Paper Mario Sticker Star is a watershed game for me. It marks the moment I’ve gone from feeling like a visitor to the new(ish) world of Nintendo 3DS gaming to a happy resident. It’s a charming, intelligent and at times beautiful place where I couldn’t help exploring every last crease and fold.
Anyone who has grown up with videogames knows that some of these experiences stay with you, standing out as high-water marks that later games have to meet. For me, this was Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo. Released in 1991, it was a magical world that invited exploration and delivered a hundred smile-inducing surprises in its richly populated lands. It strained under the weight of its alternative exits, hidden blocks, iconic enemies, power-ups, secret underworlds and interlinked map.
It was a game followed up by a variety of similar Mario experiences, with Yoshi’s Island getting very close to its heights. For me, though, nothing quite lived up to those expectations. This wasn’t helped by the move to 3-D with Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64. The added dimension created new possibilities for level design and new ways to play, but at the same time it left the increased spaces feeling sparse compared to my 2-D (ahem) plumb line.
New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS and New Super Mario Bros. 2 on 3DS took things back to two dimensions and got a lot closer to that classic game I was looking for. However, other distractions like the super-sized Mario and the more linear world maps didn’t match the experience of Super Mario World on the SNES. Super Mario 3D Land was another step closer. Not only did the 3-D screen grant the game more solidity but the smaller screen size packed in a denser world of things to discover. But again this was a linear set of disparate levels rather than a world to explore.
This brings me to my happy meeting with Paper Mario Sticker Star this month. Having read Z’s news of Sticker Star I was eager to give it a try, and was happily surprised. In a number of ways this is the first time I’ve been able to settle into a Mario game since that first SNES experience. Now, I’ll admit many of the building blocks of Paper Mario are similar to 3D Land or New Super Mario Bros. 2, albeit arranged into RPG rather than 3-D or 2-D platforming, but the glue that holds them together couldn’t be more different. In its musical backing, character and rich dense interconnected world to explore, Sticker Star returned me to the days of Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island.
Some of this is about swagger. Not the most objective of review criteria I know. However, there are moments of real class in Sticker Star that reminded me of the confidence of execution of classic Mario games. For instance, in a Sticker Star desert tomb you have to turn off the lights by bashing them so that in the dark you can see light streaming in through a secret crack in the wall. It made me smile in the same way as when I noticed the Super Mario World’s sound effects echoing underground on the SNES game.
Of course Paper Mario Sticker Star is a different genre than Super Mario World. It’s an RPG rather than a platformer, although one rich with running, jumping and exploring. This is punctuated by the battle encounters, in which you drop into a turn-based mode and choose different combination of sticker attacks to dispatch your foes. It’s a chance not only for some well-balanced game play but also to underline the deep catalog of characters from which Nintendo can draw on — again taking me back to my first encounter with them in Super Mario World.
Looking through developer Intelligent Systems’ back catalog — WarioWare Twisted, Advance Wars and Fire Emblem to name a few — it’s no surprise that there is such quality on offer here. More than a well-balanced challenge, the combat offers real depth as layers of tactics slowly emerge the more you play.
The slower pace of a role-playing game has also resulted in the sort of writing and characterization I associate more with Zelda than with Mario games. Your helper in the game reminded me a lot of a less mischievous Midna from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. There’s both a flair and a confidence to the communication here — although it’s a shame my children can’t always follow along as the time the text spends on the screen is a little short for young readers.
This hasn’t stopped them loving the game, though. In fact, as you can see in the video, it’s become something of a family obsession. We now have a downloaded version on my white 3DS XL and a cartridge version on theirs. Each one offers three save slots which is ample for us — although if my daughter had wanted to play, we would have run out of slots on a single game.
The exploratory nature of Paper Mario has meant they come running to tell me when they discover a new secret area or power-up — something they’ve not done since playing Super Mario World on the Wii’s Virtual Console. You see, the world is full of invisible blocks and sites for stickers that then open previously obscured exits. Some of this revolves around the game’s “Paperize,” mechanic that lets you convert the current scene to a drawing and then apply stickers to preset locations to unlock secrets.
Even my youngest, 5, is getting on pretty well. He really struggled with straight Mario platformers as he wasn’t able to react quickly enough to the different enemies. Because Sticker Star is turn-based, he can take his time choosing his sticker attacks.
This is all rounded off with some of the best Mario music I’ve heard since the orchestral heights of Mario Galaxy. Visually, the 2-D meets 3-D aspect of the world works perfectly and is pushed to its limits. Characters get crumpled and forlorn when they are low on health and the “Paperize” mechanic extends this from characterization to gameplay.
The main question mark over the game is the mismatch between the open sticker system, where you can experiment to your heart’s delight, and the preset sticker objects that have to be used in certain scenarios. It is, perhaps, a bit of a shame that the game play gets funneled through these points at particular moments. It feels like a necessary conceit to me though, and the flexibility of the other sticker attacks do more than enough to balance out this limitation.
My other quibble is a more unusual one. I had expected, this being a game about collecting stickers, that there would be some sort of real-world sticker book to augment the in-game kleptomania. I think it would have really added to my children’s enjoyment if there was some sort of sticker book along these lines.
“More merchandise”: It’s not often I say that.
After the more obscure game play of Super Paper Mario on Wii, and the sheer weight of dry prose in that game, I wasn’t expecting Sticker Star to float my family’s gaming boat, much less be a homecoming for my Super Mario World gaming desires.
As I approach the closing stages of the game it is fast becoming a firm favorite, even setting its own high water mark for other games to reach.
Paper Mario Sticker Star is $38.99 on Amazon.
[Disclosure: Nintendo provided Paper Mario Sticker Star for review.]