"Super stickers, flat in every other dimension..."
When I picked up Paper Mario: Sticker Star from my mailbox, I expected a game that would dramatically redefine the combat system but maintain the Paper Mario charm. When I first plopped in the game, I predicted a dense Mario plot, seeping with wit, charm, and ingenuity, but an awkward battling system. When I completed World 1-1, I felt empty. Empty. And for the wrong reasons.
Sticker Star is the adorably named fourth installment into the Paper Mario series. Simply being a part of the Paper Mario series should be enough to make Sticker Star a winner; after all, the original was one of the best games to be released on the Nintendo 64, The Thousand-Year Door was one of the best games to be released on the GameCube, and Super Paper Mario was one of the best games to be found in a rather unimpressive Wii lineup. Rather than shining as one of the best games to be released for the 3DS, Sticker Star is looking more and more like it's going to stick with Super Paper Mario's dynamic: unimpressive at release, respectable in retrospect. And, no, to those of you who are sitting there shaking your heads, arguing that I was expecting TTYD 2.0, I was not. I wholly expected a fresh take, and I was more than happy to try something new, considering the abundant Mario Bros. rehashes. Sticker Star is just disappointing. End. Of. Story.
The Stickers are Anything BUT Paper!
Sticker Star surprised me most with a battling system that is actually fluid, insightful, and worthy of the Paper Mario title. Not only are battles interesting and dynamic, but they're fresh in a series that has tried no less than two different ways to battle, not to mention a franchise that has literally defined platformer gameplay, among other genres.
Battles are rather straightforward, as they have always been. Find an enemy in the overworld, get the first strike, and take turns fighting it out. However, combat tends to be much more in-depth than that--there are many factors to take into account, and Sticker Star tends to be difficult in a less-than-obvious way. Of course, there is the quintessential Paper Mario first strike mechanic (though it is less common to be struck than it was in previous games) where you can enter the battle swinging. After that, it's your turn, and you have to use one of your many stickers from your album. You can choose from different Jump stickers, different Hammer stickers, item stickers, enemy stickers, special stickers, and everything in-between. However, once you use a sticker, it's gone. Forever. You can never ever have it back for whatever reason whatsoever unless you pick up another sticker of the exact same type.
Anyways, after you choose a sticker, you have to execute the action command if you want to deal the most damage. These can vary in difficulty, but there shouldn't be too many problems with this aspect of the game. Afterwards, your enemies get free reign to execute their attacks. You can block or dodge, but you cannot fully mitigate their damage as you could in The Thousand-Year Door. This cycle repeats until a victor is declared.
Obviously the sticker mechanic defines the battling system. There are stickers of all kinds, but, again, you can only use them once. So the question becomes, “when do I use my stickers?” Sure, weaker enemies can easily be defeated with the most powerful stickers in less than one turn, but bosses are extremely tough. You need your top-notch stickers to deal with these baddies as they can have hundreds of HP. And, to expand upon that, there seems to be an incongruity between the difficulty of the bosses and the difficulty of the enemies--you're able to easily, and I mean easily, trounce most enemies, so why are bosses so damn hard? The difficulty could be smoothed out to create a more respectable enemy population and a less overwhelming boss population, but it's not a major flaw when put in perspective of the other problems with this paper.
Regardless, Sticker Star manages to do what very few other 3DS games have been able to do: make a game where the mechanics are both fresh, interesting, and new, but also make a game where the mechanics actually work. Sticker battles are engaging in part because you're enticed to collect as many powerful stickers as possible and hoard them for the boss battle; however, it's not like other games where you're forced to raise up the stickers for a team of six to beat all of the gyms and defeat the champion--you simply use them as a means to attack. When you use them, they're gone! And that simply leaves a yearning to replace those stickers with new stickers. Once Sticker Star pulls you in with the adorable stickers, you can never leave their addictive clutches.
A Three-Dimensional Two-Dimensional Overworld
Sticker Star heavily pulls from a Super Mario Galaxy 2 world map and a Super Paper Mario level system. Basically, there is a world map that revolves around the hub, Decalburg, and branches off to each of the worlds. In each of the worlds, there is a varying amount of levels to complete. These levels require you to start at the beginning and make it to the Goal--often a Comet Piece--at the end. This hierarchy works well and allows each world to be diversified more easily. Coherence has its merits, but so does incongruity.
I mentioned above that the stickers are practically everywhere in the overworld, and I wasn't kidding. They are E-V-E-R-Y-W-H-E-R-E. They're in the bushes, the trees, the sky, the ground, in blocks, on blocks, on walls, in walls, in enemies, on enemies, everywhere and anywhere where little slips of stickers can be found. The overworld is also defined by the sticker mechanic. Given that you're already flying through disposable stickers because of the battling system, you need a constant flow of all types--decent, amazing, and mediocre--of stickers flying into your sticker album for use in battle. The overworld supplies this flow relentlessly. Every nook and cranny of the level has stickers to be found, and the best stickers are usually hiding in the most obscure spots. The game teaches you to think like this in the Prologue, and it should be commended for doing so.
However, the overworld also forces you to progress through the game; you need to get from Point A to Point B to unlock World C. The method through which Sticker Star accomplishes this is that it largely pulls on witty puzzles and level-centric dilemmas. Generally, there is no over-arching plot that drives a level's overworld--it is simply whatever the developers deemed fit to base this level around to make it interesting.
