The Paper Mario series has an identity crisis. Flat Mario has strayed from his RPG roots to a side-scroller in Super Paper Mario and, in his most recent iteration, has decided to take up sticker scrapbooking. It is still an RPG of sorts, but I say of sorts because Paper Mario: Sticker Star for the 3DS has no leveling system, stats, nor does it have any real story: the plot is paltry compared to the other titles in the series and nonexistent if compared to the Mario & Luigi RPG series. It does have turn-based combat though, so I suppose that makes it an RPG, if it needs a category. Many fans of the series bemoan Paper Mario’s ever-changing orientation, but Sticker Star is extremely creative, and faulty.
Paper Peach, Paper Mario, and a slew of presumably papyrus-based fungi are all celebrating a festival called Sticker Fest. Sticker Fest is an annual celebration of the Sticker Comet’s arrival in the Mushroom Kingdom. Unlike any comet ever mentioned in anything, anywhere, the Sticker Comet simply plops down on a stage and visits the paper planet without calamity. Supposedly, a wish made on the Sticker Comet will come true (it isn’t the Sticker Star for some reason, though the comet is shaped like a star and there was no Sticker Star in the game, as the title suggested). Since the Mushroom Kingdom’s homeland security is purely reactionary, Bowser appears and steals the Sticker Comet. After all this, Mario wakes up the next morning, greeted by the Paper Mario staple: the new, plucky sidekick. This time, the sidekick is a crown sticker named Kersti (get it?) and she has a big mouth to boot.
With all the right pieces in place, Mario and Kersti must make their way across Bowser-afflicted worlds to retrieve this RPG’s items of importance: the royal stickers. With all five royal stickers in-tow, Bowser can be faced. This Paper Mario story is much different from previous iterations because there are no cuts to the enemy plans, Peach’s turmoil, or other non-Mario-oriented banter. It makes the opening and closing feel more like the traditional Mario games, where the story takes place in the first and last five minutes, rather than throughout the game. Sure, Mario has encounters with the different Mushroom Kingdom characters, but these encounters are few and far-between. This change is better suited for a portable system perhaps, but fans looking for more Paper Mario-caliber encounters will be let down. What little dialogue there is hits the mark for the series’ wit.
This look of the paperized kingdom is the best the series has offered yet. Each level feels like a diorama made for a middle school project. Characters are crumpled, folded, or laid out flat on cardboard backgrounds that sometimes give with a well-placed tap of the hammer. And I haven’t even mentioned the stickers yet. Stickers in this game have many functions. Primarily, they are used in battle, but they can also be used in each level to help Mario progress. Battle stickers are stuck to scenery all over the different worlds, and are extremely satisfying to peel from walls and floors and the like. Kersti also has the ability to pull Mario out of the world to “paperize” it, wherein pieces of the world can be pulled off, adjusted, and/or Mario can place stickers onto the world. The stickers come in different styles like boots, hammers, fire flowers, mushrooms, and more, and the rarity and power of each sticker depends on its sparkle or shimmer. Mario stores these stickers in an album on the bottom screen and can use them as he sees fit. The most charming aspect of this game is the stickers, because when the player tilts the 3DS, the shining stickers glimmer as they would when turned and looked at from different angles. It may be a small detail, but it is just a wonderful addition.
Like the first two Paper Mario games, Mario enters a battle screen when he meets up with an enemy and can even get a hit in before battle if he engages the enemy with his hammer or a jump. In order to fight, Mario needs to use a sticker from his album. After he uses the various types of jumps or hammers or fire flowers or mushrooms or whatnot, the sticker is removed permanently from the album. This change of the battle system is creative. The player feels hopeless without the right brand of sticker and requires caution so that shiny stickers are reserved only when really needed. While Mario can only use one sticker at a time, he can also try his luck with Kersti’s battle spinner, a slot machine which can give Mario up to three sticker attacks for one turn. This act costs money though, three coins per go, and Mario can up his chances, albeit at an ever-rising cost. By the end of the game, players will have mastered this spinner in order to survive boss battles and quite possibly have a gambling addiction. Unfortunately, Mario does not level up in any way throughout the entire game. In fact, the only way to raise his HP is by finding hearts, which are secreted away in different levels. This is neat in one way, since Mario is nothing without collecting more stickers, and terrible in a more prominent way, because battles are completely avoidable at best and sticker-wasting nuisances at worst.
But the worst part of Sticker Star’s battle system is not its triviality, but its boss battles. I forgot to mention that there are special objects in the game that are out-of-place in this paper world like 3D cell-phones, bowling balls, scissors, and other various objects which can be turned into stickers in the game’s hub. These items which are critical to beating bosses. Without much prompting from the game, the player needs to acquire these special stickers and use them on bosses at the right (often hard-to-determine) moment. If used properly, the boss fight is a piece of cake. Without these special stickers prepped pre-boss fight, the player will almost certainly lose. This sucks; there is no better way to say it. In preparation for bosses, I needed to look up which items to bring to each battle online, something a game should never make a player do, especially in a game targeted at kids. This is particularly frustrating in the final boss. This five-tier battle uses the worst part of this game to its extreme. I needed to bring specific stickers for each phase of a battle and use them at the right moments to gain footing, something I could not have possibly known going into the battle, nor even if I played the battle over and over again. While some of the sticker choices are intuitive and make sense, some would have required complete guesswork.
There isn’t much else to do beyond the main quest besides completion, which involves scouring the worlds for secret stickers you don’t ever need. The rewards for completion include self-satisfaction, something I couldn’t have after the game punished me so harshly with its final boss fight. Besides this let-down in bosses, and an extremely padded-with-backtracking-to-the-point-of-madness third level, Paper Mario: Sticker Star does a lot right. It is creative to the extreme, and I would play a sequel that irons out these problems in a heartbeat. I like to see Nintendo do things they haven’t done before, something fans pine for. This creativity, however, cannot excuse how much this game does to prevent the player from enjoying it.
Vinny Orsillo | @VinnyOhGames