Paper Mario: Sticker Star is the best RPG that is not an RPG that I have ever played

Written by Brandon


Once upon a time I had just moved to Japan and I was really psyched to fulfill one of my teenage dreams: to reserve and then purchase the brand newest Final Fantasy game on the day it came out and then do my best to play through it in Japanese. As it turns out, the Japanese wasn't the reason I never finished the game, because I couldn't do it in English either. In fact, most things about Final Fantasy XIII were pretty great! I loved the graphics and the music and the character design and the concept. It's just that The Game itself, the thing I actually played, was terrible. Despite ostensibly being a role-playing game, I felt less in control of it than I had of most games in the past. There were experience points, but they didn't really matter. Skill development just moved along a specific path. Gold was so hard to come by that it was almost useless, and there wasn't much equipment to speak of. Famously, game progression involved moving down a series of corridors fighting the stuff on the way. I was moving forward, but I never felt like I was really playing.

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That is one reason why I've been surprised at how enjoyable Paper Mario: Sticker Star has been so far!

Why surprising? Well, despite what you may expect (if anything), the newest Paper Mario game, freshly available on the 3DS, bears very little resemblance to Paper Mario games of old—or really, anything we've traditionally understood to be an "RPG." For starters, there are no experience points. You do not gain levels or any sort of character attributes aside from an occasional HP upgrade. There's no magic points or equipment. You don't get better weapons or (so far, anyway) any other party members. Despite the fact that you take on enemies by touching them and then transitioning to a very RPG-ey battle scene, you don't even have a set of basic commands—like fight, defend, or item. There's no navigable "overworld." And yet, Paper Mario is more of a game than a lot of RPGs can claim to be. It's something new, really—some kinda game we ain't never seen. You just gotta paperize your mind!

The trick is these stickers you get right, each sticker does some different kinda thing like you get a hammer, that lets you hammer a dude one time in a battle. And once you use the hammer, the hammer sticker is gone. Gone! Forever. If a bad guy has 9 HP and you hammer him for 8 HP, you gotta use another sticker to finish him off. Cause like I said before, you don't actually have any in-battle commands except run or use a sticker. It's kind of interesting really, because the game becomes how to manage your stickers instead of how to manage your magic points or your attacks or whatever, and every sticker, every command, becomes worthwhile. That's in contrast to other RPGs where you might have a dozen spells with no practical use and a thousand items you never want to use cause you're saving them up. Paper Mario inundates you with stickers, so many that you can't even hold them all, and you gotta use them cause you literally cannot not use the stickers. Everything is useful, somehow. So that's a nice change of pace.

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Another big thing here is the "overworld," which I kinda lied and said didn't exist, but it does sort of. It's basically a really slimmed down version of something like NSMB though, each world and each stage being a get from the start to the "finish" type thing, ending with you touching the stage goal in the form of a sticker. What it does though is break up your usual RPG world into a series of separate levels, preventing the game from getting old. It's really an application of the "Mario Formula" into this new type of game where the focus is less on platforming (though there is some) and more on exploration and puzzle-solving.

When you start to think about it, it gets scary a little bit. "Why would I even bother to engage in fights with enemies when I have to consume my stickers to win, take damage by default, and do not receive any rewards aside from the occasional extra sticker and a handful of coins?" It's a fair question. But these coins you get are literally your only resource in the game. In a way, you can perceive the coins as a "form" of experience, though spending them only gets you more stickers with which to beat up guys or move forward in the game.

It's a brilliant deconstruction of the RPG genre, and yet somehow it is more RPG than anyone could expect. What kind of game is a game with RPG battles that doesn't have any other conventions? Before long, you start fighting battles specifically to use up your stickers so that you have room to hold other better ones that you'll run into. You could just toss your old ones or off them at the store, but if you use them well enough in battle you can get extra coins for pulling off nicely timed chain attacks or winning without getting hit. How crazy is that! You fight TO LOSE YOUR STUFF in an elegant manner. The game's even pretty thin on story except for a few occasional events. In a way it transcends "RPG" to become something else entirely. An adventure platformer with turn-based battles? I don't even know what to call it. But I do know it is something pretty unique, something pretty special.

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That first time I played Final Fantasy XIII, all I could focus on was what it was missing and how it was worse because of it. It was as though they took out everything I loved about RPGs and replaced each one with a lesser form of what it used to be in order to streamline the experience. But what they forgot to do after streamlining was actually add any compelling reason to continue playing. When I played Paper Mario here for the first time, I noticed what it didn't have, sure, when I started. But before long what I was noticing wasn't what was not there, but what arose out of the absence of those things. The dudes over at Intelligent Systems have made an entirely new kind of game, an extremely interesting one really, that ends up—through reduction—being all kinds of things that it isn't.

Discussion (oldest first)

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  1. TathanenTathanenstaff
     said |

    I run into that situation where a guy has like 1hp left, and then I'm like "uaaaaaaa I don't want to use a nice sticker for this chump," so it's good sometimes to maintain a variety of stickers, which includes the crummiest ones, for those 1-2hp situations. There is some strategy to be had in there, for sure.

    And I think sometimes it's okay to just.. not fight dudes. Sometimes you wanna get to a place, and it's neat to think of the enemies as actual "obstacles," not goals. It's a bit anti-RPG like that, where enemies are allowed to be enemies, not just bundles of rewards. You want to actually avoid them a lot of the time, and don't feel bad about doing it.
    1. LobdaleLobdaleauthor
       said to Tathanen |

      Yeah that's true, I don't usually GO OUTTA MY WAY to fight a guy unless he's specifically blocking something I want. The beauty part is that it doesn't really matter because I am not "missing out" on anything by passing by them, since there is nothing to really miss out on.
  2. AarowSwiftAarowSwiftstaff
     said |

    I just got this game yesterday and have been playing it most of today. This is sorta' the game that Super Paper Mario might have been, if that game had been any fun. Sticker Star is Mario having a Zelda-esque adventure with quirky turn based battles added in. The fun is in the environmental puzzles and the boss battles are neat and quite challenging. I just dealt with a squid with a mean sense of rhythm. Another joy in the game is how much further it plays with the paper theme than even past titles, and effectively adds in the sticker theme. There are a lot of really nice touches. Here's my review: Sticker Star is a great game. 2 thumbs up.

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