Among the growing pantheon of Mario titles, Paper Mario has always been a diamond in the rough of sorts. When viewed throughout his many iterations and forms, this paper-ized persona has come to represent his quirkiest, yet most dynamically unique adventures in many years. With excellent writing and a growing thirst to try new ideas and mechanics not known to the Mario Universe, it comes as no surprise that Paper Mario: Sticker Star by Intelligent Systems maintains its whimsical nature and sense of humor packed with jokes and an unwavering dogma certain to keep you smiling until the end. This is made all the more important, however, by a frustratingly picky battle system and a world progression theme almost perfectly imitating every other Mario game in existence that prevent you from having a truly joyful return to our silent paper comrade.
The story setup is not unlike any other Mario tale; Princess Peach hosts a celebration in town, and Bowser barges in to ruin the fun and make a run at her. In the chaos, he grabs the fabled Sticker Star and breaks it into 6 pieces that scatter across the realm. Armed with new powers, Bowser runs off with Peach and it’s up to our paper-thin plumber to save her.
As the name suggests, almost everything about this new adventure is about stickers. Most of the RPG elements from previous games are thrown out in favor of the new sticker system, in which Mario must use a sticker to do anything. Whether you’re solving a puzzle, fighting a battle or poking around for secrets (of which there are dozens packed in every single level), everything will require a sticker. No more worrying about experience points, Flower points, leveling up or collecting badges; perhaps the only thing reminiscent of RPG games is Mario’s ability to increase his HP from time to time. Beyond that, your growing collection of stickers will be your primary goal.
The turn-based battle system remains largely unchanged from previous iterations, as you’ll be hopping and hammering your way through throngs of Bowser’s minions. Players can utilize one sticker per turn, but for a few coins a roulette wheel will appear and allow you the chance to use 2 or 3 stickers in a single turn. If you’re up against a number of baddies, the stickers will be used in order with the monsters–the first sticker will target the first monster in line, the second will target the second monster, and so on. It helps add a slight level of strategy for the player to think about, but most group encounters can be ended with a single sticker attacking all enemies, or the battle can just be completely avoided.
Unfortunately, avoiding battles quickly becomes the norm since you’ll be doing a lot of back tracking throughout the game. Besides regular stickers, you’ll come across larger household objects that can be turned into stickers to be used later on in the game. These objects–dubbed “things”–can be anything from water faucets to electric fans and matches. Most of these objects have a specific function, such as solving a puzzle to continue through a level, or are the main weakness for a future boss fight. Which function they serve, however, is seldom explained or even hinted at until it’s either too late or you simply haven’t used the sticker yet.
This is ultimately where every player will inevitably get stuck sooner or later. If you reach a certain obstacle and lack the necessary Thing to progress, you are forced to back track until you find whatever it is you missed. You’re given very little go on most of the time, meaning it can be hours of exploring old levels before you come across the right sticker for the job. Even worse is the fact that some stickers can’t be used the way logic would imply they could be used. At one point, I was in possession of a Goat sticker and had absolutely no clue how to continue. I was forced to consult a walkthrough in order to continue and It’s a disappointment to think that most players will probably have to do the same.
And it doesn’t stop with puzzles either. While regular fights are quick and simple, the boss fights are quite the opposite. Armed with vast amounts of HP and higher defense, some bosses simply cannot be defeated on stickers alone. Each boss has a weakness to a specific Thing that, when used in battle, will do enormous amounts of damage and even the odds. If you don’t know which sticker to use, losing the fight is almost a certainty. Oddly enough, the game will give you a hint as to which sticker you need during the second round with the boss, which doesn’t exactly do much good if you don’t have it. Ultimately, most boss fights will need three attempts before you’ll know how to conquer them. Why the developers felt the need to add this kind of ‘puzzle’ element to the battle system is beyond me, as it does nothing to add to the entertainment of fighting huge battles, and instead just increases the time and frustration you’ll experience before beating them.
Sticker Star may not have gotten the puzzle schemes or the battle systems right, but there is still plenty to enjoy in this handheld adventure. The 3D works very well with Paper Mario’s 2D environment, taking every opportunity to show the full breadth of each level and seamlessly transfer between a side-scrolling 2D look into a 3D landscape. The writing and dialogue is still top-notch and every bit as funny as previous installments, poking fun at the whole paper concept and bursting with a type of zeal that compel the player to keep going when they get stuck. Charming and lighthearted until the end, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a flawed yet fun adventure that will be known for its humor as much as its problems.
See you in the next level,