Mario’s latest RPG adventure is lacking both the charm and polish of earlier Paper Mario titles.
When I bought my 3DS last Christmas, I made sure to pick up Paper Mario: Sticker Star with it. While Japanese RPG fans generally don’t give the Paper Mario series the same reverence as say, Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, the franchise has been home to some of the genre’s funniest and most thoughtfully designed games. I liked the original Paper Mario on N64, I absolutely adored the Gamecube sequel, The Thousand Year Door, and I loved Super Paper Mario on Wii even more. Since I liked each new game in the Paper Mario series exponentially more than the one that preceeded it, I had really high hopes for Sticker Star. While it wasn’t the sole reason I bought a 3DS, it was a big deciding factor in my decision to purchase it when I did.
I’m pretty happy with my 3DS so far; I’ve spent the last few months addicted to titles like Super Mario 3D Land and Kid Icarus. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten addicted to Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the game that I bought alongside the system.
Like most Mario games, Sticker Star begins with Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach. In order to get her back (again,) Mario teams with a “Sticker Fairy” named Kersti, who gives Mario the ability to collect and use powerful stickers in order to combat Bowser, who has been powered up through the use of rare sticker affixed to his head.
The focus on stickers isn’t limited to just the game’s narrative, it’s integrated into every aspect of the game: puzzles are solved by applying stickers, screen clearing super-attacks are activated using stickers, and even the most basic actions in combat require the use of stickers. Every action in the game is somehow requires the use of stickers, and the game’s complete reliance on this gimmick works for and against Sticker Star.
For the most part, the battles in Sticker Star are a lot of fun: as with previous Paper Mario games, battles are turn-based and every action, ranging from special attacks to blocks, requires the use of a timed button press. In addition to this, Sticker Star eschews the usual combat menus in favor of one-time use stickers. Mario can’t do anything — attack, use a special ability, heal himself, etc. — without the use of a sticker, and the new sticker system adds a new layer of tension and risk-reward to the series’ already frantic battles. Mario’s stock of stickers is limited, so players have to decide if they want to use their powerful stickers up on basic enemies, or save them for bosses. The sticker system also adds an increased sense of tension, since missing one of the game’s timed button press doesn’t just mean you’ve wasted a turn, it also means you’ve wasted a potentially hard to get sticker. More powerful stickers take up more space in Mario’s inventory than the basic ones, so the sticker system adds in an element of strategy and planning that was absent from previous games in the series: if you fill Mario’s inventory up with a handful of powerful rare stickers rather than stocking up on simple common attacks, you’ll find yourself running out of resources very quickly. Using stickers in battle almost felt like using ammo up in an old survial horror game: you need to use stickers to eliminate enemies, but using them recklessly may put you into an un-winnable situation.
While the sticker system works great in battles against the game’s normal enemies, it falls apart during the boss fights. Most of the major boss battles in the game require the use of a specific sticker in order to win, and the game often doesn’t give you any hints in advance as to which stickers you should be bringing with you. Bosses’ weaknesses are only revealed once you get into battle with them, and by then it’s too late to go back and update your line-up of stickers. You basically have to enter a boss fight once to learn his weakness, reset your game back to your last save, walk back to town, buy the stickers that you need, then walk back through the dungeon again and fight the boss a second time in order to advance. It’s tedious, unfair, and it’s a totally unnecessary and unsuccessful attempt at adding an extra layer of challenge to the game’s boss battles.
Mario will also need to use certain stickers in order to solve puzzles, and once again, the stickers end up causing more trouble than they’re worth. For example, in order to light up a dark warehouse, Mario needs to affix a sticker of a light bulb inside of it. The puzzle itself makes sense, but actually getting the sticker is yet another tedious ordeal: the stickers you need to complete environmental puzzles are often very deviously hidden throughout the game’s world, and if you don’t already have the specific sticker required to solve a puzzle, be prepared to do a lot of mindless searching and backtracking. As with the game’s boss battles, the game doesn’t really give you any hints as to where you can find the stickers you need, so you’re left with no choice but to randomly search each and every area in the game in the hopes of finding it.
The tedious nature of the game’s puzzles and boss battles almost seem like an artificial way to extend the length of the game. The trial and error nature of the game is the antithesis of the friendly and polished design that most people have come to expect from Nintendo games, and it makes parts of the game feel more like a chore rather than fun. At times, the game almost feels like it’d be impossible to play without the aid of a strategy guide or an online FAQ.
Part of the appeal of previous Paper Mario titles were the games’ quirky and hilarious stories and cast of characters. Sticker Star is uneven in this aspect as well: while the game does feature some genuine laugh-out-loud moments (including a lot of hipster jokes at Kamek Koopa’s expense,) the story isn’t as memorable as previous games in the series. The only new major character is Kersti the Sticker Fairy, and most of the other characters you run across in the game are just nameless Toads who pop in for a few seconds and then disappear. Despite being an RPG, Sticker Star’s story isn’t that much deeper than any of the dedicated Mario platformers, and anybody expecting a game with as much witty writing and personality as the old Paper Mario games will definitely be disappointed.
Thankfully, the graphics manage to compensate for some of the charm that the story lacks: while the older Paper Mario games simply blended 2D sprites with polygonal environments, Sticker Star actually looks like it’s made of paper: the whole world looks like it was hand-crafted using construction paper, cardboard, and glue. “Holofoil” stickers actually have a visible sheen that realistically move and sparkle if you move your 3DS around, and the game actually makes great use of the system’s 3D screen: with the 3D turned on at full blast, it actually looks like a real, physical, papercraft diorama inside your 3DS.
I really, really wanted to like Paper Mario: Sticker Star. The game was enjoyable at first, and when I was fighting the game’s regular enemies, I was having a blast; unfortunately, the sticker gimmick completely falls apart as soon as the game starts throwing boss battles and puzzles at you. I kept playing anyway, and I found myself having less and less fun as the game went on. It isn’t a terrible game, as there were moments where it was genuinely more entertaining than any of the previous games in the series, but the bits of fun that I experienced were negated by how frustrating, boring, and tedious the game was at other times. Perhaps more patient gamers might be able to tolerate the game’s messy design, but I think that even the most forgiving of gamers would agree with me when I say that Sticker Star is easily the weakest game in the series so far. Fans hungry for a Mario RPG experience would be better off replaying Super Paper Mario or The Thousand Year Door instead. There are plenty of great Mario games on the 3DS, but unfortunately, Paper Mario: Sticker Star isn’t one of them.
Final Score: 6.5/10