To this day, I’m really not sure who at Nintendo came up with the idea to take the Mushroom Kingdom and all its inhabitants and turn them into two-dimensional paper characters, but somehow it’s worked. Yes, it’s another Mario offshoot, but it’s always been a unique one, with RPG elements, a lovely sense of humour, and interesting gameplay mechanics. Then there was the underrated Super Paper Mario for the Wii, which was one of my favourite single-player games on the console. The series returns to its roots a bit with Paper Mario: Sticker Star, a fun little romp that almost gets a little too cute with the exploration at times.
For the uninitiated, this isn’t your typical Mario game. Paper Mario: Sticker Star borrows elements from a few genres, mixing in platforming, turn-based battling, timing, and sometimes good old fashioned luck to create a hybrid platforming RPG. As you navigate a level, touching an enemy triggers a battle sequence with that enemy, and usually one or two of their friends. You can get an early advantage by taking the initiative and jumping on them or smashing them with Mario’s hammer, which will take a few hit points away before you start. In battle, your moves depend entirely on whatever stickers you have in your collection. Those with a hoarding compulsion are either going to freak out or will have to change their ways quick because once used in battle, a sticker is gone forever. You don’t typically have the luxury of holding on to precious stickers as you engage in battles with enemies. Fortunately, stickers are all over the place so replenishing shouldn’t be a major issue, and you can always buy them at various shops dotting the landscape.
Oh, and it wouldn’t be a Mario game if gold coins weren’t flying around everywhere too. But in Sticker Star they serve an important purpose, acting as the game’s currency. Coins let you buy key stickers, bribe certain enemies to not fight (I never tested how well they kept their word because I was heck-bent on fighting them), and give you a chance to gain certain advantages in battles using a slot machine. Luckily, coins are given out pretty much like candy. Maybe not quite on the level of New Super Mario Bros. 2, but still enough that money should be easy to manage.
Sticker Star puts a rather heavy emphasis on exploration. One might see the traditional numbering of worlds (1-1, 2-1, 2-2, etc.) and think they are in for a nice, linear romp through a paperized Mushroom Kingdom. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re in the wrong place and should check out the solid New Super Mario Bros. 2 or superb Super Mario 3D Land. You’ll be tempted to run through the levels in order, but will get stymied fairly soon once you start. If you haven’t found the exact sticker(s) needed to progress further in a level, then it’s Backtrack City for you as you’ll need to go back and traverse past levels and look for secret areas that you missed. Or even better, you may have to wait to find what you need in a later level and come back. Paper Mario: Sticker Star wants you to play levels multiple times. Whether it’s through what I already mentioned above or the multiple goals in a number of levels, you’re best served looking in every nook and cranny, including the ones you seemingly can’t get to. It adds a nice replay value, even if it feels like false replay at times.
It’s also a weakness of the game at times though. When so much of your progress is dependent on finding some obscure item in a hard to reach area, you run the risk of stranding the player. A number of times I found myself forced to go elsewhere or start running through levels I’d already played because I simply could not progress any further, only to find the item I needed in some hidden area. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game do this to the extent Sticker Star does. That backtracking could get frustrating to some people, including kids with shorter attention spans. And that would be a shame, because the content in the game is ridiculously good.
Paper Mario games have always had a bit of a whimsical nature to them. The paper look is charming. The dialog is funny and pretty much never takes itself too seriously. There’s little paper Toads running around all over the place, for goodness sake. Little paper Toads for me to crush with my hammer over and over again, much to the delight of me and the boys. Don’t worry, they bounce right back like nothing ever happened. The music is top notch and the 3D is more than just aesthetically pleasing. Like in Super Mario 3D Land, I found that it helped with navigation since the game takes place in a 3D-ish plane. In fact, I was sad when I had to turn the 3D off while the boys watched me play over my shoulder because it looked so good. Problem there was that the game’s charm just sucked them in.
Younger kids are going to be overwhelmed by the game, but it does so more with sheer volume than intimidation. It puts itself out there, and steadfastly refuses to hold your hand. That, plus you’re going to need really good recall memory to remember some of things you need to revisit. There’s also a lot of reading required to understand what’s going on. But if you can get through that, I loved how much strategy goes into a game like this. When to fight, when to run, what stickers to use, what stickers to save, it requires a lot thinking, which is always a good thing. Content isn’t too much of an issue, as the level of violence is akin to your typical Mario game, and it’s all paper-on-paper violence so hopefully that’s not an issue for you.
The GamerPops Recommendation
There’s a lot to like about Paper Mario: Sticker Star. It’s charming. The gameplay is different, but enjoyable. The presentation is outstanding, as always. That’s why it’s disappointing that it feels held back at times by its design. Yes, it’ll feel a bit like a grind at times, but for the most part it’s a fun grind. In fact, if it weren’t for the overemphasis on finding obscure items to progress the main storyline, I’d give it an Editor’s Choice. Even so, it’s something different, yet familiar at the same time, and if you can look past the navigation, you’ll find something that does more than just look good on paper.
A review copy was provided to GamerPops.
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ESRB Rating Summary
Content descriptors: Mild Cartoon Violence
Rating summary: This is an action-adventure game with role-playing elements in which players control paper-models of characters from the Super Mario universe. Players run and jump through levels, solve environmental puzzles, and engage in brief turn-based battles with paper-model enemies (e.g., enemies that look like turtles, penguins, floating squid, etc.); damage is typically indicated by depleting health meters and “cartoony” impact effects. Some attack animations depict characters getting struck by fireballs or bonked on the head with hammers.