Stick it to them with a familiar face
As a general rule, stickers suck. They’re what you get when “Free Prize Inside!” turns out to be the single cheapest thing they could get away with sticking inside a box of cereal or candy/popcorn hybrid. The only way stickers could possibly be any fun is if the entire world was made of paper, which would allow them to become part of whatever they were applied to. Oasis gone dry? Slap a faucet sticker on a giant clay pot and watch it transform into a relaxing desert getaway. Too many bats swooping down from the ceiling? Slap a shoe sticker on your feet and stomp ‘em out of the way. The possibilities are endless.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star takes this idea and runs with it, blending the Paper Mario series’ whimsy and cleverness with an idea that, in retrospect, seems completely obvious. Of course stickers would enable some great puzzles in a world folded out of paper! See a building that looks wrong? Mario can flatten the scene, rising above it to see that the front door is a sticker that’s been placed upside-down. Peel, replace, and get access to a new area. It’s a system that fits the Paper Mario world perfectly.
As series go, though, the Paper Mario games tend to vary wildly from one outing to the next in their gameplay. One outing it’s a classic RPG with a bit of platforming thrown in, a couple years later it’s an action platformer with light RPG elements. Paper Mario: Sticker Star is more of an action RPG with turn-based battles, but experience points and leveling have been completely dispensed with. Surprisingly, this streamlines the game nicely, removing any temptation to grind. You can also explore areas to your heart’s content once enemies are cleared, or just zip past them if you’re not in a fighting mood, and the only thing you’ll miss is earning a few extra coins.
When you do want to fight, though, the combat is classic turn-based RPG style. Mario fights alone this time, without a combat helper to be seen, and all his attacks are stickers he finds along the journey. Shoes are for jumping, hammers for hitting, fire flowers for shooting, and many, many more. There’s a huge variety of combat stickers to find, but the catch is that each sticker can only be used once. They’re all over the place, stuck to walls, floors, and rewarded after defeating enemies, but managing the supply when running out of hammers while fighting spiky turtles can get a bit tense. To make the resource management trickier, Mario can only hold so many stickers at once. As the game progresses and the sticker book adds more pages, Mario can carry a much better variety of attacks. Even so, it can be surprisingly easy to leaf through pages of stickers looking for just the right attack to take on a group consisting of a normal ground enemy, one with spikes, and a flyer when you’re deep in a level and have burned through your favorites.
Once you’ve chosen the right attack (or settled for something that’ll do for now) the timing aspect kicks in. Like previous entries in the series, damage and effects are dependent on the timing of a button press during attack and defense. Most bonus damage is pretty easy to time out once you’ve had a bit of practice with the weapon, and a big part of managing crowds is dealing with the risk of missing the timing, hitting only one enemy instead of several. Once you’ve got the rhythm, though, you can thin the herd with minimal damage, which is good seeing as Mario isn’t a high-hitpoint powerhouse.
He is, however, everybody’s errand boy. As usual, Bowser has managed to break the Mushroom Kingdom, and Princess Peach and her army of Toads are their standard cute but helpless selves. There’s not much of a story this time out, and Mario is basically chasing down Bowser after he goes nuts on sticker power during a festival, but everything else comes together strongly enough that there’s no real need for a major narrative thread. The levels are fun to explore simply because they’re so well designed, and enemies always offer enough of a challenge to be worth fighting without being so numerous that they bog down progress. The world is loaded with goodies to find and creatures to fight, the art style is utterly charming, and the little mini-quests of each area do a good job of keeping the action going. Paper Mario: Sticker Star is cute, fun, clever, and even occasionally challenging, and another excellent entry into the most consistently enjoyable sub-series in Mario’s library.