Developer: Nintendo/Intelligent Systems
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: November 11, 2012
ESRB: E for Everyone
Over the course of the last decade, Nintendo's mustachioed mascot has been featured in many different series and spin-offs, but none quite so unique as 2001's Paper Mario. The charming RPG became a hit with fans, and was soon followed up in subsequent years with Gamecube and Wii sequels.
Now the series makes its way to handhelds for the first time with Paper Mario: Sticker Star, and Intelligent Systems is looking to shake the formula up even more with a game based around the idea of the simple joy of peeling and applying stickers. But is it too much of a departure from the other games, or does Sticker Star take the series in a brave new direction?
You can breathe a sigh of a relief, as Sticker Star is very much a Paper Mario game at heart, and it's actually the first new game in the series in some 5 years now. 2007's Super Paper Mario deviated from the RPG formula that the first two games had established, instead creating a psuedo platformer RPG that received criticism from some fans for being too different, despite its being critically well-received. Sticker Star ultimately returns somewhat to the series' RPG roots while continuing to experiment with a new direction, this time including the use of stickers.
The story begins in the town of Decalburg where the annual Sticker Fest is being held to celebrate the arrival of the Sticker Comet, which is supposed to grant the wishes of those who wish upon it. But wouldn't you know it, Bowser crashes the party and lays his hands on the comet, causing a large explosion and sending pieces of the comet as well as the five Royal Stickers all over the world. Naturally, Bowser gets his hands on the sixth and most powerful Royal Sticker, giving him a newfound power and making him virtually indestructible while kidnapping Princess Peach once again. It's a familiar story that you've heard before, with Mario needing to collect the comet pieces and the five Royal Stickers in order to face off against Bowser and save the kingdom (and its Sticker Fest).
For newcomers to the Paper Mario series, the game plays as an action RPG of sorts where a paper-flat Mario moves about in 3D paper-like environments while solving puzzles and encountering enemies with whom he does battle with by entering a standard turn-based RPG battle mode. Sticker Star continues this formula for the most part, but for the first time in the series, also adds a world map into the mix with individual levels that can range from being short, linear areas to full-on Zelda-like labyrinths of sorts; both of which usually end by collecting a sticker star piece.
In this particular adventure, Mario goes solo but receives help from Kersti, a floating sticker crown that assists Mario by giving him advice and the ability to "Paperize" and manipulate the environment with unique stickers in order to solve puzzles. For instance, there might be a river that Mario needs to cross but no way to do so, but using the Paperization technique, you can grab a bridge (which in turn becomes a sticker) and stick it down in the right place so Mario can cross to the other side safely.
Stickers also play a huge part in the way battles play out, as each sticker represents a unique attack that is one-time use only (though you can always get more). Because of their limited nature, you're constantly needing to be careful of not wasting stickers and using the right kind on the correct type of enemy; jump attacks are no good on spiked enemies unless you're using the Iron Boots sticker, for example. There are also rare, super stickers that do more damage and usually attack all enemies at once; strangely enough, these stickers are actually created by finding real-world items in-game, such as scissors, staplers, and the like, and taking them to a certain place in order to turn them into stickers.
If you're worried about the one-time use of stickers though, don't be. Stickers are literally everywhere in the game; you can find and peel them off of buildings and the sides of walls throughout levels in addition to buying them at shops and acquiring them at the end of a battle. There's even a Sticker Musuem you'll eventually discover and help to collect stickers for, and you'll learn that there a lot of different varieties of them. The lower screen of the 3DS actually acts as a stickerbook which houses the stickers you collect throughout the game. As you progress, you'll add more pages so that you can carry more, in addition to collecting stickers of bigger size as well (their strength increasing with the size of the sticker).
Aside from the sticker element, there are also some other interesting changes made to battles. You can no longer select which enemy you want to target (unless a sticker attacks all); instead, you must start with the enemy in front and work your way to the back. One could argue that this eliminates strategy from battles, but it actually changes the way you approach the strategy. Thankfully, the action commands return from previous games, and your attacks can be enhanced by pressing the attack button at the right moment(s); conversely, you can increase your defense from enemy attacks by doing the same. This element keeps the battles interesting and helps to stem the feeling that you're just watching your commands unfold.
