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Paper Mario Sticker Star

January 20, 2013

Before you start, if you want, watch Yahtzee Croshaw’s review of this game. I can’t remember when I agreed more with him than on this game. We’ll probably be saying the same things, although he will be more sweary and NSFW about it.

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Paper Mario Sticker Star is a game for the Nintendo 3DS, ostensibly in the Paper Mario series of games. It follows a cliched plot of Bowser causes mischief and kidnaps Princess Peach, Mario has adventures, before beating Bowser and saving Peach. In this game, it takes the flavour of recovering the Royal Stickers, scattered from the Sticker Star by Bowser’s bungling. Mario is aided by Kersti, a gobby little floating sticker.

Let me start by explaining what Paper Mario is. Firstly, yes, it is paper. 2D characters in a 3D environment. Secondly, it is a Mario game. That should be moot. Thirdly, they are role-playing games, with emphasis on recruiting new friends, levelling up and party building. Both Paper Mario on the N64 and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door on the Nintendo Gamecube were two of the best games on their respective consoles. The linear platforming of other Mario games for what were proper RPGs. Vast, expansive worlds filled to bursting with fleshed-out characters (The artwork was the only two-dimensional thing about them) and humour. My God, the humour. With their lively dialogue and tongue-in-cheek references to the entire Mario series, they were some of the most entertaining games I have ever played. Period.

With such exemplar yard-sticks to measure against, Paper Mario Sticker Star already had some big shoes to fill. And it doesn’t fill them very well. Before, Mario would roam the lands meeting characters (Goombas, Koopas, Bob-Ombs, Yoshis et al) and recruiting them to his cause. In this game, his flies solo, with only Kersti for advice. And the separate, discrete worlds and levels are so linear! Before, defeating enemies would give experience to increase your characters’ stats. Fleeing fights would cost in coins. Completing a chapter would earn Mario an increasingly powerful special attack. In this game, enemies give only coins (and sometimes stickers). Fleeing costs nothing, so from World 3 onwards, I fled every ordinary fight and saved my stickers for the big baddies. Defeating a boss yields only an extra page in the sticker book. No growth whatsoever. No struggle.

Let me back up and explain the overriding game mechanic. Stickers are used in battle to perform attacks. They start out simple, jump and hammer attacks, before getting increasingly stronger, such as a super-jump. They also diversify. Defeated koopas can drop koopa shell sticks, for example. There are also snowballs, boomerangs and ninja stars as well as old favourites such as mushrooms and fire flowers. Some stickers work better on certain enemies and some won’t work on others at all. You can keep a finite amount of stickers in your sticker book (but more as you progress) so deciding which ones to spend in battle (if you decide to fight at all) and which ones to keep is a delicate business.

There are also odd, random 3D objects within Mario’s 2-dimensional world. These can be converted into stickers and subsequently unleashed in battle to wreak havoc. They are generally quite impressive – with the Tailor’s Shears being the equivalent of Knights of the Round from Final Fantasy VII. Furthermore, every boss will have a thing sticker that they are uniquely weak too, doing incredible amounts of damage and making the fight far easier. A good example would be Tower Power Pokey of World 2. Using a Baseball Bat sticker on him unleashes a powerful strike for every body part he’s grown so far in battle. See? Far from being an optional easy route in boss battles (a la the Fierce Deity Mask in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask) they are near essential since bosses have inordinately high HP compared to their underlings and Mario; e.g. the first boss Megasparkle Goomba has 90HP. Until then, your enemies have had 6HP max. Excuse me, what?!

So this is more of a platformer sprinkled sparingly with RPG elements but what of the humour? Does it retain that witty reparte and badinage? Just. The stories of classic Paper Mario games unfolded gradually with different areas being tormented by different problems (a tropical island experiencing a volcanic eruption, a gulch being threatened by an undead tyrant, a village of koopas being threatened with slavery, et cetera). Other than in World 3, where the poisoned forest is spoiling Wiggler’s diet, things are just generally bad, with no cohesive or coherent plan to take over the Mushroom Kingdom. There are amusing moments of physical humour and sometimes the dialogue deigns to glimmer in a dim memory of its past glory but it’s largely by-the-numbers adventuring, without much soul. The plot, of what there is, is told in the opening cutscene and ending dialogue. Everything in between is static, generic SAVE THE WORLD. Other than he has to, Mario has no reason to. Disappointing.

One aspect that is preserved from the ancient past is 3D manipulation. In past games, this might involve Mario folding up into a paper plane or a tube to cross a gap or slip through a crack. Here, Kersti’s power allows Mario to peel off parts of the world scenery and put them back, often rightside up or in the right place. This is admittedly quite good and a call-back to purer times. The 3D effect is nearly entirely superfluous – AGAIN – and the artwork has not advanced very far from 2004. Is it nostalgic, or remaining true to the core of the series? Or does it smack of terminal laziness? No comment.

I should stop before you conclude this is a bad game. It is not, not at all a bad game. It’s a charming and entertaining game. However, despite what it might say on the box, it is not a Paper Mario game. It has drifted too far from what is true of Paper Mario, instead seeking the complacent bosom of mainstream Mario games. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing…

But it is a very sad thing.

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