Paper Mario: Sticker Star

"When I realized how wide-reaching Sticker Star's puzzle aspect is, it changed how I played the game and I started having a lot more fun."

My first Paper Mario game was Thousand Year Door, on the Gamecube. I loved that game – even gave it an Editor's Choice award in my review. Then, Super Paper Mario came out, and although it was a good game, I was saddened by how far it moved away from the RPG formula. So when I heard there would be a new game in the series on 3DS, I was both excited and nervous. As time passed and more details were released about Sticker Star, it looked like a mix between the two: sort of RPG, sort of not. I ended up feeling cautiously optimistic, and, despite my fears, I think things turned out pretty well for Paper Mario. Let me tell you why.

There's only one way to describe Sticker Star's story: paper thin. (Ha. Ha.) Apparently, once a year, a sticker comet comes around, and everyone in Decalburg has a big sticker festival. Mario and Peach always come to the festival, and this year, Bowser has decided to make a surprise appearance, because he's learned that the comet has the power to grant wishes. He grabs the comet, grabs Peach, and all heck breaks loose. There are stickers everywhere, the town has been rolled up into a giant paper burrito, and it's time for Mario to put on his "saving the day" boots and get to work. That's the opening scene, and it's essentially the entire story. There are some fun characters to meet along the way, and little cutscenes after each boss battle pay lip service to the idea of story, but that's all.

I can look past a paper thin story, though, if the gameplay is good. And, although it's not quite the same as Thousand Year Door, the gameplay in Sticker Star is quite good all the same. The game uses a map similar to those found in games like Super Mario Bros 3 from the NES or Tactics Ogre on PSP, with paths that lead between the levels wherein you actually play the game. The levels are organized into six "worlds," and as you conquer each level, paths open up to other levels. A few levels actually have multiple end points, and reaching a different one unlocks an additional path from that level to another. Some of these additional paths are optional, but more of them aren't. This might sound negative, but I was rarely upset by the need to go back and find a new way through a level because doing so usually involved solving a clever puzzle that I hadn't noticed before or getting to a place in the level that I had noticed, but skipped the first time around.

As you move through these levels, you find stickers stuck to walls as well as inside the Mario series' classic question mark blocks. Each sticker you acquire goes into your album, later to be used in battle or to solve a puzzle. Like many stickers in real life, each can only be used once. This is initially a scary thought because "what if you get into battle and run out of stickers?" The thing is, that never happened to me. I only came close twice: once in a boss battle where I did things all wrong and once in the final battle, where I discovered that I had made some poor choices in my sticker selection. The supply of stickers is plentiful, and there are stores where you can buy more if you do somehow get low. In addition, any time you leave a level, its stickers are reset, so you can find places to "farm" stickers if you're looking for something specific. The album only has so many pages, however, so rather than running out of attacks, my problem was running out of space and having to throw out some boring stickers so I could keep a cool new one.

Part of my "running out of space" issue came from the fact that I often avoided battle when I could. Sticker Star lacks an experience point system, which has the sad effect of making battles feel somewhat unimportant. They earn you coins, and fighting certain enemies gets you stickers that you can't get any other way, but it's hard to see the point in stomping another standard Goomba when you've got plenty of cash.

There's no avoiding every battle, though, so it's a good thing that the battle system works pretty well. Fights are turn-based, and on each turn, you can use one sticker from your album. The stickers include Mario's classic weapons (boots and hammer), but there are quite a few variations on those attacks, as well as a number of other series favorites like fire flowers and shells. There are also defensive items like mushrooms to restore HP and a Tanooki tail that lets you knock enemy attacks right back at them. And if one sticker per turn isn't enough, you can spend a few coins to spin a slot machine for a chance to attack two or three times in a turn. And, as was the case in Thousand Year Door, when you attack, if you press the A button at the right time, you do extra damage.

I only have two complaints with the battle system. First, the game never describes the aforementioned timing in the form of a tutorial. If you played Thousand Year Door, you might remember when to hit the A button during a hammer attack, but if you don't, you'll probably waste a few hammers on trial and error. Second, enemies are treated like a group in battle. You can only attack the first one in line, and there's just one HP bar for all of them, so you can't tell if that first guy has one HP left or ten. These aren't massive problems, but they are annoying.

