As part of a series that has been nothing short of spectacular, Sticker Star is quite a disappointment
It is said winning teams should not be changed, and it is incredibly hard to find one more successful than the first two Paper Mario games. Born in the shadow of the doubt that surrounded Nintendo’s ability to produce a worthy sequel to Super Mario RPG, the two initial installments in the Paper Mario saga were nothing short of stellar; featuring great combat mechanics, fantastic plots, undeniable and irresistible charm, and sharply written dialogues. When Super Paper Mario, the third chapter of the series, came along, it abandoned the amazing combat mechanics in exchange for the simplicity of a 2-D platformer, but, by keeping the franchise’s other standout qualities nearly intact, it was able to live up to the name it sported.
Then, there is Paper Mario: Sticker Star. The game takes Super Paper Mario’s stripped down progression as its starting point, and – from there – it proceeds to change the franchise to its core, making both good and bad decisions along the way, and producing a title that is easily dwarfed by all of its better predecessors. Paper Mario: Sticker Star is neither awful nor without charm, but it lacks the two core elements that made the series so fantastic: a heart, and a purpose.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star begins during an annual Mushroom Kingdom holiday when its inhabitants gather to celebrate a festival to witness the coming of the Sticker Comet, which is said to grant wishes. Naturally, Bowser promptly shows up to take control of the comet, and since the Mushroom Kingdom is plagued by poor security planning, the big beast obviously overpowers the three Toads protecting the piece and crashes into the thing. The comet then splits into six pieces: five that end up falling all over the kingdom, and one that lands right on top of Bowser’s head, making him ridiculously powerful in the process.
As it has been the case with all Paper Mario games until this point, the silly simple central plot is supposed to serve as a trampoline to an underlying number of storylines and mysteries that – working as independent chapters on a book – have to be unwrapped so that the items Mario is after can be reached. Sticker Star, however, in a mind-boggling poor design choice, is extremely thin in the plot development department, as each of its portions feature no storylines whatsoever.
Both story and dialogue have always been a central element to the success of the series, as they worked as masterful supports to great gameplay. Their sudden removal leaves players solely with one heartless central tale, and branching chapters that, due to a one-dimensional nature born from the exclusive focus on gameplay, are more like a New Super Mario Bros. game than another entry in the Paper Mario series.
Encounters with weird and well-developed supporting characters are so rare they border on null. As a consequence, dialogues become infrequent and stripped down, and the locations players will visit are neither curious nor surprising, as they are simply paperized versions of settings found in all other Mario games, such as a desert, a jungle, a beach and a volcano. As it turns out, a Paper Mario without its plots becomes as hollow as a book that exclusively contains scenario descriptions, and forgets that those scenarios would gain a lot if they had been populated with easy-to-love beings.
Without the plot, the game’s spotlight falls solely on the shoulders of its gameplay, and therein lies the problem. Sadly, in spite of the fact that Sticker Star utilizes concepts that, more than any other game in the series, embrace and make use of the paper-nature of its setting; the game’s playing style presents way too many holes in it, a reality that – consequently – strips the gameplay from even the most remote possibility of playing the hero and rescuing Sticker Star from ultimate doom.
The game features chapters split in levels which can be navigated via an overworld of Super Mario World qualities. All of the stages are relatively short, and some of them even provide secret exits that are either optional, opening up paths to hidden locations; or mandatory, blocking the way to proceeding stages. It is an approach that neither does the game any good nor harms it in any considerable way, but that aligns itself quite well with the underlying gameplay.
The biggest conceptual change in Sticker Star, as its title points out, is the presence of stickers, which adds a lot to the charm of the game and provides a whole new level of thematic cohesion. Mario will no longer battle foes with a predetermined set of attacks. Instead, it is imperative that players collect stickers as they are the sole way through which Mario can hurt his foes.
The nature of those consumable attacks is nothing new, as they include different kinds of jumps, hammers, fire and ice flowers, POW blocks, Koopa shells and etc, and the ways on which they must be used keep the battles very engaging, as players need to interact with those stickers by pressing the action buttons in a timely manner to either increase the power of the blows or protect Mario from enemies’ attacks. Collecting and using stickers is fun; additionally, given players must do some inventory management so that they are not left without attacks and abilities in times of dire needs, they end up providing an extra strategic element.
However, the brutal truth is that the game’s battle system, which – with the lack of a plot – is its cornerstone, is a resounding failure. As the game progresses, the stickers Mario collects become increasingly powerful; therefore, the need for a level system is nonexistent. As a natural consequence, there is no such thing as experience points.
