Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a scary game for the average Paper Mario fan. Coming off of the divisive Super Paper Mario, it is almost hard to believe that Intelligent Systems would once again stray so far from what made The Thousand Year Door one of my (and many others) favorite Nintendo games of all time. Well, I just beat Sticker Star, and I have a stunning revelation: They made it work.
While Super Paper Mario is as much of a platformer as it is an RPG, Sticker Star returns to the turn-based battling format. However, that’s about as deep as the similarities to the old Paper Mario games go. Thanks to the destruction of the Sticker Comet, stickers are now littered throughout the world. Instead of using jump and hammer commands, you now carry out every single attack through stickers. While this may be troubling to some who enjoyed Flower Points and all of the special moves of the old games, the resource management twist works. It makes battles a bit more interesting, and the moves are way more interesting than they ever were before. There are several different rarities of stickers in-game, and depending on whether its Flashy, Shiny, or regular will determine how strong the move is. More importantly, there are more moves than ever before, and they all look great (especially when you pull off the returning Action Commands). Look forward to a fan that blows enemies away, a jumping move that allows Mario to jump an infinite amount of times, and a hammer that puts enemies to sleep.
The story is more of a formality than anything in Sticker Star. The story follows Mario and Peach at a festival where wishing upon a special Sticker Comet grants the wish of every attendant. However, Bowser crashes the party and breaks the star into six pieces, which Mario and his new sticker pal Kersti must reclaim from around the continent. Instead of past games that gradually drip the story like a traditional RPG, the entirety of the story takes place before reclaiming the six pieces and after.
The game is further streamlined by making you traverse the area through a world map, with a hub town and six worlds featuring around five levels each (though some are more and some less). The levels take about 20 minutes each, and completing a world will usually require coming back to earlier levels a few times, but there is still as much room for exploration as ever.
An even larger change to the styling of Paper Mario is the way the game plays. No longer will you find yourself fighting hordes of enemies before solving an occasional easy puzzle and getting a cutscene; in Sticker Star, the puzzles are the main part of the game. Usually solved through finding a special sticker or helping an NPC, puzzle solving is responsible for game progression and health increases. Though this is very different, the puzzles are definitely challenging, and bring back a great feeling of old Zelda games while retaining the Paper Mario personality. Usually, to solve a puzzle, a special sticker needs to be found that must be applied to a special place (through Stickerization Mode). Unfortunately, finding the right object can sometimes be a chore, as your sticker sidekick Kersti gives poor hints, and even when the solution is obvious, finding the actual sticker can be the result of exploring every nook-and-cranny until you get lucky. In other words, expect a little bit of frustration at parts.
What the importance of puzzles means, however, is that there are no longer experience points. Enemies give away coins that have some limited uses (mostly item purchasing and spinning an in-battle wheel that can increase the attack count during each turn) and the occasional sticker, but fighting enemies is no longer crucial to the game. Because they are so fun to fight (and more so because a healthy surplus of coins makes the game much more manageable), you will find yourself in battle almost as often as in previous games.
One of my favorite new things is the new “Things” mechanic. Throughout the game, Mario will come across many “real-life” 3D objects that are called Things. After turning them into stickers in Decalburg, the hub world, Mario will use them to both solve puzzles and in-battle. In combat, Thing stickers act as the game’s super moves. Their power is unaffected by almost all resistances and defenses, and do special things no other sticker can. The Goat sticker forms a goat’s head that chews up all the enemies in the field; the Faucet sticker floods the battle (and enemies) with water; The Fan sticker is a fan that creates a twister that blows away enemies and does serious damage.
Most of the many bosses (including major bosses, sub-bosses, and some appearances from Kamek and Bowser Jr.) are a combination between traditional Paper Mario bosses and the puzzles themselves. To beat a good chunk of these bosses, a specific sticker is required to do any kind of dent. These are fun, but can be frustrating when Kersti will only offer hints after losing once, and when the proper sticker is rarely obvious, you can expect to lose at least once to just about every single boss.
As a Paper Mario game, having great presentation and writing is absolutely key to the experience, and Sticker Star delivers. In addition to looking great and feeling like a Paper Mario game, the entire paper craft aesthetic has been perfected. Rather than having a charming-yet-flat art style, the entire world in Sticker Star looks like it’s made up of paper and cardboard. This makes it not only the best-looking 3DS game in my eyes, but also the prettiest Paper Mario game. The 3D, though not key to the gameplay, also gives the game a great diorama look to it. Though the story is almost secondary, the jokes are as sharp as ever, and Paper Mario continues the series trend of being, in my eyes, the funniest Mario RPGs. Perhaps best of all, though, is the music. Whether it be with electric guitar or an old jazz horn, the entire soundtrack sounds crisp and magical alongside the rest of the game.
Despite some frustrations (and the sad absence of partners and badges), Paper Mario: Sticker Star is one of the best games on 3DS. It’s lengthy, it’s challenging, and it’s a big experience that all handheld games should strive for.