Certain levels (actually, most levels) are made up of many smalls puzzles, obstacles, and dilemmas that come together to make the level. Level 1-2, for instance, forces you to take an alternative path to turn off a fan that's preventing you from proceeding through the level. Later, you have to defeat some more powerful Goombas that are basically your “final enemy” for the level. However, there are also levels like Level 1-3 that force you to work towards one, central goal. In 1-3, you must find the missing Comet Piece to restore the goal. Of course, it takes 80% of the level to find this Comet Piece, but that's what you have to do. Both types of level work, but they tend to be lacking in the larger picture (something I'll get to later).
These levels are largely well-thought-out and engaging. They certainly start out slow (Level 1-2 comes to mind), but by World 2, each level is a powerhouse of puzzles, obstacles, and downright battling. There are many extras to be found in most levels—for instance, a huge treasure room in Level 2-2—and that adds to an already-imposing level. Furthermore, the sheer amount of different levels is a major plus; there are over 30 levels, and each of them lasts anywhere from fifteen minutes to forty-five minutes. Overall, Sticker Star's gameplay is smooth-sailing with no paper cuts or tears to be found. Well, other than in the level, of course.
The Comet Piece in 1-3 Isn't the Only Thing Missing From Sticker Star...
After reading thus far through the review, you may be wondering why the hell you're making an adventure through this yet-to-be-named region. You may be wondering why I haven't addressed the general plot even at all. Well, there's a rather glaring dilemma on my part as a reviewer with regards to the story--there is no plot. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Absolutely, positively no story whatsoever. The first five minutes introduces you to the plot-arc, and said arc is not addressed until the very last world with minor shoutouts made sparsely throughout the game. If I would've been reviewing this game back when I gave out scores for individual sections, the Story of Sticker Star would score a big, fat “N/A.”
So what could possibly happen for an entire game for me to possibly say that there is no story? Well, the game opens with Bowser stealing the Royal Stickers, coronating himself as king, and leaving, never-to-be-seen until World 6. Peach is missing, so at least the developers remembered that in their 25-years of regurgitating kidnappings of primly peachy pink princesses. But there is absolutely nothing else to be said about this story until the very last parts of the game. Sticker Star doesn't even really pick up at the end, so you can't even attempt to say that it starts slow and picks up later. There is nothing to pick up, nothing to fix, and nothing to even remotely suggest, well, anything! There are minor allusions to Bowser's mischief--for example, when the Megasparkle Goomba says that he is guarding his Royal Sticker for Bowser--but it's by no means a story. A few fragmented patches do not make a quilt.
Okay, even without a major over-arching story, Sticker Star can still revive itself, right? It does that, right?
Whereas earlier Paper Marios (and even games like Sunshine, Galaxy, and Mario 64) tend to have some sort of mini-plot for a specific world, Sticker Star has absolutely nothing. There is nothing whatsoever connection Level 1-1 to Level 1-2 other than their idyllic plains setting. There is no build-up to the World 1 boss. There is nothing to link any of the worlds together, barring the major attempt in World 3. There is no story. None. At. All. Sticker Star is one of the most gameplay-driven first-party Nintendo games I have ever played. Paper Mario is supposed to be heavy on story! Paper Mario is supposed to be the bright spot in all of Marioland. And it's not even a by-product of the level/world map system--Super Paper Mario had practically the same format, yet it had a far meatier plot than this train wreck.
Gone is all of the wit, charm, and punny-funny dialogue that defined the first three games. Sticker Star's miniscule charm is defined by its cartoonism, and, while that is an acceptable source of humor, it is by no means a substitute for a story. To come back to my opening paragraph, I felt empty playing Sticker Star. For a gaming series so renowned for its tear-jerking, spirit-lifting, humorous, witty, sarcastic, cartoonish, and paper-y plots, Sticker Star just doesn't even register. It's disappointing.
Glossy Gameplay, Pulverized Plots
So does the utter lack of any substance make Sticker Star a terrible game? No. Does it prevent it from being a truly great game that deserves to be placed among the ranks of its predecessors? Yes. The gameplay is good, the plot (or lack thereof) is atrocious, and everything else is average. Can you play Sticker Star and get a reasonable amount of fun out of it? Certainly! The gameplay is top-notch and does deserve to be placed among the other Paper Marios as a success story. Just don't expect anything else from Sticker Star, or you'll be severely disappointing. Expect a gameplay-driven game, not an all-around masterpiece. If you don't play games for the plot, I whole-heartedly recommend Sticker Star; otherwise, you may want to reconsider purchasing Sticker Star. It plays more like 3D Land than it does like Paper Mario, so don't expect Paper Mario when you play Paper Mario: Sticker Star--it simply isn't there.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
- Complete and utter lack of any story
- No connection between worlds
- No appropriate build-up for bosses
- Very little character development
+ The sticker system is both fresh and intuitive
+ Keeps you engaged despite its simplicity
+ Overworld has good supply of stickers
+ Levels are fast-paced, action-packed
+ Unique level designs
+ Witty gamepaly progression
- Large difficulty gap between bosses and enemies
- Stickers can get redundant
- Some levels are simplistic, short--slow start in general
+ Good variety, catchy title
+ Fresh musical score
- Generally drowned-out and unnoticeable
+ Cartoonism at its best
+ Graphics are fitting of Paper Mario
- 3D is unnoticeable
+ Good length, though shorter than other Paper Marios
- Hard to replay given there are far better predecessors
Reviewer's Score: 7/10
Game Release: Paper Mario: Sticker Star (US, 11/11/12)