Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a very good game. The sticker battle mechanics take a minute to wrap your head around but then are great, requiring a lot of rhythmic skill to master. The story, characters, and world contain a level of charm and tongue-in-cheek humor simply not found in 99% of all other games. And the shiny stuff, secrets, and collectibles pushed every one of my magic buttons that keeps me playing a game. In fact, I haven’t been this completely into a game since Skyrim. And on a handheld with PaRappa-style graphics? That’s incredible.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star also has its flaws. I read an interview with the creators last week where they talked about how they did everything they could to make the game perfectly suited for the platform it was appearing on – in this case the 3DS. They separated the game into individual worlds so it was easy to put down and then pick up again later. However, many of the levels just feel way too long. Like, upwards of 30 minutes between save points. On a handheld.
Luckily, except for the occasional boss fight where you run out of stickers, you’ll probably never die. The game was designed in a way that ensures you’ll always win against the random obstacles you come up against, except when you slam right into a wall you can’t get past without running to GameFAQs for the solution. These walls are always in the form of, “What sticker do I use in this situation?” and the answer is usually, “Something obtuse, like in an old adventure game.” Not Cool. Plus, I’ve already written about how there is no “leveling up” in the traditional sense, either, which was incredibly off-putting and gives you no real reason to fight random battles besides the fact that they earn you coins and, hey, they’re kind of fun.
Let me explain the sticker mechanics a little bit. You’ll find stickers stuck all over the world. You peel them off walls and floors then stick them in your ever-increasing album. Boot stickers let you do a jump attack, hammers let you attack with your hammer, etc. One sticker = one use, and you’ll need to find bigger and better stickers to take on the bigger and badder enemies. There are also plenty of “Things” hidden throughout the world. Things are objects like scissors, an air conditioner, and a goat – they turn into stickers that help you solve environmental puzzles or just do a lot of damage in battle. The problem is finding the exact sticker you need in a particular situation.
This is a big problem, and likely understated.
See, each boss has a particular sticker or two that does mega damage. Some make sense (use the big fishhook on the big fish!), but most don’t (baseball bats work on giant Pokeys! … for some reason). And the stickers you stick into the world to open paths are similarly obtuse. Like “Use the magnet to steal the imp’s boots” in Discworld 2 obtuse. If the bosses gave me any indication of what sticker I needed before battling them, I wouldn’t be as mad. The first time you fight Bowser Jr., it gives you the sticker you should use against him right before the battle. Now, I don’t need it to always be that obvious, but at least, I don’t know… use elemental weaknesses. Water attacks to battle fire baddies, wind to take down airborne enemies, stuff like that. (That’s how it works against Fire Brothers, but most enemies don’t have an obvious element.) And don’t make me see the Game Over screen before I learn what sticker I should have brought to the battle, like I should have just intuitively known what a particular boss would be weak against. Don’t force me to trek alllllll the way back to town then alllllll the way back to the end of the final level of the world to take on the boss again once better-equipped. It’s just unintuitive and unnecessarily frustrating.
The thing is, though: even with these complaints, Sticker Star is one of the finest games on the 3DS. What we’ve got here is a super-lite RPG with some of the most charming characters in the world: the Toads. They’re always getting into trouble and they’re constantly frazzled and neurotic to the core. It’s kind of like hanging out with a lot of really tiny, stereotypical old Jewish men. And I love it. You’d be surprised how easy it is to overlook some basic flaws like the non-necessity of battle when the world you inhabit is just so friendly, warm, and inviting.
Also, just because the battles aren’t necessary doesn’t mean they aren’t incredibly engaging. Sticker Star has classic-style, turn-based RPG encounters, but with one little caveat: you have to hit the A button in time with your attacks, or you’ll only do about half the damage you could otherwise. You can block enemy attacks with good timing as well, although you’ll still take half the damage. It’s very Legend of Dragoon, and it’s the same kind of battle system employed by the first two (and best) Paper Mario games. It’s not nearly as good or in-depth as the battles in GameCube’s Thousand-Year Door, which included dodging, counterattacks, and “flashy” moves (in fact, you could finish the entire game without being attacked once if you were good enough), but it’ll do.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star also has that special something going for it – that intangible “feeling” that sucks you into this imaginary digital world and never lets go until it’s over. I felt compelled to collect one of every sticker so I could hang them on the walls in the museum. I needed to open every secret door. I searched high and low for all the Things, and around every corner plucked up a hidden Luigi. I stomped Goombas, took levels out of order, and jumped on the same enemy 100 times in a row, feeling awesome the whole time. The game is nearly 30 hours long and I had it wrapped up within a week, even when factoring in a full-time job and a trip to Disneyland.
Sure, Sticker Star has a few ugly flaws. But it’s amazing what you can overlook when your game has a great personality.
4 Gumballs out of 5