Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Paper Mario: Sticker Star Review

[Note: As I was finishing writing this review I had noticed a prevalent trend. Although I don’t regret it because this a blog of my opinions rather than a completely impartial outlet, here’s a fun drinking game I’ve devised: take a drink every time I compare Sticker Star to other Mario RPGs. Good luck.]

            So I return, metaphorically jumping out of the casket at a comical moment to inform everyone that I am not, in fact, dead. This past month of academically induced radio silence holds the new record for longest amount of time I’ve spent without updating the blog. So now that the honeymooning period of updates every week or two is over I’ve moved boldly forward in the realm of not updating, soaring to new heights with the new lows I’m willing to set. Um, that is to say that, I’m like, reaching a new low in actuality, but I’m using the phrase new heights to refer to the new record in lows I’m setting, which on reflection is kind of confusing. I mean, it’s sort of like the lows are the lowest because they’re the highest speaking in terms of lows, sort of like if gravity were flipped upside-down and flying high in the sky would actually be burrowing underground, but oh wait that would mess up the low part of the analogy. Er…

I think I'm just gonna start adding alt text to these images this article and see if anyone notices.
Okay I can figure this out, lemme just get out my tape measure…

            I’m reviewing Paper Mario: Sticker Star today! There? Was that so hard? Anyway, submerged within my self-imposed exile last month, I spent a large amount of time playing through Paper Mario: Sticker Star for the 3DS, just as the prophecy foretold. If by ‘prophecy’, you mean ‘the last review I wrote’. Having just finished the game the other day, I’m left with a number of things I wish to say about it. However, before we get to the main review, there’s a bit of background I want to set.

            In 1996, Nintendo decided to leverage its then friendly relations with Squaresoft (the people behind the Final Fantasy series who later merged into Square Enix) to create a spin-off Mario RPG named Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. I never played this isometric RPG myself, but I’ve heard good things about it (enough that I probably will one day). Years later a different developer named Intelligent Systems took up the helm of Mario RPGs and released the otherwise unrelated game Paper Mario. It was a Nintendo 64 game released in 2001, at the tail-end of the systems life span, and it was completely fantastic.

            I cannot emphasize enough how much I love this game. I was enraptured with it as a kid, as it was a solid RPG with a well-written and often humorous story, wrapped up in a cute storybook aesthetic. It used something called action commands, wherein you had to input button prompts in order for your attacks to deal more damage, to bring timing and skill into the otherwise slow and strategic system of turn-based combat. The system worked brilliantly, and the combat had plenty of other nuances that gave it depth. There were different types of attack to deal with different types of enemies, a system of badges acting like a simplified (but more meaningful) version of equipment, and an array of upgradeable combat partners who could be switched out to use their various different attacks (or different abilities out of combat). The game was fun to play, was filled with charm and personality, and to this day I’ve played it from start to finish something like 7 times.

This thing you're reading? It's more alt text.
Eagle eyed readers may be able to discern the slight possibility that I like this game.

            In 2004, the Nintendo Gamecube saw the release of Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door by the same company. The attitude of the game was a bit more cynical and silly, which lost a bit of the storybook innocence that fills me with nostalgia for the first. Beyond that, though, it was superior in every way. The combat saw numerous improvements, like a much expanded roster of action commands and tactical decisions to make. The game was funnier, it was longer and had more to do, the visuals were better, and so on. It took a game I absolutely loved and improved on it slightly in almost every way.

            In 2007, another Paper Mario game was released on the Nintendo Wii, Super Paper Mario. The game was a major departure for the series, as it had no turn based combat and instead consisted of a side-scrolling platformer with RPG elements, like upgradeable health. Like many people, I viewed this as a major disappointment. On the plus side, the writing was still decent and could make me laugh from time to time. Although as a side note, the game was considerably weirder than its predecessors, featuring lots of strange polygonal characters, and I have to say that the focus on being odd and funny may have hurt other aspects of the games writing. It was certainly amusing, but I didn’t care about the world or the characters much as a result of its increasingly flippant attitude. The bottom line is this is a game that I never finished, though it was good enough that it lies on my titanic list of ‘would be nice to finish someday’ games.

All of these......images have some......alt text as well.
Given how much I liked the first two and how much I’ve got to say about the series as a whole, I’ll almost certainly revisit these games another time. But for now, I’ve used up enough space on an article about a completely different game.

