Mario’s a veritable whore. Apart from the mainline series of Super Mario platformers, which have come to become a mascot for not only Nintendo, but platformers at large, and even gaming to the mainstream public, Mario RPGs remain a rarity, a once in a generation occasion that the entire industry anticipates. But in the meantime, Nintendo makes sure we get fed up of the portly plumber, by slapping him into any and every game that they can think of. Thus, we have Mario themed party games, Mario themed sports games, Mario themed puzzle games, Mario themed tie ins, Mario themed crossovers, and more, and the quality of all of these is generally disappointing.
On the higher end of the Mario spin off spectrum, however, are the Mario themed racers, the Mario themed 2D platformers, and the Mario themed RPGs. The latter category is especially high quality, with several Mario RPG games, such as Legend of the Seven Stars, The Thousand Year Door, and Bowser’s Inside Story, having come to define their respective systems over the years. The newest Mario RPG, Sticker Star, the fourth installment in the Paper Mario RPG subseries, is a great game, and a definite step up from its immediate predecessor that nevertheless fails to live up to the lofty standards of the aforementioned games.
Sticker Star doesn’t deviate much from Mario’s formula as story goes; it’s positively a reskinned Super Mario Galaxy, actually. The annual Sticker festival is approaching, and the entire Mushroom Kingdom gathers to celebrate and commemorate the Sticker Comet (that’s a thing), before Bowser decides to be a spoilsport, absorbs the comet’s power, and kidnaps Princess Peach. Mario then needs to search for the remaining five fragments of the comet scattered across the Mushroom Kingdom, along with the Sticker caretaker Kersti, to power up himself and take Bowser down. So… yes, it’s Super Mario Galaxy again.
As it is, then, the story isn’t particularly great, especially by RPG standards, but it serves to get you from one well designed paper theme Mushroom Kingdom locale to another, which, I suppose, is the ultimate objective of the story in a Mario game. What is great, however, is the dialog, which is witty, funny, sardonic, self aware, and self referential. At this point, thanks in no small part to the accomplishments of the Mario and Luigi RPG subseries, Mario RPGs have developed a reputation for being laugh out loud funny, and in that regard, Paper Mario does not disappoint. Multiple times throughout the story, you will be laughing at just how well written and funny the dialog is.
It’s a game that doesn’t take itself seriously, and it is dripping with charm for that. The characters are all adorable (especially the paper themed Mario), the locales are great and striking, colorful, with paper forests, oceans, mountains, caves, deserts, and more all being among the places you visit on your paper odyssey. The graphics get a special visual treat in 3D, with the entire paper themed motif looking like a boxed diorama with the 3D on at full blast. The environments themselves are gorgeous, and the actual characters inhabiting them even more so. Visually, Sticker Star is a striking game.
As a matter of fact, in almost every sense, Sticker Star seems to be the true successor to The Thousand Year Door that Super Paper Mario never was. Unfortunately, the new concepts it introduces are its undoing. Take, for instance, the battle system. It plays like traditional Paper Mario games (no more of that Super Paper Mario bullshit here), but as the title suggests, a major component of the gameplay here is stickers- you collect them, and you use them over the game to win battles and progress. Stickers are found all over the place, and specific ones may be required in specific situations. General stickers, like Jump and Hammer, are found aplenty, whereas rarer, more powerful ones, are obtained later on, and are devastating (and comical). The stickers are also used to progress throughout the world, in conjunction with a mechanic called ‘paperizing,’ which flattens the entire world into two dimensions and lets you find secrets (often necessary to progress) that you otherwise would not have found.
The entire system is genius, when it works. The problem is, it is also the game’s biggest undoing. Oftentimes, you need a specific sticker to progress, and you can’t find it; it could be anywhere in the world, and the game is obtuse and unhelpful, leaving you to wander aimlessly until you happen to chance to upon it. The search for these stickers kills the game’s momentum, and is highly frustrating, making you want to stop playing the game entirely. You can spend hours just trying to find the right sticker, and this kind of game design isn’t clever or ‘difficult,’ it’s outright insulting to the players, substituting needless fetch quests for actual content. It is also really baffling, because, of all game developers, Nintendo more than any other, has a tendency to introduce a new concept in a game and then design and polish it to immaculate perfection. Rarely does Nintendo (or any of its sub studios) fail to fully realize a new mechanic it introduces.
Mercifully, the rest of the game is great, up to the usual standards of the series. After the mishap that was Super Paper Mario, Sticker Star is a step in the right direction. It’s not quite on par with the greatness of the first two titles yet, but it’s a step in that direction. Hopefully with the next one, Intelligent Systems nail the central concept better than this time, and deliver us a Paper Mario game that is really on par with The Thousand Year Door’s legacy.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo 3DS.