The JRPG Canon #5 - Paper Mario: Sticker Star

Okay I know what you're thinking.
You said you would play Skies of Arcadia next!
And you're right. That is what I said. And I started it! And it rules! But that's a game that's at my house, and I accidentally have been playing Sticker Star on breaks at work, and holy crap people slept on this game too much, so I had to talk about it, to let you guys know to not buy the hype.

As always, if you don't know what the JRPG Canon is, check out the introduction article, where I answer most of the questions about doing a series like this. And read the others, because I kinda definitely write sequentially, and each new article builds off the last.

Anyways, let's talk about a little game called Paper Mario: Sticker Star, for the Nintendo 3DS.


The History

Sticker Star is the 4th game in the Paper Mario series, and was heralded as a "return to form" after the platformer game, Super Paper Mario for the wii (which people also slept on, but this isn't the platformer canon).

Sticker Star can also be seen as the 8th game in the Mario RPG series, which I kinda do, because Paper Mario was just called Super Mario RPG 2 as its working title in Japan (was released as Mario Story). This meta series includes Legend of the Seven Stars, the Paper Mario series, and the Mario and Luigi series.

While each sub series  has its own thing (Paper: you're paper and often interact with the world as such, M&L you have a party of two characters (typically), etc), they all have the same basic gameplay as Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the SNES.

Geno for smash btw

On your turn, you can press A at the right time to do better at your attacking. On your opponents turn, you can press A at the right time to do better at defending. The numbers are real small. The people are real funny. You build out RPG settings from the bricks and pipes you see from the side in normal Mario games.

The Mario RPG Series has passed through various hands, but they all pretty much agree that Square did it right on the SNES and this basic format has been the way all of these games play, even when AlphaDream did Mario and Luigi, and Intelligent Systems did Paper Mario.

Fun fact, Chihiro Fujioka, the Director of Legend of the Seven Stars left square to make AlphaDream, the creators of the Mario and Luigi series, so maybe those are more the sequel to Legend of the Seven Stars than Paper Mario is, even though Paper Mario got the name.

ANYWHO I digress.

Sticker Star was directed by Naohiko Aoyama and Taro Kudo, and designed by Yukio Morimoto and Toshitaka Muramatsu. 

And these guys too!

Supposedly, while a return to form for the series, Miyamoto himself suggested that the game only involve characters from Super Mario World, and said to cut out the story completely, but thankfully they just de-emphasized it, because it's very well written.

It came out to middling reviews, and while some people loved it, the people who hated it, hated it really loudly. The Metro.co.uk review goes so far to say that the game completely ignores what makes the Mario series good. Reviews cite the lack of partners, and the focus on sticker-based gameplay as abandoning what makes Paper Mario good.

I've now figured out those people are wrong, but at the time I skipped over this game, even though I love the series dearly. 

The Game

Sticker Star starts out much like any Mario game. Things are fine, until they aren't, because Bowser wants to kidnap peach. This time, it's by capturing the Sticker Comet, the big doohickey around which the Sticker Festival revolves.

One thing that's extra cute, is the book that opens to tell the story (as it does in each Paper Mario game) is covered in stickers this time around. An early indicator of how much this game is gonna stick to its theme.

Oh no! Bowser's up to no good! How dare he!

Bowser gets his dirty paws on the Sticker Comet, and breaks it, and the 6 Royal Stickers are shoompfed off to the corners of the Mushroom Kingdom, and its your job to go and get them, along with your partner Kersti, which I didn't even catch was Sticker but sylliballically backwards until I just typed it.

After the Festival is ruined, you take control of Mario in a smashed up Toad Town, called Decalburg. The game does a really cool thing here to teach you what the game is actually about. The game is not about its fights, but we'll get to why they rule later. It's not about bosses, or items, or stats, or other RPG things at all. It's about Exploring your surroundings THOROUGHLY.

Your first quest is to find all of the Toads in Decalburg, to help you roll the town (made of paper of course) back out flat. These toads are not merely NPCs standing around town. Some are taped to the back of a foreground prop you need to knock over. Some are stacked together and shoved in a book on a shelf. Some are trapped under a welcome mat. Exploring is not hard at this part, but it does show you that you should be looking everywhere for goodies.

After smoothing everyone out, you'll have your basic Paper Mario moveset intact: Jump and Hammer on the overworld to interact with things, and start battles with advantage.