            At the gaming convention E3 in 2010, another unnamed Paper Mario game was announced for the upcoming Nintendo 3DS. I have no doubt other people, like me, were happy to see the beloved RPG series making a reappearance, and as further information was released another point of happiness surfaced: the game was going to be a turn-based RPG again! Genre-savvy readers may spot the telltale signs and see what comes next. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there’s no doubt that some hype backlash affected my and many other people’s opinions of this game. Despite that I’ll do my best to keep the review on the more objective side. So before we get started on specifics, I’ll get the verdict out of the way: Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a good game, but not a fantastic one, and definitely not quite as good as some of its predecessors (which, to be fair, rank among my favorite games of all time). Let’s start with the most obvious difference the game has from its predecessors, and why that particular change didn’t quite stick.

This man is presumably TERRIFIED of this alt text.
Oh god I’m sorry put down the baseball bat!

            In Paper Mario: Sticker Star, you have an album of stickers for things like Jump and Hammer, which are your only method of attacking enemies in the games turn-based combat. The stickers are one use, so if you run out of jump stickers you need to find or purchase more to use the attack again. Don’t worry about running out of stickers however, as you’ll almost never do so due to the plethora just lying around and ridiculous abundance of coins to buy more (by half way through the game or so I was approaching the coin cap of 9999 and had to start buying things to prevent this). Rather, the resource management comes in saving your good stickers for the proper time.

            When a turn starts in Sticker Star, you can pay some coins to make a roulette wheel spin. If you get two or three of the same symbol, you get that many attacks (and a bonus depending on what the symbol is if you get three in a row). For each attack you choose one sticker. You can’t choose what enemy you target with a sticker, but rather the game goes down the line for each additional command (first attack hits the first enemy, second attack hits the second, etc). This lack of choice is somewhat mitigated by the fact that a large amount of stickers hit all/multiple targets. However, I’d still call it a point against the game that reduces the amount of tactical depth in the combat. When you win a battle, you get coins, and sometimes the enemy drops a sticker. If you win a battle in the first turn, it’s a perfect victory and you get more coins.

Tell me about it.
An image of combat for illustrative purposes, which is too boring to make a joke about.

            See a problem with this? The game has no experience points, no equipment, and almost no means of progression other than single-use stickers and coins to purchase them. The only concession to permanent upgrades the game gives is a series of HP-Up hearts that can be found to increase your maximum health. Now combine these facts with the earlier one about me constantly approaching the max amount of coins. The sad truth to the matter is that there isn’t actually much incentive to fight enemies at all a good portion of the game. You waste your limited stock of stickers to get more of gold you don’t need, in larger amounts than required to keep yourself stocked. Before the games final level, I filled my sticker book with as many stickers as I could and still had over 8000 coins left over. It’s like they confused the production of this game with New Super Mario Bros 2.

You see, explaining the joke is funny because I explain that I'm explaining it and I then explain that I'm explaining that I'm...
Y’see, it’s funny because New Super Mario Bros 2 was a game about collecting a lot of coins. And this game has you collecting a lot of coins. Do you see? Do you see why my joke is funny? Oh god what is with you and that baseball bat?!

            Sadly I’m not done listing ways in which the combat doesn’t match its predecessors. In the previous games there were a variety of action commands that made use of all sorts of different button inputs with different approaches and timings. Sticker Star has some variety in that regard, but action commands only consist of hitting the A button at the correct times. The previous games had Flower Power and Star Power, resources for special attacks. This game doesn’t really need them due to all attacks being handled by stickers, but the lack of them gives the player less to manage and simplifies combat further. The old games had an array of partners to Mario who had their own in-combat attacks, out-of-combat abilities for puzzle solving, and unique dialogue. Those are absent in this game as well. And well we’re on the subject of missing dialogue, let’s talk about this games writing…

            Paper Mario Sticker Star is not a poorly written game. It’s never quite as well written as its predecessors, but it’s still amusing in its own right and features some respectable writing. The problem is that it doesn’t have enough of it. Sticker Star has a very sparse plot, which in spite of the occasional amusing moment has very little to offer compared to other Paper Mario games or RPGs in general. The games main villain, Bowser, doesn’t have a single line of dialogue despite having plenty (and being a generally amusing character) in the other Mario RPGs. There aren’t very many memorable characters, and the majority of the speaking roles in the game are from generic Toads. When one of the most memorable characters in a game whose series was previously known for memorable characters is “that Toad who is bad at driving a boat”, it’s a problem.

            On a related note to most of the speaking roles being Toads, Sticker Star seems to be a bit generic and safe as far as casting of characters. Every enemy and character in the game is a version of normal Mario characters. Though I suppose I’m sounding like a broken (and bitter) record at this point, the previous games kept exploring new lands and introducing new types of characters and mythologies. I can’t help but worry that the same Nintendo that released four similar New Super Mario Bros games has made a concentrated effort to keep things safe for their flagship character that has bled over into this game as well. Whatever the case may be on that front, however, the roster of characters in this game is disappointing. In the previous games the majority of the bosses had backstories, personality and plenty of speaking lines, and were often completely unique. In Sticker Star the bosses are all versions of known Mario characters who say almost nothing at all.

