I loved the original Paper Mario. It came out in 2001 for the Nintendo 64, and I played it over and over. When I ran out of save files, I picked my least favorite playthrough to overwrite. My first playthrough remained preserved forever, and sometimes I replayed the final battle. Everything about it was fantastic–the RPG gameplay, the music, the memorable characters…
Even the somewhat simple story, which has Bowser kidnap Princess Peach and wreak havoc with the help of the Star Rod he stole from the seven Star Spirits, was great. If I’d understood the concept of fanfiction back then, I’d have written a Paper Mario fanfiction filled with adventure, combat, time travel, and cheesy romance. As it was, I kept it in my head. The world is grateful to me for that.
In 2004, the first sequel came out. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door had a stronger (and darker) plot, which stepped away from Mario conventions with the new hub city of Rogueport, which hides the Thousand-Year Door and the treasure it supposedly contains. It was just as amazing as the original, maybe even more so.
2007 saw the release of Super Paper Mario, and I missed it because I didn’t have a Wii. When I finally got a Wii, I played it. It was quite different from its predecessors, because it was more of an action RPG, or perhaps a platformer with RPG elements. Still, it had a great story and some truly memorable characters (especially the villains).
And then… in 2012… THIS happened.
When Paper Mario: Sticker Star was announced, I was interested. It was Paper Mario, after all. Then I saw people online talking about how this game would bring back partners (one of the series elements missed the most in Super Paper Mario), and I was excited. And when I learned about the sticker-based combat and puzzles during E3 2012, I was ecstatic. It sounded amazing. Then I saw an article about how Sticker Star wouldn’t have any new characters or an emphasis on plot… but I wasn’t too worried, because that couldn’t be what they meant.
Sticker Star doesn’t introduce any new characters to the Mario series except for a sticker companion named Kersti, who ranges from “mildly amusing” to “annoying and unhelpful.” It barely has a plot. And it does such a good job keeping its “plot” involved in the story that by the time I finished World 1, I couldn’t even remember if Peach had been kidnapped or not.
This game makes heavy use of the paper theme, with scissors as powerful weapons, stickers everywhere, NPCs blowing away in high winds, and so on, but it doesn’t deserve to be called Paper Mario. This is not a Paper Mario game, much like a certain un-funny “comedy” released in 2012 is not Dark Shadows no matter how many character names and vague plot similarities it throws around.
Both ripped the heart and soul out of their series in such a way that they left me with distrust for the people responsible–Tim Burton and Johnny Depp for not realizing the movie was completely devoid of what made the beloved TV show good, and Shigeru Miyamoto for deciding plot and characters weren’t important to PAPER MARIO and making the developers do this.
And you know what? Just like 2012’s Dark Shadows still would be a bad movie even if it had a different title, Sticker Star still is a bad game even without Paper Mario considerations.
Somehow, the only thing that made it out of the Super Paper Mario complaints and into the heads of the developers (or maybe just Mr. Miyamoto’s) was that fans missed the turn-based combat system. Sticker Star has turn-based combat. So…it’s an RPG, right? Right??
You know what battling gets you? Coins. There’s no experience. No leveling up. No abilities to learn, no partners to fight by your side, no stats to build except by finding HP upgrades, kind of like heart containers in The Legend of Zelda series. It’s less of an RPG than Super Paper Mario was.
Stickers are at the core of the game. You keep them in an album with limited space, and you use them up when you want to attack. One jump attack uses one jump sticker, one mushroom uses one mushroom sticker, and so on. Inventory management, right?
Nope, the game even failed me there. When I heard about it at that fateful E3, I imagined something akin to Resident Evil’s inventory management. (Yes, there was a time when I honestly believed Paper Mario: Sticker Star would fill my need for survival horror mechanics.) Limited inventory space, time spent deciding how many items you should take with you and how much free space you should leave–and items that take up different amounts of space, more like Kid Icarus: Uprising’s ability system than survival horror, but fun nonetheless.
Sticker Star managed to drain away all the strategy and leave a tedious mess in its place. You buy stickers at shops, pick them up from the environment, and even get some as drops after battles. They are plentiful. So are coins. And there’s no storage system, either. Everything was reduced to keeping powerful stickers, discarding/ignoring weak stickers, and occasionally sorting them to make room for a big sticker. As for the shapes, stickers generally came in three–square, big square, and really big square.
Among the biggest stickers were the Thing stickers. Things, or 3D objects, are hidden around the levels (which, by the way, you access from a world map like you’d see in 2D sidescrolling Mario games). If you find one, you can turn it into a sticker. Thing stickers tend to have powerful effects in battle and some are used to solve puzzles.
