Have you ever played a video game that you had trouble describing as either "good" or "bad"? Have you ever played something so simultaneously delightful yet frustrating that for every smile it put on your face, it made you want to ram a fist through the wall? Have you ever thought "holy crap, this is clever" roughly 30 seconds before thinking "why am I still playing this game?"
That's Paper Mario: Sticker Star, a new RPG that it's safe to call both charming and infuriating without sounding too nutty. For every funny line of dialogue or brilliant bit of level design packed into Mario's latest paper-thin journey, there are moments so frustrating it's hard to believe that they made it past testing. This is a bipolar video game.
It's too bad. I was really looking forward to this one.
If you haven't played a Paper Mario game, or a Mario & Luigi game, or the lovely little classic Super Mario RPG on Super Nintendo, you probably should remedy that. But you should also know that these games take the characters and worlds of Mario's lore—from plumbers to goombas to giant lizard airships—and graft them onto non-Mario mechanics. Instead of leaping over chasms and stomping koopas, Mario gets to fight turn-based battles and buy items at shops. Mario RPGs, if you will.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star, out Sunday for Nintendo's 3DS, takes after those predecessors in some important ways—there are items, shops, turn-based battles, hit points, timed button attacks, and plenty of chatty NPCs—and the game discards some trends that felt pivotal before. For one, there are no companions—unlike most of the other Mario RPGs (with the exception of 2007's Super Paper Mario), you'll be battling solo the whole game. There are also no levels: enemies will drop gold, and items, but they won't give you experience points. This makes random encounters feel rather unnecessary and unrewarding. More on that in a column later this week.
Most interesting—and most pivotal to everything you do in Sticker Star—are the stickers that keep this world spinning. Throughout the game you'll collect a number of colorful decals, from the traditional (hammers, fire flowers, POW boxes) to the unorthodox (fans, refrigerators, goats). Some of these stickers you use to damage enemies during battle. Others you use to solve puzzles as you progress through each level of the game.
You do this by taking a sticker out of your notebook and sticking it onto things. So you'll be walking through a stage and you might see some sort of obstacle, like a windmill, say, whose door is blocked by one of its blades. You can take out a fan sticker, plaster it onto the world, and watch as the fan starts blowing, the windmill starts spinning, and your path is cleared. The puzzles get trickier and more intricate as you go, but the solution to any given obstacle is usually "find the right sticker."
The problem with this type of system is that sometimes, you might feel like one solution works, but the game will disagree. This inevitably leads to the sort of trial-and-error guessing most frequently found in early-90s point-and-click adventure games. "Hmm, maybe a giant cat would get me past this one. No wait, it must be a birthday cake!"
Worse than that, there are cases where missing a single object can keep you stumped for a very long time. This is not fun. There is nothing enjoyable about guessing at a problem 20 times only to find that you don't actually have the right answer because you didn't jump in the right place five levels ago. It only took me some 17 hours to beat the game, but I spent at least three or four of those hours trying to figure out what to do next.
Trial-and-error, really, is the biggest problem in Paper Mario: Sticker Star, a game that is difficult in many unpleasant ways. Some boss battles can only be defeated by specific stickers or combinations of stickers, and sometimes these fights feel insurmountable if you don't do things in the way that the game wants you to do them.
(I died quite a few times on the final boss, for example, because I didn't know that I would have to wait three turns for a certain thing to happen that would allow me to actually beat it.)
But when Sticker Star works, it works spectacularly. None of the game's five-and-a-half worlds are particularly exciting (there's a desert world, an ice world, a forest world... stop me if you've heard this one before), but in each one there are some brilliant stages, like a game show that requires you to whack unpaid interns with a hammer, an enemy-infested ski lift, and a mansion full of adorable ghosts.
And every time I suffered through an awful battle or an annoying level, something else got me smiling again. The little things, really. Whether it's a clever sign—"Be careful not to become that guy who got baffled 23 times," says one guidepost after you've lost your way in the forest 22 times—or just some goofy bit of animation that plays around with the paper motif in some adorable way, the minor details that fill Sticker Star are worth experiencing. (You haven't lived until you've seen a group of paper Toads jump into a stack, lie down, and contort their bodies into mangled forms in order to make you a staircase.)
It's those little details that made Sticker Star stand out, even as the bigger picture felt frustrating. Even when battling enemies felt useless and unrewarding, even when it felt like the game was trying very hard to prevent me from progressing, I wanted to keep playing just to read the dialogue, to hop through the beautiful scenery, to smile at all the unexpected little twists and turns that keep the Paper Mario series so constantly fresh.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star is an experimental game, and I suspect that it will be a polarizing one. It's frustrating. It's also charming, full of heart, clever, delightful, and hard to play without smiling. Even when it makes you really mad. Sort of like a dog.
I like that. Paper Mario: Sticker Star is the puppy of video games.