Paper Mario: Sticker Star review: sticky situations

By Steve Watts, Nov 12, 2012 1:00pm PST

From the moment the 3DS was announced, Paper Mario has seemed like a no-brainer for the system. Its endearing diorama art style should naturally lend itself to the system’s 3D backbone, and I find that simple RPGs are great for on-the-go entertainment. While Paper Mario: Sticker Star makes good on its promise of being a 3D showpiece, I found a few of its gimmicks more problematic than the RPG series deserves.

Paper Mario has always been a stripped down, simplified RPG system. Sticker Star simplifies it even further: removing XP, the associated leveling, and party members. The game still relies on turn-based battles, and series veterans will easily recognize the timed button presses for added damage or blocking. Health upgrades are kept intact by finding them in well-hidden passageways. But it does feel like something of a mixture between the series' RPG origins and its more recent action-platformer focus.

This game adds a wrinkle to the battle system, in the form of stickers. Stickers define Mario's battle actions, from a standard Jump or Hammer, variations on those themes, more powerful Shiny or Rainbow versions, and various other abilities culled from enemies. But Stickers are a one-use consumable, lending a strategy of economy to the game. You might waste powerful stickers on enemies that only have a little health left, and you aren't getting them back. You're limited to one sticker per turn, unless you earn more by spending a few coins on a Spinner for a chance at two or three.

It's a great idea in theory with some serious tactical weight, but it trips over its own simplification. Without XP, the only rewards for battles are money and, occasionally, stickers. Money is too plentiful to matter, and stickers aren't much reward if you're satisfied with your current stock. If you already have a book full of powerful stickers, why battle at all? Too often, the much smarter strategy is to simply avoid fights and save stickers for a tougher battle -- which is a shame, since the core battle mechanics are as active and engaging as ever.

Puzzles join the game's scrap-booking theme as well. Various objects like a fan or a baseball bat (simply called "Things") can be made into stickers. Those stickers can then be used to stick on a stage to solve environmental puzzles or defeat bosses. The solutions have a tendency to be counter-intuitive, though, and occasionally solving a stage is involves meticulously searching for a very well-hidden path. I may have spent more time wandering around stages, attempting to find something I missed, than I did playing through the game properly and simply having fun with it.

The puzzles weren't particularly complex once I knew the solution, but the game was usually poor at pointing me in the right direction. Even the requisite sidekick, a mainstay in modern Nintendo games, would barely ever serve as a helpful remedy for tricky spots. As a result, I almost never felt a sense of accomplishment when I solved a puzzle. Usually my feelings were a mixture of frustration that the game had given me such poor cues, and gratefulness that I was finished with that obstacle. Until I hit the next one.

Paper Mario: Sticker Star

The game isn't without its charms. The writing is always endearing, and in its best moments is incredibly clever and self-aware. The humor takes good advantage of its "paper" setting, with smart visual gags. And as expected, the art style is an absolutely perfect fit for the 3DS, sure to impress anyone still skeptical of the system's gimmick. Regardless, it may be damning with faint praise to credit its personality and visuals, when Mario games usually stand on the strength of their gameplay.

I wish I enjoyed Paper Mario: Sticker Star more. In a lot of ways the game is very likable, but those adorable, charming qualities are mostly superficial. It undermines some of the series' core strengths by making most battles unnecessary and avoidable, and puzzles can be downright maddening in their vagary. As a 3DS showpiece with plenty of personality, Sticker Star is an unquestionable success. As a successor to the rest of the Paper Mario series, it falls flat.


This Paper Mario: Sticker Star review was based on a digital version of the game provided by the publisher. The reviewer spent approximately 15 hours with the game, but did not complete it.

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