You'd think they could've at least given us a slightly edited sprite.
The second boss is literally just a regular enemy sprite made larger and shiny. I’d expect this kind of thing from an MMO with hundreds of bosses, not a game with only six major ones.

            I’ve been pretty negative about the game so far, so I should probably dial it back for a second to give some perspective. Despite my complaints about it being less enjoyable than previous efforts, the combat in Paper Mario Sticker Star can be still be pretty fun at times. In case you couldn’t tell from the previous screenshots, the game looks pretty good for a handheld, with bright, colorful and clean visuals. And if there’s one thing in the game I definitely like, it’s the music. I’d still say the soundtrack of Sticker Star isn’t quite as good as its predecessors, but those are some fantastic soundtracks to compare something to and it’s at least in the same class as them.

The Mini-Boss battle theme is an excellent example of Sticker Stars jazzy, electronic style of music.

Reoccurring minion Kamek’s theme is so catchy it almost makes me forget about how annoying his fight mechanics are. Freakin’ sandals.

Gooper Blooper, the third boss, may have my favorite song in the game. Each turn he progresses to a new variation on the song and a new attack. If you deflect his final attack with a Sponge sticker, he gets poisoned instead of you, and the jazzy mix of the Super Mario Bros Theme starts playing. Quite satisfying.

            Sadly, this transitions into another problem I had with the game. You see, there are things in Sticker Star that are literally called ‘Things’, three dimensional objects that can be turned into stickers. These are key to solving the games “puzzles”. I put puzzles in quotes because it’s the old adventure game style puzzles, where you insert object A into slot B to succeed. For example, once I had to melt some snow. I tried using a Match sticker on the wooden-looking structure where you could put a sticker, but that didn’t work. I was far enough into the game at that point that I had given up trying to understand its bullshit and simply looked up the solution online. It turned out I needed to use the Radiator sticker, because clearly that’s the only obvious way to melt an entire mountainside of snow, and no other type of fire will do. Not all sticker puzzles are that bad, some being better at indicating what you need and some allowing multiple stickers of the same type (as that one should have). But even the best of these puzzles still end up with you having to go back to town to get the sticker again (you can only have one copy of each Thing sticker at a time) if you don’t have it.

            The most egregious example of this type of gameplay is in the game’s boss battles. Though some are better than others, most of the boss battles in this game follow a basic pattern. They’re insanely difficult (or in some cases I think literally impossible) to complete, unless you use a certain Thing sticker. Their weakness exploited, they then become ridiculously easy. The first problem with this is it throws away what normally makes boss battles so engaging. Boss battles in RPGs are usually a test of all the skills learned so far, at their best open-ended strategy challenges where the player has to think of a valid tactical solution to defeating their opponent, and winning a boss battle because you had the right item destroys that. The second problem is that it’s ridiculously likely that when you first encounter the boss you won’t have the right item to beat them. You’re presumably not clairvoyant or else you would know the rest of this review already and wouldn’t keep reading, so chances are the first time you encounter the boss you won’t have the correct sticker. Even if you do, you might use it at the wrong time. It takes a lot of trial, error, and returning to town and for all that doesn’t feel like solving a puzzle so much as a war of attrition, which makes just looking up weaknesses online beforehand more appealing. This seems to me like bad game design, pure and simple, and it bothers me a fair bit.

Sorry, I'm too busy fuming to give this alt text. Read below.
This was the first boss, and I had to fight long and hard to beat him as I didn’t have the item exploit his weakness. After beating him, the game mentioned that I used a lot of stickers and there might have been an easier way. Well, yeah, but there isn’t any more because the fight is already over. Later bosses are even less forgiving, often stun-locking you, making you always miss or being invincible if you don’t have the right sticker.

            So that basically sums up my opinions on Paper Mario Sticker Star. I hate to sound so negative all this time, because it’s actually a decent game that I had fun with. The problem is that’s all it is. It’s design flaws keep it firmly as a ‘good’ game rather than a ‘great’ or ‘fantastic’ one, and it’s most certainly not (say it with me one more time) as good as the previous Mario RPGs. It’s still good enough that you can enjoy it, and I’ll leave you readers to decide based on my opinion and others whether it’s a game you want to own. I just hope that Intelligent Systems and Nintendo one day put out another Paper Mario game as good as the old ones. Because if this game is any indication of the direction they’re taking, the odds of that are thin. Paper thin.

Clairvoyant readers saw this joke coming.
Wait, what sticker are you…oh dear.

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