Game Review

by Dave Riley, Dec 4th 2012

Paper Mario: Sticker Star


Paper Mario: Sticker Star
Mario's latest Paper outing applies some surprising tweaks to the RPG formula while remaining true to the Paper Mario history of exploration, platforming, and quirky humor.

Mario RPGs have always traded on the novelty of placing Mario in a world with Hit Points and items, going back to the first one for the Super Nintendo, developed by Squaresoft. The Final Fantasy DNA at the core of these titles peeks through in everything from their turn-based battles, to (perceived) item scarcity, to the iconic super mushroom serving as a direct stand-in for potions. They deviate from the norm in minor ways (Super Paper Mario's action combat, Thousand Year Door's "theatre audience" watching, and judging, every battle), but no Paper Mario takes as many risks, or casts its genre net as wide, as Sticker Star.

One of the great unknowns left in the universe is whether anyone has ever actually used a Megalixir. For whatever reason the RPG player has a pathological fear of using items. Instead infinite resources, like the party-healing Sage Stone from Dragon Quest, tend to be used long past their useful stage solely because they are inexhaustible. The heroic journey of most RPGs ends with the player having collected a nigh-insurmountable pile of healing items, party-wide resurrection tools, consumable power buffs, and one-shot damage items, all saved until the very last battle (and beyond, even) because "I might need it at some point."

In Paper Mario: Sticker Star, everything is a consumable.

Of course we expect the potions (power up mushrooms) and mega-strong attacks (like fire flowers) to be one-use items, that's no surprise. No. Here everything is a consumable. Mario's attacks are governed by stickers, all of which are a one and done, carried in an extremely small size-limited inventory. Even the humble jump attack must be purchased in a shop, one at a time, or found stuck to walls or hidden in "?" Blocks. This means, conceivably, Mario can run out of [sticker] juice during a battle and have no option but to escape. Which is what makes Sticker Star's combat so interesting: you're not compelled to do it.

Because probably the only thing more heretical than making an RPG composed solely of consumable items is making an RPG where you don't level up, and that is exactly what Sticker Star does. The only means of character progression are +5 HP hearts found lightly sprinkled around the world. Mario starts with 20 HP and might end the game with around 60. He does not level up his strength, or his defense, though he does find better quality stickers as he progresses: ones labeled "shiny" or "fancy", whose foil coating glistens when the 3DS is tilted backwards and forwards.

The world is broken into chunks of a comforting, very "Mario," format where World 1-2 follows World 1-1 and somewhere out there is a World 2, World 3, and beyond. Worlds correspond to the themes we've come to expect from Mario: desert, ice, forest, but the formula is ever changing, so it rarely bogs. A vertical volcanic exploration immediately follows the on-rails log flume level, and your time in the snow world is neatly bisected by a mansion-wide ghost hunt without a slippy-slidey ice floor in sight (and thank god for that). Levels are more like mini-dungeons, to be conquered and explored (for secret exits to other levels, and valuable mega-large or mega-fancy stickers, and Luigi sightings) in twenty minutes, tops. Then Mario is kicked back to the world map, to press his luck in the next zone or to high-tail it back to town to refresh on stickers and life.

So it seems that, with its heart containers, and its exploratory vibe, and its lack of emphasis on combat, Sticker Star is more like a Zelda game than it is an RPG, despite the fact that we used turn-based combat as a nearly end-all-be-all when determining what a Japanese Roleplaying Game is. We see hints of Zelda in the way things may be jumped on or bashed down to find secrets. Loose panels, when hammered, wobble almost imperceptibly for a moment and the anticipation perfectly mimics the thrill of using Link to plant a bomb near a cracked wall and waiting with bated breath to see what's on the other side.

So Sticker Star is an adventure game? Well, maybe. When we think of adventure games we also think of constantly improving character power, just as we do with RPGs, because where would Link be if he didn't receive the Master Sword, and a better shield, and a blue (and then a red) tunic for better defense, all permanent, and all meant to demonstrate progression over a rather long quest? And Mario has that progression, but it is impermanent, and battles give only pittances of coins as a reward, rarely items. Fights rarely resolve as zero-sum, and almost never in Mario's financial favor. This is a losing game, you are frequently spending more resources than you get. This is more immediately reminiscent of early Resident Evil, where a character may have a grenade launcher, but if she has no grenades then the point is moot, and she is as weak at hour nine as she was at hour one.

