If you were to say Paper Mario: Sticker Star was your favorite game in the franchise in a room full of Paper Mario fans, you would be shot instantly. The game has garnered such an infamously toxic reputation over the years that mentioning it has practically become taboo. The general consensus is that the game is flat-out trash, but ask the less close-minded of us and the general consensus will be that Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a so-so game on its own but a bad Paper Mario game. I’ve stuck with that point for years and continue to agree with it whole-heartedly after this recent playthrough.
As the title implies, Paper Mario: Sticker Star has Mario collect stickers across familiar territory so he can utilize them in battle. The narrative is a recycled Paper Mario as he must collect the six Royal Stickers (equal to the seven Star Spirits) because without them, people’s wishes won’t be granted. After Bowser crashes the Sticker Fest, Mario is awoken by the irritating and passive aggressive sass-box, Kersti, who acts as Mario’s only partner and aids him on his adventure by giving him tin-eared tips and consistently complaining (my apologies — if you couldn’t tell, I REALLY dislike Kersti).
The new sticker-based combat is actually one of the better qualities about the game. It may strip the player of having a reliable fallback plan but it still has fun timing techniques. Gathering an arsenal of stickers and choosing which ones to use and which ones to save forces the player to think and strategize. Of course, there are times where the combat system feels inherently flawed — like when you run out of a certain sticker needed to defeat a specific enemy — but for the most part the game keeps you sufficiently supplied.
My only real issue with the combat system doesn’t have to with the stickers. It’s the fact that you’re unable to pick which enemy you want to attack, for the game only ever allows you to attack whichever enemy is in front, which was really bothersome and limiting as it strips away agency.
Where the game garners most of its hate, however, is its complete desertion of idiosyncrasy and RPG qualities. First off, the five main worlds in this game are the typical starting five you see in every Super Mario Bros. game (first grasslands, then desert, then swamp, then ice, then jungle). Either the development team was running low on creative juices or the executives at Nintendo wanted to market a familiar-looking title so then there was a more general appeal (I’m in favor with the latter).
That assumption is also proven in the recycled enemies: they are all just standard Mario platformer enemies. Gone are the unique character designs and NPCs that made the previous installments what they were: inimitable. It seems as though Sticker Star was another victim as a result of what I would now like to coin as the “kiddie era.” I had issues with Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (also for the 3DS released in 2013) because its presentation seemed so dumbed down like it seemed deliberately aimed at an awfully young audience, and I believe Sticker Star suffered the same fate as a result of Nintendo’s choices.
But, I digress. The second element lost in this unfortunate translation is the loss of personality which somewhat relates to its loss in RPG qualities as well. Other than the constant whimsical tones and quirky toad lines, the game is devoid of any true character. Though it may seem like a minor quibble, it means a great deal to me because I fail to be invested in and entertained by the journey as a whole. I only feel like I’m playing the game to get it over with and not to complete the journey at hand.
The final major issue I have with Sticker Star is that even its main adventuring is just plain boring. Puzzle elements are essentially absent, and levels can feel entirely uneventful. The level design is frequently irksome because it doesn’t necessarily involve the player. Plenty of the “next step” adventuring discoveries rely on player assumptions through cheaply hidden methods.
I have two examples. One: there was a door hidden directly behind a pillar that took me forever to find while I thought advancing to the next area had to do something with the torches on the wall (which you were able to extinguish and reignite), but it turns out they were useless and misleading. The second had to do with a large gap Mario was unable to jump across. I thought you had to paperize (one of the game’s most unenjoyable abilities that you can perform because of Kersti) a bridge across it, but it turns out there was a pair of invisible blocks you had to make appear by jumping. I fumed when I discovered this because Intelligent Systems clearly became lazy in development at some points by resorting to sleazily hidden secrets over cleverly designed puzzles.
There are rare pockets of fun to be found in Sticker Star. The first mission in the game — finding as many toads as possible in the comparably lackluster hub world of Decalburg — is a fine introduction because it encourages the player to explore and play around with Mario’s abilities. Unfortunately, at no point does the rest of the game feel like it matches this first fleetingly engaging sequence (except maybe “The Enigmansion”).
Legitimately the best part of this game for me was every side objective. There are blue “secret door” stickers in nearly every level that contain rare stickers or “things” (literally everyday objects) inside them. Most of these rare stickers and things benefit one aspect: the sticker museum. Located under Decalburg, the sticker museum is a place where the player can collect eventually every sticker in the game for display. For how unnecessary it is to complete in the main game, it became the most necessary part of the game for me to fully complete.
If it’s worth anything, Paper Mario: Sticker Star takes advantage of its paper theming more than ever but at the cost of partners, major distinction, and its now former RPG branding. I will say I think most of its backlash is undeserved because it isn’t really awful, but I will also say that there isn’t anything greatly worthwhile in this double corrugated downfall.