Unfortunately, that removal causes a bit of a conceptual problem to the game. As leveling up is no more, the sole reward for battling comes in the form of coins, which in turn are used to buy more stickers. This creates the odd situation where players battle, use stickers, defeat enemies, get coins, and then use those to buy the very same stickers that were just used to defeat those enemies.
Once players notice that futile cycle, and they most certainly will, one thing becomes quite clear: in Paper Mario: Sticker Star, battles have no purpose. In fact, they are so empty the game can be cleared even if one chooses to only tackle the struggles that are mandatory. And when an activity comes with either no significant reward or a pointless one, which is the case here, performing it becomes one extremely dull affair. As fun as using stickers and pounding enemies is, it will lose its charm after a few goes: players will just be overwhelmed by the pointless nature of it all.
In addition, the battle system features yet another problem: it has no difficulty balance. When it comes to regular enemies, given how stickers are everywhere just waiting to be plucked from the walls, Mario will more often than not completely overpower those foes, blowing them away in a few turns. Things become even easier given that the plumber can increase the number of stickers he can use in a single turn by spending a few dozen coins, which are also very commonly found in the game, in order to spin a roulette that can grant him the power to use up to three stickers in a single round.
In the end, the equation is quite simple: add the unshakable feeling that battles are blatantly pointless with the fact that most of them are a piece of cake, and you get a battle system whose potential was not fulfilled due to a poor execution on the part of the folks at Intelligent Systems, which – when one takes into account the Paper Mario track record – is so baffling it borders on unbelievable. While the attempt to change the series is certainly commendable for both how addictive it is to pluck and collect stickers and how the concept is a perfect fit for the game’s paper world, it is impossible not to see that it was badly implemented.
Boss battles do not suffer from the same lack of challenge, yet they present a different – and opposite – flaw. Bosses are ridiculously powerful, possessing HP bars that are invariably in the hundreds and defense stats that make the attack power of most stickers be reduced to one, which means that defeating a boss through traditional methods would require almost as many stickers as Mario can carry, incredible defensive skills, and a lot of luck. In other words, it is almost impossible, but doable.
The alternative is figuring out what is the boss’ weakness, which means finding a “Thing Sticker” that will harm it in a significant way. “Things” can be found throughout the game’s stages, either in plain sight or very well-hidden, and their nature is completely random, ranging from objects like a fridge, a radiator, and a lucky cat to a goat. When used in battle, each will cause a curious, sometimes easy-to-deduct, effect – for example, the fridge will freeze enemies in place – so players must find out which “Thing” will properly work against the boss and cause him huge amounts of damage, turning the battle into a winnable affair.
The problem is that it is usually not quite clear which sticker must be used, and – in addition – there is always the chance that, upon coming across a boss battle, players have yet to find the right “thing”, which means Mario will have to either face the boss by taking tiny chunks of HP little by little and extending the battle for over twenty minutes, or backtrack and aimlessly look for the “thing” that is just right. The same problem occurs in certain parts of the game’s stages, where Mario must use a “thing” sticker to overcome an apparently impossible obstacle. Sometimes the usage of those sticker is obvious, like using a heat-based sticker to melt ice, but on other occasions it is random and nearly impossible to figure out.
Needless to say, in Sticker Star, flaws and issues are as aplenty as stickers. However, the game still manages to be enjoyable to a certain level, and that is mostly due to its level design. The game, when outside battle, offers a nice mix of the traditional Paper Mario exploration and puzzle-solving with interesting platforming sections. Mario will interact with the world in a quite unique way, going into paperize mode, which will allow him to either slap stickers onto scenario elements, allowing him to proceed with his exploration; or pluck pieces of the scenario and scraps to glue them in another angle or place.
Those puzzles are smartly designed and quite rewarding to figure out, bringing about some truly remarkable moments. Other than that, Mario’s ability to stick and pluck builds an interesting bridge that connects scenario and gameplay into one cohesive package where gameplay elements walk side-by-side with the game’s very charming paper world, which here is presented as gorgeously as ever, especially given the addition of the system’s 3D effects, which fall perfectly into place in a world consisting of paper pieces.
In the end, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is by no means comparable to its predecessors in terms of quality. Not only are some of its gameplay elements flawed to the point where the game feels underdeveloped, such as in the poor difficulty balance and the lack of purpose on the battles, but it is also lacking tremendously in the storyline category, as none of the characters, settings or mysteries that made the previous Paper Mario games can be found in this installment.
Its world, as a consequence, ends up being paper-thin, featuring no sidequests – aside from a museum where a collection of all of the world’s stickers can be displayed – and barely no characters with whom players can interact. The game might, however, still be worth a try due to its full embracing of its paper-made world and because a few of its newly found gimmicks are interesting, even if it is for a little while. As part of a series that has been nothing short of spectacular, though, Sticker Star is still quite a disappointment.