Mario may be known as a trailblazer of platformer, karting, doctor-themed puzzle, and mascot fighting games (among many others), but there is one genre where he has become an unexpected standout – role-playing games. Since the Super Nintendo era Mario and his pals have set the standard for spin-off RPGs, all of which have been created, at least in part by Nintendo, a company that's not traditionally known for crafting games in that space. These classic titles has evolved into the Paper Mario series, which includes the latest entry, Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Introducing new mechanics, while adhering to the franchise's unique aesthetics and witty writing, Sticker Star takes the series into a new direction while retaining many of the aspects that fans have grown to love.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star kicks off at the annual Sticker Fest where Mario, Peach, and a ton of Toads have gathered to watch the Sticker Comet fly by. Similar to countless other festivities hosted by the Mushroom Kingdom’s Princess, Bowser shows up and ruins everything by crashing into the Sticker Comet, breaking it into six pieces. Mario tries to save the day, but is instead knocked out, allowing Bowser to escape, and take the Princess with him. Mario awakens to find the celebration completely trashed, and has to set out to save Peach, and piece together the comet which has been scattered throughout the Kingdom.
Fans of the previous games will have an immediate understanding of most of the aspects of Sticker Star’s gameplay – turn based battles, level-based missions, and challenging boss fights. However, there is one fundamental difference between this and all of the other Paper Mario games – stickers. Spread out all over the world in Sticker Star are a wide variety of tiny stickers that Mario can collect to use in combat or to solve puzzles. Once a battle is initiated, Mario will need to use items from his sticker collection to attack his foes – shoes indicate a jump attack, mallets make use of his hammer, and so on and so forth. Fortunately, all stickers are not created equal, and some can be used for varied and more powerful attacks – for example, a shiny hammer deals more damage than a worn out one. Additionally, there are other real-world items that can be found throughout the world, like fans, soda cans, and goats, that can be converted into stickers and used to solve stage-specific puzzles, and in battle to deal hefty damage. Basically, there would be no Sticker Star without the stickers.
The Paper Mario games have developed quite a reputation over the last few games, and it’s one that Sticker Star lives up to, for the most part. The amazing writing has always been a standout element of the Paper Mario games, and this one is no different. Whether Mario is chatting up a distressed Toad or a sleepy Wiggler, there’s always a few jokes dropped in here and there that will keep a smile on any fan’s face. Following in the same vein as the writing, the graphics are as colorful as ever, retaining their cartoony appearance, making Mario look more like he should be defending insults from Cartman than stomping goombas. Everything that Sticker Star would need to be considered a typical Paper Mario game is expertly executed - it’s the stuff that’s new that makes Sticker Star feel surprisingly different.
Sticker Star doesn’t break with tradition completely, but it does make some fundamental changes that separates itself from its predecessors. Sure, the last entry in the series, Super Paper Mario, tried some new things as well, but it wasn’t as drastic of a change from the original and The Thousand-Year Door as Sticker Star is. At it’s most basic level, the experience points system are gone, therein providing little to no incentive to engage in battles, making Sticker Star feel more like an action game than a role-playing one. However, it’s the battles themselves that are home to Sticker Star’s biggest diversion from the series.
Stickers. They’re everywhere in Sticker Star. But, why? Mostly because Mario needs them to defeat foes, and if he doesn’t have any stickers, one of video games’ most resourceful heroes is rendered useless. You see, stickers drive Mario’s ability to attack - whether it’s throwing a shell or a calling in scissors - stickers are the most important part of Sticker Star ... they’re also the most tedious part. As Mario walks around the different levels in the game he can pluck stickers off of walls, be rewarded with them for defeating enemies, and purchase them at various shops: obviously they’re readily available, which is good, because he’s going to need them.
For each attack of every battle Mario must choose a sticker to use - some enemies are more susceptible to certain attacks than others, and sometimes you just want to throw a bone at a koopa. You need tons of stickers, all the time, no matter what you’re doing - and this doesn’t even include the ones that you need to solve environmental puzzles. As you may guess, needing that many stickers can cause players to become obsessed with sticker collecting - if for no other reason than to make sure they have a healthy arsenal when they go into battle. All the collecting, coupled with the sticker management, and occasionally needing a specific sticker to advance in the game begins as fun, but quickly ventures into the tedious territory - especially when Mario starts being able to carry 100+ stickers. It’s an interesting mechanic, that causes players to think about each and every one of their moves, but once the novelty is gone, the game begins to be quite a grind.
In addition to the battle stickers, players will also need to solve puzzles using special stickers. As Mario explores the world of Sticker Star he’ll come across a variety of real world objects called “Things.” As he collects these Things, they can then be converted into stickers and placed at specific points in the game and interact with the environments. This is a great idea, but the execution falls a little flat. The puzzles end up being entirely too abstract to solve, and the ones that can be solved easily generally become challenging because you need a specific item which could be hidden anywhere in the world. This causes players to spend a good amount of your time just guessing throughout the levels trying to find anything to help them advance in the game.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star tries to go boldly off into a new direction for the franchise, moving away from the more story-based nature of the series, and changing up the gameplay to offer players a new experience. While it should be commended for the new mechanics and features that do work, not everything lands squarely on target. Having to manage your stickers effectively every time you make an attack, and solve abstract puzzles with little to no direction can make the game very frustrating, particularly for novice players. It's very easy to hit a wall in Sticker Star, and have no idea what to do next. It's instances like those that make people want to stop playing games. On the upside, having some really challenging scenarios, defeating a boss, or solving a puzzle that you've been stuck on for days, comes with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment – perhaps a little too much. If you are strong enough to work through the game's quirks, there is some fun to be found – especially in the writing and some of the other diversions found throughout the world. Sticker Star takes a little bit of getting used to, but if you're up for the challenge, and stick with it, you'll find it's yet another rewarding and endearing Paper Mario game.