Developers: Intelligent Systems
If there was ever a series that captures the special nature of Nintendo and what sets them apart from other developers, it's Paper Mario. Not content with regularly pumping out top notch platformers and occasionally redefining the genre, Paper Mario sees them transform their iconic mascot into a questing hero and liberally poke fun at their flagship franchise. Squashing Mario flat is simply the visual representation of a series that does its best to encourage players to view the world of the Mushroom Kingdom in a slightly different manner.
As such a self-reflexive series, it's unsurprising perhaps that the Paper Mario games have looked to rather mix things up at every opportunity. The early games on the N64 and the Gamecube flirted heavily with pen-and-paper RPG mechanics and 2D platforming. The more recent outing on the Wii left the preoccupation with motion controls at the door and, with the little vanilla box proving resurgent for JRPGs, Paper Mario targeted multiplayer platforming, in a move that would later be taken over by the New Super Mario Bros. franchise.
So where to from there? Always the unruly schoolboy, eschewing the more prevalent trends at Nintendo HQ, where does Paper Mario turn now?
The answer come in the form of a game that tries to do a little bit of everything. The layout off the land is somewhat akin to that of Super Mario 3D Land, with areas broken up into familiar numbered codes, each one then split up into a handful of smaller areas to be investigated. There are secret areas and interactive objects aplenty, just waiting for Mario's hammer, and there's even a few little bits of pleasant platforming to be done.
The scene is set with Bowser gatecrashing the Sticker Festival - a celebration that marks the arrival of the Sticker Comet and ends with everyone's wishes coming true. Instead of having a kickass party, the Toads and Mario have their festivities ruined when Bowser crashes into the comet, and splatters it into pieces, leaving Mario to be nagged by a Navi-esque guidance sticker fairy called Kersti (geddit?!), who presses him into rounding up the bits of comet as they've fallen into the hands of Bowser's nefarious minions.
Turn-based battles are back in, only now orders are conducted by selecting the relevant stickers. Want to whip out a hammer and clonk a Goomba on the head? Well there'll be a plethora of different kinds of hammer sticker to find and test out. Want to jump on a Koopa? You'll need a jump sticker for that, with the game letting you harness the little bipedal turtles' shells if you jump on them twice. As before, a well timed bash of 'A' just before the attack connects will yield a little boost, and doing so before an enemy strikes will help to bock against damage.
There's a worry which sets in immediately, considering that each sticker can only be used once, that suggests the game might devolve into a constant grinding scrounge for the barest minimum of combat moves. It would be nice to think that Nintendo are not quite as cheap as that, and it's true that eventually your sticker book will be filled with a diverse range of abilities, but it does make the first couple of hours a little tense, and borderline unplayable at some moments should you find yourself running out of all-purpose moves. And you will.
The game encourages you to manipulate the world around you with your big fat hammer, flipping over flowers, shrubs, and rocks and peeling stickers off of every surface that you find. There are no levels, no experience points, no jobs, no classes, no roles - exploration and adventure are promoted more in this game than any RPG-lite features that the series may have embraced a decade ago.
So it is that Sticker Star comes across as neither platformer nor RPG, instead taking its dialogue-heavy mini narratives and stringing them together along with some dimension-bending puzzling to create something closer to an adventure game. For just as you'll hoover up stickers to be used in combat, so too will you find those more suited to solving a particular puzzle and, in the grand tradition of point-and-click adventure games, it's all about trying to get inside the heads of the designers at Intelligent Systems to work out which specific item is required for the job.
If it sounds like Sticker Star seems like something of a patchwork jumble of elements, well you'd be right, but the central conceit of Paper Mario makes it all not only bearable, but enjoyable too. The 2D presentation in a fully 3D space encourages imaginative exploration, with some very clever use of depth perception. Watching a cluster of Toads fold themselves into a staircase never gets old, but there are more practical uses for the gimmick too. Sticker Star encourages the player at times to "Paperise" the world, flattening the immediate area into a screenshot, and then letting you explore for secret areas, and manipulate the landscape by attaching certain stickers to it. An early problem sees Bowser Jr. remove a bridge, and to cross the chasm you have to retrieve the bridge sticker, Paperise the area, and then stick the bridge back where it belongs. Some of these puzzles are a little more abstract, and some have more than one item you'd think would be suitable for the job at hand, just like some of the more infuriating adventure titles of yesteryear.
The graphics look fantastic, and the 3D effect makes the most of the 2D Paper world. The soundtrack is outstanding, full of jazzy tunes that will stick in your head for days on end. Given time, Sticker Star becomes another joyous romp, only this time the emphasis is on resource collection and management and turn-based action rather than a traditional RPG framework. If anything, Paper Mario: Sticker Star feels more like an 8-bit curio at times than a more modern title. There's less of a sense of hand-holding than in previous games in this series, and there's been a conscious effort to deviate from the beaten path and explore new concepts and ideas.
Which is why it feels wrong to criticise Nintendo for that. But the fact is that as the story quickly fades into the background, and before you've managed to start properly decking out your sticker compendium, you'll find little incentive to persevere. The lack of progression beyond sticker collection means that combat quickly becomes something to avoid rather than enjoy, and if you don't buy into the allure of pimping out your sticker book, there'll be precious few hooks to keep you coming back. The whimsy is still there, but previous games in this series have handled it far more memorably.
That's not to say Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a bad game, because it really isn't. It's a relaxingly paced, often amusing, wonderfully presented title that takes a few risks and experiments with the most recognisable videogame character of all time. It's so delightful in tone and setting that many will certainly be able to overlook the clash of systems that sit beneath the surface. Perhaps ironically, though, it's fans of the original Paper Mario who'll likely find the most about which to complain.
- Delightful setting, once again
- Often hilariously self-referential
- Imaginative concept makes for a fine adventure game
- Did we mention that it's delightful?
- Don't go in expecting an RPG
- Combat system is neither effective nor engrossing, to the point of superfluity
- The story gets bored of itself and wanders off
The Short Version: Sticker Star is a quirky, beguiling little beast that finds Nintendo once again playing with form and function, this time with varying results. A puzzle-laden adventure game in the guise of a Paper Mario RPG, it's at times frustrating and flawed, but it's also charming and delightful. A game that's easy to love, though not always fun.