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Based on the many outstanding Mario RPGs released over the years, Nintendo’s mascot and role-playing games go together like green pipes and turtles. After years of success on consoles, the Paper Mario franchise has now moved to the portables with Paper Mario: Sticker Starfor the 3DS. The game sheds many of the trappings of the role-playing genre, streamlining the unique gameplay while maintaining the series pedigree of charming and exciting adventure.
The story moves fast in Sticker Star, with Bowser almost immediately disrupting Sticker Fest, a celebration of the arrival of the mythical Sticker Comet. He and his minions steal the wish-granting power of the comet, using their new strength to wreak havoc on the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario teams up with sassy sprite Kersti--think Ocarina of Time’s Navi, but funny instead of annoying--to reclaim the five Royal Stickers in the hopes of setting things right.
The premise of collecting a handful of magical items to defeat your arch enemy might be pretty predictable. However, Sticker Star casts away many RPG conceits like experience points, equipment, and party members, so the game feels like anything but a retread of the same.
Any attack in battle consumes a sticker, most major plot developments depend on sticker placement, and maintaining your supply of stickers is where much of the strategy comes from. Choosing when and where to use a certain sticker adds tension to every battle, because ending a mundane fight fast with a strong sticker means you won’t have it on hand for the inevitable boss battle. You can build your collection in shops across the world, but many rarer stickers are found few and far between, hidden in the corners of stages.
Underneath all the stickers, the turn-based, reactive combat of previous entries is still intact, where early hits and timing your blocks can mean life or death for Mario. Removing the frills of traditional RPGs lets that gameplay shine even brighter, and by the end of the game you’ll wonder why you ever felt like a Mario RPG needed all that extra fluff. Mario games are at their best when they focus on simple fun, and Sticker Stars proves that once more.
If players’ might have early, misguided doubts about the gameplay, they will likely feel the same about the seemingly linear construction of the map. However, while the map structure of segmenting worlds with “1-1, 1-2, 1-3” and so on may seem too straightforward, in practice Sticker Star is fairly open-ended. When the map opens up, major bosses can be beaten out of order and areas like 5-3 can be explored hours before 4-2, a flow that fits well within the limitations of portable gaming.
For as enjoyable as the gameplay may be, the exceptional script is Sticker Star’s strongest asset. The clever dialogue breathes life into every character, such as Kersti’s continually bossing around Mario and jumping to conclusions, or Bowser Jr.’s insufferably bratty taunts. The writing--supported by expert English localization--is incredibly funny, even by the franchise’s high standards. Also of note is the jazzy soundtrack, one of the best from the series in some time.
As cute as all that can be, a few of those sticker puzzles are also home to Sticker Star’s bigger frustrations. After collecting dozens of real world items (staplers, goats, ect), you end up with so many baubles that some puzzles that should have been amusing end up frustrating ordeals based on trial and error that often aren’t clarified by Kersti’s optional hints. The occasional off the wall solutions mix with the overly open map to cause confused players to aimless roam the map until they finally stumble upon the solution.
But those frustrations are momentary at best, hardly detracting from a can’t miss handheld game. One of the best 3DS games to date, Paper Mario: Sticker Star updates an already great series for handhelds by expertly cutting the fat to make for a digestible portable adventure. RPG lovers might balk at the changes, but after the first few hours they’ll realize that this is just the next evolution in a series that was always quietly innovating its genre.