It has been almost 13 years since the Paper Mario series originated on the Nintendo 64. With one proper sequel releasing on the GameCube, a more typical platformer sequel dropping on the Wii, and the original appearing on the Virtual Console, it’s been a while since gamers have had the chance to enjoy what made the franchise truly special. With the release of Paper Mario: Sticker Star on the 3DS, have Intelligent Systems finally released a worthy sequel to 2004’s The Thousand-Year Door?
For those not aware of the series, it was a chance for a developer other than Nintendo to grab the Mario franchise and do something new with it. What Intelligent Systems did was create a stylistic Mario world and placed a cute, more cartoony version of Mario inside it. Intelligent Systems decided to go the jRPG route with the gameplay design and mixed it in with the side-scrolling style Mario fans were used to. Instead of just jumping on enemies' heads, a turn-based combat system was created. While it was never going to be as in-depth as other, more traditional JRPGs, it did include the ability to level up different attributes and include party members you could utilise in and out of combat.
In 2004 The-Thousand Year Door expanded on the formula and really pushed the series into becoming yet another much-loved Mario franchise. Then something happened. In 2007, Intelligent Systems went down a different path with Super Paper Mario. Gone was the turn-based combat loved by many and instead a story was merely thrown into a side-scrolling platformer. It was still a great game, filled with puzzles, humour, and well written characters (with some amazingly fun platforming to boot), but jumping on the heads of enemies instead of going into combat with them was a step in a rather odd direction.
In an Iwata Asks regarding Sticker Star’s development it is mentioned that Miyamoto is quoted to have said “It's fine without a story, so do we really need one?" and "As much as possible, complete it with only characters from the Super Mario world.” These two sentences, coming from who they did, say more about Sticker Star than any review ever could. The biggest aspects of the Paper Mario franchise were the well-written and often crazy storylines and the vast amount of new characters that Mario met on his adventures. To see these two aspects be pushed aside by the father of Mario is disheartening and really changes the way this Paper Mario game plays.
While there isn’t NO story, what is there is reminiscent of that found in Nintendo platformers. A sticker comet lands in Decalburg during a sticker festival, and Bowser -- intent as always on ruining everyone’s fun -- decides he wants the sticker comet all for himself. Upon touching it, the sticker comet vibrates, lifts off, and explodes, leaving Decalburg’s festival destroyed and pieces of the comet scattered around the world map. After being introduced to Kersti (a hovering crown sticker who needs your help to find the pieces) it’s up to Mario to traverse the world in search for the missing chunks of comet.
That’s all there is to it, there are no big twists and no characters armed with special abilities to help Mario on his quest, and, to make things a little more based in the Mario universe, the world map has been broken into stages akin to the ones found in the platformer titles (World 1-1, etc.) Thankfully, the turn-based combat has made a return, and instead of utilising action points and an ever increasing selection of moves, you have a collection of stickers at your disposal. Each sticker reflects a move or attack that Mario can pull off, and range from stomping on heads to attacks with hammers and the ability to throw ice/fire balls. The list of moves is rather impressive and can be increased even further thanks to special items Mario finds along the way.
During his adventure Mario will stumble upon items that just don’t fit in his 2D world, and by collecting them and turning them into stickers, they can be used either in or out of battle. The only problem with this system is that sometimes the items can be missed and this becomes an issue when you’ve completed every level prior to the one you’re on and the sticker you need is not in your possession. With absolutely no clue as to where the item is, your options are either to go through every single level again, making sure you comb the area for the item you need, or jump online and look at a guide. This is a major flaw and something that should have been covered in game design 101.
The above example may not be the only time you need to get help, as one level requires you to jump to activate an invisible block to progress. There are no signs to let you know you need to do this and the block isn’t shimmery invisible, it’s completely “in-absolutely-every-way-possible” invisible. No-one tells you you need to do this, and in a game that revolves around finding items to stick onto a 2D surface, the solution is obscure and illogical.
Sadly, another aspect of the Paper Mario franchise that just didn’t return after the Wii’s Super Paper Mario was the ability to level up. In fact, Mario has no skills to speak of, they all come from using stickers. There was a certain strategy to choosing which aspect of Mario you’d focus on, whether it be health, attack, defense or attack points; now it’s just a matter of finding +5 HP hearts and more powerful stickers hidden across the world.
Sadly, the issues in Sticker Star don’t end there. While for the most part boss battles are a great rounding off to a world, they usually require to you to lose at least once before understanding the most effective way to take the boss out. Sometimes, what you need to do is obvious, and this usually ends with you using the sticker or technique before you’re meant to; other times you’ll figure it out too late, leaving you to simply die and try again. When a boss battle goes well it feels great, but it’s usually on the second or third try.
All those gripes aside, Sticker Star is still very playable and offers around 20 hours of gameplay. Intelligent Systems have clearly put a lot of love into the presentation, too. The 3D effect is used perfectly and the cutscenes and quirkiness of the game will make any fan of the series wish they weren’t part of what is clearly a watered down experience. While it’s normal these days to have a slightly weaker version of a console game on a handheld, it’s just not acceptable when this is likely the only Paper Mario game for the next 3 years.
Fans of the series may want to pick this up to get another taste of what used to be an amazing franchise, but be forewarned that it’s not what you’re hoping it to be and that you should probably steer clear. For those new to the series, however, you may find this title a good starting point. If anything, it’d be a great gateway game to get you onto the other, much better, titles.