Though fondly remembered, Japanese role-playing games can get monotonous pretty quickly, and I couldn’t fault anyone who’d sooner catch up on some Zzz’s than play one. But Paper Mario: Sticker Star, a new game by Intelligent Systems, is one JRPG worth your attention. People (namely, me) say Nintendo exists in its own little world, but the guys who made this were fully aware of the critical beef with the genre. Their solution seems to have been, do everything else excellently, and hope we all overlook the role-playing stuff. They have gone out of their way to pack Sticker Star with wit, charm, and adorable baby ninjas. And it worked out really nicely.
You’d be forgiven––wrong, but forgiven––for ignoring the sporadic series of JRPGs about Mario and pals on the grounds that, well, they’re JRPGs about Mario and pals. Though the series has a rep for running wild with the license, by law it contains the umpteenth remix of the ditty from level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. The Princess has been kidnapped for the thousandth time, and you will need to hop, bop, and snag gold coins to save her. The main difference is that tripping over a turtle shell will trigger the role-playing equivalent of trench warfare: the turn-based battle.
To be fair, these fights are brief, fun affairs, with rhythmic elements, and some role-playing trappings. There is nil leveling or stats to it, and you don’t gain abilities either. Instead, you have a book of stickers, yep stickers, which are found everywhere. Old boots, hammers, cigarette lighters, frog suits, mushrooms, poison mushrooms, sombreros, flowers, sandals with springs on the bottom, paper fans, etc. are all used for one thing or another. Sparkly stickers, of course, do twice the damage in battle.
Stickers also play a part in solving rather obvious puzzles, such as knocking down bowling pins with, you guessed it, a bowling ball. The puzzles have curiously been called out by some sites claiming they are too tough. (I’ll name no names, but one of them rhymes with Otaku.) All I have to say about that is those reviewers either a.) rushed through the game for deadline, or b.) flunked out of kindergarten.
The Paper Mario series is known for being almost inconceivably cute, in the manga and J-pop kind of way, and Sticker Star is no exception. My favorite battle item, for example, is a Lucky Cat, one of those porcelain statues ubiquitous at hibachi joints and cat shrines across Tokyo. Who could not love a towering kitty that is wheeled in on a wooden stage, accompanied by kabuki music, and then blasts off like a rocket? The rest of the game is every bit as endearing, with a paper-craft aesthetic fit for, say, Pinterest: landmarks unfold like the pages of a pop-up book, clouds are dangling from string, and every character seems to be cut out from a sheet of paper. Thus, the name.
If you couldn’t guess, Sticker Star is far from your typical outing in Mario-land. The bonkers story is a welcome surprise, as I learned in a surreal moment when Birdo, everyone’s favorite transgendered amphibian, dropped in to spit a rhyme on the nature of sexuality, which was capped off with, believe it or not, a double entendre about egg on your face. And then, and then! she tossed to me a plastic figurine of a goat. Seriously, what has gotten into nice, normal, overconscientious Nintendo? I don’t know, but I like it.
One huge, colossal fault with JRPGs, and just RPGs in general, is they’re filled with throw-away chatter and lore that makes you want to face-palm yourself. So, it would be a major oversight not to bring up the writing, which in this games writer’s humble opinion is some of the best to grace a video game screen. It’s first-class, but not in the sense of gnarly plot twists and boring universal themes about humanity. No, it’s great because you will actually enjoy reading it, you know, like a good blog. I appreciate that it’s smart and funny and someone gets called a hipster. I will also point out there’s a shady sticker vendor with the demeanor of a stoned drug dealer, greeting me with beady eyes in a low-key “I got the goods.”
The 3D is especially dazzling, by far the best I’ve come across on the fledgling 3DS. It’s worth mentioning that when Mario whacks a Koopa with a sledgehammer, the hapless creature is knocked smack into the screen, like a hummingbird against a bay window. The tech swings for the fences, but it also impresses with flourishes, like snowflakes and confetti. I’ll admit that, until now, I haven’t been enthusiastic about the system’s 3D, but Sticker Star has changed my mind. I keep the effects turned up to the max, and though I’ve been playing for twenty hours, turning down the game’s steady requests that I take a break, I’m happy to report that my eyes are not bleeding.
Yet even with all that, Sticker Star would get stale sooner or later. After all, it is, deep down, a JRPG. The genius stroke is that you can pretty much avoid the boring stuff whenever you feel like it. In fact, it doesn’t become a truly outstanding game until your patience wears thin, and you start sidestepping the enemies instead of picking fights. Then, it’s good-ol’ Mario, with tricky jumps and smiling cactuses to elude––and when you screw up by running into an enemy, there’s a turn-based battle. It really flips the genre on its noggin. Paper Mario: Sticker Star might be the first anti-JRPG; a game that tries so hard to make the JRPG bearable that it has become the opposite: something that is thoughtful and brilliant for the duration.
Paper Mario Sticker Star
This review based on a 3DS copy of the game provided by the publisher
About the Author:
Jason Johnson is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamasutra, Unwinnable, GameSetWatch, FingerGaming, WSJ Speakeasy, and The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. He owns 27 Sun Ra albums.