Who’s late to the party? This guy! And Bowser. Me and Bowser, what a wonderful pair. But instead of me talking about how an angry, spiked, dino-turtle and myself would be total besties, let’s talk about his most recent foray on the 3DS. I’ve beaten the first world in Paper Mario: Sticker Star and am ready to ruminate on it.
Obviously, Bowser crashes a Mushroom Kingdom shindig and makes the world a big, hot mess. You’re Mario and you’re going to save it. Nothing new there, so let’s get into what makes this game different from other Mario games. The answer is stickers, plainly enough.
As you might know, combat takes place entirely through the use of stickers. These give Mario one-time-only abilities ranging from a simple head-stomp to a massive hammer from the sky. They are also — for all intents and purposes in World 1 — unlimited and easily gettable nowable.
When in battle, you get a very Super Mario RPG taste in your mouth, all combat actions being able to be buffed by an appropriately timed A-button hit. It’s a proven mechanic that’s really fun and fulfilling, as it always has been. But another wrinkle is added in: For the small fee of three coins, you can spin a slot machine in battle. Match two and you get to use two stickers the next turn; match three and use three. Likewise, coins are basically unlimited, being a reward from a skillful battle.
Regardless, it’s a nice system that let’s you — and sometimes forces you — to think with sticker combos. For example, one optional boss, a huge Buzzy Beetle, had to be stomped on his back and then damaged with whatever you wanted. This means two things: You have to match two slot items to damage it each round and you had to have enough supplies to take down his large health pool. Rather fun.
However, there is a huge catch. You need stickers to battle, right? You use them in fights and get more, right? Same for coins? This is where some sort of RPG progression would come in, but it doesn’t. While new stickers are found, you, Mario, never get any better beyond health increases and more pages in your sticker book. And none of this comes from beating random encounters (which are 100% totally avoidable). In other words, there is no reason to do them. It is a self-contained repeating cycle that doesn’t permeate the rest of the game. Fight, stickers, coins, fight, stickers, coins. Stickers being the end goal. But why not just not fight or spend coins and keep your stickers?
It’s a problem with no answer. Luckily Sticker Star does a lot very well.
As you could expect, it’s funny. Most Paper Mario titles are. Heck, most Mario games are funny nowadays, their winking fourth-wall breaks sticking out like Goomba toes. If you’ve seen it, I don’t need to say how charming it is (literally the best use of the 3DS’s gyroscopes ever being the little touch that foil stickers reflect shimmers when you tilt the system, not by using a canned animation). Moreover, it’s a well-paced and well-made game. World 1’s levels felt like perfect sizes, able to be rushed through to get the secrets and substantial enough to warrant a cautious first playthrough. The overworld is nostalgic in a great way, geographically linking places, not just vaguely nailing them together like most modern Mario games.
There is an issue of difficulty. There always is when I play things. As you could guess, the minute-to-minute gameplay is very easy. Insultingly easy. But the lateral thinking is a bit … hmmm … shapeless. Granted, I have a penchant for mashing through most tutorial prompts (Oh, the irony, I know!), I don’t recall ever learning that Paperize Mode had more than one function. The first time you must use it to solve a puzzle that is not explicitly labeled, in Goomba Fortress, is a frustrating moment. It might be a little too out of the blue for some. However! It was incredibly satisfying to discover, finally realizing the huge potential of the mechanic.
Even with my usual amount of nitpickery, the time I spent was a total blast. I’ve been taking my 3DS with me places and actually used a whole battery’s worth of charge. Heck, the issues are actually enticing me to play more — how IS this game going to pan out regarding learning / player curve? Sticker Star is a unique game with a strong foundation that is better than the sum of its parts so far. Let’s just see how this one pans out.