Much of Sticker Star's ambition is unfortunately squandered.
From the moment it was originally announced that Intelligent Systems was working on a 3DS entry in the much beloved Paper Mario series, all I could think of was the limitless possibilities. What a recipe for success, too—Paper Mario’s paper-craft aesthetic fits the 3D-enabled handheld like a glove, and the light-RPG elements from past games could help shepherd in a new generation to the series relatively pain-free.
Much of Sticker Star’s ambition was squandered, however.
Over the years Intelligent Systems have been experimenting with the Paper Mario series, having begun on the Nintendo 64 as a turn-based RPG with light-JRPG mechanics to becoming a platformer/RPG hybrid in 2007’s Super Paper Mario for the Wii. Sticker Star feels someone squished in-between, though, with the return of turn-based combat but with much of the RPG elements stripped out. This is not the series’ return to glory.
As the name implies, Sticker Star is all about the stickers. Stickers dictate nearly everything you do in the game, ranging from combat, puzzles, and most importantly, the story. In Sticker Star the Mushroom Kingdom holds an annual holiday, called the Sticker Festival. Toads from around the world come to witness the Sticker Comet shoot through the night sky. This time, however, Bowser jumps in to the halt the festivities but accidently causes the comet to explode into 6 pieces. One of the pieces also happens to fall onto Bowser, causing him to go mad and steal Princess Peach. Yeah, big surprise, right?
Been there, done that; Intelligent Systems may not have strived to give us something new or unique in terms of storytelling or overarching narrative, but they don’t even attempt to buck this trend. What’s here is downright lazy. It’s the most basic Mario tale they’ve ever told. Surprising? Not really. Disappointing? Absolutely. I was hoping for something a little more creative than this.
And that can pretty much sum up most of Sticker Star. It has some ambition but none of the game ends up being very engaging. This is especially apparent with the battle system. Sticker Star takes a half-step back from Super Paper Mario—where the game had no battle system at all—with the return of turn-based, JRPG-like combat. It’s not a full step back, though, as much of the strategy from past game (like, say, partner swapping and flower point management) has been completely torn away. There isn’t incentive to fight any optional battles because you are not rewarded with anything. There’s no leveling up at all, so there’s no experience to be gained, or special moves to be learned.
So instead you’re given stickers—collected around the world by peeling them off the environment—to use for basic combat functionality. Mario’s famous Paper Mario-specific attacks like the jump and hammer attacks, for example, are all done by using the corresponding stickers you’ve found around the game’s many levels. Similar to past games, too, are the action commands that cause each attack to do more damage—or dealing less damage on defense—by pressing the action button are the precise time. This however, like most aspects of the game, is dumbed down quite a bit.
The use of stickers as the game primary premise sounds really unique and awesome, but like the game narrative thread, they’re not used in the most smartly designed ways. Stickers are disposable, like items from past games. So if you use a jump attack on an enemy, that sticker is gone forever. Not for the rest of battle or for that specific turn—no, it’s gone forever. This design choice alone is what baffles me the most. The idea behind this mechanic is to evoke the “collector” in you, like when you were a small child with a sticker book; trying to collect every sticker you can possibly find. But making this into a battle mechanic that can ultimately cause you to run of stickers entirely is just bad game design. Stickers can be bought in stores and they can also be found around the environment quite frequently, but I found myself having to either reset the game or run from battle because I didn’t have a specific sticker to defeat an enemy in a very specific way. It just became frustrating at some point.
This can also come into play with many of the Sticker Star’s “puzzles”—if you can even call them that. Throughout the game you will find “things” which can be collected and turned into stickers in the game’s main town. They can be used in battle but you will usually need to them stick in the environment, like sticking a giant fan sticker near a windmill to make the windmill start-up again. But some of the solutions are completely out of left field. I could not begin to tell you how many times I was stuck on a solution because I either couldn’t find the right “thing”, or the “thing” I needed had absolutely no relation to the puzzle in question. Solutions likely have one solution too, so you won’t be able to use multiple stickers to solve one puzzle. The same thing can be said about the boss fights. Most, if not all, bosses have a specific weakness that can be exploited by a specific sticker. If you don’t have that specific sticker, the boss will most likely destroy you. It’s annoying.
It’s unfortunate that much of Sticker Star’s mechanics are poorly implemented because it has a phenomenal aesthetic design. Past Paper Mario games have always had a unique, paper-craft design but it was never used it very creatively. Sticker Star goes all out. Characters themselves, like the toads around the main town, all know that they’re made of paper and can even be crushed with Mario’s hammer. Even the coins—a staple in not only the Paper Mario games, but the Mario franchise in general—are all made out of cardboard. The game is really sharp plus has a nice jazzy soundtrack, albeit not very memorable. You’d be hard-pressed to find a sharper looking game on the 3DS. The writing is top notch, too, with another incredible translation from Treehouse. It’s one of the funniest games in the series thus far.
Much of what made the past Paper Mario games so memorable is lost in Sticker Star. You’d be hard-pressed to find sharper, more charming games on the 3DS, but poor implementation of the game’s main premise is what really sweeps the rug out what could’ve been so much more. What we’re left with isn’t necessarily a bad game, it’s just an incredibly disappointing one. I don’t know where Intelligent Systems will take the series from here, but hopefully it will be something a little better than this.