Saturday, November 24, 2012

Review: "Paper Mario Sticker Star"

The Paper Mario RPG series has long served as one of Nintendo's quirkiest Mario offshoots.  The original Paper Mario for the N64 pioneered the bizarre world of paper cutout characters living in a pop-up Mushroom Kingdom.  Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door for the GameCube refined the formula in every way and produced one of the finest games in the entire Mario franchise.  Super Paper Mario for the Wii downplayed the RPG elements but kicked up the story a notch, providing an experience that dragged on a bit but was still highly enjoyable.

Now the Paper Mario series has come to a handheld console for the first time in the form of Paper Mario Sticker Star for the 3DS.  In many ways it is a return to form for the series, as many of the conventions discarded in Super Paper Mario make their return in Sticker Star.  The gameplay has returned to the 3D diorama design instead of the side-scrolling levels presented in the previous game.  Turn based battles are back.  And many of the level gimmicks and concepts from the first two games make a return in this installment.  If you enjoyed the first two Paper Mario games, you'll feel right at home exploring Sticker Star's world.

However, in many ways Sticker Star is also just as much a departure from the first two games as Super Paper Mario was.  The ways in which it shakes up the formula just aren't quite as obvious at first.  The most significant change is the introduction of stickers.  Stickers do everything now.  Every attack in battle now requires having a certain sticker in order to perform it, even basic actions like jumping and using the hammer.  Stickers are also used extensively outside of battle for puzzle solving and various other tasks too.  Fortunately, stickers are all over the place.  They're littered about the world, stuck on walls, inside boxes, and you'll even sporadically run into shops that sell various kinds of stickers too.  Even though your album holds a finite amount of stickers, you aren't likely to ever run out.  The trick is ensuring you have the right types of stickers on you for whatever situation you're facing, and that's were the depth and strategy of Sticker Star really lies.

In addition to regular stickers, you will often have to make use of "thing" stickers.  These stickers are acquired by finding various mundane items hidden around the world such as scissors, a cell phone, or a refrigerator.  These boring things can then be transformed into special thing stickers that often have devastating effects in battle.  There's a lot of fun to be found in discovering how such uninteresting stuff can significantly impact a world made out of paper and cardboard.

Things are also used for solving a handful of puzzles throughout the game.  The solutions to these puzzles aren't always made very clear and may often require some serious backtracking if you missed the thing you need.  However, when solved the solutions to these puzzles are almost always inventive and clever, making it worth the head scratching that is sometimes required to deduce the answer to a puzzle.  Sticker Star is usually pretty good about providing multiple paths to explore at any given time, so if you do hit a brick wall in one direction there's usually something else to do while trying to solve the puzzle at hand.

Mario no longer levels up or gets stronger by battling.  Your strength only increases by finding more powerful and rarer stickers as well as the occasional health power up scattered about the world.  As such, battling can sometimes feel a little pointless and tedious since it isn't strictly required for getting stronger and progressing through the game.  Fortunately the game doesn't really punish you for avoiding enemies if you choose to do so.  Your reward for winning battles is typically coins, which are primarily used to buy more stickers.  If you skip battles, you won't get many coins, but you really only need coins to help better equip yourself for more battles.  So you only have to battle as much as you want to with no real negative consequences for avoiding enemies.  It's an odd set-up for an RPG, but it's reasonably well balanced.

Unfortunately it would seem that even the world of Paper Mario could not escape the plague of "New-Super-Mario-itis" that has been infecting all recent Mario games.  The wildly inventive locations and characters of past games are out.  In their place are those same generic worlds we've seen over and over again in the New Super series.  That same grassland, those same mountains, that same desert, that same poisonous forest.  You've seen it all before.  Many many times.

The entire cast, bosses included, is also made up of characters from previous games.  Specifically, the New Super Mario Bros series.  Many enemies frequently seen in the previous Paper Mario games are gone and any recurring characters from the series are out too.  The only new character to be seen is Kersti, Mario's traveling companion.  And other than a very subtle and easily missed nod to one character from Thousand Year Door, this game shares no continuity with the previous games.

Worst of all, for some inexplicable reason, Bowser does not utter a single line of dialogue in the entire game.  He's completely mute.  In the previous games, Bowser has always dependably been the source of the best dialogue and the biggest laughs in the series, but in this game he's just the final boss and nothing else.  His personality has been almost completely stripped away in Sticker Star.  It's a baffling and incredibly disappointing creative decision.

Fortunately, it's not all bad news.  The writers apparently didn't get the memo that this game was supposed to be bland because, even though the story is extremely basic and almost non-existent at times, the game is still packed full of the same brand of humor that the series is known for.  Even though most of the characters you'll run into are generic Toads, they are positively exploding with personality.  Throughout the entire adventure you'll be constantly encountering bizarre and hilarious situations, just like the previous games.

A great deal of comedy is derived from the increased emphasis that this is a world made of paper.  You'll find characters folded up, crumpled, and even stacked together, all to hilarious effect.  The writers even figured out how to make Bowser Jr. and Birdo, both making their Paper Mario series debut, funny and entertaining.  Given how irritating both of those characters tend to be, that's quite the accomplishment.  Sticker Star still delivers its fair share of laughs.  It's just a shame none of them come from Bowser this time.

Similarly, the level designers do their best to provide the most interesting renditions of these stale old level themes possible.  Almost the entire world is made out of cardboard this time around, and Sticker Star makes the most of this premise wherever possible.  Entire set-pieces can be knocked over like dominoes.  Dangerous puddles of poison can be flipped over to reveal that they too are harmless cardboard on the backside.  Using Kersti's powers, it's even possible to peel off entire sections of levels and move them around.

A large potion of the levels rely mostly on basic Mario platforming, but just when it seems like things are getting stale, Sticker Star will throw something completely unexpected at you, like a game show level or a crazy river raft ride.  Sticker Star's world is split up into levels accessed from a Super Mario World-style map screen.  But this mostly just aids in speeding up travel from world to world and does not decrease the scope of the game in the slightest.  Even if you're really booking it, this is a 15+ hour adventure.  The worlds are now split up into smaller levels, but there's just as much to see as what was offered in the previous games.

The Paper Mario games have also always been known for their music and Sticker Star doesn't disappoint in that department.  The signature off-beat sound of the previous games is still present, but this time around the soundtrack tends to favor jazz music, incorporating lots of horns.  It's a great evolution of the sound of the series, and most of the tracks are a joy to listen to.  Sticker Star also cleverly works in a few themes from other Mario games, sometimes subtly and sometimes less so.  Overall, Sticker Star definitely boasts one of the strongest Mario series soundtracks in recent years.

So, in the end, Sticker Star does have a lot of faults.  But it manages to retain enough of the charm and inventiveness of the previous Paper Mario games to overcome its shortcomings.  The game is much more conventional in terms of characters and locations and the story is paper-thin, but the surreal humor and creativity of the previous Paper Mario games still manages to shine through.  It may not live up to the perfection of Thousand Year Door, but it comes far closer than I expected.  Even with its flaws, Paper Mario Sticker Star is still a must-play for 3DS owners.

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