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Friday, December 21, 2012

Review: Paper Mario: Sticker Star

Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo

If anything, you have to admire Nintendo's audacity.

One of the questions that keeps RPG designers up at night is: "How can we make RPGs lest grind-y?" Nintendo asked that question themselves, and came up with the answer: "Get rid of a progression system that requires players to grind."

That's what Nintendo tried for Paper Mario: Sticker Star. In Sticker Star, you don't gain any experience points from battles, which means you don't level up. The only thing you earn from battles are coins, and you find stickers throughout the world to improve your stats. It's an interesting choice for an RPG. Was it successful? Not really.
In Paper Mario: Sticker Star, Mario fights his battles in a turn-based fashion. You find stickers around the world stuck to walls, floors, enemies and the like. You use those stickers for your attacks. In other words, in order to use a jump attack, you need to have a Jump sticker in your inventory. When you use the sticker, it's discarded.

That means that your only important resource in the entire game is stickers. Coins are spent on stickers and the usage thereof. You get stickers that can be used for special attacks, stickers for recovery, and stickers for regular attacks. Every time you get a sticker, it's placed in your book, which has a limited amount of space.

It sounds interesting, right? What could be wrong with that system? Well, think about it. Since you have a limited amount of space in which to store your stickers, you can only have a few stickers in your sticker book. In every battle, you're using at least two or three stickers, sometimes less, sometimes more.

Do you see the problem yet? If not, I'll spell it out: It makes more sense to avoid battles than to fight them. The more battles you fight, the fewer stickers you'll end up with. Don't have the right sticker to do a basic jump attack? Too bad! You're not using a jump attack! Fighting a tough enemy and need more stickers? Hope you didn't use your stickers on other fights!

You know what's crazy? In-game, there's a museum where you can "donate" stickers to complete the collection. Now why would I want to use the only resource I have in order to fill out a museum? What possible reward do I get? I'm sure there is one, but it's never adequately explained in-game.

Not only that, but you'll sometimes get special stickers that are good against certain bosses. If you don't have these stickers, you're in for a long battle of attrition against the boss. These stickers are huge, most of the time, so they take up a lot of space in your sticker book. You never know which sticker is going to work on the boss, so you have to keep a few different ones in your inventory. That takes up even more space and makes you afraid to use them, because what if you need them later? It's a wildly mismanaged system from top to bottom.

So what about a lack of a level progression system? Does removing the grind make Paper Mario: Sticker Star better than previous Paper Mario games?

There's something that's intrinsic to the appeal of an RPG. When your character is at level 1, you may have trouble beating up a low-level, cannon-fodder enemy. When your character is at level 30, you can go back and wipe the floor with them. They can't land a hit on you, and you can kill them in one shot. That feeling of growing power is key to the success of the RPG genre.

Paper Mario: Sticker Star doesn't give you that feeling. Right after you've completed the first world, the game gives you the chance to go to World 2 or World 3. I stepped into World 3, nervous that I was going to get killed right away. I didn't. I didn't need to be any stronger than I already was, because the enemies were the same in World 3 as in World 2.

So then the story is worth playing, right? After all, previous Paper Mario games had a great story, and the Mario & Luigi games always have fun stories too. What about Paper Mario: Sticker Star?

Yes, what about it? Miyamoto had them remove the story from Sticker Star, the same as he did with Super Mario Galaxy 2. Why? Because people who played Super Paper Mario didn't notice the story as much as they did the gameplay. Therefore, he viewed the story as unimportant.

So that means that in Sticker Star, Nintendo excised all the reasons that someone would play an RPG: Story, progression, everything. What did they leave behind? Inventory management. Wheeeee.

So are we playing Paper Mario: Sticker Star wrong? Maybe we're supposed to play it like a platformer and not an RPG, right?

That would make sense, except for these reasons:
  1. The battles are turn-based.
  2. There's a TON of inventory management.
  3. It looks like an RPG and is marketed as one.
  4. The levels aren't super-exciting to make up for the lack of RPG elements.
I do have to give Nintendo credit for trying something different. Yet, there are reasons that certain RPG tropes remain. The grind is there for a reason. The story is there for a reason. Removing them just creates a two-dimensional experience, much like a paper cutout of a beloved hero.

Final Rating: D