There are few gaming characters who command such attention that the simple question ‘what if he was flat?’ could somehow be enough to build a four-strong spin-off sub-series. It was a stroke of genius on Nintendo’s part back with the N64 original, to be fair – sprite-based characters in a 3D world offered a popular and effective solution to doing everything with polygons, though the decision to contextualise the characters’ flatness was what made Nintendo’s contribution that much more endearing and original. The RPG elements, too, offered a fresh take on the Mushroom Kingdom that has since been pushed and explored more thoroughly in the excellent Mario & Luigi games, which, in hindsight, is a little strange – it took returning Mario to being two-dimensional to make him and his world appear more three-dimensional. Ironic, if only in an Alanis Morissette sense.
But while the original was effectively a Super Mario RPG sequel with a clever conceit, and the last game, decent Wii title Super Paper Mario, returned the wafer-thin version of Nintendo’s mascot to his platforming roots, Sticker Star doesn’t seem to know which of the two directions worked better. And so it sits, non-committal in the extreme, on the fence between the two, attempting to bridge the divide between platforming and role-playing, yet oblivious to the fact that series like Kingdom Hearts and even Nintendo’s own Zelda franchise have already done so with far more confidence.
Structurally, Sticker Star openly wants to be a platform game. Worlds and their individual areas are divided up with the same kind of brief area codes that retro gamers will be more than used to, and while you can attempt to tackle them out of sequence, you’ll seldom get far if you do. Even exploration has a classic Mario vibe to it, if perhaps more 3D Land than World – each bite-sized stage breaks down into several smaller areas to navigate in three dimensions, with all the expected gimmicks and secrets for which the franchise is so revered present and correct. But make sole contact with Goomba scalp and all that fades away as the turn-based combat of old awkwardly interrupts the platforming action. And it’s at this point that you glance down and notice that the game’s fly is undone.
While previous RPG-infused Mario titles have been happy to embrace genre staples such as levelling and stat management, here we see what can only really be described as a turn-based action game. Which, in itself, is no bad thing, but the game’s main hook – using stickers as a kind of currency with which to pay for enemy deaths – sort of is. RPGs typically give us a finite stock of powerful attacks, whether through a depleting MP gauge, a spell stack or even a card-based deck from which to draw power. And there’s usually a cost-free if weak alternative with which to do at least minor damage. Here, though, your painfully finite sticker collection is all that stands between you and getting screwed up and tossed away. The gimmick is neat in concept but unnecessarily stressful in execution – every sticker is an expendable attack, and the limited nature of your album and sheer size of rare and powerful stickers means you’ll frequently run out of all-purpose moves. Which, in turn, means that some fights are made overly tricky and others actually unwinnable based on what you happen to be carrying.
Stickers aren’t exactly uncommon, mind you. They can be peeled off walls and floors in more or less every area of the game, though even these are randomised – sometimes you’ll hit a bunch of shinies, which do more damage, but other times you’ll find nothing but junk. As the game draws on, the album expands and your wealth grows extremely quickly, and sure, this offsets the earlier issues somewhat. But with sprawling dungeon areas to clear without a shop in sight, exercising restraint in which enemies you bother becomes increasingly important. Through hammer or feet, Mario often has an opportunity to strike first and gain the upper hand once the game pretends to be an RPG again, but even this isn’t often the boon it first seems – hop on a Koopa Trooper without a jump item on hand, for instance, and you’ll be faced with a shell that only serves to defend other enemies, unless you want to start using up valuable AOE stickers.
Give it a couple of hours and learn to play by its rules, though, and Sticker Star clearly isn’t a bad game. Inventive use of paper-based locations and enemies frequently raises a smile, as does the entertaining dialogue. And once you learn to be a little less precious about shiny stickers in order to accommodate a more versatile arsenal, even the earlier issues with brick-walling on even the simplest enemies slowly fade away, leaving you to enjoy the creativity evident in every aspect of the game. Stickers and scraps can be applied to various parts of the world, although switching to the alternate view that reveals this is annoyingly drawn out, to solve simple puzzles or mend the world, a friendly nod to LittleBigPlanet from the franchise to which Sony’s masterpiece owes its very existence. Honestly, we’re welling up here.
Although it would have been nicer to see Nintendo pick one of two directions rather than offer something that perches on the fence between platforming thrills and RPG depth, Sticker Star is nonetheless a beautiful and eventually engrossing adventure, once it hits its stride. Its core mechanic isn’t one that functions with the usual Nintendo finesse, but in the case of a company so often accused of sticking with the tried and tested, it just feels wrong to be equally critical when it leaves its comfort zone, especially when it manages to get so much else right in the process.