Nintendo's Paper Mario series has always been incredibly gimmicky, its papercraft visuals lending themselves to nearly every aspect of the games' artsy architecture and corresponding gameplay devices. However, never to be labeled as a one-trick pony, developer Intelligent Systems has consistently found ways to tweak their ingrained formula so that each Paper Mario installment differentiates, at least moderately, from the adventure that preceded it. The last mainline Paper Mario adventure, Super Paper Mario, alienated fans of the franchise because, besides the 2D-3D flipping mechanism, at first glance it seemed to only alter a few minor details from the GameCube's 2004 release, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Admittedly, the Paper Mario games take quite awhile to reveal their true brilliance; there's some remarkably inventive RPG, puzzle-solving, and platforming elements buried beneath layers of talkative, self-aware NPC comic-babble and an aesthetic that can easily be described as "overly kiddy." Paper Mario: Sticker Star takes some big, some would say foolhardy risks (doing away with experience-based leveling, badges, and partner battles), but, somehow, axing these details allows for the left-field sticker concept to flourish wildly, fastening adhesive-coated blinders over even the most curtly fault-finding eyes.
The prologue is as meat-and-potatoes as it gets for a Paper Mario narrative: The game's hub town of Decalburg is in the middle of its local Sticker Festival, paying tribute to the almighty Sticker Comet, when good 'ol party-wrecking Bowser materializes and mucks everything up. The Sticker Comet is scattered into pieces around the environment, and the various landscapes' once-pristine papery appearances have been sporadically ripped and misshapen as a result of King Koopa's bad-mannered antics. Thus initiates an epic fetch quest to retrieve the many fragments of the Sticker Comet and repair the torn areas of Decalburg and its surrounding territories. This, along with the common Paper Mario role-playing aspects, would be fodder enough to fill a whole game, but Sticker Star, the now paper-thin plumber's inaugural appearance on the 3DS, introduces an all-encompassing manner of play that, while imbued with a strangely scaled learning curve, keeps the proceedings lively, intuitive, and feeling fabulously fresh throughout.
Any and all action in Sticker Star revolves around collecting and implementing stickers into both in and out-of battle decision-making. Peel-able decals of various makes and models are slapped on surfaces high and low, each correlating to a specific type of maneuver on the combat screen. A boot stomps, a hammer hammers, and a Fire Flower launches those familiar flames at opponents. There's also the occasional throwback, like the long-dormant Frog Suit from Super Mario Bros. 3 that allows players to jump over enemy attacks. Running out of stickers during fights means the end for Mario, as your catalog of stickies is your sole line of offense and defense in the midst of a throwdown. Fret not, as, in addition to the ones plastered on miscellaneous exteriors, myriad shops offer dime-a-dozen adherent tokens for purchase. Moreover, larger 3D objects simplistically dubbed Things are hidden far and wide in Sticker Star, each of which can be used as an extremely powerful, cleverly animated attack in a skirmish or as a solution to an enigma in the outside lands. For example, a pair of scissors cuts a rope to free a boat, a massive electric fan blows and spins a windmill, and a bowling ball crashes through a blockade of pins. It's amazing how quickly these principles shift from contrived to savvy necessity, so much so that it's difficult for me to imagine playing future Paper Mario titles without Sticker Star's slow-burn, versatile methodology.
Not having an XP component to Sticker Star's battles is perhaps its most off-putting attribute, as there's no real sense of strengthening your character until the occasional HP-boosting heart item is acquired. Additionally, the absence of any equips, badges, or partners makes Sticker Star a rather lonely battleground experience. A shiny, guide-like crown sticker named Kersti follows you around, offering advice and moving the story along from time to time. Her growing rate of annoyance exists somewhere between The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword's Fi and Clippy from Microsoft Office. She advises you of all the nifty button-timing tricks required to dominate your foes, as well as any info on a new type of sticker, all in a decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone. But that's about it for hints in Sticker Star, as many of the game's secrets are unavoidably Guide Dang It material; even some third-act storyline progression may deem it necessary to take a peek at a walkthrough. The massive amount of stickers and Things oftentimes makes it difficult to pinpoint which sticky goes where, and the playing field-altering Paperization technique, wherein stickers are placed to amend unfixed backgrounds, rarely nudges the player that it's time to activate a certain emblem in order to move forward. Nevertheless, Sticker Star's clandestine tendencies become second nature as your familiarity with its syrupy stratagem increases. The benevolent inclusion of a giant Sticker Museum, that houses a portrait gallery of your amassed agglutinative arsenal, rivals in essential education-ability the trophy collection menus from Super Smash Bros. Melee and Brawl.
Sticker Star may not in the running for the all-out best-looking 3DS game to date, but it is, without question, the title that takes the most advantage of the system's 3D lever. This is fitting, as the entirety of Sticker Star, with its diorama cardboard cutouts, is ideal to be witnessed in a thick coating of 2D-via-3D-overlaying crispness. Complementing these lovely sights is an equally charming musical score that stands alongside the strongest entries in the series.
There's much that may turn Paper Mario devotees away from Sticker Star, but Intelligent Systems is clearly comfortable with that fact. Repeatedly, the Paper Mario franchise has been their opportunity to experiment with all sorts of design quirks, some of which delight, and some of which fall flat—no pun intended. Sticker Star is unusual in that it takes away some of Paper Mario's most renowned aspects, yet, because of a central apparatus (the sticker system) that's the definition of crazy-enough-to-work, the game is at once a source of intermittently clinging vexation and gluey, satisfying handheld wonderment.