Why I hate <i>Paper Mario: Sticker Star</i>

Alex Phillimore Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-04-29 18:12:13

Why I hate Paper Mario: Sticker Star

Paper Mario: Sticker Star's (3DS) sticker system is a clumsy and awkward gameplay mechanic. While Intelligent System's Paper Mario series has been successful in the past (the original title on the N64 and The Thousand Year Door on the Gamecube being stellar examples), its last two iterations have been slightly less compelling. But even Super Paper Mario had a good collection of villains and an interesting flip-screen mechanic. What did Sticker Star choose to do in order to shake things up? It introduced stickers. Awfully implemented stickers.

As kids I'm sure lots of us enjoyed stickers: whether receiving a gold star sticker in class for being the first kid to be able to count to one hundred, or walking up to the corner shop on a Saturday morning in order to buy a fresh pack of stickers for a sticker album, stickers can be a good thing. While the concept of putting stickers into a game about paper is a sensible one, the execution in Paper Mario: Sticker Star is anything but sensible.

Picture the scene: Mario comes up to a sleeping Wiggler in a forest who won't move out of his way (see: header image). He needs to get by him in order to advance. Sticker Star forces Mario to use special large stickers which represent items at certain locations in the game in order to solve puzzles (these stickers are called 'Thing Stickers'). The idea being that Mario needs to acquire a sticker that represents an item which would cause an effect in an environment particular to a given scenario. These stickers are expensive and hard to come by, and, in this case, I have to use a sticker that can wake a sleeping Wiggler. Searching through my collection, I find a stereo sticker. That makes a lot of noise, right? So I use the stereo sticker and find that it is the wrong sticker for that particular event. That's fair enough. No harm done - we just try a different sticker. I go looking through my inventory of stickers again, only to see that my stereo sticker is no longer there.

If you use a sticker in the wrong place, you lose the sticker. The only way to get another one is to buy one at special stores, and these things aren't cheap. This would be slightly more forgiveable if the game gave you clues about what item you need to use, but other than 'something that makes a lot of noise', there is no guidance for what specific item to use at the Wiggler situation (or, indeed, many situations in the game). Desperate, I fumble through my sticker collection and notice an electric guitar sticker. Surely that makes enough noise to wake up a sleeping Wiggler? Now fully aware that if I'm wrong I will lose a sticker worth a few hundred coins, I approach the matter much more carefully. But my concern doesn't change facts: I need to wake up this Wiggler in order to continue playing. I select the electric guitar. It isn't the right item. I lose it from my inventory. I load my last save game.

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I'm all for trial-and-error in games. I grew up playing point-and-click adventures, and, at the age of six and playing Broken Sword and Sam and Max: Hit the Road, you get used to trying all sorts of combinations of using items with interactive objects until you get it right. In those games, though, there was no punishment for using the wrong item. At the very worst in Broken Sword a wrong click might cost you your life, but, thankfully, the game was quick to put you back in the action with your items in your inventory once more. In a game that requires you to use specific items, it is a broken mechanic to punish players when they don't know what item to use. Even giving you a hint, such as 'wake up the sleeping Wiggler' can have all sorts of outcomes, and yet the game actively punishes the player for the trial-and-error selecting of an item. It is a sorry state of affairs indeed when I ended up saving the game before every sticker event, just in case I used the wrong sticker. Which I did, many times.

The problem is exacerbated when you consider that you might not even have the right item in your inventory in the first place. It turns out the correct item sticker to wake up a Wiggler is a trumpet. Not a guitar or a stereo, which are apparently not loud enough - a trumpet. Only, you might not have the trumpet at the point that you run into the Wiggler, as the game doesn't give it to you - you have to pick it up in a previous level. It is very possible to miss doing so. You can get to points in the game where you simply cannot advance, having missed something earlier in the game, and the game does not give any indication that you lack the necessary item sticker to advance. So what do you do? You save your game, and then you go through every sticker in your inventory that could feasibly work in a situation. Then you realise that none of them work and re-load your game to avoid having to purchase those super-expensive stickers all over again.

Eventually you backtrack through the stages and find the trumpet sticker. You end up back with the Wiggler and try it out - it works, and you can advance! A little while later you run into a tornado that blocks your path. You search your inventory and see a giant fan sticker that could be used to blow things away. You use it and it doesn't work. Turns out you need the vacuum cleaner sticker (to suck the tornado up, of course!), from Surfshine Harbour, down in a warehouse. The further the game goes on, the more elaborate and nonsensical some of these 'puzzles' seem to get.

The issue would be almost entirely alleviated if not for two problems. Firstly, the aforementioned loss-of-item-after-use. If the game caused the item sticker to return to your inventory if the wrong item is used during a puzzle, that would be fine - you'd just shrug and try the next item sticker. As the game makes you lose the item sticker, though, you end up dreading any moment where you have to use one in order to advance, as a lot of the time there are several items that could effectively do the job, and yet there is only one specific item that works. And that's assuming you even have the right item, which you could have easily missed in one of the game's many levels. Secondly, the game has a ridiculous inventory system that is counter-intuitive to the mechanic of having stickers in general.

