Paper Mario: Sticker Star Review

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Should stick to what works.

Paper Mario: Sticker Star
Platform: 3DS
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo

Paper Mario: Sticker Star was released in December last year in Australia. It is the fourth in the Paper Mario series and the first released on handheld, the predecessors all being released on Nintendo home consoles. It is also the most significant departure from the series\’ gameplay roots, even more so than 2007’s Super Paper Mario on the Wii. Whether or not you will enjoy this departure depends very much on your own taste and this unfortunately means it may not appeal to many fans of the original two games.

Writing a late review does have its advantages. One such is that you can see what many other critics have written and also get plenty of feedback from the average player on message boards, if not in general conversation. One thing I noticed when I read early reviews was that I really didn’t understand Sticker Star outside of the sticker mechanic until I actually played it. Unlike its prequels, Sticker Star is quite a mix of different games with the Paper Mario aspect seen only in the visual design and basic gameplay. Sticker Star contains an overworld similar to the 2D Mario platformers, the backtracking of the Metroid series, the collecting of the Pokémon series and the obscure puzzles often found in early Zelda titles. This mix must sound like a dream to any fan of gaming, especially of Nintendo properties, but these elements work together with… well… mixed success. It is important to know that if you like all the titles mentioned above than you will probably find something to like in Sticker Star, the problem is that you may not find yourself liking the game as a whole.

The newest and most important part of Sticker Star is the sticker system. The title really gets it right. You begin the game at a Sticker Fest where you watch a Sticker Comet come, which is shortly ruined by Bowser who breaks the comet into six stickers, one of which makes Bowser very powerful. Mario meets a sticker fairy named Kersti who blames him for the whole sticky mess and Mario then has to go on a journey peeling, collecting, using and making stickers in order to get all the Royal Stickers and make everything stickertastic once again. From the very beginning of the game you will find stickers everywhere and you may as well peel them all, because you will almost certainly need them. The shops sell them, enemies drop them and there are hidden powerful versions to collect in many levels. And most of the other items you find in the game must be turned into stickers to be of any use. Stickers.

The battle system is where sticker use is most important. You cannot attack an enemy without using one of your stickers, all of which are one-use only. You must always have stickers with you and running out of stickers in any battle will mean either losing or having to run away. Thankfully, you are unlikely to ever run out of stickers and it is having too many that usually presents a problem, as it requires you to discard weaker stickers for more powerful ones. Unlike previous games, there are no support characters apart from Kersti who mostly just gives advice. In any battle, Mario is alone, often against multiple enemies. The strategies will be familiar to fans of the series. Using jump stickers on spiked enemies usually won’t work and hammer or shell stickers on flying enemies also won’t. It is important to have a variety of stickers and know which ones to use on what enemies. Fortunately, knowing exactly what a sticker does can easily be checked on the touchscreen. Timing is also very important, and knowing when to press a button can make all the difference with bad timing meaning not only less damage but also a wasted sticker.

Sticker Star is the first RPG I have played where the leveling system has essentially been removed. This is an interesting experiment that in my early play time seemed to work well but the further I got into the game, the more the flaws in this design decision became clear. The battle system in Paper Mario is fun but the incentive to fight these battles for experience is more important than I ever realized. The only reward for fighting enemies in Sticker Star is a coin bonus both after the battle and at the end of the level, along with the chance of getting a new sticker. Outside of this the battles quickly become something you want to avoid to save stickers for bosses and other mandatory battles. There are health power-ups but they are found by exploration and there are more powerful versions of most stickers but these again, only have to be found to be used. Incorporating both extra health and more powerful stickers into an experience system would have made fighting battles far more fun. As it is, I found myself running away from most to save stickers, and the fact that I was never low on coins didn’t give me any incentive to fight where I didn’t have to.

As mentioned, the game contains an overworld very like that of Super Mario World. Each level can be completed and some have alternate exits opening different paths. However merely finishing the level does not mean you won’t be going back. Every time you go into a level, stickers respawn and since the shops don’t sell many of the better stickers, you will find yourself returning to levels, if only to grab a powerful sticker you had found and used previously. Having to do this often makes going back to earlier levels and getting caught by weaker enemies even more of an annoyance. The levels are also very unique, some being very short, some merely a house or a shop other a big maze of puzzles. The series’ quirks are very much a part of the latter with unique tasks needing to be completed from collecting ghosts, riding a mine cart and having a mad jungle raft ride from an angry mechanical fish.

There are also non-sticker items to be found which can be turned into special stickers that are often used to solve puzzles but can also be used in battle. These could be anything from a light bulb to an air conditioner and are the more difficult and well hidden items in the game. Puzzles are solved by using “paperize” which makes any area of the world flat and allows Mario to pull up and flip over bits of scenery, or replace missing bridges or doors to open other areas of the level. These are usually solved by an item lying around the level but sometimes you are required to backtrack to other levels. This is where the puzzle elements of early Zelda or really any older adventure game come in. You will often have no idea what you need and as early as the second world you require three pieces of scenery hidden in three previous levels. This requires thorough exploration if you don’t want to use a playguide, so it is best to explore each level as best you can before moving on. And it means having Mario head butt, jump on and smash walls and blocks everywhere in the hope of finding something. Surprisingly, the puzzles seem to get more obvious as you progress such as a dark room obviously requiring that lightbulb you may have missed in the last world.

Boss battles give you the most incentive to fight as in each world they have a Royal Sticker that you need to collect to move on. But as with the puzzle system, you really need to know what you are doing or spend a lot of time experimenting. In the first battle you are given a big hint about a sticker item you required earlier, but if you haven’t since grabbed it again then you will be in for a battle of sticker attrition. This is because normal stickers will not cause much damage, and the one sticker you probably don’t have will end the battle very quickly if used at the right time. This is the case for virtually all boss battles and especially so in the final battle. Sometimes it is obvious, (like when you fight an ice enemy, you should use fire) but you will more often find yourself trying many different things or else searching a playguide for what to do next. Each turn in battle only allows one sticker to be used unless you win one or two extra slots by spending coins on a slot machine. This being completely luck-based, will sometimes see you stuck with one slot when you desperately need two or three.

If you are a fan of the art style in Paper Mario, then Sticker Star won’t disappoint. The cute characters, paper effects and card board backdrops look wonderful on the 3DS and having the 3D switched on can actually help with some of the trickier platforming sections, as well as helping you hit any coin blocks you notice in the background. Many of the sounds will be familiar to long-time Mario fans with the usual coin, jump, pipe and attack sounds. Fans of Mario’s high-pitched voice might be a little disappointed but the great score makes up with this with plenty of unique tracks played throughout the game along with a few more familiar tunes.

My time with Sticker Star went quite frequently from enjoyment to frustration. Frustration at such things as having to backtrack looking for an item I had long ago and needed again, or not being able to select which enemy to attack in a battle and having to run away from the more pointless battles with weaker foes. Enjoyment with the series staples of quirky characters, entertaining side-stories and tight battle system. Despite lack of incentive to fight general enemies, it is still can be satisfying to achieve that excellent streak or take down every enemy in one turn. Sticker Star uses ideas both new and old but they just don’t work together well and this is a shame because just a few different choices in the game\’s design could have made these elements work much better. As it is, Sticker Star is perhaps more for those fans of old adventure games than fans of RPGs. It is many older games wrapped in a shiny new one. I had fun all through but got frustrated so much along the way that the best I can say is that I merely like it. If Sticker Star has proven anything, it is that games using an RPG format need at least some form of leveling system.

3 Stars

February, 2013

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