The game also plays up the paper aspect of the game a lot more than some of the previous entries. Enemies like goombas can now change their shape into cones so they become like a spike and hurt Mario if he jumps on them, and they can also fold themselves in half in order to perform two attacks at once. There are new "paper" status effects that can affect Mario and enemies as well, such as becoming crumpled or becoming soggy; both of which will make the affected lose a turn or two while they wait off the effect.
Also, since Mario is alone in these battles, a new addition called the "Battle Spinner" has been included in battle mode in order to help even out the odds. At the beginning of each turn, you'll have the ability to pay three coins in order to use the Battle Spinner (essentially a slot machine) so that you can use more stickers at once. If you happen to line up at least two of the same symbols, you'll have the ability to use two stickers that turn; three symbols and you can use three stickers. It definitely helps in cases where you're outnumbered 3 or 4 to 1, or in Boss fights, but the random nature of it makes it difficult to really pin down. Fortunately, the cost of using it isn't too much as coins are readily found in levels, won in battles, and acquired by beating levels.
Another big change from earlier Paper Mario games is that there are no experience points and no level progression this time around. Instead, Sticker Star takes a more Zelda-ish approach; you become stronger by acquiring Royal Stickers, and increase HP by collecting bonus hearts that you find by exploring and doing sidequests. Unfortunately, the lack of any kind of experience and level progression really makes non-mandatory battles moot and pointless, meaning that you can avoid many enemies and save your stickers for more mandatory fights. To its credit though, the game ensures that you'll fight at least half of the non-mandatory battles due to enemy AI awareness and the number of enemies in a given area.
Sticker Star isn't quite as heavy on story as the previous three Paper Mario games are, but it has its share of memorable moments as well as the series' trademark humor, ranging from a sniffit game show to dancing disco boos to a truly strange Birdo cameo and more. Conversely, the lack of partner and side characters deprives the game somewhat of the great interaction and progression that those characters provided in earlier games. Thankfully, the gameplay holds up and offers a lot of secrets through the exploration of each level; you might discover areas that can be accessed with certain stickers or areas that can you hit with your hammer and reveal hidden pathways.
It must be stated that I had trouble figuring out what to do at multiple points and was stuck for an hour or two at a time before I figured it out. Sometimes the game requires you to backtrack and search for certain real-world items (or "Things" as the game calls them) to turn into stickers, which can be hindrance; or you may have to use trial-and-error to figure out what kind of sticker you need to use to progress through an area because the game isn't clear enough on what you should do. This is the only instance I found to have a negative impact on what is otherwise a fun and great experience, not to mention a long experience as well. When all was said and done, I had clocked in at just under 25 hours, so it's a pretty meaty handheld experience.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star ultimately succeeds more often than not with its newfound focus on stickers. The visuals carry over nicely from previous games; the 3D is well done and is used to the same great effect as in Super Mario 3D Land; and the new, streamlined innovations such as the world map and individual levels help make the Paper Mario experience bite-sized and easy to digest for quick sessions on the go. While the sticker concept isn't perfect in every way, it is a lot of fun and contributes to some clever gameplay. Whether you're a fan of the previous games in the series or are simply looking for a fun and lengthy handheld experience, Sticker Star is one of the best original experiences to grace the 3DS yet and well worth the money spent for it.
+ Sticker-based gameplay is fresh and intuitive
+ Trademark Paper Mario visuals and humor are back
+ Lots to the game; at least 20-25 hours long
- Some sticker puzzles can lead to trial and error solutions
- Story is a bit lighter than previous games in the series
Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10)
Paper Mario: Sticker Star has a few minor hiccups, but it's a worthwhile investment for fans of the series and those looking to get the most bang out of their buck for a meaty 3DS experience.