So Paper Mario: Sticker Star isn't out yet, but on the recent 8-4 podcast, they somehow had an advance copy that they were freely allowed to talk about, which is odd. It reminded me I've been meaning to talk about this.
To step back for a second, I thought Super Paper Mario was a huge misstep. Thousand-Year Door was great, front to back, since it added just enough to the combat system and the world that it was interesting and a joy to play, compared to the original Paper Mario which was just a little too simplistic in the combat.
Super Paper Mario was just a chore to play. By being a platformer-RPG, it was the worst of both worlds; the platforming was too safe and easy, and the RPG mechanics barely existed. It was way too easy to accidentally overlevel (seriously, attempt the Pit of 100 Trials even once, and you'll be overleveled for the rest of the game and kill everything in one hit).
While I think the writing remained good in terms of dialogue, most of the characters sucked. The characters in the hub town were all forgettable, and looked bad; the hub town itself was incredibly plain and lacked any sense of character or history. The story just felt disconnected from everything, since the hub town existed in this weird interdimensional limbo; it wasn't as intriguing as the mystery of the Thousand-Year Door. Super Paper Mario didn't have any new party members, and the Pixls were noncharacters. Which leaves Mario, Luigi, Bowser, and Peach, who are what you expect (aka Bowser has all the best lines). The antagonists were all kind of lame, though O'Chunks had some pretty great moments; I hated Mimi and Dimentio, and I found I just didn't give a shit about Count Bleck and his stupid tragic backstory. They just felt like this shitty, cobbled together group of villains from the season of a TV show that everyone agrees is the worst season.
The crazy flip mechanic turned out to be kind of dull, as you usually just had to flip whenever you reached a dead end; rarely did they do anything interesting with it like the early exploration puzzles in Fez. The worlds weren't very thematically interesting, with only the 8-bit nerd dimension and the video game afterlife being kind of cool and memorable. And the Pit of 100 Trials wasn't even hard because Bowser was broken as fuck and made a mockery of the game's combat.
So Intelligent Systems would've had to try pretty hard to outcrap Super Paper Mario. And I do think Sticker Star looks like an improvement. But the whole thing, mechanically, sounds like it is again going down the Super Paper Mario path of "Instead of building on what we've established in the first two entries in the series, let's completely rework how this game plays and what it even is". Why they keep doing this is absolutely beyond me.
I don't think they've fucked it up nearly as badly as Super Paper Mario, but some of the things mentioned in the 8-4 podcast sound troubling. Such as:
- the part where they fucked up again, and they still haven't put party members back into the game. Seriously, what the fuck? The party members have been one of the most memorable aspects of Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, and Thousand-Year Door. Party members were a little too silent once they joined your party in the first Paper Mario (what I like to call "Shining Force syndrome"), but in Thousand-Year Door, they were more talkative, and whichever party member you had active would often get involved with conversations with NPCs and stuff in the overworld. It was awesome. Going back to basics and playing the game as just Mario (plus standard Navi character Kersti) seems like a step backward for no reason. Even the handheld Mario & Luigi series has Luigi as a second party member.
- the part where you don't get experience, which other games have tried but if you don't do it just right, it usually results in the player going "Wait, if I already have enough money, I should just avoid fights altogether". And it sounds like the 8-4 guys were having that exact problem with Sticker Star. Unless the game has a TON of money sinks, or has some kind of system where you steal skills or items from enemies, once your remove XP from enemy battles, you're kind of removing the whole point of battles.
- the stickers actually sound like the most positive change, though they just sound like an alternative to badges as opposed to any real improvement. Again, you don't level up, so Mario gains more HP or FP as the game progresses by collecting stickers that raise your HP and FP. Like badges, it sounds like you accumulate new sticker types as you travel to new areas in the world and find new shops and whatever, and that as the game progresses, you can equip more stickers at once. Again, pretty much all old hat if you're familiar with the badge system in the previous games, though from what I understand you consume the stickers when you use them, so it's harder to just keep spamming one particularly awesome ability. The other difference seems to be that some stickers act like HMs in Pokemon, in that they allow you to perform certain actions outside of battle. A cool addition, but it feels like a net loss when it used to be party members that gave you abilities you could use outside of battle.
I know it sounds like I'm really down on this game, but I'm a slave to franchises I like, and Sticker Star is almost definitely the game that will get me to buy a 3DS. I'll give it a chance. I just don't get why Intelligent Systems has twice now decided to just go back to square one instead of building on Thousand-Year Door, which is easily their best non-Fire Emblem game ever. Sticker Star seems like it'll be fine, especially compared to the boring garbage that was Super Paper Mario, but it doesn't exactly sound like it will elevate the Paper Mario series to new heights.