Then, something I didn't expect happened.

Super Paper Mario 3D world

You leave the RPG setting of Decalburg, and end up on a Super Mario World map screen. And the places you can go are marked 1-1, 2-1, and 3-1.

The large connected world of the Mario RPG games I've played before are all gone, and instead, this game has stages.

You know how Super Mario 3D land was "Take a 3D Mario, but make it into Mario Stages"? Sticker Star is like that, but for the Mario RPG series.

The funny thing is, most RPGs that don't have a World Map are fairly linear in their connections. In FFX, every map is a hallway with one exit. In Tales of Graces F, every map is a road that branches to connect the dots on the world map, even if there are side areas to explore.

So while this is a stagification of RPGs, if they just called the stages "Mushroom hills" you wouldn't be able to really notice the difference. Except for the "You win this stage screen" but I'm getting to that.

You make your way through the first world, which is your generic Mushroom Kingdom hillside, and you start exploring. Part way through, you run into Bowser Jr. who rips the bridge right "off the page" and crumples it up, so you can't cross it to chase him.

They really hammered home the paper thing this time.

The game, then, tells you nothing. Some reviews cite this as a bad thing. I don't think it is. It's a little bit of "pixel hunting", where you find the right thing to click on, and that'll make you progress, but it's more about taking the thing you walked past earlier, and closely examining it to find your way forward.

There aren't that many things to interact with in the world, so you'll eventually make your way to the group of Toads that you saw earlier, who are now running around screaming. Except for one guy. You talk to that guy, and he's the ringleader, so he convinces everyone to help you out, and fold into a staircase to reach the discarded Bridge, smooth it out, and put it back on the page so that you can progress.

At this point, Kersti unlocks the final move in Overworld Mario's Arsenal, Paperization.

With this, Kersti takes Mario off the page, so that he can apply a sticker to the world. He uses this to put the bridge back in, and can do it any time he presses the Y button. That is, a face button. One of only four. This signifies it as something important to do, and boy howdy it is.

Do this all the time, you'll enjoy the game more.

It feels like a good a time as any to talk about stickers. These are the main way you do battle in Sticker Star, and is another reason people didn't like the game. Ever Since Final Fantasy 8, people have had it all wrong about Consumables in RPGs. Granted, early RPGs were completely about resource management, and it turned people into consumable hoarders, who would rather trek back to an inn, than use an Elixir.

So when FF8 and Sticker Star tell you that to use your cool new move, you have to purchase or find its replacement, people get mad.

To do anything in battle in Sticker Star, you have to spend a consumable sticker. Attacking, defending, healing, special moves, all are created equal, and have one use. Even the really valuable "Thing Stickers" you get for collecting 3D objects in your Papercraft world.

This causes battles to be, at best case, a zero-sum game. You spend a few stickers to take down a baddie who may drop a few stickers. You don't get experience, only coins. If you use a 90-coin Scissors move on a goomba, and he drops 5 coins and a Hammer sticker, you basically just lost over 80 coins.

So...

Just fuckin' skip the battles.

Please dodge all of these guys, or you'll be here all week.

This is an often cited problem with this game, that you are using your consumables constantly, and you don't level up so it practically incentivizes you to skip the battles.

But no that's exactly what it's doing. The game wants you to to min-max your Mario, in a completely different way.

In EVERY, and I mean EVERY, RPG that has visible monsters on the field, there is at least one point in the game where you are like "I just wanna get through here, I don't wanna fight this dumb monster right now". And in those games, you're missing out on experience when you do that, so you have to decide if you want to explore now, and grind later, or grind as you go and fight every monster you come across. Almost everyone will choose to skip at least some fights.

Paper Mario knows this. So they made THAT the game. There's a part in world 2-1 where the goal is to climb a sandy slope, dodging the enemies that come at you sliding down it. Also in 2-1 is the introduction of Shy Guys. Enemies that do not come to attack you, but rather will join other battles to waste more of your resources (and give you great rewards if you take them down). 

Get these guys directly so they don't throw off your groove with other mobs.

The first boss of the game, in 1-4, all but requires you to have a Thing Sticker to take him down, but if you're like me, and you wasted one, you end up using all of your other stickers trying to hurt him, and Kersti tells you to think harder about what you bring to each fight.