Mario's inventory is tiny. It grows at a snail's pace throughout the game, but only when the game dictates. Throughout the game you will constantly be wrestling with what stickers to keep - Mario's inventory is far too small to carry many stickers around, especially near the beginning of the game where he can literally carry a handful of them. While battle stickers (more on these later) usually only take up one 'space' within the inventory, the stickers required to solve puzzles, such as the trumpet, the guitar, the vacuum cleaner and so on, can take up to six spaces. It is utterly ridiculous: you will find that you can only hold onto two or three of these puzzle item stickers, and that any others will have to be left behind due to a lack of space. Not only does the game punish you for using the wrong item sticker, but it also makes it almost possible to carry more than a handful of these event items around with you, as the inventory cannot accommodate them. There are 64 event items in the game, and yet Mario will barely be able to carry around a tenth of that. What ensues is a rigorous battle against the game, where you constantly fiddle around with your inventory, discarding items that you have no idea if they'll ever prove to be useful. There is little more infuriating than tossing away the faucet sticker from early into the game to make vital inventory space, only to find that it is necessary later on in the adventure.

The game is constantly at odds with its sticker system. Not only are stickers necessary to advance, but they are also used in battle. However, Sticker Star lacks a level-up system as seen in other titles within the series, which makes the battles utterly pointless. The only advances Mario can make are in increasing his health, but these health pick-ups are dotted around the levels and are incongruous to the combat. There is literally no point in fighting battles in Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Doing so requires the player to use battle stickers (which, remember, occupy the same inventory space as event stickers, and thus constantly get in the way of more important items), and these battle stickers disappear after use. Thus you spend the game collecting battle stickers from every nook and cranny, only to use them in battles and lose them until you find more. These are one-use items, and thus there is absolutely no sense of progression in the combat; you don't learn moves, and you never get any better at fending off foes. You are utterly reliant on what battle stickers exist in your inventory at a given time.

This is absolutely ludicrous, as you quickly catch on that it is far easier to get through environments by avoiding every encounter, and, when an unlucky battle does occur, fleeing from it. It makes sense to run away from these battles: battles just drain your battle stickers anyway, and your only reward is coins (and the only use for coins is to either buy more battle stickers or to replace lost event item stickers when you use the wrong ones, creating a nauseating cycle that repeats itself indefinitely). While battles drain your stickers and health (and time), running around enemies and generally doing anything in your power to avoid the combat system becomes the norm. Going into an environment and battling enemies in RPGs usually rewards the player with experience and thus an incentive to engage in them. In Paper Mario: Sticker Star, battles have no purpose - you come out of a level having battled no enemies actually better off than if you had battled fifty of them, because battling fifty of them drains those precious stickers and risks killing you.

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The final nail in the coffin is the boss encounters, which, again, require stickers, only these fights are more concerning than the regular encounters because they cannot be avoided. You have to fight the bosses to move on, but the bosses prove as problematic as the rest of the game. Rather than being typical RPG battles, the boss encounters are more like puzzles - bosses have specific weaknesses that can be exploited, otherwise they tend to be incredibly overpowered and an utter chore to beat. You take very little health off of bosses unless you exploit these weaknesses, and while you can still win battles without sussing these weaknesses out, they take a lot longer to trawl through. One boss requires you to have the bat sticker in your inventory to win, which, again, you could have easily missed, used in a previous battle or thrown away to make room for another sticker in the game's limited inventory space. Another boss requires you to use a hook in order to pull them up from under the water. If you don't have the hook, this fight is almost impossible to get through. It doesn't help whatsoever that your little advisor in the game only gives you a vague hint as to what item a boss is weak against after you have died against them at least once.

Of course, the same problems arise: you can easily use the wrong item sticker on a boss, one that you thought would work but doesn't do much damage at all, and you end up losing it for good. Thus, you have no incentive to actually try out different strategies during these boss battles. You end up working out that the easiest way to beat bosses is to go into the fight and let the boss kill you the first time around. Then you give the boss another go and listen to the hint provided. Even these 'hints' can be misleading, though. During the battle with the boss who requires the bat sticker, the hint is as follows:

"Ugh! His body's got too many segments! This guy is just way too powerful. We'll never make any progress like this!

I just want to take a swing at those segments! Hey, any chance you have a sticker that could send those things flying with a mighty CRRRACK?"

Lacking the bat in my inventory, having had no idea I would even need that sticker in order to advance, I tried out a few of the stickers I had that I thought could send things flying away, including several types of hammer. While it might seem obvious reading here that a bat is the right item to use, if you don't even know that a bat sticker exists in the game, as the game hasn't made any effort to make sure that you have the item by the time you get to the boss battle, playing the game becomes a desperate struggle to find anything that might work. Lacking the bat, I ended up defeating the boss by dealing a couple of points of damage every turn and stocking up on copious amounts of healing stickers. It worked, but it wasn't fun, and when I found out that a bat sticker would have made the battle go by a lot faster, it left a sour taste in my mouth.

Ultimately, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a frustrating experience. The game has an awful inventory system, where you constantly fill it up and have to throw things away that might at some point be useful, but you have no way of knowing until it's too late and you've already chucked the item away. Battles are a joke, lacking any form of purpose and cropping up all too often. Boss encounters are ridiculous, having set ways of dealing with them but stumbling with the same pitfalls that events suffer from - namely, that you end up wasting vital stickers in the desperate hope that something will work, only to find out, more often than not, that you don't have the right sticker anyway. At one point in the game, Mario falls over and loses all of his stickers, and the level requires him to go and pick them all up again from around the environment. I didn't even bother picking half of them up again - what is the point in battle stickers when battles are worthless? What is the point in event stickers when only a handful of them have any logical use? The game may look pretty and bounce along with a nice soundtrack, but that doesn't stop Sticker Star from being a tedious and irritating affair. It's enough to make Bowser want to vomit:

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