. Mowz, Lady Bow, Vivian, and others. They don’t even get invited to Mario Parties or Mario Kart races, where most representation of their species is by generic members.

On a personal note, I can honestly say that I did not care for the Piantas when they were introduced in Super Mario Sunshine. In fact, I pretty much loathed them or how uppity and– to be frank– stupid they seemed to be. But The Thousand-Year Door‘s use of them made me love them (I cracked up when they first appeared in the background near the start of the game– I won’t spoil why), and all was forgiven. That’s how well I feel the game managed to characterize the different races of the Mario world and make them endearing.

Speaking of which, past Paper Mario games managed to not only add characters to the species we already knew, but new varieties as well. This included the blue, cave-dwelling Gloombas and the armored Koopatrols, plus Bowser’s assistant, the Magikoopa known as Kammy. But for this go-round, we see pretty much the basic types of enemies, and while the introduction of Bowser Jr. to the series doesn’t bother me, having Kammy Koopa replaced by the same Kamek we see in so many other Mario titles simply for having been in those titles is a little disheartening.

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On the subject of the regular Mario titles, the world in Paper Mario: Sticker Star feels sadly formulaic as well, though not insofar as the series is concerned. One of the chief grievances leveled at Nintendo regarding the New Super Mario Bros. games is the constant reuse of the same sets of worlds. With New Super Mario Bros. 2 and New Super Mario Bros. U, they have admittedly managed to tweak the formula a bit by combining world themes or changing the backgrounds, but only a bit.

To see these same level types seep into the Paper Mario series is actually a bit worrisome. You have a grass world, a desert world, a sky world, an ice world, but the most telling of all seems to be that the jungle world looks like a Paper Mario-ified version of the jungles seen in all four New Super Mario Bros. games, right down to the toxic purple water.

This comes after The Thousand-Year Door, which gave us a fantastic variety of new settings and themes, from solving a mystery on a train ride to wrestling in an arena elevated high above the world to venturing through a haunted woods. Super Paper Mario, maligned as it is, still gave us some fun settings in the forms of a caveman valley, a feudal Japan-like setting, and even a version of Hell itself. Both even took us to the moon (complete with high-tech moon fortress) and outer space, respectively.

Granted, the other games also played with the usual desert and ice land tropes, but even in doing so, managed to keep them interesting thanks to the nearby towns and the variety of people occupying the lands. Sticker Star does have some neat things, such as Wiggler’s treehouse and the Yoshi Sphinx, but it just doesn’t manage to reach the high level the developers had already reached previously.

Despite the retreading of common themes, however, the levels are still laid out very well and don’t tend to get boring or drag on, save for the need to backtrack. As noted before, there can be a little bit of confusion surrounding where to go or what to do in order to proceed, including the use of the 3D slider to gain a better perspective, but it smooths out as the game goes on.

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Then we come to the big bad himself, Bowser. What the developers have done here feels almost inconceivable, as for the first time ever in a Mario RPG, Bowser doesn’t speak.

For longtime fans of not just the Paper Mario series, but Mario RPGs as a whole, this is so, so very disappointing. Humor has always been one of the greatest features of these games, and much of it came from the King of the Koopa himself. To have him go silent… it definitely robs the game of something special, including his interaction with his minions and other characters.

The following gallery (courtesy of Supper Mario Broth on Tumblr) shows one example of a Bowser exchange from The Thousand-Year Door, which was used to help break up the Mario chapters:

While I could probably go on about other things this title did away with (no playable Peach segments), and you might even think I hate Paper Mario: Sticker Star, but I really don’t. I do enjoy the game on its own merits, but I’ve admittedly been spoiled by what came before, and I know they can do better.

If anything, this game feels like it belongs as the first of the series, as it is still quite good and the others manage to build upon what’s here. At the same time, it’s mind-boggling that this is the latest in the series, as it feels like a step backwards. That’s doesn’t make it a bad game, any more than it would make Super Mario Bros. a bad game because it’s not Super Mario Bros. 3. It just doesn’t feel like progress.

I can also appreciate Intelligent Systems’ willingness to experiment and try new ideas. The only problem there is that the last game we got was also a grand experiment, and each time they do one widens the gap from the last time we simply got a good, traditional RPG-style game. The Thousand-Year Door came out in 2004, and we waited eight years for this game to bring us back to what we loved, but it’s fallen short of the mark. This means– assuming the next one isn’t another experiment in new mechanics and a minimalist approach– that we’ll have probably had to wait a decade or more. Experimentation is fine, but break it up a little, please!

Incidentally, I’m disappointed that the Wii never got a regular Paper Mario game of its own; so many of the mechanics in The Thousand-Year Door felt like they would have worked perfectly– or even better than they did originally– by using the Wii Remote.

In the end, I would say that Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a game which is very good at what it does and is a lot of fun to play, but overall pales in comparison to what came before. If you’re just getting into Paper Mario, this is a great place to start, but if you’ve played the others already, you might have a more difficult time adapting.

I do like the game a lot, but I’ll still be much happier if the next Paper Mario abandons this direction and returns to what worked so well before.

papermariostickerstarboxartPaper Mario: Sticker Star was released for the Nintendo 3DS on November 11th, 2012 at a price of $39.99.

A review copy was provided by Nintendo of Canada.


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David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.