And that’s where this gameplay element fails.
Suppose you’re on your way to the next level, and you encounter an impassable obstacle. You go into stickerization mode and see a spot for a big sticker. Clearly a Thing is needed. If you already have it with you, great, just use it. If you don’t, but you already found it, you can either go back to its hiding place and pick it up again, or buy it from a shady Toad. And if you don’t have it…. well, you’d better search all the worlds, because the game isn’t going to give you any clues as to where it is, and it probably won’t be somewhere logical. And this is all assuming that you can use the context clues to figure out what Thing you even need. For example, what object would you use to stop a whirlwind?
I’m all for games that make you figure things out, but at least have puzzles that make sense! Sticker Star’s illogical puzzles just forced you to 1. use Google, or 2. waste your coins on space-consuming Thing stickers to lose one at a time as you try them. Yes, if you use an incorrect sticker in stickerization, you lose it.
It wasn’t all bad. There was a nice mansion chapter with logical puzzles and little hints of story. I’m not sure what it was doing in Sticker Star–maybe it was left over from the original design?
Now that we’ve gotten the gameplay out of the way, let’s go back to the characters. Kersti was awful. Unmemorable, unlikable, and unhelpful. She was supposed to provide hints, but every time I was stuck, her “hint” was more a vague comment about the general situations. “The climate here sure is bad for stickers.” No kidding, now where do I find the door?!
As for the other characters…
Well, there was Wiggler. He had a personality and almost a plot, even if that level was tedious and annoying. Then there were bosses who had enough personality to be thought of as Evil Generic Goomba Boss, Evil Generic Blooper Boss, Evil Generic…
Look, I’m not faulting them for using existing Mario species. The other games did that all the time, except they still made them characters. Remember the Koopa Bros.? They were Koopas, but they had enough personality to ensure they were never “just Koopas.” They were more memorable than the entire cast of Sticker Star.
So, how did they do with the actual named characters? Mario was a silent protagonist, as always. Peach had no role beyond being kidnapped. (I guess playing as her in the previous Paper Mario games added too much depth to the story to work in this game.) Bowser had no lines. Bowser Jr. showed up for a few boss battles. K–wait, wait, wait, what?
Let’s go back to Bowser for a minute. Bowser had no lines. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Like everything else about Sticker Star, the portrayal of Bowser went back to classic Mario games, even though it’s all but an unwritten rule that Mario RPGs give him character development. (But then, we’ve already established that Sticker Star isn’t an RPG, so why am I surprised?)
I have to bring back the Dark Shadows analogy. We’ve got a series villain who gets a surprising amount of character development, veers into villain protagonist and antihero territory whenever a greater threat rears its head, and may or may not be in love with one of the main characters.
Of course, that’s where the similarities end. The version of Angelique we saw in 2012 was a one-dimensional villain because the movie seemed to have a phobia of anything that would cause any ambiguity whatsoever. Sticker Star’s version of Bowser was a one-dimensional villain because the game had a phobia of plot and character development. And maybe I’m being too harsh with this comparison. After all, Lara Parker’s portrayal of Angelique was the original, while the more developed Bowser seen in the Mario RPGs came after his original portrayals.
But still… other characters had dialogue. One of the things that aggravates me the most is a story where the villain has very little presence. Bowser was supposed to be the villain of Sticker Star. I didn’t hate him. I didn’t like him. He was just there. Back to our character list, Kamek had more personality than the rest of the characters combined. When The Dragon is the only one with any character development in your story, something has gone terribly wrong.
So the characters were negligible, the plot was all but nonexistent, and for a game that ignored characters and plot to focus on gameplay, the gameplay was an absolute mess. Sticker Star has a certain charm when you start it, but once that charm wears off, it is horrible. The only good things I can say about Sticker Star are that the mansion level is nice, the music isn’t bad, and the descriptions of Things in the sticker museum are funny.
Is Paper Mario: Sticker Star worth playing? As far as I’m concerned, no.
You shouldn’t cringe when someone mentions the name of your favorite series. But just like I add a “the original show from the 60s, not the new movie” whenever I mention Dark Shadows, I now add an “except for Sticker Star” when I praise Paper Mario. Maybe 2012 was just a weird year. Maybe the next Paper Mario will go back to its roots.
But the next time one is announced, I’ll eye it with the suspicion that it will end up like Sticker Star, a Paper Mario game in name only.---
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