Putting beloved franchises into different genres isn’t exactly new for the Super Mario franchise, as he’s been treating patients, racing karts and even educating children for years. RPGs are also not new to him, with three separate lines of RPG styled games seeing the light of day. By far the most successful is the Paper Mario franchise, which turned the Mushroom Kingdom paper-thin on the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube consoles. Despite going off the rails on the Wii, Paper Mario goes somewhat back to its roots on its first handheld release, but there’s a twist. Instead of paper, everything is made of stickers, including the combat system itself. But has Mario gotten himself into a sticky situation he can’t even fight out of?
It is said in the Mushroom Kingdom that once every year there is a festival celebrating the appearance of the Sticker Star. If a large congregation of the denizens of the kingdom gather together on that night, their wish is said to come true. Bowser catches wind of this tale and invades the Sticker Fest to touch the Sticker Star, granting him unimaginable powers that flatten and roll up the town of Decalburg, scatter the Royal Stickers and cause havoc across the Mushroom Kingdom.
Of course, Princess Peach is also kidnapped as a result, because Bowser is a creature of natural habit. Awoken by a sticker named Kersti, Mario must reunite the Royal Stickers and save the Mushroom Kingdom. The strength of Paper Mario: Sticker Star’s narrative lies in the dialogue more than anything else though, with set pieces giving character to a world that on the surface might not be as interesting as one might hope for. A shame really, as previous titles have challenged the status quo in various different ways, so this feels like a cop-out by comparison.
Paper Mario titles have frequently given us many companions to help us directly in battle and assisted us further by using abilities to solve puzzles. Here we get one: Kersti – the keeper of the Sticker Album in battles and the granter of the ability to peel and stick scraps and stickers in each stage. Puzzles are largely based on perception, looking for out-of-place objects to manipulate as intended. Granted the streamlined approach makes the game a lot more accessible after a prolonged break, but it also relies on giving Kersti a lot of personality to make up for the lack of a diverse cast of characters.
The biggest change is that instead of having equipment, levels and other RPG tropes; progress is summed up by obtaining better stickers. The shinier the sticker the better, as it always was for your sticker albums, as Mario can perform attacks that are more dazzling as a result. Sticker Star is pretty generous with the stickers you obtain, so it is unlikely that you’ll run out of stickers in your album. The same can’t be said for coins however, which while plentiful are heavily relied upon not only for buying more attacks, but also spinning and manipulating the roulette that can grant perks and more moves per turn. There were multiple occasions where I had to revisit areas just to get coins required to proceed through the game, which felt forced and somewhat exploitative. Generally speaking though, the combat system works pretty well and forces you to think outside the box.
Certain areas and indeed the majority of boss battles require the use of “thing” stickers. These can be obtained by finding out-of-place items lying around and then throwing them at a wall in various locations. Their use in each stage is somewhat mandatory, but their uses in battle are a little more diverse as each one has a characteristic attached, depending on the item type. In boss battles however, there is usually one way of winning that forces you to use that particular sticker to expose a weak point. With very little clues as to what might work in the beginning of the game, I managed to beat the first boss with hard graft. There was a real sense of achievement afterwards, until Kersti pointed out that I “used a lot of stickers in that fight” and that “there was an easier way of beating that boss” – when a game resorts to damning you with faint praise, it makes my blood boil.
One of the major areas that Paper Mario: Sticker Star really excels in is its presentation and world creation. Each of the levels you enter are clearly diverse, presenting many challenging obstacles to get around. The dialogue itself is sharp and witty, reaching the high standard set by the rest of the series. Match that with new representations for the typical Mario cast of antagonists, which include such delights as a Snifit game-show host and Shy Guys that just want to play with Mexican themed musical instruments.
The music fits each theme with wonderful effect and everything is clear when compared to the more abstract Super Paper Mario. Where it really shines though is with the visuals that look great normally and in 3D, but it’s the little details that make me smile the most. Got some shiny stickers in your sticker album? Try moving your 3DS and look at those stickers. Stuff like this show that they really did go the extra mile when it comes to presentation. It certainly didn’t go undetected here and I certainly appreciate that level of effort.
A lot of the criticisms I have are pretty minor, but the one which frustrated me beyond all the others combined was the pacing. Set within unevenly distributed worlds laid out like a traditional Mario platformer, the game begins fairly gently with a few secrets to uncover in the first World. Things begin to get convoluted in the second world where you are sent on a mystery tour to uncover hidden secrets, but it is the overly long third world that wound up taking the majority of my time because the things I had to collect had nasty tendency to run away on the world map. It doesn’t beat the level of frustrating tedium of certain segments of Super Paper Mario though.
At over 20 hours long, it provides a lot to do in the main campaign without the game overloading you with tons of side quests. Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a quality title for the 3DS when it wants to be, shining brightly with its sparkling presentation and witty dialogue. There are certainly moments where you laugh at the action on-screen and appreciate the world around you in all its splendour. A few issues cropped up every now and again, which to the game’s credit are relatively minor details, but the massive pacing issue keeps this from being as good as Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door – still my favourite Mario based RPG. If you can handle some segments taking far longer than the rest of the game though, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a worthy, funny and ultimately light-hearted RPG to add to your 3DS library.