Paper Mario: Sticker Star for Nintendo 3DS
I’m very fond of the Paper Mario franchise; Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door for the Gamecube is one of the best JRPGs I’ve ever played, built upon the foundations of the original N64 game, combining a simple yet fun battle system, a surprisingly compelling story, a humorous tone and a gorgeous graphical style to create something really special. Super Paper Mario for the Wii, whilst not nearly as bad as many would say, was nonetheless a slight disappointment in its abandonment of the core RPG mechanic of the previous games. I was therefore hopeful that the Paper Mario game for 3DS would bring the franchise back to its glory days; early screenshots had me cautiously optimistic. Sadly, this optimism was misplaced; Sticker Star is not a bad game at all, but abandons so much of what made previous games special leaving an experience which feels…well, flat (ba-dum-tish).
Sticker Star takes the player around a fairly standard range of locations; you’ve got your grassy world, your desert world, your forest world, your ice word and your fire world. There are some cool environments, a Yoshi Sphinx was rather charming, as was a great level inside a house haunted by Boos, but there’s little here that feels like it’s shaking up the basic Mario formula. Where previous Paper Mario games took the player to a range of strange and different locations, Sticker Star sticks to the basic rule book for constructing a Mario game. The experimentation of The Thousand Year Door is gone; there seems to be a desire to play it safe, which is a shame, as some of the best Mario games are those which set themselves outside of standard Mushroom Kingdom locales, such as Mario & Luigi : Superstar Saga and Super Mario Galaxy.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star sticks to the standard Mario plot line with depressing loyalty. There’s a big annual event, Bowser shows up and ruins everything, kidnaps Peach, buggers off to his castle, leaving Mario to collect 5 thingamajigs to blah blah blah…You’ve heard all this before.
The plot of Sticker Star is definitely one of the most disappointing aspects of this game, undoing all of the good work done in the previous Mario RPGs. Sure, the humour’s there, but without a proper story to provide context it never feels like more than a series of distinct jokes with nothing tying them together. The real tragedy is the treatment of Bowser, who is usually one of the comic highlights of the Mario RPGs. Unlike the main platformer series, where Bowser reigns villain supreme, in the RPGs he is never more than a pathetic irritation. Bowser plays the role of tragic villain, sometimes even anti-hero, and is always hilarious. Until now. Other classic Super Mario characters suffer too; Princess Peach was given an actual personality in The Thousand Year Door, and achieved more than simply waiting in a castle to be rescued. Here she is her usual passive bland self. The appearances of Luigi in The Thousand Year Door were always funny and charming, but in Sticker Star I’d be cautious to even label his appearances cameos, so fleeting they are. The blame for this can be laid in one unlikely place, a place that it is rather hard for a long term Nintendo fan to admit; Shigeru Miyamoto. It’s no secret that Miyamoto doesn’t like RPGs, or believe in a focus upon story. Relatively late in development Miyamoto threw a Steve Jobs and overturned what the team had so far, insisting that many of the story elements be cropped and that they restrain themselves to almost entirely using characters seen in Super Mario World. Gone are the funny and charming characters, the surprisingly dark and epic storylines; what we’re left with is the same crap we’re fed in the main games. The difference is that the main Mario games don’t need a story, they provide a different kind of gaming experience, one focused simply upon twitchy fun, but these RPGS need context and narrative to keep things going. It doesn’t have to be complex, Pokemon Black and White are good examples of RPGs which had minimal story but still work, but we need something.
The main gimmick of Paper Mario: Sticker Star is, unsurprisingly, stickers! This works well in some places, and not so well in others. All attack commands in battles are stickers held in a sticker book, which vanish when used. These stickers can be bought from shops, peeled from walls, found in question mark blocks or looted from enemies. There are timed damage bonuses in battle of course, this being a Paper Mario game, and it’s as satisfying to pull off a good combo as ever. The stuff outside of battles is actually more interesting, a rarity in a JRPG. There’s an element of an old school adventure game to the whole thing, as Mario collects stickers which can be used to solve puzzles throughout the world. One of the more amusing elements of the game is the appearance of ‘things’, items from our world which can be stickerized and used inside and outside of battle. These range from mundane items like scissors and a fridge to the amusingly wacky; my favourite was ‘goat.’
There’s a lot to like in the gameplay of Paper Mario: Sticker Star. The actual battles are quite fun, playing out in a fairly similar way to those in earlier games. Some of the boss fights are utterly epic, and can get incredibly difficult, which only serves to prove the lie that Nintendo only makes easy games. There are some great levels which contain some classic ‘Nintendo moments’, moments which just make you want to clap your hands and giggle like a child. No one can create moments like this quite as well as Nintendo. Alas, everything, really, pretty much everything is undermined by one fatal, baffling flaw in the game design; the lack of a levelling system. This leaves the player with no incentive to enter battles, as they will usually just waste valuable stickers, and shows a huge misunderstanding as to why people play RPGs. I suspect Miyamoto’s involvement here too. Growing a character is one of the most compelling motivations in gaming, and is the fundamental mechanic RPGs are built on. Without the potential for character growth, RPGs just plain do not work. Battles become an irritation, a thing to be avoided. Another major flaw can be the esoteric nature of some of the puzzles; I compared Sticker Star to an adventure game earlier, but it can sometimes tend towards the worst habits of that genre. Some of the puzzle solutions are so bizarre that to get through this game without Google at your side would be a Herculean feat of patience. This could be forgiven however, and doesn’t really bog the game down too much. There are some real flashes of brilliance here, and some really clever and fun levels, but it’s not enough; I could forgive the plot, I could forgive the obtuse puzzles, but I cannot forgive the lack of a levelling system.
However, every time I got myself nice and worked up over the flaws in the gameplay, I’d see another beautiful, stylish or cool area and I’d forget all about it. I absolutely love the aesthetic of the Paper Mario series, and it carries over exceptionally well to 3DS. The 3D is actually really good here; it’s one of the few games I played the whole way through with it turned on, and given my cynicism of the gimmick that’s a high compliment. The game is colourful, charming and sometimes beautiful. The music is excellent, this is Nintendo after all, although the new tunes fail to really have much of an impact. Frequent remixes of classic Mario tunes throughout the game always bought a smile to my face. A fun rollercoaster section set to the slide theme from Super Mario 64 had me playing with a wide grin plastered all over my face. If only the actual game could have lived up to its own style.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a highly frustrating game; like Assassin’s Creed 3, it’s a game I really wanted to like. There’s a lot of good here, but its flashes of brilliance only serve to illuminate it’s failures. Despite all this, Paper Mario: Sticker Star isn’t a terrible game, and I didn’t hate my time with it. When it takes a dip in price, this may be worth a go, but not before then.