Paper Mario: Sticker Star: review

Those bored with pop-up books of the paper variety will be delighted at first to flip open their 3DS and be greeted by the stylish cheer of Paper Mario: Sticker Star’s wafer-thin world. Leafing through its digital pages is a delight rife with the series’ trademark enthusiastic charm, but smiles fade as the game’s flimsy mechanics unfold. Baffling design decisions that crumple every good idea prompt a question all developers should fear: what were they thinking?

Sticker Star raises this question at the most fundamental level: the basic systems of play underlying its clever jokes and snazzy scenery. Much is borrowed from its predecessors, throwing Japenese-style role-playing and Mario’s penchant for explorative jumping together to make what should be delicious results; the oddball recipe has worked remarkably well so far. However, Sticker Star does away with much of the former, streamlining itself into a patchwork puzzle-platformer that forsakes stats for stickers. Branching hubs and overworlds have given way to a world map dotted with linear levels, and while the series’ semi-active turn-based combat of timed button presses remains, it peels away layers of complexity until only the most basic remain. This shift would’ve been more reasonable if the new sticker system had more fun than frustration, but bogglingly broken combat and bogglingly boggling puzzles dash this wistful hope.

The stickers themselves descend upon the Mushroom Kingdom through the mystical Sticker Comet, a celestial rock that’s rumoured to make wishes come true. But Bowser will have none of it. Or, rather, all of it, as he makes a dash for the comet, splintering it into seven Royal Stickers that scatter across the kingdom’s seven world, giving him and his minions devious amounts of sparkle-speckled power. This spells trouble, and the ladylike sticker Kersti enlists Mario’s help to combat Bowser’s devious minions and regather the Royal Stickers. Unfortunately, Kersti serves as little more than an empty cipher for words the mute Mario can’t say; a tool that provides only the most basic means of story progression. Much like the game’s plot itself, in fact. Sticker Star’s story is not only utterly rote, but almost entirely absent. Actual storytelling is bookended at beginning and end, with nothing but blank pages between. For a series prized for its narrative romps, it’s a disappointing, even perplexing, oversight.

When he’s one of the main villains, you know story trouble is ahead.

The stickers do more than create a rote basis for story, however; they create a rote basis for combat. Paper Mario’s traditional trifecta of attacks, special attacks and items has been swapped out for the sole mechanic of stickers themselves, which basically operates by reducing everything to a single inventory. The touch screen becomes your album, displaying the variety of jumps, hammers, and mushrooms that make up the meat of your inventory. Though each can only be used once, there are enough pasted across the levels that the problem quickly shifts from filling your album to managing its limited space. Tapping out attacks is amusing enough, but absent complexity and effortless button prompts keep it from rising above novelty. Some variety comes in the form of oft-oversized stickers created from random things (called, appropriately, Things) found strewn throughout the kingdom of mushrooms, be it a pair of scissors, a refrigerator, or the odd giant goat. (And really, it’s odd.) But while their animations are endearing and lovingly crafted, like much of the game, their similar effects add little to what’s, ultimately, a dreadfully dull way to do battle.

This could’ve been a forgivable offence; plenty of RPGs are choosing to streamline, and one as kid-friendly as Paper Mario is especially entitled to such a shift. However, the combat’s not only shallow; there’s no actual reason to do it at all. Apart from the few mandatory bosses, every fight in Paper Mario can be avoided, or at worst, fled from. Previous games have handled this by incentivising you to fight, be it through character progression, greater convenience, or barriers to retreat. Sticker Star uses none of these. Instead, with leveling and experience points taken entirely out of the equation, battles reward you solely with stickers and a few coins (with which to buy more stickers; a deviously one-sided economy). These make somewhat useless rewards, since you’ll have plenty of each either way. Simply tapping the always-available ‘run’ button is the far more inviting option, which is consistently successful the first or second try. Add on top of this that it carries no penalty beyond wasting a turn and it effectively removes combat itself as anything more than an entirely optional, and unfortunately dull, distraction.

With goomba-stomping out of the picturebook, Sticker Star leaves you with its unorthodox combination of fixed-perspective jumping and item-based puzzling. The game’s platforming doesn’t stray far, or even at all, from its roots, which means it’s… fine. Not interesting, or even very enjoyable on its own, but fine. Merely a simple way to jaunt from point to point, weaving between two-dimensional vagabonds until progress is blocked by another of the game’s sticker-centric innovations: the puzzles. Kersti grants Mario her unique ability to Paperize, allowing him to step outside the world to peel and plant stickers at particular spots. This mechanic is the basis for most of the game’s environmental head-scratchers, and also for its most maddening frustrations.

The most aggravating of these is the game’s use of Things as their solutions. A given quandary will often require a specific Thing, which could be just a screen or two away, or in another World entirely. While we admire the game’s unconventional thinking when it comes to solution and direction, rather than just guiding the player with a patronizing, yet charmingly cute hand, clues tend to range from nonsensical to non-existent. The answer could hide among any of the dozens of side-paths and secrets littering Sticker Star’s abundant levels; worse, even testing a sticker will use it up, discouraging any experimentation, as you’ll need to trek all the way back to find it yet again should you need it later. Minutes can stretch into hours as a given string of searches drags on until the game feels more padded than the cell you’ll inevitably find yourself within by the end. It makes the reasonable length (upwards of twenty hours) something of a farce. It’s truly a shame to see an attempt at defying linearity and the “plays itself” mentality muddle itself so thoroughly; a shame heightened by just how lovable Paper Mario: Sticker Star is.

Kamek has a great theme song. That alone is an incredible feat.

Even when hating it you can’t help but to love it. While not so ridiculously creative as instant classics like 2004’s Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, Sticker Star doesn’t skimp on its clever wordage and vibrant personality. Its cast of near-identical toads surprise and delight with their vast vocabularies and distinct outlooks, spouting a good share of laugh-worthy lines incidental to the disappointing plot. Though usually focused in the game’s capital of Decalburg and a few outlying towns, welcome character occasionally spruces up the all-too-generic levels themselves. The world’s blandness is further lessened by the series’ trademark art, bursting with colorful cut-outs. Though showing a choppier frame rate than its predecessors, 3D is handled with the perfection one would expect from such a suitable showcase for its eye-popping tricks. However, what’s most noticeable, and laudable, is Sticker Star’s energized and exceptionally-produced soundtrack.

Those despairing of Mario’s slide into musical mediocrity should be as delighted as we were to hear the jazz-infused genius of Sticker Star’s abundant melodies. Each echoing snare and slap of bass rings with heart and style, bringing even the drabbest desert or jungle gleefully to life. Even long-overplayed remixes are revived with a meticulous balance of new and old. The game isn’t shy about embracing its stellar backing, either. Bosses clap along, mariachi guys (of the shy guy variety) add their strummings, and certain songs blend and form to match your surroundings, carrying the proud tradition of such musical wonders as Banjo Kazooie years before. While no soundtrack is perfect, Sticker Star’s comes dangerously close, simultaneously innovating and superbly capturing an already well-established series.

Paper Mario: Sticker Star does so much right, but gets too much wrong. A sound premise and lively presentation are ultimately unsupported by their paper thin foundations. What few pages of depth exist are revealed to just be stuck together, and by the time the painful process of peeling them apart is over, you’ll wish they’d just been ripped out to begin with.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Written by Bryan K

Leave a Reply