Since its debut on Nintendo 64, the Paper Mario series has been rock solid. Cut to now, and Paper Mario: Sticker Star continues the series’ greatness. (Spot the rock-paper-scissors joke for bonus points!) Fantastic level design, classic Mario humor, and great gameplay mechanics come together for a strong 3DS title and at this point, frankly, handheld game of the year.
Continuing Nintendo’s pattern of “make the game then create some sort of story that basically does the job,” Paper Mario: Sticker Star opens with the tongue-in-cheek Sticker Festival. The wish-granting Sticker Comet is present, and Bowser decides that tackling the thing is in his best interest. This releases the Royal Stickers into the world, and it also frees Kersti (a near-anagram of “sticker,” because that’s how these things work), the caretaker of said stickers. With Kersti “sticking” by his side (heh…), Mario sets off to recover the Royal Stickers and take Bowser down.
Thus begins Mario’s journey in Paper Mario: Sticker Star. What awaits him is a world composed of rolled and plastered paper, giving the game an equally adorable and artsy look of being hand-drawn. You’ll meet the typical Mario cast along the way. Bowser Jr., Blooper, Wiggler and many more can be found here, and they are all introduced with a Borderlands-style freeze-frame title card.
The world of Paper Mario: Sticker Star is its greatest strength. Honestly, if the levels here had been the levels in Super Mario 3D Land, the latter would have been perfect. The nearly 40 levels in the game’s six zones will take you through rolling hills, dry deserts, poisoned swamps, haunted mansions, lush jungles, and fiery volcanoes…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (there are totally ice levels here too, by the way). Within these levels is absolutely fantastic platforming; again, this is what 3D Land should have been. Unfortunately, the papery look to Paper Mario: Sticker Star makes some of the platforming difficult, as the artwork makes it hard to tell exactly where platforms are or where Mario will land. Still, when balanced against the sheer interactivity of the levels, this isn’t so bad. You’ll be spending so much time finding secret paths in levels or simply exploring to realize any platforming issues. It’s not even fair to call these “levels,” as they rival Super Mario 64 in scale. You get it, right? The stages in Paper Mario: Sticker Star are good.
Of course, platforming has been a staple of this series forever. What’s new in Paper Mario: Sticker Star is the sticker mechanic: stickers influence everything you do, from objectives to exploration to battling. You can buy them from the store or display them in the Sticker Museum, but you’ll mostly find them stuck all over the environment. You can peel boots, hammers, mushrooms, and the like off of nearly everything, and they’ll go into your journal. You can also peel away caution tape to free parts of the stage, opening up secret areas or changing the level’s design altogether. One level actually tumbles like dominoes to open up a new section.
You’ll be using most of your stickers for battle, another strong part of Paper Mario: Sticker Star, where you’ll take down the expected Goombas, Piranha Plants, Hammer Bros, and other Mario baddies. Stickers fall into the usual Mario tropes of jumping, hammering, throwing fireballs, and so on. You’ll find different versions of each, from jump attacks that let you hit all enemies or damage those with spiked heads, to hammers that put enemies to sleep or damage others nearby. You also have the ability to use Battle Slots, a slot machine labeled with mushrooms, coins, and the like. Match two symbols, and you get to attack twice. Match all three, and you’ll get to attack thrice and net yourself a bonus, which can be a jackpot of coins or a free health restoration. This is the only way to chain multiple stickers together. Some stickers allow for a few hits per use, but using Battle Slots is the only way to stack different attacks.
Oh, and all those aspects of battling? Paper Mario: Sticker Star barely explains any of them. Timing a press of the A button with certain attacks will do additional damage or allow for multiple hits, a must-know mechanic for success in battle, and we discovered it by pure accident. Poor explanation is the biggest detriment to the game’s battles, but it’s not the only issue. Enemies must be taken down one at a time, and you cannot select which enemy to attack. That Spike in the back who keeps chucking spike balls at you? You’ll have to take down those four Goombas before you can get to him unless you use some special sticker. Not only that, but enemy health is added together and displayed as one meter, leaving it up to you to figure which enemy actually has the most health. You could waste a heavy-hitting attack on a weak enemy because you thought the health was mostly his. In the case of boss fights (which are actually decently creative and fun), one health bar is sufficient, but it’s an issue otherwise.
Stickers are kept in the Sticker Journal, but that’s not all that goes in there. You’ll also find scraps and “things” (yes, that’s really what they’re called). Scraps are parts of the level you can rip off and take with you. Sometimes you’ll need to swap a blank wall for a door, and sometimes you’ll need to move a switch into a position you can reach; it’s a nifty mechanic. Things are real-world objects that just don’t fit into the world. You’ll find batteries, fans, vacuums, and all manner of random objects. These can be turned into rare stickers, which function as summons or high-level spells in battle. Outside of combat, they can be used to solve puzzles. The windmill isn’t working? Put a fan next to it to get the blades going. Unfortunately, not all puzzles are as simple as this. We wasted time and in-game money attempting to solve quite a few of the puzzles in Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Often the solution that makes the most sense is not the correct choice. Be prepared for some frustrating trial and error.
Aside from placing stickers, Paper Mario: Sticker Star puts two other tools at your disposal. You’ll be using the hammer most of the time, smacking around parts of the level to reveal hidden passages or send objects into motion. Your other ability (or rather, Kersti’s ability) is “paperizing.” When used, the level becomes a completely flat photograph of the current area. From here, you can place stickers to solve puzzles or reveal secrets. Often, the ability is handy for getting a different view of the level, so it’s a nice touch.
One thing that needs to be mentioned is the absence of RPG elements. Battle is turn-based, and you can contract all manner of status elements, from being crumpled, stapled, or clipped (all are just paper versions of paralysis) to typical poisoning. Yet that’s where the RPG influence stops. There is no leveling, no enemy scaling, and no stats to care about. The only extendable stat is Mario’s health, and that is boosted by finding special “plus five” hearts in certain levels. Paper Mario: Sticker Star should have been more RPG-heavy, but it traded depth for accessibility…and even then, most features are poorly explained.
All in all, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a rock-solid game. Cut out the poor explanations and a few puzzles, and you’ll have a fantastic time. (Spot the second rock-paper-scissors joke for more points!) The level design is brilliant, and the characters you’ll meet will bring a smile to your face. Sticking things all over the environment is a great mechanic, and it’s only one of many features the game offers. If you own a 3DS, this is a game you’ll enjoy. Period. Take a bit of Super Mario 64, a pinch of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, and a heaping portion Super Mario 3D Land, and you’ll have the recipe for Paper Mario: Sticker Star.