For whatever reason, Mario and role playing games go together very well. This is likely a great example of Reese’s Postulate of Two Great Tastes, but ever since Square’s fantastic Super Mario RPG, these games have been some of the most consistently excellent RPGs around. While AlphaDream’s Mario and Luigi series has skewed a little more hardcore RPG with stats and whatnot, Intelligent System’s Paper Mario games have always been a little more accessible. The franchise’s first outing on a handheld, Sticker Star, continues the series’ trend of easy-to-get-into enjoyment but the combat lost a little of its luster along the way, and the game has a strange lack of the usual charm that we've seen from the series.
I can’t stress how much a distinct lack of humor and character wound up damaging the game for me. Nintendo has been a company who, for years, has been able to turn up the charm, make you smile and laugh; their localization team is, at their best, the best in the industry. Yet for some reason, this game feels very workmanlike. The team revealed in an Iwata Asks that they didn’t really bother with story (because it’s aMario game), but that doesn’t explain the rest of the game’s lack of humor and stand out characters. Most of the situations that Mario finds himself in don’t really stick out either, with the exception of a few boss fights and an out-of-nowhere game show. A particularly bad situation involved Mario trying to collect the segments of a Wiggler. After scouring every zone multiple times, it brought the game to a screeching halt, and finishing the mission was difficult because it was pretty boring. While that was definitely the worst section, it’s emblematic of the weird, flat nature of the game.
Though the characters and situations weren’t that great, I was blown away by the presentational aspects of the game. For starters, the graphics are beautiful, and they really pop off the screen, even in 2D. With the 3D on, the game looks as if peering into a paper diorama, which is a pretty cool effect, though it did have a image separating problem even at a low setting. The paper look is still great, and little touches like the way that the HP is on cardboard, or the way the stickers shine when you tilt the system, were very nice touches.
Furthermore, the music is just fantastic. It’s this incredibly frantic jazzy soundtrack, and it’s amazing. Once I unlocked the music player, I set my 3DS open and just listened to it because it’s not just good for game music: it’s good for music, period. Some areas in particular were so smooth and smoky that I could have stayed there for hours; a particular boss fight against a Blooper had a beautiful Latin tempo to it, and as the Blooper smacked its tentacles to the beat, it was an entirely engrossing experience.
The team has also done a lot to make the game actually fit better on a portable system. Following Miyamoto’s dismissal of their first efforts as “boring” and “too similar to the console games,” the team retooled it with stickers and smaller, more puzzley areas in mind. It’s much easier to pick up and monkey around in a level, then put it down and still feel like there was some progression. Your progress is also saved COPIOUSLY, so even if you have to quit or your battery dies, you may have lost just 5 minutes of progress, and it’s easy to hop back in and regain your progress. It’s a perfect way to make the game more handheld-accessible while also addressing one of the biggest problems of RPGs: data management and lack of save points.
Of course, as you can assume from the name, the game continues the series stable of making everything out of paper. Previous games went a little insane with the paper aspect (like turning Mario into a paper airplane), but this dials it back just a bit, and instead uses a sticker system to help you manipulate and maneuver through the environment. Even your travel companion, Kersti, is a sentient sticker from space, and the game very heavily leans on use of stickers to get almost anything done.
Stickers are used for three things: solving puzzles, exploring, and battles. Solving puzzles tends to involve finding parts of the environment that are placed wrong and re-sticking them, or applying another sticker to change the geometry of the world. Other stickers are more puzzle oriented and are used to solve a particular problem (“It’s hot here and I need to cool the world!” or “what’s up with this stupid tornado?!”). The game generally points you in the right direction, and Kersti can always be asked to give you a little hint. Once you use a sticker, even if it’s in the wrong place, it’s gone, but luckily, they litter the world, and you’ll find yourself with too many stickers before too long.
This is most helpful in battle, where every attack is a sticker. When this was first introduced, I was concerned there wouldn’t be enough stickers, but many of them are so powerful that they destroy your enemies very quickly. In fact, I found the game to be like a fun combat puzzle—you’re given many enemies, and you’re tasked with killing them with as few stickers as you can. The game even rewards you for finishing off all the enemies before they hit you, so its worth to be skilled with action commands in battle to power Mario up. Unfortunately, though, you'll develop a strategy that works for every enemy permutation resulting in battles growing monotonous. Luckily, you can skip them since there’s no XP; you power up by finding better stickers.
Where combat completely falls apart is in the boss fights. Each boss has multiple health bars and each are additional combat puzzles that require you to figure out the exact sticker the boss will be weak to. Unfortunately, you might not have it with you at the time, and if you don’t have the right one you’re going to be entering into a war of attrition, with Kersti scolding you for using too many stickers at the end. While it is immensely satisfying to use the right weapon and completely destroy enemies, not having the perfect sticker (especially on the final multi-stage Bowser fight) makes battles take way too long to be any kind of fun.
Unfortunately for it, Paper Mario: Sticker Star has to deal with being a “pretty good” entry in a series that is usually considered amongst the best games on their respective consoles. While I did have fun with it, there were times when I felt like I was just going through the motions, and very little of the innovation or character of previous entries shone through. As enjoyable as the presentation and more puzzle-oriented aspects were, the team at Intelligent Systems needs to ensure that they don’t lose sight of what made this series so special in the first place: a fun, colorful adventure through a world of interesting characters and experiences. Sticker Star may have the first two parts, but the lack of the last two takes a surprisingly big toll.