As you move through levels, you sometimes encounter "things" that don't appear to be made of paper. If you pick them up, you can turn them into powerful stickers that do serious damage to any foe, even a boss. In fact, using the right kind of "thing" at the right time in a boss battle generally makes the difference between an easy fight and one you'll have a tough time surviving. For example, shortly before the first world's boss, I was given a pair of scissors. "Great," I thought, "I'll use these on my first turn and get this started off right." They did some nice damage, and I proceeded with the battle. Several turns later, the boss used an attack that left him vulnerable, and the game said, "If you've got something that could cut this guy, now would be a great time to use it." Argh. I kept going and beat him, although it took most of my stickers to do it. So I reloaded the game and waited until the proper time to use my scissors. This time, they did a huge amount of damage, and the boss went down in just a few turns.

That first world boss was the point when I picked up on the fact that Sticker Star is all about puzzles. "What's the best sticker for this boss battle, and when should I use it" is just another puzzle. Outside battle, most puzzles revolve around your ability to "paperize" the world. Hitting the Y button paperizes things, pulling Mario out of the game world and turning what you can see into a flat sheet of paper. Sometimes, this reveals that a piece of the environment can be pulled off and moved elsewhere. Other times, it reveals a spot where you should stick something. For example, on the dock area next to town, there's a warehouse with its front door rotated 90 degrees. Hit Y, and you'll see that you can peel that section off of the building. When you do so, it flips right-side up, and you can put it back and go through the door. In another early level, there's a windmill with its door blocked by its blades. Hit Y, and you see a big spot next to the windmill where you can stick something – the obvious choice being the fan "thing" you picked up a level or two back.

When I realized how wide-reaching Sticker Star's puzzle aspect is, it changed how I played the game and I started having a lot more fun. I went back to town and figured out how to unlock the sticker museum, where you can try to collect one of every sticker and "thing" in the game. I had better luck finding the alternate paths through levels. And because of that, I started finding more "things" and HP Up hearts. Since the game doesn't have XP, solving puzzles is your main way to improve Mario. Some of the puzzles are sort of extended side quests, such as a Toad who can be found in each world getting bullied by the local baddies. Find your way to him and rescue him all five times, and more HP is yours.

Enough gameplay – you didn't come here to read the game's manual. Let's move on to graphics, so I can tell you that Sticker Star is a really good-looking game. The characters are crisp and clear, the environments are varied, and they all maintain the game's aesthetic. Even the HP bars look like pieces of corrugated cardboard, with one side getting torn off as you or your enemies get hurt. There are usually visual clues that help you find and solve puzzles or secret paths, which is nice, and, although the 3D only actively helps on rare occasions, it never makes things more difficult. Attack stickers come in a few strengths, and a quick glance is enough to tell you if a sticker is normal, shiny, or flashy whether it's in your album or on a wall, so you never accidentally waste a strong version of an attack when a weak one would do or throw away a good sticker only to pick up a bad one because you weren't sure what it was.

The sound is similarly great. Each world has its own musical theme, by which I mean that the world's levels have music that fits together. Some levels within a world share background music, but there are quite a few unique tracks, and they're all good. The map has its own tune, and I was impressed when I realized that as you move from one world to the next within the map, the music shifts to match. For example, when you are on a level from the desert, the music gets a sort of Egyptian theme. Sound effects are also solid, and often provide helpful cues both in and out of battle. I typically play my games with the sound off, but I made an exception for Sticker Star because the sound was both helpful and enjoyable.

Sticker Star's controls don't revolutionize the industry, but they quietly get the job done without ever getting in the way. The top screen always holds the action, both in and out of battle, and the bottom screen holds your sticker album. When you're in the album, pressing Start automatically arranges your stickers, and the game does a great job of sorting things consistently and minimizing the space used by larger stickers. Your album starts with only two pages, but grows to eight by the end of the game, which makes that automatic arrangement very useful. The only thing that's not obvious is that you can tap and drag a sticker to move it, and the only nitpick I have about the controls is that the d-pad can't be used as an alternative to the analog stick when walking.

In the final analysis, Sticker Star is no Thousand Year Door, but don't let that turn you off – it's still a really good game, even if its RPG elements have been toned down. I enjoyed the battles I fought, even though the lack of XP caused me to skip more than I usually would. There are some great character designs, particularly the bosses, and the levels and puzzles are clever and fun. And when you've defeated the final boss and set things right once again, you can still keep playing to fill up the sticker museum and complete a few other optional objectives. If you're looking for some fun on your 3DS, Sticker Star is definitely worth a look.

© 2012 Nintendo, Nintendo, Intelligent Systems. All rights reserved.