Paper Mario: Sticker Star Review: A charming romp, but with a few sticking points
6th Dec 2012 | 18:03
When you think of funny game developers, Nintendo isn't a name that instantly rolls off the tongue. But lying underneath the surface of even their most stoic work is a mischievous streak as wide as a Wiggler's wide bits.
Sometimes you have to do some digging to find it. You can unearth it between the lines of Zelda's impish dialogue, or etched in the panic-stricken faces of Wii Sports' Miis as they flee in terror from an errant bowling bowl.
Other times, their sly humour bubbles to the surface by itself - and no Ninty series froths with mischief more than Paper Mario, Nintendo's bizarrely-brilliant pulped-fiction RPG series.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star marks the series' debut on a handheld console, and it retains the same tongue-in-cheek tone that made it such a cult hit on N64/GC/Wii. Veterans of the series will already know what to expect - always, the unexpected.
The series takes place in an alternate reality Mushroom Kingdom where even the lowliest grunts are given a voice. What follows is twelve hours (give or take a bit of backtracking) of surrealist Mario humour - of goombas who witter on about going for ice cream, of wigglers who insist on talking in the third-person no matter how awkwardly it causes their sentences tumble out.
This isn't a game of zinging one-liners, mind - so no need to worry about spraying your fellow commuters with laughter-slobber. The Paper Mario series instead prefers to weave its comedy around a warmer, more frivolous kind of wit, with the main source of mirth coming from light-hearted jibes at the tropes of the RPG genre and the Marioverse at large.
As an example, the helpful signpost tutorials scattered across the stages are explained away early in the storyline as being a by-product of the Toads' OCD. As soon as something traumatic happens, their first instinct is to scramble for a pen and a post so they can write down their thoughts.
Visually it's a belter, too - the 3DS' stereoscopic display brings Sticker Star's papercraft diorama world to life, and there are some great uses of the screen's depth perception, such as parachuting bob-ombs who rain down the screen in the foreground, and slaphammered goombas who fly in and out of view like a deflating balloon.
Sticker Star's charming presentation and cheeky banter make it a pleasure to exist in and to explore its world, and affords the game a lot of goodwill from the player. Unfortunately, we have to report that Sticker Star needs all the goodwill it can get, because in trying to adapt its template to fit a handheld format, it creates as many problems as it solves.
The biggest change comes in the way combat works. After the faux-platforming misstep of Super Paper Mario, Sticker Star sees a return to the turn-based JRPG battles of the earlier games. However it uses a stripped down fighting system that eliminates the concept of levelling-up in its entirety.
This time Mario doesn't come fitted with a moveset of his own, and doesn't get to learn one either. Instead, his attacks come in the form of one-use only stickers, which peel off into the ether after being utilised.
Stickers can be sourced in numerous ways. They can be purchased in shops, liberated from question blocks or dropped by vanquished foes. More commonly, you'll find them stuck on various surfaces in the background. A quick tug with the A button dislodges them from their resting place and glues them into your sticker album for safe keeping.
Initial fears that building your collection could get grind-y prove unfounded, as gathering up a workable collection is speedy, easy and curiously compulsive. The designers have done a good job of pacing out when you're introduced to different kinds of sticker attacks so it doesn't get samey, and the occasional appearance of more powerful 'shiny' variants helps capture the kleptic thrill of real-world sticker collecting.
Sticker attacks work much as they do in the previous Paper Mario titles - tapping buttons in rhythm with the on-screen animations will increase the range and/or the power of any given attack. Since your moves are now a depletable resource, getting the timing right is now more critical than it's ever been.
Under this system, success is determined by canny resource management; for instance, can you defeat that chain of goombas without using any of your rare or shiny stickers? A single koopa shell would likely take down the entire line-up in one fell swoop, but they're relatively uncommon. Is one of those really more expendable than four-or-five swipes with the common-but-utilitarian hammer stickers?
The resource management aspect adds an extra level of strategy to consider above and beyond the traditional RPG trappings, and within the confines of the battle screen it's logical, fun and well-implemented. Unfortunately, in the wider context of the game structure it makes so little sense as to actually prove counter-productive to the enjoyment of the game.
See, since there's no levelling-up involved, there isn't a lot of incentive to get actually get involved in the battles in the first place. Defeated enemies drop stickers, true, and winning battles earns Mazza a cash reward (which he can spend on more stickers, or gamble away during fights in the hope of winning extra turns), but the outlay almost always outstrips the reward.
Once we wised up to this we spent much of our time sprinting through levels as though they were some kind of goomba-laden assault course, actively avoiding fights to ensure we were well stocked for the boss battles - where the difficulty tends to spike inexplicably.
The level structure has also been pared down to accommodate the format, and again it proves to the game's detriment. There's no over-arcing game world here - instead, levels are split into bite-sized chunks, navigated via the kind of world map you'd more often associated with the Mario's 2D platforming adventures.
Most levels feature some kind of insurmountable obstacle that requires Mario to find an object from somewhere (often from a different level entirely), and 'stick' it on top of problem. An early example is a snoozing wiggler who'll only shift his thorax if you trumpet its ears off with a brass instrument sourced from an earlier stage.
This means Sticker Star's structure is reminiscent of classic point and click adventures, complete with all that negatives that brings to the table. Extensive, aimless backtracking over old ground for vital stickers is a common requirement, a problem exacerbated by some very ropey, very un-Nintendo signposting.
A flawed combat system and an infuriatingly vague progression structure; it doesn't sound like a perfect recipe for a killer handheld RPG, does it? And indeed it isn't. Unlike Super Mario 3D Land, which was pruned to perfection, Nintendo has hacked away at Paper Mario's template wildly and indiscriminately, leaving behind a stumpy, overly-simplified RPG which fails to hit the highs of the first two Paper Mario titles.
But that's not to say that Sticker Star is as bad as it sounds on (ahem) paper. The quality of the writing, the eclecticness of its colourful cast and the glee of trying out a brand new sticker for the first time on an unsuspected victim are all positive factors that help keep the player plugging away merrily.
It moves along at a fair rate, you can always count on something whimsical or fascinating lurking on the next page, and it never gets boring - at least until you get pegged back by one of its cryptic puzzles, at least. We enjoyed our time with it.
But it never threatened to truly catch fire either, and considering the game's rich heritage, that means the disappointment is pulpable.