There are moments where the "Big Shiny Jump" sticker you used to obliterate a random encounter will come back to haunt you when you're faced with flying enemies and all you have are terrestrial-locked hammer stickers. These are every bit as gut-wrenching as facing up to a final Resident Evil baddie having expended all magnum rounds in a war of attrition against a horde of reptilian hunters. Items are never "wasted" in Sticker Star, just as they are rarely "wasted" in Resident Evil, but they can always be used more efficiently. Furthermore, like all those early Resident Evils, Paper Mario loves to send you backtracking. Boss battles are frequently lost the first time through because the player didn't bring the proper equipment. Any Mario worth his salt will have a wide variety of jumps, hammers, fire flowers, POW blocks, but bosses tend to have specific weaknesses to ultra-rare stickers which are prohibitively expensive and prohibitively large, taking up as much as six times the space of a regular attack, so they don't see regular rotation in the player's inventory. Moreover, Mario will frequently be at a loss on how to proceed, and will need to stumble through old levels, sometimes old worlds, with only a few clumsy hints to guide him. A mid-game slog through the forest, which has twice as many levels as any other world (many of which must be played twice through, at least) borders on unconscionable game design. Yet there is a thrill of anticipation as the pieces are put together, and the player remembers exactly in what level a garbage-chewing goat or windmill-moving fan must be used. Clumsy backtracking and a (frequently unfair) requirement of a priori knowledge. Sounds like Resident Evil.

So Sticker Star is survival horror? Yes, kind of. It is "survival" certainly, but it is too cutesy to ever actually be scary, even when menacing its player with a stack of eighty paper-thin Boos. It is tense, definitely, when a long fight has reached its final phase and Mario's inventory represents a patchwork quilt of weak stickers that were really only there because they were picked up along the way to replace better, already used, attacks. When the boss has 20 HP out of 300 left and you're not sure if you have enough hammers to do him in, that could easily be called "survival tension." Though when you put it that way it does sound a bit silly.

But it's probably most accurate to say that this game is just... Mario. Because when did we ever go out of our way to stomp on every Goomba head? And when did we end a Mario game with an inventory of upgraded, permanent, equipment? But if you used a P-Wing on anything less severe than a tank or battleship level, you were rightfully labeled crazy. So the battles in Sticker Star recall the toggleable inventory of Super Mario 3, stuffed to the gills with racoon tails and frog suits, all waiting for the perfect moment. The removal of character advancement, the removal of permanent item upgrades, this may initially come across as nonconformism for nonconformism's sake, but stripping out character levels and experience grinding changes the value of random battles, such that they are obstacles that can be surmounted in two ways: by destroying them or by evading them. Now random battles are puzzles to solve instead of a linear path of speedbumps with experience point gains attached. All battles have value. Impermanent inventory means that there isn't a single fight in the game that can be auto-attacked through. The game agrees, as when certain invisible milestones are reached enemies in already-cleared worlds can be dispatched by a hammer smash or jump attack without actually initiating combat. "Don't worry about this stuff," it says. "You've got better things to do."

This is oddly reminiscent of Final Fantasy XIII which was sometimes maligned for, among other far more legitimate reasons, having the temerity to automatically heal the party to full health after each battle. What that does there, and what Sticker Star's constantly shrinking inventory does here, is elevate every battle to a state of primacy, where there never need be any fluff because the game is about managing actual resources instead of basing its only significant calculus on how well the player performs as an actuary of post-battle Curagas.

Sticker Star resembles a lot of different games in a lot of different ways, but if we consider Super Mario Brothers to be one of the Ur wells of gaming then maybe it's actually the other way around. And if it resembles so many other things -- which have drawn inspiration, however indirectly, from Super Mario -- then what's most exciting about this Paper Mario is that it has shed the kruft of what we've been forcibly made to consider "RPGs" and, in doing so, has come to resemble nothing so much as itself.

Production Info:
Overall : B-
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B-
Gameplay : B
Presentation : B-

+ Snappy dialogue, tense combat and resource management
Scads of backtracking, quest objectives tend to be poorly signposted

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