Paper Mario: Sticker Star
Developer: Intelligent Systems/Vanpool
Before I start I just want to say that this review was a collaborative effort between AlloftheAbove and I, and he has given me full rights to publish this under my name and enter it into the Review of the Month competition.
I haven't spent much time in Japanese playgrounds lately, but I'm pretty sure their sticker economy is out of whack. Aussie school kids know that a person's worth is solely measured by the number of sticky-backed football players living in their pocket. Teachers only give the most studious of students the gift of a sticker. In the playground, the kid with the Scratch-N-Sniff is king. Such behaviour doesn't fly in Japan, not, at least, based on Sticker Star's blasé approach to the hobby. The game practically gives them away, leaving them on bushes, trees, fences, logs... it's sticker hyperinflation of the worst kind.
Apparently it makes sense in context. In Sticker Star, stickers are life. Mario can't attack, heal, solve puzzles, or go to the toilet (probably) without stickers, for some reason. It's a land so crazed for stickers that they named their capital Decalburg. All commerce revolves around stickers, the only topic of conversation is stickers, and the major social event is the annual Sticker Fest. Look under this adhesive addiction, however, and there's a familiar game to be found.
After Super Paper Mario's 2D/3D flip-flopping, Sticker Star returns to the 3D papercraft world that defined the first two Paper Mario games, although admittedly it is a lot lighter in substance than said games. We're back in the land of tun-based battles, spiced up with action commands that reward timed button presses with bonus bursts of damage or defence. This extra layer of interaction has always separated Paper Mario from the other menu-prodding RPGs and still works its magic now. If you played the N64 or GameCube instalments, you'll sense muscle memory kicking in within seconds. Tapping A just before you squish a Goomba, or as the hammer reaches the apex of its swing, is just as satisfying now as it was in 2004. There's a catch, though. In order to perform a move, you'll need the corresponding sticker, and stickers are single-use only. As such, every individual attack has to be foraged from the world or purchased at sticker shops. In practice, it means that, while Mario's moveset is relatively unchanged from the first two games - a mix of jumps, hammers, and traditional Mario power-ups - access to attacks differs from battle to battle. To begin with, it plays as fussily as it sounds: you spend the first few hours either cursing the lack of desired moves, or obsessively collecting every sticker in a state of deranged paranoia. The trick is to go with the flow and adapt to whatever hand the game deals you. You could enter and exit a level repeatedly in order to stock up on the overpowered Hopslippers (10 attacks in one), but it's more fun to embrace the quirkier corners of Mario's arsenal. Getting to grips with spiked helmets, ninja stars, sleepy sheep hammers, and projectile-swatting raccoon tails is more compelling than pulling off the same move 20 times in a row. And that's before you discover the wonder that is the Goat Attack.
Ah, Goat Attack. Slap the Goat sticker down in a battle, and a 20-foot mountain goat struts over and chews up enemies like a, well, like a goat eating some paper. He's one of more than 40 'Thing' stickers - everyday, 3D objects that have somehow found their way into Mario's diaramic world of paper, and surging with apocalyptic power. Think of Final Fantasy Summons Attacks, but replace the terrifying deities with fridges, bowling balls, and kinky stilletos. They're worth it for the animations alone, channelling the anarchic madness of Looney Toons cartoons as giant ceraic cats crush Goombas, or action cuts to a Doom-like FPS for a Super Soaker takedown. Awesome. Hunting for Thing Stickers is a side-quest in itself, with every new discovery met with a dash to try it out on the next Goomba. What will a Pocket Watch do? Or a light bulb? Or a Japanese cat doll? The only downsides are having to visit Decalburg to flatten these objects into stickers and the fact that objects return to their original locations once the sticker is used. A black market Toad will sell them back (at a super high price), but it's too much faff for a one-use attack. Maybe that's the point - to prevent us from goat spamming. But it's always a kick in the behind when you find out that you need
one of these super big stickers (that take up a lot of space in your Album) to finish of the big boss at the end of the level, and you don't have it.
In an Okami-like twist, Mario can flatten the 3D world and apply specific stickers to the landscape. In theory, it adds a touch of point-and-click adventuring, as giant desk fans turn windmill blades, and... well, that's the problem. There are so few puzzles to spoil for you. As Mario's pockets begin to resemble the aftermath of a drunken trip to Argos, the mind fizzes with puzzling potential that never manifests itself. The 40 'Things' stickers, in coordinance with Mario's new extra-dimensional alteration skills, give the impression of a free and changeable world, but that's just not the case in Sticker Star. Everything is very by-the-book and restrained. Other puzzles, focusing on 'scraps' torn from the world, are just too easy; peeling out an upside-down door and putting it back in place is hardly Mensa-level stuff.
Intelligent Systems remains Nintendo's strongest storyteller, making up for Mario's plot-allergic platformers with a yarn full of incident and comic detail. A central quest for six magic crown stickers is merely an excuse to have Mario tumble down river rapids, survive a chair-lift siege, endure a toxic game show and - in the game's strongest moment - re-enact Luigi's Mansion. However, while a few of these plot points do carry with them some merit, they pale in comparison to the plot-rich chapters found in the first two Paper Mario games. It also suffers from a lack of support roles, and there's nothing to rival the Peach asides found in the N64 and GameCube titles. In terms of plot, Sticker Star is practically a Trappist Monk compared to its self-indulgent Wii predecessor, making sure that when characters open their gobs, gold pours forth. I particularly like the verbose Toad hiding in Wiggler's forest, dishing out dialogue so heavy it would make Kirby gag.
Most of all, the game's biggest weakness is also its greatest strength. Sticker Star is so streamlined for portable play. Squeezing RPGs into handhelds is like trying to fit a wild boar into skinny jeans. The genre is designed to eat every hour of your day, while a handheld only fills the odd spare minute on the bus or at most, during a long trip. What strikes me most about this RPG is the distinct lack of RP. Gone are the levelling and stats, elegantly replaced with permanent health increases bestowed by hidden stickers. As a pleasant knock-on effect, any need for grinding is eliminated. But then again, it leaves the game with zero obstacles to run. Everything flows from one thing to the next. No need to boot up an RPG for a half-hour train ride, on;y to spend it whomping low-level XP fodder. Sticker Star offers the good stuff with every 10-minute session. The downside is obviously the game's brevity. I smashed the final boss with 10 hours on the clock and a large chunk of side-quests completed. A sticker museum still needs filling, but it's certainly not as compelling an offer as the Pit of 100 Trials that had me playing until my thumbs fell off in past outings.
It comes back to that initial difference in playground etiquette. Do you play RPGs like some collect stickers: slowly, methodically, and with the occasional gutter chip to prove your worthiness? Or do you do it for the joy of sticking, a breathless rush of instant gratification? I think with my busy lifestyle, I'll take lean fun over fatty excess, but realise that the thrill of the chase is part of an RPG's appeal. Sticker Star warrants a brilliant weekend of play, but RPG fans will find its length and depth to be a sticking point (ahem).
Thanks AotA for staying up and helping me out with this one!