Saturday, January 19

Paper Mario: Sticker Star Review (3DS): Absurd Nostalgia

I'm going to have a good hack at my nerd cred with the following embarrassing admission: I never completed a single "point and click" adventure game without the help of a walkthrough. That's right, friends: I'd have never seen the end of Discworld, Full Throttle, Sam and Max: Hit the Road, or pretty much any other title released by LucasArts pre-Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight without assistance from a packed-in guide, learned friend or AOL Era website. For someone who often postulated as to how they refused to use cheat codes and various other game-related vices, these games often called for me to double-back on my principles.

Despite compromising my personal standards and, on occasion, having to concede that I wasn't quite as cunning as I thought I was, I loved pretty much any game that asked me to stare at pre-rendered backgrounds for items of interest. The worlds, the characters, and the one-liners all made for many a cherished memory. Even though developers like Telltale Games have done their best to resurrect the genre, I still feel as though the modern point and clicker does more to help players along (read: solutions to puzzles in these games are often intuitive/make sense). Until recently, I thought maybe we should go back to a time when players were asked to combine and use unrelated items to progress past the seemingly impossible.

Then I played Paper Mario: Sticker Star.

Sticker Star is a game that I both love and loathe in equal measure. It is a game that evoked memories that were funnily enough, often unrelated to the Super Mario franchise, and that also did a great deal to undo some of the romantic feelings I had towards adventure games of old. It was also -- in terms of its art direction and script -- undeniably charming and offers up enough content to justify the asking price.

In terms of RPG elements, Sticker Star is pretty light-on. Mario doesn't level up through genre-standard grinding, and our hero will only see an increase in HP through the acquisition of a specific type of item. Attack power scales up through the collection of bigger and prettier stickers, so battle is best avoided wherever possible as a result. Not because conflict is necessarily challenging, more because the dynamics don't really change over the course of the game. 

Combat won't have you searching for a walkthrough (at least initially), but the increasingly obtuse puzzles will have you scratching your head within hours of commencing the adventure. The ability to "Paperize" allows players to use stickers from their album as well as collected "scraps" to right various wrongs committed by Bowser et al. On paper (puns!), this sounds fine, but the ability and resulting requirement to find "real world" items to convert to stickers to then solve puzzles proved seriously problematic. Often, the required item would be hidden in plain view in an another level. The requirement to source items from various levels also undermines the apparent freedom of being able to pick levels from worlds at your leisure. 

These ridiculous solutions are eventually required in combat situations, although to be fair, this doesn't become a problem until the final hours of the adventure. The final boss fight in particular felt like a forty-five minute open book exam. With the amount of stickers players can carry being limited, I honestly needed to read an overview of the encounter so I could organise my sticker album accordingly and survive the battle. The first time I got close to victory, I actually ran out of offensive stickers that could actually deal damage on the final form. It was infuriating!

Sounds bad right? Well, for someone who's a sucker for nostalgia, there were so many -- what I'm assuming to be unwitting -- nods to adventure games of old that had me grinning. Grinning even when a walkthrough was required in some instances. That, and Sticker Star  has to be one of the best looking games on the 3DS. Massive structures, screen-hogging bosses and an unrestrained colour palette characterised my experience.

There's no denying that Sticker Star has problems; it is in fact, rife with them. However, when I managed to solve one of the hundreds of absurd puzzles by myself, the resulting satisfaction was hard to beat. Yes, the level design can be mind-boggling, the combat repetitive, and there's a huge amount of backtracking required, but in the end it didn't matter: I still kept playing. So after the requisite twenty-something hours I can say that, while certainly not for everyone, Paper Mario: Sticker Star was great and terrible and a blast from the past. 

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