Paper Mario: Sticker Star is the newest entry in the Paper Mario series and the first one on the 3DS. This latest entry plays up the series’ paper-based setting and humor to new heights. After Super Paper Mario on the Wii, at first glance, this game looks like a return to the RPG form created with Paper Mario and perfected with Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door.
However, even with everything polished to a flashy, shiny sheen, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is not an unequivocal step back when compared its predecessors. Frustrating design decisions and some questionable gameplay mechanics keep this from being considered among the top Mario RPGs.
The story of Paper Mario: Sticker Star is about what you expect for a Mario game. The Sticker Star has appeared in the skies over the Mushroom Kingdom, and it’s said that it has the ability to grant wishes. You can predict what’s going to happen next. Bowser shows up and gets his claws on the Sticker Star. His actions cause general havoc, and six Royal Stickers–basically just flashy crowns–are scattered across the kingdom. That’s all the impetus you need to head off on your adventure to set things right and rescue Princess Peach from Bowser.
Because of the effects of the Sticker Star, everything in the already papery Mushroom Kingdom has been transformed into stickers. This carries over into the battle system. Every single action you take in the turn-based battles is controlled by the use of stickers. This is Sticker Star’s most inventive and most limiting feature.
This game gets rid of traditional RPG mechanics like experience points, level ups, and equipment. Because those things aren’t present, there’s really no reason to fight random battles. Every action–jumping on an enemy, healing, or hitting them with Mario’s hammer–requires a sticker. Battles with regular enemies just become a drain on your sticker resources. There’s no reason to fight them. You don’t level up or improve your stats.
Once I realized this, I found myself running away from the majority of the game’s battles. What was the point? Earning some coins so I could buy more stickers? Stages are already liberally strewn with stickers. By limiting my fighting, I was able to save my arsenal for the unavoidable boss fights.
That’s not to say that the battle system itself is bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. If you’ve played a Paper Mario game or any other Mario RPG then you already have a good idea of how battles work. They’re turn-based affairs where properly timed button presses can mean the difference between hitting an enemy with Mario’s hammer multiple times or just once. The mechanics work; it’s just sad that so many of the regular encounters feel so pointless.
So you’ll fight (or not) through six different worlds that are all standard Mario fare. You have your desert world, ice world, and jungle/volcano world. Nothing too exciting there. However the world map is divided up into individual stages like Super Mario World. This is perfect for the handheld nature of the title. Because of the discrete stages, you’re able to play the game in short bursts. It’s great for when you’re on the go.
And this brings me to the game’s biggest problem. Yes it’s broken up into bite-sized stages, but you’re going to backtrack and wander so much that it won’t matter. It just means you’re going to spend a lot of time going back and forth along the world map. Paper Mario: Sticker Star gets rid of some RPG mechanics and borrows some of the worst ones from point-and-click adventure games.
While most things are two dimensional and paper-based, every now and then you’ll come across three dimensional “Things” that you’re able to convert to stickers. These Things are used both in combat and for solving puzzles. The problem is many of these puzzles turn into a frustrating round of “Guess What the Developers Were Thinking.”
For example, at one point you need to refill an oasis. A giant jug is full of water. I thought you could use the bat to break the jug and have the water pour into the oasis’ lake. Not so! That sticker was not the right one to solve the puzzle. Not only did I need to go find the right Thing to advance the story, but every wrong guess also consumes that particular sticker.
This creates a frustrating loop where you wonder what Thing is the exact, specific one needed to solve the puzzle. Then, if you don’t have it, you need to scour nooks and crannies in previously completed levels to find it. Plus in order to use these Things, you first have to “paperize” them. Their special stickers take up a lot of space in your sticker album, but there’s no way to manually organize them. You might have enough space to fit that Refrigerator sticker if you could move things around, but according to the game’s auto-sort algorithms, it’s just not possible.
It’s not that Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a bad game. It’s not. At times it’s incredibly clever and funny. One level finds you competing in a random game show populated by Mario villains. I couldn’t help but grin during that part. The soundtrack is another highlight. It’s brassy, jazzy, and full of big band swing. It’s a nice take on some classic Mario themes.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star is clever and fully committed to its paperized setting. That’s not enough to excuse its biggest flaws. You’ll spend time backtracking and getting stuck on puzzles that require too much guesswork. But then you’ll get past them, and you’ll see another fun paper-based setpiece. It’s too bad that the game vacillates so much between the two extremes rather than sticking to a more consistent middle ground.
This review is based on a physical copy of Paper Mario: Sticker Star for the Nintendo 3DS.