So the game is not "Go and fight all the things" like most RPGs. It is "Go and explore this stage, find the hidden exit and ultra rewards if you want to, and do it without hosing your chance at beating the boss at the end".

So you dodge enemies, and when you can't, you try and jump on them, or hit them with your hammer, so you can have one turn fewer in which to waste stickers.

In addition, the Paperizer is really awesome. See some place that would make a great place for a block? Press Y (again, a face button, the game basically beckoning you to press it as often as you can) and see if you can put down a sticker to drop a block there. See an empty block? See if you can put in a shitty sticker, and get back two of them, or a rare one, or other sorts of upgrades for it.

I found myself walking through these stages with a vague sense of where to go, but mostly a compulsion to hit everything with my hammer, and press Y on every inch of the terrain.

Most Stickers are Free

Another thing I would be remiss to bring up is the fact that this game is also, Too Nice when it comes to replenishing your stickers. You get a sticker from most battles. There are usually around 10 stickers affixed to the terrain on each screen. Boxes and wall stickers refill if you leave the area and return. There are Boxes everywhere.

My problem was never running out of stickers, it was always not having room for the cool new one I just found.

So even if you play the game fighting every battle you can, you're still probably okay. But the game does incentivize you to not fight its battles, but it's okay because it's on purpose, and the game is built around that.

The Cool:

I obviously love the game making the game be about not battling, but I also love that this is VERY Mario. In Super Mario Brothers, you can only ever jump or shoot fireballs. Every single challenge in the game is done with that toolset. The challenges get harder, but Mario doesn't get better, you do.

So while you do find better stickers as you go along, and get more inventory space to load up more with, Mario only ever can put down stickers. Same way as he always did. You can take down the boss of an area with careful planning, defending, and mastery of the button timings. Just like you can take out bowser with a fireball, or an expert jump over his hammers and flames.

Also pictured more free stickers.

I also, as always, love the writing in Sticker Star. The Mario RPG games are expertly written, and perfectly localized, and always are a joy to speak to every NPC possible. Shoutout to Leslie Swan, Nate Bihldorff, Billy Carroll, Galia Rodriguez Hornedo, and Derek Seklecki for their work on this game. It's delicious.

The Interesting:

I do not know if this would make the game bad, but if the game told you that avoiding battles was just as important as fighting them, if that would have made it click for more people. RPGs have always been about battles (heck in my intro video, it's one of the 3 parts of its DNA I mention), and this one being so definitely NOT about them is so different, I wonder if being explicit, whether through Kersti or a sign or something, would make it click for more people.

It's also super interesting to me that Japanese gamers voted less than 1% that they cared about the story in the Paper Mario games. Maybe that means we won't ever get sprawling epics in the series again. (I haven't looked into Color Splash any to see if that holds up as true). I don't know if I'll miss it, honestly. The Thousand Year Door still sits unbeaten on my shelf, but I've played some Sticker Star every day this week.

Conclusion:

I recently finished Persona 5, and spent 200+ hours on it. It was exhausting. So I have been looking for what Matt Jorgenson (@metalmatreturns on twitter) calls a "Salad Game". Something small, fresh, and not very filling, to get you ready for your next meal.

Xenoblade, Persona 4, Kiseki, and Atelier all are looming as my next hearty meal to dive into, but right now, Sticker Star is hitting the spot.

Sticker Star does not waste your time, and offers up discrete RPG-shaped challenges for you to enjoy, and that's why I think it deserves to be in the JRPG Canon.



If you agree, leave a comment, if you disagree, leave a comment. If you want me to click here to uncover the secrets to beauty that doctors don't want me to know fuck you don't leave a comment. If you want to listen to me talk about the story of a JRPG from beginning to end, check out our podcast. If you want to talk to me, check out my discord. If you want to read these articles before anyone else, support our Patreon.

Thanks for reading, I'll see you soon.
-Sam

3 comments:

  1. Sam, would you recommend Sticker Star as a okay first game in the Paper Mario series? I've always assumed I should play Thousand Year Door first, but it's significantly less accessible.

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    Replies
    1. The comment posted as anonymous. It's Fordhamjpitts here.

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    2. Sticker Star is okay! But it definitely builds on the series prior, and Really, Playing them in order is best. Paper Mario N64 is on all the eShops these days, and is the best place to start.

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