The Paper Mario series holds a special place in my heart. I loved the first installment, and Thousand Year Door is my favorite Gamecube game, but I did skip out on Super Paper Mario for the Wii when I heard that it didn’t compare to the other entries in the series. When Paper Mario Sticker Star was announced at E3 two years ago, I was very excited to dive back into the series and expand my 3DS library. After finishing Sticker Star, I am conflicted.
Much of the fun of Paper Mario comes through the presentation, and Sticker Star knocks it out of the park. Environments look as cardboard-y and paper-y as ever, character models react the way paper would to different situations, and the music is delightful. Instead of having an open world type layout as the past Paper Mario games have had, Sticker Star takes on the classic Mario approach of separated levels, having you follow a growing path from 1-1 and onward. Each of these worlds has its own unique look that stays colorful and keeps with the paper-ized theme.
One big element to the Paper Mario games is the humor. Sticker Star really nails the quirkiness and humor throughout the story. Characters are very self-aware of the world around them; some characters even show fatigue towards Bowser’s antics and assume Mario will save the day solely because he is Mario. My favorite moments in the game are the ones that embrace the bizarre, i.e. a deadly gameshow or a one-off moment involving Birdo, a trapeze, and a goat.
The story is your run of the mill Mario RPG setup. Something important with special stars is going on, Bowser comes in and mucks things up, and it is up to Mario to travel the Mushroom Kingdom to save the day and Princess Peach, because she was kidnapped again (you think she would learn to just never go out anymore). As you set off on your romp around the kingdom, you will meet different characters, most of whom are Toads that are humorous in their own way. The game takes about 15-20 hours to complete, but if you’re looking to do additional side things, that may run your time up a few more hours.
For all the fun and joy the look and story of the game can bring, there is an unavoidable problem that will mar anyone’s experience with Sticker Star; the gameplay is not very fun, nor is nearly any aspect explained. I hope you have a basic understanding of the way Paper Mario games play or have read the small foldout included in the game’s case, because there is little to no tutorial to the combat. The few times things are explained is when there is something new added to the series, which is nice, but a refresher course on the basics would be great, especially since children new to the series will be playing this game.
Combat revolves around stickers that populate the world. Each level has a finite amount of stickers scattered around the walls, floors, and in blocks. As these stickers are collected, they end up in the album that fills up the bottom screen. Here you can sort, toss, or read up on the different stickers you have. This is an interesting twist on the Paper Mario formula, and is not a bad idea in and of itself, but since these are attacks for combat, most of the battles are best left avoided so valuable stickers can be stored for the unforgiving boss battles.
In contrast to the theme of the world being 2D, there are special items aptly named “Things”. These “Things” can be anything, from scissors, to a refrigerator, to a pair of high heels. They populate the world as 3D items that you must collect, then take to a special shop to have them turned into stickers. When they are stickers, they are your best bet against powerful foes and are also used to solve environmental puzzles. These puzzles never stray from dropping stickers where they would be most useful to pass an obstacle, but the problem is that if you don’t have the correct sticker, or have unknowingly used it in a battle, you must go find it again or spend a large amount of money on it from a special shop.
The boss battles are the most infuriating part of the game, seeing as lack of specific stickers can result in many trips to the Game Over screen. This would make for some interesting trial and error type gameplay, but when the error is so unforgiving that you lose resources you have been carrying around for hours in hopes of having the right solution, the game almost feels broken. That being said, when combat works the way it seems it is meant to, it can be a lot of fun, but more often then not, you will find yourself spending more time searching for the correct item in different levels than you will in the entire level of the boss fight. Without spoiling anything, I will say the last two fights of the game are so clearly based on chance and having a very specific late game sticker that it took me more retries than should ever be necessary for a boss fight.
I really want to love Sticker Star, truly. It is a great looking game that has laugh-out-loud moments, but the gameplay is just so flawed that the game becomes far more fun to look at then it does to play. There is a small number of side missions that you can partake in to relieve yourself of the base gameplay, but there’s not enough to forgive the problems that were never present 12 years ago when the first game released. If you are looking for a 3DS game to hold you over until the holidays, you could do worse than Paper Mario Sticker Star, but you can also do much better.